Answer 2 Questions


what they’re saying about “they say / i say”

“The best book that’s happened to teaching composition— ever!” —Karen Gaffney, Raritan Valley Community College

“A brilliant book. . . . It’s like a membership card in the aca- demic club.” —Eileen Seifert, DePaul University

“This book demystifies rhetorical moves, tricks of the trade that many students are unsure about. It’s reasonable, helpful, nicely written . . . and hey, it’s true. I would have found it immensely helpful myself in high school and college.”

—Mike Rose, University of California, Los Angeles

“The argument of this book is important—that there are ‘moves’ to academic writing . . . and that knowledge of them can be generative. The template format is a good way to teach and demystify the moves that matter. I like this book a lot.”

—David Bartholomae, University of Pittsburgh

“A beautifully lucid way to approach argument—different from any rhetoric I’ve ever seen.”

—Anne-Marie Thomas, Austin Community College, Riverside

“Students need to walk a fine line between their work and that of others, and this book helps them walk that line, providing specific methods and techniques for introducing, explaining, and integrating other voices with their own ideas.”

—Libby Miles, University of Rhode Island

“‘They Say’ with Readings is different from other rhetorics and readers in that it really engages students in the act of writing throughout the book. It’s less a ‘here’s how’ book and more of a ‘do this with me’ kind of book.”

—Kelly Ritter, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

01_GRA_93584_FM_i_xxx.indd i 11/8/14 3:34 PM

“It offers students the formulas we, as academic writers, all carry in our heads.” —Karen Gardiner, University of Alabama

“Many students say that it is the first book they’ve found that actually helps them with writing in all disciplines.”

—Laura Sonderman, Marshall University

“As a WPA, I’m constantly thinking about how I can help instructors teach their students to make specific rhetorical moves on the page. This book offers a powerful way of teach- ing students to do just that.” —Joseph Bizup, Boston University

“The best tribute to ‘They Say / I Say’ I’ve heard is this, from a student: ‘This is one book I’m not selling back to the bookstore.’ Nods all around the room. The students love this book.”

—Christine Ross, Quinnipiac University

“What effect has ‘They Say’ had on my students’ writing? They are finally entering the Burkian Parlor of the university. This book uncovers the rhetorical conventions that transcend dis- ciplinary boundaries, so that even freshmen, newcomers to the academy, are immediately able to join in the conversation.”

—Margaret Weaver, Missouri State University

“It’s the anti-composition text: Fun, creative, humorous, bril- liant, effective.”

—Perry Cumbie, Durham Technical Community College

“Loved by students, reasonable priced, manageable size, readable.” —Roxanne Munch, Joliet Junior College

“This book explains in clear detail what skilled writers take for granted.” —John Hyman, American University

“The ability to engage with the thoughts of others is one of the most important skills taught in any college-level writing course, and this book does as good a job teaching that skill as any text I have ever encountered.” —William Smith, Weatherford College

01_GRA_93584_FM_i_xxx.indd ii 11/8/14 3:34 PM


“THEY SAY I SAY” The Move s Tha t Ma t t e r

i n Academ i c Wr i t i n g



01_GRA_93584_FM_i_xxx.indd iii 11/8/14 3:34 PM

01_GRA_93584_FM_i_xxx.indd iv 11/8/14 3:34 PM


“THEY SAY !I SAY” The Move s Tha t Ma t t e r

i n Academ i c Wr i t i n g



CATHY BIRKENSTEIN both of the University of Illinois at Chicago

RUSSEL DURST University of Cincinnatti

B w . w . n o r t o n & c o m p a n y

n e w y o r k | l o n d o n

01_GRA_93584_FM_i_xxx.indd v 11/8/14 3:34 PM

W. W. Norton & Company has been independent since its founding in 1923, when William Warder Norton and Mary D. Herter Norton first published lectures delivered at the People’s Institute, the adult education division of New York City’s Cooper Union. The firm soon expanded its program beyond the Institute, publishing books by celebrated academics from America and abroad. By mid-century, the two major pillars of Norton’s publishing program—trade books and college texts—were firmly established. In the 1950s, the Norton family transferred control of the company to its employees, and today—with a staff of four hundred and a comparable number of trade, college, and professional titles published each year—W. W. Norton & Company stands as the largest and oldest publishing house owned wholly by its employees.

Copyright © 2017, 2015, 2014, 2012, 2010, 2009, 2006 by W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

All rights reserved Printed in the United States of America

Permission to use copyrighted material is included in the credits section of this book, which begins on page 747.

The Library of Congress has cataloged an earlier edition as follows: Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Graff, Gerald, author. “They say/I say”: the moves that matter in academic writing, with readings / Gerald Graff, University of Illinois at Chicago ; Cathy Birkenstein, University of Illinois at Chicago ; Russel Durst, University of Cincinnati.—Third Edition. p. cm Previous edition: 3rd. ed. 2014. Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN 978-0-393-93751-0 (pbk.) 1. English language—Rhetoric—Handbooks, manuals, etc. 2. Persuasion (Rhetoric)—Handbooks, manuals, etc. 3. Report writing—Handbooks, manuals, etc. 4. Academic writing—Handbooks, manuals, etc. 5. College readers. I. Birkenstein, Cathy, editor. II. Durst, Russel K., 1954- editor. III. Title. PE1431.G73 2014 808'.042—dc23 2014033777

This edition: ISBN 978-0-393-61744-3

W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 500 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10110

W. W. Norton & Company Ltd., 15 Carlisle Street, London W1D 3BS 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0

01_GRA_61744_FM_i_xxx.indd vi01_GRA_61744_FM_i_xxx.indd vi 24/09/16 4:30 PM24/09/16 4:30 PM

To the great rhetorician Wayne Booth, who cared deeply

about the democratic art of listening closely to what others say.

01_GRA_93584_FM_i_xxx.indd vii 11/8/14 3:34 PM

01_GRA_93584_FM_i_xxx.indd viii 11/8/14 3:34 PM

i x


preface to the third edition xi i i

preface: Demystifying Academic Conversation xviii

introduction: Entering the Conversation 1

PART 1. “THEY SAY” 1 “they say”: Starting with What Others Are Saying 19 2 “her point is”: The Art of Summarizing 30 3 “as he himself puts it”: The Art of Quoting 42

PART 2. “ I SAY”

4 “yes / no / okay, but”: Three Ways to Respond 55 5 “and yet”: Distinguishing What You Say

from What They Say 68 6 “skeptics may object”:

Planting a Naysayer in Your Text 78 7 “so what? who cares?”: Saying Why It Matters 92


8 “as a result”: Connecting the Parts 105 9 “a in’t so / is not”: Academic Writing Doesn’t Always

Mean Setting Aside Your Own Voice 121 10 “but don’t get me wrong”:

The Art of Metacommentary 129 11 “he says contends”: Using the Templates to Revise 139


12 “i take your point”: Entering Class Discussions 163 13 “imho”: Is Digital Communication Good or Bad—or Both? 167 14 “what’s motivating this writer?”:

Reading for the Conversation 173 15 “analyze this”: Writing in the Social Sciences 184

01_GRA_93584_FM_i_xxx.indd ix 11/8/14 3:34 PM




stephanie owen and isabel sawhill, Should Everyone Go to College? 208

sanford j. ungar, The New Liberal Arts 226

charles murray, Are Too Many People Going to College? 234

liz addison, Two Years Are Better than Four 255

freeman hrabowski, Colleges Prepare People for Life 259

gerald graff, Hidden Intellectualism 264

mike rose, Blue-Collar Brilliance 272

michelle obama, Bowie State University Commencement Speech 285


Kevin kelly, Better than Human: Why Robots Will—and Must—Take Our Jobs 299

nicholas carr, Is Google Making Us Stupid? 313

brooke gladstone and josh neufeld, The Influencing Machines 330

clive thompson, Smarter than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better 340

michaela cullington, Does Texting Affect Writing? 361

sherry turkle, No Need to Call 373

jenna wortham, I Had a Nice Time with You Tonight. On the App. 393

malcolm gladwell, Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted 399


01_GRA_93584_FM_i_xxx.indd x 11/19/14 4:52 PM

x i


michael pollan, Escape from the Western Diet 420

steven shapin, What Are You Buying When You Buy Organic? 428

mary maxfield, Food as Thought: Resisting the Moralization of Eating 442

jonathan safran Foer, Against Meat 448

david zinczenko, Don’t Blame the Eater 462

radley balko, What You Eat Is Your Business 466

michael moss, The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food 471

marion nestle, The Supermarket: Prime Real Estate 496

david h. freedman, How Junk Food Can End Obesity 506


david leonhardt, Inequality Has Been Going on Forever . . . but That Doesn’t Mean It’s Inevitable 542

edward mcclelland, RIP, the Middle Class: 1946–2013 549

paul krugman, Confronting Inequality 561

gary becker and kevin murphy, The Upside of Income Inequality 581

monica potts, What’s Killing Poor White Women? 591

brandon king, The American Dream: Dead, Alive, or on Hold? 610

tim roemer, America Remains the World’s Beacon of Success 618

shayan zadeh, Bring on More Immigrant Entrepreneurs 623

pew research team, King’s Dream Remains an Elusive Goal 627


01_GRA_93584_FM_i_xxx.indd xi 11/8/14 3:34 PM

x i i


sheryl sandberg, Lean In: What Would You Do If You Weren’t Afraid? 642

bell hooks, Dig Deep: Beyond Lean In 659

anne-marie slaughter, Why Women Still Can’t Have It All 676

richard dorment, Why Men Still Can’t Have It All 697

stephen mays, What about Gender Roles in Same-Sex Relationships? 718

dennis baron, Facebook Multiplies Genders but Offers Users the Same Three Tired Pronouns 721

ellen ullman, How to Be a “Woman Programmer” 726

saul kaplan, The Plight of Young Males 732

penelope eckert and sally mcconnell-ginet, Learning to Be Gendered 736

credits 747

acknowledgments 753

index of templates 765

index of authors and titles 781


01_GRA_93584_FM_i_xxx.indd xii 11/19/14 4:52 PM

x i i i

preface to the third edition


When we first set out to write this book, our goal was simple: to offer a version of “They Say / I Say”: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing with an anthology of readings that would demonstrate the rhetorical moves “that matter.” And because “They Say” teaches students that academic writ- ing is a means of entering a conversation, we looked for read- ings on topics that would engage students and inspire them to respond—and to enter the conversations. The book has been more successful than we ever imagined possible, which we believe reflects the growing importance of academic writing as a focus of first-year writing courses, and the fact that students find practical strategies like the ones offered in this book to be particularly helpful. In addition, some teach- ers have told us that this book works well in courses that focus on argument and research because students find these strategies easier to grasp than those in the books that teach various kinds of formal argumentation. Our purpose in writing “They Say” has always been to offer students a user-friendly model of writing that will help them put into practice the important principle that writing is a social activity. Proceeding from the premise that effective writers enter conversations of other writers and speakers, this book encour- ages students to engage with those around them—including those who disagree with them—instead of just expressing their

x i i i

01_GRA_93584_FM_i_xxx.indd xiii 11/8/14 3:34 PM

ideas “logically.” Our own experience teaching first-year writing students has led us to believe that to be persuasive, arguments need not only supporting evidence but also motivation and exigency, and that the surest way to achieve this motivation and exigency is to generate one’s own arguments as a response to those of others—to something “they say.” To help students write their way into the often daunting conversations of aca- demia and the wider public sphere, the book provides tem- plates to help them make sophisticated rhetorical moves that they might otherwise not think of attempting. And of course learning to make these rhetorical moves in writing also helps students become better readers of argument. That the two versions of “They Say / I Say” are now being taught at more than 1,500 schools suggests that there is a wide- spread desire for explicit instruction that is understandable but not oversimplified, to help writers negotiate the basic moves necessary to “enter the conversation.” Instructors have told us how much this book helps their students learn how to write academic discourse, and some students have written to us saying that it’s helped them to “crack the code,” as one student put it. This third edition of “They Say / I Say” with Readings includes forty-three readings on five compelling and controversial issues. The readings provide a glimpse into some important conver- sations of our day—and will, we hope, provoke students to respond and thus to join in those conversations.


Forty-three readings that will prompt students to think— and write. Taken from a wide variety of sources, including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Salon, the Atlantic, the


x i v

01_GRA_93584_FM_i_xxx.indd xiv 11/8/14 3:34 PM

Pew Research Center, the New Yorker, Wired magazine, best- selling trade books, celebrated speeches, and more, the readings represent a range of perspectives on five important issues:

• Is College the Best Option? • Are We in a Race against the Machine? • What Should We Eat? • What’s Up with the American Dream? • What’s Gender Got to Do with It?

The readings can function as sources for students’ own writing, and the study questions that follow each reading focus students’ attention on how each author uses the key rhetorical moves— and include one question that invites them to write, and often to respond with their own views.

A chapter on reading (Chapter 14) encourages students to think of reading as an act of entering conversations. Instead of teaching students merely to identify the author’s argument, this chapter shows them how to read with an eye for what arguments the author is responding to—in other words, to think carefully about why the writer is making the argument in the first place, and thus to recognize (and ultimately become a part of) the larger conversation that gives meaning to reading the text.

Two books in one, with a rhetoric up front and readings in the back. The two parts are linked by cross-references in the margins, leading from the rhetoric to specific examples in the readings and from the readings to the corresponding writ- ing instruction. Teachers can therefore begin with either the rhetoric or the readings, and the links will facilitate movement between one section and the other.

Preface to the Third Edition

x v

01_GRA_93584_FM_i_xxx.indd xv 11/8/14 3:34 PM

x v i


what’s new

Two topics are new, two are updated—all addressing impor- tant conversations taking place today. The chapters on gender and technology are new. The food chapter now reaches beyond fast food to address a broader question: what should we eat? And the education chapter asks not just is college worth the price but whether it is even the best option.

Thirty-one new readings, including at least one documented piece and one essay written by a student in each chapter, added in response to requests from many teachers who wanted more complex and documented writing.

They Say / I Blog. Updated monthly, this blog provides up-to- the-minute readings on the issues covered in the book, along with questions that prompt students to literally join the con- versation. Check it out at

A new chapter on “Using the Templates to Revise,” which grew out of our own teaching experience, where we found that the templates in this book had the unexpected benefit of help- ing students when they revise.

A new chapter on writing online, exploring the debate about whether digital technologies improve or degrade the way we think and write, and whether they foster or impede the meet- ing of minds.

01_GRA_93584_FM_i_xxx.indd xvi 11/19/14 4:52 PM

x v i i

A complete instructor’s guide, with teaching tips for all the chapters, syllabi, summaries of the readings, and suggested answers to the study questions. Go to to access these materials.

We hope that this new edition of “They Say / I Say” with Read- ings will spark students’ interest in some of the most pressing conversations of our day and provide them with some of the tools they need to engage in those conversations with dexterity and confidence. Gerald Graff Cathy Birkenstein Russel Durst

Preface to the Third Edition

01_GRA_93584_FM_i_xxx.indd xvii 11/8/14 3:34 PM

x v i i i


Demystifying Academic Conversation


Experienced writing instructors have long recognized that writing well means entering into conversation with others. Academic writing in particular calls upon writers not simply to express their own ideas, but to do so as a response to what others have said. The first-year writing program at our own university, according to its mission statement, asks “students to partici- pate in ongoing conversations about vitally important academic and public issues.” A similar statement by another program holds that “intellectual writing is almost always composed in response to others’ texts.” These statements echo the ideas of rhetorical theorists like Kenneth Burke, Mikhail Bakhtin, and Wayne Booth as well as recent composition scholars like David Bartholomae, John Bean, Patricia Bizzell, Irene Clark, Greg Colomb, Lisa Ede, Peter Elbow, Joseph Harris, Andrea Lunsford, Elaine Maimon, Gary Olson, Mike Rose, John Swales and Christine Feak, Tilly Warnock, and others who argue that writing well means engaging the voices of others and letting them in turn engage us. Yet despite this growing consensus that writing is a social, conversational act, helping student writers actually partici- pate in these conversations remains a formidable challenge. This book aims to meet that challenge. Its goal is to demys- tify academic writing by isolating its basic moves, explaining them clearly, and representing them in the form of templates.

01_GRA_93584_FM_i_xxx.indd xviii 11/8/14 3:34 PM

Demystifying Academic Conversation

x i x

In this way, we hope to help students become active partici- pants in the important conversations of the academic world and the wider public sphere.


• Shows that writing well means entering a conversation, sum- marizing others (“they say”) to set up one’s own argument (“I say”).

• Demystifies academic writing, showing students “the moves that matter” in language they can readily apply.

• Provides user-friendly templates to help writers make those moves in their own writing.

• Includes a chapter on reading, showing students how the authors they read are part of a conversation that they them- selves can enter—and thus to see reading as a matter not of passively absorbing information but of understanding and actively entering dialogues and debates.

how this book came to be

The original idea for this book grew out of our shared interest in democratizing academic culture. First, it grew out of arguments that Gerald Graff has been making throughout his career that schools and colleges need to invite students into the conversa- tions and debates that surround them. More specifically, it is a practical, hands-on companion to his recent book, Clueless in Academe: How Schooling Obscures the Life of the Mind, in which he looks at academic conversations from the perspective of those who find them mysterious and proposes ways in which

01_GRA_93584_FM_i_xxx.indd xix 11/8/14 3:34 PM


x x

such mystification can be overcome. Second, this book grew out of writing templates that Cathy Birkenstein developed in the 1990s, for use in writing and literature courses she was teaching. Many students, she found, could readily grasp what it meant to support a thesis with evidence, to entertain a counter- argument, to identify a textual contradiction, and ultimately to summarize and respond to challenging arguments, but they often had trouble putting these concepts into practice in their own writing. When Cathy sketched out templates on the board, however, giving her students some of the language and patterns that these sophisticated moves require, their writing—and even their quality of thought—significantly improved. This book began, then, when we put our ideas together and realized that these templates might have the potential to open up and clarify academic conversation. We proceeded from the premise that all writers rely on certain stock formulas that they themselves didn’t invent—and that many of these formulas are so commonly used that they can be represented in model templates that students can use to structure and even generate what they want to say. As we developed a working draft of this book, we began using it in first-year writing courses that we teach at UIC. In class- room exercises and writing assignments, we found that students who otherwise struggled to organize their thoughts, or even to think of something to say, did much better when we provided them with templates like the following.

j In discussions of , a controversial issue is whether

. While some argue that , others contend

that .

j This is not to say that .

01_GRA_93584_FM_i_xxx.indd xx 11/8/14 3:34 PM

Demystifying Academic Conversation

x x i

One virtue of such templates, we found, is that they focus writers’ attention not just on what is being said, but on the forms that structure what is being said. In other words, they make students more conscious of the rhetorical patterns that are key to academic success but often pass under the classroom radar.

the centrality of “they say / i say”

The central rhetorical move that we focus on in this book is the “they say / I say” template that gives our book its title. In our view, this template represents the deep, underlying structure, the internal DNA as it were, of all effective argument. Effective persuasive writers do more than make well-supported claims (“I say”); they also map those claims relative to the claims of others (“they say”). Here, for example, the “they say / I say” pattern structures a passage from an essay by the media and technology critic Steven Johnson.

For decades, we’ve worked under the assumption that mass cul- ture follows a path declining steadily toward lowest-common- denominator standards, presumably because the “masses” want dumb, simple pleasures and big media companies try to give the masses what they want. But . . . the exact opposite is happening: the culture is getting more cognitively demanding, not less.

Steven Johnson, “Watching TV Makes You Smarter”

In generating his own argument from something “they say,” Johnson suggests why he needs to say what he is saying: to correct a popular misconception.

01_GRA_93584_FM_i_xxx.indd xxi 11/8/14 3:34 PM


x x i i

Even when writers do not explicitly identify the views they are responding to, as Johnson does, an implicit “they say” can often be discerned, as in the following passage by Zora Neale Hurston.

I remember the day I became colored. Zora Neale Hurston, “How It Feels to Be Colored Me”

In order to grasp Hurston’s point here, we need to be able to reconstruct the implicit view she is responding to and question- ing: that racial identity is an innate quality we are simply born with. On the contrary, Hurston suggests, our race is imposed on us by society—something we “become” by virtue of how we are treated. As these examples suggest, the “they say / I say” model can improve not just student writing, but student reading compre- hension as well. Since reading and writing are deeply recipro- cal activities, students who learn to make the rhetorical moves represented by the templates in this book figure to become more adept at identifying these same moves in the texts they read. And if we are right that effective arguments are always in dialogue with other arguments, then it follows that in order to understand the types of challenging texts assigned in college, students need to identify the views to which those texts are responding. Working with the “they say / I say” model can also help with invention, finding something to say. In our experience, students best discover what they want to say not by thinking about a subject in an isolation booth, but by reading texts, listening closely to what other writers say, and looking for an opening through which they can enter the conversation. In other words, listening closely to others and summarizing what they have to say can help writers generate their own ideas.

01_GRA_93584_FM_i_xxx.indd xxii 11/8/14 3:34 PM

Demystifying Academic Conversation

x x i i i

the usefulness of templates

Our templates also have a generative quality, prompting stu- dents to make moves in their writing that they might not oth- erwise make or even know they should make. The templates in this book can be particularly helpful for students who are unsure about what to say, or who have trouble finding enough to say, often because they consider their own beliefs so self-evident that they need not be argued for. Students like this are often helped, we’ve found, when we give them a simple tem- plate like the following one for entertaining a counterargument (or planting a naysayer, as we call it in Chapter 6).

j Of course some might object that . Although I concede

that , I still maintain that .

What this particular template helps students do is make the seemingly counterintuitive move of questioning their own beliefs, of looking at them from the perspective of those who disagree. In so doing, templates can bring out aspects of stu- dents’ thoughts that, as they themselves sometimes remark, they didn’t even realize were there. Other templates in this book help students make a host of sophisticated moves that they might not otherwise make: sum- marizing what someone else says, framing a quotation in one’s own words, indicating the view that the writer is responding to, marking the shift from a source’s view to the writer’s own view, offering evidence for that view, entertaining and answering counterarguments, and explaining what is at stake in the first place. In showing students how to make such moves, templates do more than organize students’ ideas; they help bring those ideas into existence.

01_GRA_93584_FM_i_xxx.indd xxiii 11/8/14 3:34 PM


x x i v

okay, but templates?

We are aware, of course, that some instructors may have res- ervations about templates. Some, for instance, may object that such formulaic devices represent a return to prescriptive forms of instruction that encourage passive learning or lead students to put their writing on automatic pilot. This is an understandable reaction, we think, to kinds of rote instruction that have indeed encouraged passivity and drained writing of its creativity and dynamic relation to the social world. The trouble is that many students will never learn on their own to make the key intellectual moves that our templates repre- sent. While seasoned writers pick up these moves unconsciously through their reading, many students do not. Consequently, we believe, students need to see these moves represented in the explicit ways that the templates provide. The aim of the templates, then, is not to stifle critical thinking but to be direct with students about the key rhetori- cal moves that it comprises. Since we encourage students to modify and adapt the templates to the particularities of the arguments they are making, using such prefabricated formulas as learning tools need not result in writing and thinking that are themselves formulaic. Admittedly, no teaching tool can guarantee that students will engage in hard, rigorous thought. Our templates do, however, provide concrete prompts that can stimulate and shape such thought: What do “they say” about my topic? What would a naysayer say about my argument? What is my evidence? Do I need to qualify my point? Who cares? In fact, templates have a long and rich history. Public orators from ancient Greece and Rome through the European Renais- sance studied rhetorical topoi or “commonplaces,” model passages and formulas that represented the different strategies available

01_GRA_93584_FM_i_xxx.indd xxiv 11/8/14 3:34 PM

Demystifying Academic Conversation

x x v

to public speakers. In many respects, our templates echo this classical rhetorical tradition of imitating established models. The journal Nature requires aspiring contributors to follow a guideline that is like a template on the opening page of their manuscript: “Two or three sentences explaining what the main result [of their study] reveals in direct comparison with what was thought to be the case previously, or how the main result adds to previous knowledge.” In the field of education, a form designed by the education theorist Howard Gardner asks postdoctoral fellowship applicants to complete the following template: “Most scholars in the field believe . As a result of my study,

.” That these two examples are geared toward post- doctoral fellows and veteran researchers shows that it is not only struggling undergraduates who can use help making these key rhetorical moves, but experienced academics as well. Templates have even been used in the teaching of personal narrative. The literary and educational theorist Jane Tompkins devised the following template to help student writers make the often difficult move from telling a story to explaining what it means: “X tells a story about to make the point that

. My own experience with yields a point that is similar/different/both similar and different. What I take away from my own experience with is . As a result, I conclude .” We especially like this template because it suggests that “they say / I say” argument need not be mechanical, impersonal, or dry, and that telling a story and mak- ing an argument are more compatible activities than many think.

why it’s okay to use “i”

But wait—doesn’t the “I” part of “they say / I say” flagrantly encourage the use of the first-person pronoun? Aren’t we aware

01_GRA_93584_FM_i_xxx.indd xxv 11/8/14 3:34 PM


x x v i

that some teachers prohibit students from using “I” or “we,” on the grounds that these pronouns encourage ill-considered, subjective opinions rather than objective and reasoned argu- ments? Yes, we are aware of this first-person prohibition, but we think it has serious flaws. First, expressing ill-considered, subjective opinions is not necessarily the worst sin beginning writers can commit; it might be a starting point from which they can move on to more reasoned, less self-indulgent perspectives. Second, prohibiting students from using “I” is simply not an effective way of curbing students’ subjectivity, since one can offer poorly argued, ill-supported opinions just as easily without it. Third and most important, prohibiting the first person tends to hamper students’ ability not only to take strong positions but to differentiate their own positions from those of others, as we point out in Chapter 5. To be sure, writers can resort to vari- ous circumlocutions—“it will here be argued,” “the evidence suggests,” “the truth is”—and these may be useful for avoid- ing a monotonous series of “I believe” sentences. But except for avoiding such monotony, we see no good reason why “I” should be set aside in persuasive writing. Rather than prohibit “I,” then, we think a better tactic is to give students practice at using it well and learning its use, both by supporting their claims with evidence and by attending closely to alternative perspectives—to what “they” are saying.

how this book is organized

Because of its centrality, we have allowed the “they say / I say” format to dictate the structure of this book. So while Part 1 addresses the art of listening to others, Part 2 addresses how to offer one’s own response. Part 1 opens with a chapter on

01_GRA_93584_FM_i_xxx.indd xxvi 11/8/14 3:34 PM

Demystifying Academic Conversation

x x v i i

“Starting with What Others Are Saying” that explains why it is generally advisable to begin a text by citing others rather than plunging directly into one’s own views. Subsequent chapters take up the arts of summarizing and quoting what these others have to say. Part 2 begins with a chapter on different ways of responding, followed by chapters on marking the shift between what “they say” and what “I say,” on introducing and answering objections, and on answering the all-important questions: “so what?” and “who cares?” Part 3 offers strategies for “Tying It All Together,” beginning with a chapter on connection and coher- ence; followed by a chapter on formal and informal language, arguing that academic discourse is often perfectly compatible with the informal language that students use outside school; and concluding with a chapter on the art of metacommentary, showing students how to guide the way readers understand a text. Part 4 offers guidance for entering conversations in specific academic contexts, with chapters on entering class discussions, writing online, reading, and writing in literature courses, the sciences, and social sciences. Finally, we provide five readings and an index of templates.

what this book doesn’t do

There are some things that this book does not try to do. We do not, for instance, cover logical principles of argument such as syllogisms, warrants, logical fallacies, or the differences between inductive and deductive reasoning. Although such concepts can be useful, we believe most of us learn the ins and outs of argumentative writing not by studying logical principles in the abstract, but by plunging into actual discussions and debates, trying out different patterns of response, and in this way getting

01_GRA_93584_FM_i_xxx.indd xxvii 11/8/14 3:34 PM


x x v i i i

a sense of what works to persuade different audiences and what doesn’t. In our view, people learn more about arguing from hearing someone say, “You miss my point. What I’m saying is not , but ,” or “I agree with you that

, and would even add that ,” than they do from studying the differences between inductive and deductive reasoning. Such formulas give students an immediate sense of what it feels like to enter a public conversation in a way that studying abstract warrants and logical fallacies does not.

engaging with the ideas of others

One central goal of this book is to demystify academic writing by returning it to its social and conversational roots. Although writing may require some degree of quiet and solitude, the “they say / I say” model shows students that they can best develop their arguments not just by looking inward but by doing what they often do in a good conversation with friends and family— by listening carefully to what others are saying and engaging with other views. This approach to writing therefore has an ethical dimension, since it asks writers not simply to keep proving and reasserting what they already believe but to stretch what they believe by putting it up against beliefs that differ, sometimes radically, from their own. In an increasingly diverse, global society, this ability to engage with the ideas of others is especially crucial to democratic citizenship. Gerald Graff Cathy Birkenstein

01_GRA_93584_FM_i_xxx.indd xxviii 11/8/14 3:34 PM


“THEY SAY I SAY” The Move s Tha t Ma t t e r

i n Academ i c Wr i t i n g



01_GRA_93584_FM_i_xxx.indd xxix 11/8/14 3:34 PM

01_GRA_93584_FM_i_xxx.indd xxx 11/8/14 3:34 PM



Entering the Conversation


Think about an activity that you do particularly well: cooking, playing the piano, shooting a basketball, even some- thing as basic as driving a car. If you reflect on this activity, you’ll realize that once you mastered it you no longer had to give much conscious thought to the various moves that go into doing it. Performing this activity, in other words, depends on your having learned a series of complicated moves—moves that may seem mysterious or difficult to those who haven’t yet learned them. The same applies to writing. Often without consciously real- izing it, accomplished writers routinely rely on a stock of estab- lished moves that are crucial for communicating sophisticated ideas. What makes writers masters of their trade is not only their ability to express interesting thoughts but their mastery of an inventory of basic moves that they probably picked up by reading a wide range of other accomplished writers. Less experienced writers, by contrast, are often unfamiliar with these basic moves and unsure how to make them in their own writ- ing. This book is intended as a short, user-friendly guide to the basic moves of academic writing. One of our key premises is that these basic moves are so common that they can be represented in templates that you can use right away to structure and even generate your own

02_GRA_93584_Intro_001_016.indd 1 11/8/14 3:34 PM



writing. Perhaps the most distinctive feature of this book is its pre sentation of many such templates, designed to help you successfully enter not only the world of academic thinking and writing, but also the wider worlds of civic discourse and work. Instead of focusing solely on abstract principles of writing, then, this book offers model templates that help you put those principles directly into practice. Working with these templates can give you an immediate sense of how to engage in the kinds of critical thinking you are required to do at the college level and in the vocational and public spheres beyond. Some of these templates represent simple but crucial moves like those used to summarize some widely held belief.

j Many Americans assume that .

Others are more complicated.

j On the one hand, . On the other hand, .

j Author X contradicts herself. At the same time that she argues

, she also implies .

j I agree that .

j This is not to say that .

It is true, of course, that critical thinking and writing go deeper than any set of linguistic formulas, requiring that you question assumptions, develop strong claims, offer supporting reasons and evidence, consider opposing arguments, and so on. But these deeper habits of thought cannot be put into practice unless you have a language for expressing them in clear, orga- nized ways.

02_GRA_93584_Intro_001_016.indd 2 11/8/14 3:34 PM

Entering the Conversation


state your own ideas as a response to others

The single most important template that we focus on in this book is the “they say ; I say ” formula that gives our book its title. If there is any one point that we hope you will take away from this book, it is the importance not only of expressing your ideas (“I say”) but of presenting those ideas as a response to some other person or group (“they say”). For us, the underlying structure of effective academic writing—and of responsible public discourse—resides not just in stating our own ideas but in listening closely to others around us, summarizing their views in a way that they will recognize, and responding with our own ideas in kind. Broadly speaking, academic writ- ing is argumentative writing, and we believe that to argue well you need to do more than assert your own position. You need to enter a conversation, using what others say (or might say) as a launching pad or sounding board for your own views. For this reason, one of the main pieces of advice in this book is to write the voices of others into your text. In our view, then, the best academic writing has one under- lying feature: it is deeply engaged in some way with other peo- ple’s views. Too often, however, academic writing is taught as a process of saying “true” or “smart” things in a vacuum, as if it were possible to argue effectively without being in conver- sation with someone else. If you have been taught to write a traditional five-paragraph essay, for example, you have learned how to develop a thesis and support it with evidence. This is good advice as far as it goes, but it leaves out the important fact that in the real world we don’t make arguments without being provoked. Instead, we make arguments because some- one has said or done something (or perhaps not said or done

02_GRA_93584_Intro_001_016.indd 3 11/8/14 3:34 PM



something) and we need to respond: “I can’t see why you like the Lakers so much”; “I agree: it was a great film”; “That argu- ment is contradictory.” If it weren’t for other people and our need to challenge, agree with, or otherwise respond to them, there would be no reason to argue at all. To make an impact as a writer, you need to do more than make statements that are logical, well supported, and consis- tent. You must also find a way of entering a conversation with others’ views—with something “they say.” If your own argu- ment doesn’t identify the “they say” that you’re responding to, it probably won’t make sense. As the figure above suggests, what you are saying may be clear to your audience, but why you are saying it won’t be. For it is what others are saying and thinking that motivates our writing and gives it a reason for being. It follows, then, as the figure on the next page suggests, that your own argument—the thesis or “I say” moment of your text—should always be a response to the arguments of others. Many writers make explicit “they say / I say” moves in their writing. One famous example is Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter

02_GRA_93584_Intro_001_016.indd 4 11/8/14 3:34 PM

Entering the Conversation


from Birmingham Jail,” which consists almost entirely of King’s eloquent responses to a public statement by eight clergymen deploring the civil rights protests he was leading. The letter— which was written in 1963, while King was in prison for leading a demonstration against racial injustice in Birmingham—is structured almost entirely around a framework of summary and response, in which King summarizes and then answers their criticisms. In one typical passage, King writes as follows.

You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations.

Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail”

King goes on to agree with his critics that “It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham,” yet he hastens

02_GRA_93584_Intro_001_016.indd 5 11/8/14 3:34 PM



to add that “it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.” King’s letter is so thoroughly conversational, in fact, that it could be rewritten in the form of a dialogue or play.

King’s critics: King’s response: Critics: Response:

Clearly, King would not have written his famous letter were it not for his critics, whose views he treats not as objections to his already-formed arguments but as the motivating source of those arguments, their central reason for being. He quotes not only what his critics have said (“Some have asked: ‘Why didn’t you give the new city administration time to act?’ ”), but also things they might have said (“One may well ask: ‘How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?’ ”)—all to set the stage for what he himself wants to say. A similar “they say / I say” exchange opens an essay about American patriotism by the social critic Katha Pollitt, who uses her own daughter’s comment to represent the national fervor of post-9/11 patriotism.

My daughter, who goes to Stuyvesant High School only blocks from the former World Trade Center, thinks we should fly the American flag out our window. Definitely not, I say: The flag stands for jingoism and vengeance and war. She tells me I’m wrong—the flag means standing together and honoring the dead and saying no to terrorism. In a way we’re both right. . . .

Katha Pollitt, “Put Out No Flags”

02_GRA_93584_Intro_001_016.indd 6 11/8/14 3:34 PM

Entering the Conversation


As Pollitt’s example shows, the “they” you respond to in crafting an argument need not be a famous author or someone known to your audience. It can be a family member like Pollitt’s daughter, or a friend or classmate who has made a provocative claim. It can even be something an individual or a group might say—or a side of yourself, something you once believed but no longer do, or something you partly believe but also doubt. The important thing is that the “they” (or “you” or “she”) represent some wider group with which read- ers might identify—in Pollitt’s case, those who patriotically believe in flying the flag. Pollitt’s example also shows that responding to the views of others need not always involve unqualified opposition. By agreeing and disagreeing with her daughter, Pollitt enacts what we call the “yes and no” response, reconciling apparently incompatible views. While King and Pollitt both identify the views they are responding to, some authors do not explicitly state their views but instead allow the reader to infer them. See, for instance, if you can identify the implied or unnamed “they say” that the following claim is responding to.

I like to think I have a certain advantage as a teacher of literature because when I was growing up I disliked and feared books.

Gerald Graff, “Disliking Books at an Early Age”

In case you haven’t figured it out already, the phantom “they say” here is the common belief that in order to be a good teacher of literature, one must have grown up liking and enjoy- ing books.

See Chapter 4 for more on agreeing, but with a difference.

02_GRA_93584_Intro_001_016.indd 7 11/8/14 3:34 PM



As you can see from these examples, many writers use the “they say / I say” format to agree or disagree with others, to chal- lenge standard ways of thinking, and thus to stir up controversy. This point may come as a shock to you if you have always had the impression that in order to succeed academically you need to play it safe and avoid controversy in your writing, making statements that nobody can possibly disagree with. Though this view of writing may appear logical, it is actually a recipe for flat, lifeless writing and for writing that fails to answer what we call the “so what?” and “who cares?” questions. “William Shakespeare wrote many famous plays and sonnets” may be a perfectly true statement, but precisely because nobody is likely to disagree with it, it goes without saying and thus would seem pointless if said.

ways of responding

Just because much argumentative writing is driven by disagree- ment, it does not follow that agreement is ruled out. Although argumentation is often associated with conflict and opposition, the type of conversational “they say / I say” argument that we focus on in this book can be just as useful when you agree as when you disagree.

j She argues , and I agree because .

j Her argument that is supported by new research

showing that .

Nor do you always have to choose between either simply agree- ing or disagreeing, since the “they say / I say” format also works to both agree and disagree at the same time, as Pollitt illustrates above.

02_GRA_93584_Intro_001_016.indd 8 11/8/14 3:34 PM

Entering the Conversation


j He claims that , and I have mixed feelings about it.

On the one hand, I agree that . On the other hand,

I still insist that .

This last option—agreeing and disagreeing simultaneously—is one we especially recommend, since it allows you to avoid a simple yes or no response and present a more complicated argu- ment, while containing that complication within a clear “on the one hand / on the other hand” framework. While the templates we offer in this book can be used to structure your writing at the sentence level, they can also be expanded as needed to almost any length, as the following elaborated “they say / I say” template demonstrates.

j In recent discussions of , a controversial issue has

been whether . On the one hand, some argue

that . From this perspective, . On the other

hand, however, others argue that . In the words of

, one of this view’s main proponents, “ .”

According to this view, . In sum, then, the issue is

whether or .

My own view is that . Though I concede that

, I still maintain that . For example,

. Although some might object that , I would

reply that . The issue is important because .

If you go back over this template, you will see that it helps you make a host of challenging moves (each of which is taken up in forthcoming chapters in this book). First, the template helps you open your text by identifying an issue in some ongoing conversation or debate (“In recent discussions of ,

02_GRA_93584_Intro_001_016.indd 9 11/8/14 3:34 PM


1 0

a controversial issue has been ”), and then to map some of the voices in this controversy (by using the “on the one hand / on the other hand” structure). The template also helps you introduce a quotation (“In the words of ”), to explain the quotation in your own words (“According to this view”), and—in a new paragraph—to state your own argument (“My own view is that”), to qualify your argument (“Though I con- cede that”), and then to support your argument with evidence (“For example”). In addition, the template helps you make one of the most crucial moves in argumentative writing, what we call “planting a naysayer in your text,” in which you summarize and then answer a likely objection to your own central claim (“Although it might be objected that , I reply ”). Finally, this template helps you shift between general, over- arching claims (“In sum, then”) and smaller-scale, supporting claims (“For example”). Again, none of us is born knowing these moves, especially when it comes to academic writing. Hence the need for this book.

do templates stifle creativity?

If you are like some of our students, your initial response to templates may be skepticism. At first, many of our students complain that using templates will take away their originality and creativity and make them all sound the same. “They’ll turn us into writing robots,” one of our students insisted. Another agreed, adding, “Hey, I’m a jazz musician. And we don’t play by set forms. We create our own.” “I’m in college now,” another student asserted; “this is third-grade-level stuff.” In our view, however, the templates in this book, far from being “third-grade-level stuff,” represent the stock in trade of

02_GRA_93584_Intro_001_016.indd 10 11/8/14 3:34 PM

Entering the Conversation

1 1

sophisticated thinking and writing, and they often require a great deal of practice and instruction to use successfully. As for the belief that pre-established forms undermine creativity, we think it rests on a very limited vision of what creativity is all about. In our view, the above template and the others in this book will actually help your writing become more original and creative, not less. After all, even the most creative forms of expression depend on established patterns and structures. Most songwriters, for instance, rely on a time-honored verse- chorus-verse pattern, and few people would call Shakespeare uncreative because he didn’t invent the sonnet or the dramatic forms that he used to such dazzling effect. Even the most avant- garde, cutting-edge artists (like improvisational jazz musicians) need to master the basic forms that their work improvises on, departs from, and goes beyond, or else their work will come across as uneducated child’s play. Ultimately, then, creativity and originality lie not in the avoidance of established forms but in the imaginative use of them. Furthermore, these templates do not dictate the content of what you say, which can be as original as you can make it, but only suggest a way of formatting how you say it. In addition, once you begin to feel comfortable with the templates in this book, you will be able to improvise creatively on them to fit new situations and purposes and find others in your reading. In other words, the templates offered here are learning tools to get you started, not structures set in stone. Once you get used to using them, you can even dispense with them altogether, for the rhetorical moves they model will be at your fingertips in an unconscious, instinctive way. But if you still need proof that writing templates do not stifle creativity, consider the following opening to an essay on the fast-food industry that we’ve included at the back of this book.

02_GRA_93584_Intro_001_016.indd 11 11/8/14 3:34 PM


1 2

If ever there were a newspaper headline custom-made for Jay Leno’s monologue, this was it. Kids taking on McDonald’s this week, suing the company for making them fat. Isn’t that like middle-aged men suing Porsche for making them get speeding tickets? Whatever happened to personal responsibility? I tend to sympathize with these portly fast-food patrons, though. Maybe that’s because I used to be one of them.

David Zinczenko, “Don’t Blame the Eater”

Although Zinczenko relies on a version of the “they say / I say” formula, his writing is anything but dry, robotic, or uncre- ative. While Zinczenko does not explicitly use the words “they say” and “I say,” the template still gives the passage its underlying structure: “They say that kids suing fast-food com- panies for making them fat is a joke; but I say such lawsuits are justified.”

but isn’t this plagiarism?

“But isn’t this plagiarism?” at least one student each year will usually ask. “Well, is it?” we respond, turning the question around into one the entire class can profit from. “We are, after all, asking you to use language in your writing that isn’t your own—language that you ‘borrow’ or, to put it less delicately, steal from other writers.” Often, a lively discussion ensues that raises important questions about authorial ownership and helps everyone better understand the frequently confusing line between pla- giarism and the legitimate use of what others say and how they say it. Students are quick to see that no one person owns a conventional formula like “on the one hand . . . on the other hand . . . ” Phrases like “a controversial issue”

02_GRA_93584_Intro_001_016.indd 12 11/8/14 3:34 PM

Entering the Conversation

1 3

are so commonly used and recycled that they are generic— community property that can be freely used without fear of committing plagiarism. It is plagiarism, however, if the words used to fill in the blanks of such formulas are borrowed from others without proper acknowledgment. In sum, then, while it is not plagiarism to recycle conventionally used formulas, it is a serious academic offense to take the substantive content from others’ texts without citing the author and giving him or her proper credit.

putting in your oar

Though the immediate goal of this book is to help you become a better writer, at a deeper level it invites you to become a certain type of person: a critical, intellectual thinker who, instead of sit- ting passively on the sidelines, can participate in the debates and conversations of your world in an active and empowered way. Ultimately, this book invites you to become a critical thinker who can enter the types of conversations described eloquently by the philosopher Kenneth Burke in the following widely cited passage. Likening the world of intellectual exchange to a never- ending conversation at a party, Burke writes:

You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. . . . You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you. . . . The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.

Kenneth Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form

02_GRA_93584_Intro_001_016.indd 13 11/8/14 3:34 PM


1 4

What we like about this passage is its suggestion that stating an argument and “putting in your oar” can only be done in conversation with others; that we all enter the dynamic world of ideas not as isolated individuals but as social beings deeply connected to others who have a stake in what we say. This ability to enter complex, many-sided conversations has taken on a special urgency in today’s diverse, post-9/11 world, where the future for all of us may depend on our ability to put ourselves in the shoes of those who think very differently from us. The central piece of advice in this book—that we listen carefully to others, including those who disagree with us, and then engage with them thoughtfully and respectfully—can help us see beyond our own pet beliefs, which may not be shared by everyone. The mere act of crafting a sentence that begins “Of course, someone might object that ” may not seem like a way to change the world; but it does have the potential to jog us out of our comfort zones, to get us thinking critically about our own beliefs, and perhaps even to change our minds.


1. Read the following paragraph from an essay by Emily Poe, a student at Furman University. Disregarding for the moment what Poe says, focus your attention on the phrases she uses to structure what she says (italicized here). Then write a new paragraph using Poe’s as a model but replacing her topic, vegetarianism, with one of your own.

The term “vegetarian” tends to be synonymous with “tree-hugger” in many people’s minds. They see vegetarianism as a cult that brainwashes its followers into eliminating an essential part of their

02_GRA_93584_Intro_001_016.indd 14 11/8/14 3:34 PM

Entering the Conversation

1 5

daily diets for an abstract goal of “animal welfare.” However, few vegetarians choose their lifestyle just to follow the crowd. On the contrary, many of these supposedly brainwashed people are actu- ally independent thinkers, concerned citizens, and compassionate human beings. For the truth is that there are many very good reasons for giving up meat. Perhaps the best reasons are to improve the environment, to encourage humane treatment of livestock, or to enhance one’s own health. In this essay, then, closely examining a vegetarian diet as compared to a meat-eater’s diet will show that vegetarianism is clearly the better option for sustaining the Earth and all its inhabitants.

2. Write a short essay in which you first summarize our rationale for the templates in this book and then articulate your own position in response. If you want, you can use the template below to organize your paragraphs, expanding and modifying it as necessary to fit what you want to say.

In the Introduction to “They Say / I Say”: The Moves That Matter in

Academic Writing, Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein provide tem-

plates designed to . Specifically, Graff and Birkenstein

argue that the types of writing templates they offer . As

the authors themselves put it, “ .” Although some people

believe , Graff and Birkenstein insist that .

In sum, then, their view is that .

I [agree/disagree/have mixed feelings]. In my view, the types

of templates that the authors recommend . For

instance, . In addition, . Some might object,

of course, on the grounds that . Yet I would argue

that . Overall, then, I believe —an important

point to make given .

02_GRA_93584_Intro_001_016.indd 15 11/8/14 3:34 PM

02_GRA_93584_Intro_001_016.indd 16 11/8/14 3:34 PM

1 H


03_GRA_93584_part1_017_052.indd 17 11/8/14 3:34 PM

03_GRA_93584_part1_017_052.indd 18 11/8/14 3:34 PM

1 9


“they say”

Starting with What Others Are Saying


Not long ago we attended a talk at an academic conference where the speaker’s central claim seemed to be that a certain sociologist—call him Dr. X—had done very good work in a number of areas of the discipline. The speaker proceeded to illustrate his thesis by referring extensively and in great detail to various books and articles by Dr. X and by quoting long pas- sages from them. The speaker was obviously both learned and impassioned, but as we listened to his talk we found ourselves somewhat puzzled: the argument—that Dr. X’s work was very important—was clear enough, but why did the speaker need to make it in the first place? Did anyone dispute it? Were there commentators in the field who had argued against X’s work or challenged its value? Was the speaker’s interpretation of what X had done somehow novel or revolutionary? Since the speaker gave no hint of an answer to any of these questions, we could only wonder why he was going on and on about X. It was only after the speaker finished and took questions from the audience that we got a clue: in response to one questioner, he referred to several critics who had

The hypo- thetical audience in the figure on p. 4 reacts similarly.

03_GRA_93584_part1_017_052.indd 19 11/8/14 3:34 PM

o n e o n e “ T H E Y S A Y ”

2 0

vigorously questioned Dr. X’s ideas and convinced many soci- ologists that Dr. X’s work was unsound. This story illustrates an important lesson: that to give writ- ing the most important thing of all—namely, a point—a writer needs to indicate clearly not only what his or her thesis is, but also what larger conversation that thesis is responding to. Because our speaker failed to mention what others had said about Dr. X’s work, he left his audience unsure about why he felt the need to say what he was saying. Perhaps the point was clear to other sociologists in the audience who were more familiar with the debates over Dr. X’s work than we were. But even they, we bet, would have understood the speaker’s point better if he’d sketched in some of the larger conversation his own claims were a part of and reminded the audience about what “they say.” This story also illustrates an important lesson about the order in which things are said: to keep an audience engaged, a writer needs to explain what he or she is responding to—either before offering that response or, at least, very early in the discussion. Delaying this explanation for more than one or two paragraphs in a very short essay or blog entry, three or four pages in a longer work, or more than ten or so pages in a book reverses the natural order in which readers process material—and in which writers think and develop ideas. After all, it seems very unlikely that our

conference speaker first developed his defense of Dr. X and only later came across Dr. X’s critics. As someone knowledgeable in his field, the speaker surely encoun- tered the criticisms first and only then was compelled to respond and, as he saw it, set the record straight.

Therefore, when it comes to constructing an argument (whether orally or in writing), we offer you the following advice: remember that you are entering a conversation and therefore need to start with “what others are saying,” as the

See how an essay about community

college opens by quoting its critics, p. 255.

03_GRA_93584_part1_017_052.indd 20 11/8/14 3:34 PM

Starting with What Others Are Saying

2 1

title of this chapter recommends, and then introduce your own ideas as a response. Specifically, we suggest that you summarize what “they say” as soon as you can in your text, and remind readers of it at strategic points as your text unfolds. Though it’s true that not all texts follow this practice, we think it’s important for all writers to master it before they depart from it. This is not to say that you must start with a detailed list of everyone who has written on your subject before you offer your own ideas. Had our conference speaker gone to the opposite extreme and spent most of his talk summarizing Dr. X’s critics with no hint of what he himself had to say, the audience probably would have had the same frustrated “why-is-he-going-on-like- this?” reaction. What we suggest, then, is that as soon as possible you state your own position and the one it’s responding to together, and that you think of the two as a unit. It is generally best to summarize the ideas you’re responding to briefly, at the start of your text, and to delay detailed elaboration until later. The point is to give your readers a quick preview of what is motivating your argument, not to drown them in details right away. Starting with a summary of others’ views may seem to con- tradict the common advice that writers should lead with their own thesis or claim. Although we agree that you shouldn’t keep readers in suspense too long about your central argument, we also believe that you need to present that argument as part of some larger conversation, indicating something about the arguments of others that you are supporting, opposing, amending, compli- cating, or qualifying. One added benefit of summarizing others’ views as soon as you can: you let those others do some of the work of framing and clarifying the issue you’re writing about. Consider, for example, how George Orwell starts his famous essay “Politics and the English Language” with what others are saying.

03_GRA_93584_part1_017_052.indd 21 11/8/14 3:34 PM

o n e o n e “ T H E Y S A Y ”

2 2

Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civiliza- tion is decadent and our language—so the argument runs—must inevitably share in the general collapse. . . . [But] the process is reversible. Modern English . . . is full of bad habits . . . which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble.

George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language”

Orwell is basically saying, “Most people assume that we cannot do anything about the bad state of the English language. But I say we can.” Of course, there are many other powerful ways to begin. Instead of opening with someone else’s views, you could start with an illustrative quotation, a revealing fact or statistic, or— as we do in this chapter—a relevant anecdote. If you choose one of these formats, however, be sure that it in some way illustrates the view you’re addressing or leads you to that view directly, with a minimum of steps. In opening this chapter, for example, we devote the first para- graph to an anecdote about the conference speaker and then move quickly at the start of the second paragraph to the miscon- ception about writing exemplified by the speaker. In the follow- ing opening, from an opinion piece in the New York Times Book Review, Christina Nehring also moves quickly from an anecdote illustrating something she dislikes to her own claim—that book lovers think too highly of themselves.

“I’m a reader!” announced the yellow button. “How about you?” I looked at its bearer, a strapping young guy stalking my town’s Festival of Books. “I’ll bet you’re a reader,” he volunteered, as though we were

03_GRA_93584_part1_017_052.indd 22 11/8/14 3:34 PM

Starting with What Others Are Saying

2 3

two geniuses well met. “No,” I replied. “Absolutely not,” I wanted to yell, and fling my Barnes & Noble bag at his feet. Instead, I mumbled something apologetic and melted into the crowd. There’s a new piety in the air: the self congratulation of book lovers.

Christina Nehring, “Books Make You a Boring Person”

Nehring’s anecdote is really a kind of “they say”: book lovers keep telling themselves how great they are.

templates for introducing what “they say”

There are lots of conventional ways to introduce what others are saying. Here are some standard templates that we would have recommended to our conference speaker.

j A number of sociologists have recently suggested that X’s work

has several fundamental problems.

j It has become common today to dismiss .

j In their recent work, Y and Z have offered harsh critiques of

for .

templates for introducing “standard views”

The following templates can help you make what we call the “standard view” move, in which you introduce a view that has become so widely accepted that by now it is essentially the conventional way of thinking about a topic.

03_GRA_93584_part1_017_052.indd 23 11/8/14 3:34 PM

o n e o n e “ T H E Y S A Y ”

2 4

j Americans have always believed that individual effort can

triumph over circumstances.

j Conventional wisdom has it that .

j Common sense seems to dictate that .

j The standard way of thinking about topic X has it that .

j It is often said that .

j My whole life I have heard it said that .

j You would think that .

j Many people assume that .

These templates are popular because they provide a quick and efficient way to perform one of the most common moves that writers make: challenging widely accepted beliefs, placing them on the examining table, and analyzing their strengths and weaknesses.

templates for making what “they say” something you say

Another way to introduce the views you’re responding to is to present them as your own. That is, the “they say” that you respond to need not be a view held by others; it can be one that you yourself once held or one that you are ambivalent about.

j I’ve always believed that museums are boring.

j When I was a child, I used to think that .

03_GRA_93584_part1_017_052.indd 24 11/8/14 3:34 PM

Starting with What Others Are Saying

2 5

j Although I should know better by now, I cannot help thinking

that .

j At the same time that I believe , I also believe


templates for introducing something implied or assumed

Another sophisticated move a writer can make is to summarize a point that is not directly stated in what “they say” but is implied or assumed.

j Although none of them have ever said so directly, my teachers

have often given me the impression that education will open doors.

j One implication of X’s treatment of is that .

j Although X does not say so directly, she apparently assumes

that .

j While they rarely admit as much, often take for

granted that .

These are templates that can help you think analytically—to look beyond what others say explicitly and to consider their unstated assumptions, as well as the implications of their views.

templates for introducing an ongoing debate

Sometimes you’ll want to open by summarizing a debate that presents two or more views. This kind of opening

03_GRA_93584_part1_017_052.indd 25 11/8/14 3:34 PM

o n e o n e “ T H E Y S A Y ”

2 6

demonstrates your awareness that there are conflicting ways to look at your subject, the clear mark of someone who knows the subject and therefore is likely to be a reliable, trustworthy guide. Furthermore, opening with a summary of a debate can help you explore the issue you are writing about before declar- ing your own view. In this way, you can use the writing process itself to help you discover where you stand instead of having to commit to a position before you are ready to do so. Here is a basic template for opening with a debate.

j In discussions of X, one controversial issue has been .

On the one hand, argues . On the other

hand, contends . Others even maintain

. My own view is .

The cognitive scientist Mark Aronoff uses this kind of template in an essay on the workings of the human brain.

Theories of how the mind/brain works have been dominated for centuries by two opposing views. One, rationalism, sees the human mind as coming into this world more or less fully formed— preprogrammed, in modern terms. The other, empiricism, sees the mind of the newborn as largely unstructured, a blank slate.

Mark Aronoff, “Washington Sleeped Here”

Another way to open with a debate involves starting with a proposition many people agree with in order to highlight the point(s) on which they ultimately disagree.

j When it comes to the topic of , most of us will read-

ily agree that . Where this agreement usually ends,

03_GRA_93584_part1_017_052.indd 26 11/8/14 3:34 PM

Starting with What Others Are Saying

2 7

however, is on the question of . Whereas some are

convinced that , others maintain that .

The political writer Thomas Frank uses a variation on this move.

That we are a nation divided is an almost universal lament of this bitter election year. However, the exact property that divides us—elemental though it is said to be—remains a matter of some controversy.

Thomas Frank, “American Psyche”

keep what “they say” in view

We can’t urge you too strongly to keep in mind what “they say” as you move through the rest of your text. After summarizing the ideas you are responding to at the outset, it’s very impor- tant to continue to keep those ideas in view. Readers won’t be able to follow your unfolding response, much less any compli- cations you may offer, unless you keep reminding them what claims you are responding to. In other words, even when presenting your own claims, you should keep returning to the motivating “they say.” The longer and more complicated your text, the greater the chance that readers will forget what ideas originally moti- vated it—no matter how clearly you lay them out at the beginning. At strategic moments throughout your text, we recommend that you include what we call “return sentences.” Here is an example.

03_GRA_93584_part1_017_052.indd 27 11/8/14 3:34 PM

o n e o n e “ T H E Y S A Y ”

2 8

j In conclusion, then, as I suggested earlier, defenders of

can’t have it both ways. Their assertion that

is contradicted by their claim that .

We ourselves use such return sentences at every opportunity in this book to remind you of the view of writing that our book questions—that good writing means making true or smart or logical statements about a given subject with little or no refer- ence to what others say about it. By reminding readers of the ideas you’re responding to, return sentences ensure that your text maintains a sense of mission and urgency from start to finish. In short, they help ensure that your argument is a genuine response to others’ views rather than just a set of observations about a given subject. The difference is huge. To be responsive to others and the conver- sation you’re entering, you need to start with what others are saying and continue keeping it in the reader’s view.


1. The following is a list of arguments that lack a “they say”— any sense of who needs to hear these claims, who might think otherwise. Like the speaker in the cartoon on page 4 who declares that The Sopranos presents complex characters, these one-sided arguments fail to explain what view they are responding to—what view, in effect, they are trying to correct, add to, qualify, complicate, and so forth. Your job in this exercise is to provide each argument with such a counterview. Feel free to use any of the templates in this chapter that you find helpful.

03_GRA_93584_part1_017_052.indd 28 11/8/14 3:34 PM

Starting with What Others Are Saying

2 9

a. Our experiments suggest that there are dangerous levels of chemical X in the Ohio groundwater.

b. Material forces drive history. c. Proponents of Freudian psychology question standard

notions of “rationality.” d. Male students often dominate class discussions. e. The film is about the problems of romantic relationships. f. I’m afraid that templates like the ones in this book will

stifle my creativity.

2. Below is a template that we derived from the opening of David Zinczenko’s “Don’t Blame the Eater” (p. 462). Use the template to structure a passage on a topic of your own choosing. Your first step here should be to find an idea that you support that others not only disagree with but actually find laughable (or, as Zinczenko puts it, worthy of a Jay Leno monologue). You might write about one of the topics listed in the previous exercise (the environment, gender relations, the meaning of a book or movie) or any other topic that interests you.

If ever there was an idea custom-made for a Jay Leno monologue,

this was it: . Isn’t that like ? Whatever hap-

pened to ?

I happen to sympathize with , though, perhaps

because .

03_GRA_93584_part1_017_052.indd 29 11/8/14 3:34 PM

3 0


“her point is”

The Art of Summarizing


If it is true, as we claim in this book, that to argue persuasively you need to be in dialogue with others, then sum- marizing others’ arguments is central to your arsenal of basic moves. Because writers who make strong claims need to map their claims relative to those of other people, it is important to know how to summarize effectively what those other people say. (We’re using the word “summarizing” here to refer to any information from others that you present in your own words, including that which you paraphrase.) Many writers shy away from summarizing—perhaps because they don’t want to take the trouble to go back to the text in question and wrestle with what it says, or because they fear that devoting too much time to other people’s ideas will take away from their own. When assigned to write a response to an article, such writers might offer their own views on the article’s topic while hardly mentioning what the article itself argues or says. At the opposite extreme are those who do nothing but summarize. Lacking confidence, perhaps, in their own ideas, these writers so overload their texts with summaries of others’ ideas that their own voice gets lost. And since these summaries are not animated

03_GRA_93584_part1_017_052.indd 30 11/8/14 3:34 PM

The Art of Summarizing

3 1

by the writers’ own interests, they often read like mere lists of things that X thinks or Y says—with no clear focus. As a general rule, a good summary requires balancing what the original author is saying with the writer’s own focus. Generally speaking, a summary must at once be true to what the original author says while also emphasizing those aspects of what the author says that interest you, the writer. Strik- ing this delicate balance can be tricky, since it means facing two ways at once: both outward (toward the author being summarized) and inward (toward yourself). Ultimately, it means being respectful of others but simultaneously structuring how you summarize them in light of your own text’s central argument.

on the one hand, put yourself in their shoes

To write a really good summary, you must be able to suspend your own beliefs for a time and put yourself in the shoes of someone else. This means playing what the writing theorist Peter Elbow calls the “believing game,” in which you try to inhabit the world- view of those whose conversation you are joining—and whom you are perhaps even disagreeing with—and try to see their argument from their perspective. This ability to temporarily suspend one’s own convictions is a hallmark of good actors, who must convinc- ingly “become” characters whom in real life they may detest. As a writer, when you play the believing game well, readers should not be able to tell whether you agree or disagree with the ideas you are summarizing. If, as a writer, you cannot or will not suspend your own beliefs in this way, you are likely to produce summaries that are

See how Nicholas Carr summarizes the mission of Google on p. 323, ¶24.

03_GRA_93584_part1_017_052.indd 31 11/8/14 3:34 PM

t w o t w o “ H E R P O I N T I S ”

3 2

so obviously biased that they undermine your credibility with readers. Consider the following summary.

David Zinczenko’s article, “Don’t Blame the Eater,” is nothing more than an angry rant in which he accuses the fast-food com- panies of an evil conspiracy to make people fat. I disagree because these companies have to make money. . . .

If you review what Zinczenko actually says (pp. 462–64), you should immediately see that this summary amounts to an unfair distortion. While Zinczenko does argue that the practices of the fast-food industry have the effect of making people fat, his tone is never “angry,” and he never goes so far as to suggest that the fast-food industry conspires to make people fat with deliberately evil intent. Another tell-tale sign of this writer’s failure to give Zinczenko a fair hearing is the hasty way he abandons the sum- mary after only one sentence and rushes on to his own response. So eager is this writer to disagree that he not only caricatures what Zinczenko says but also gives the article a hasty, super- ficial reading. Granted, there are many writing situations in which, because of matters of proportion, a one- or two-sentence summary is precisely what you want. Indeed, as writing profes- sor Karen Lunsford (whose own research focuses on argument theory) points out, it is standard in the natural and social sci- ences to summarize the work of others quickly, in one pithy sentence or phrase, as in the following example.

Several studies (Crackle, 2012; Pop, 2007; Snap, 2006) suggest that these policies are harmless; moreover, other studies (Dick, 2011; Harry, 2007; Tom, 2005) argue that they even have benefits.

03_GRA_93584_part1_017_052.indd 32 11/8/14 3:34 PM

The Art of Summarizing

3 3

But if your assignment is to respond in writing to a single author like Zinczenko, you will need to tell your readers enough about his or her argument so they can assess its merits on their own, independent of you. When a writer fails to provide enough summary or to engage in a rigorous or serious enough summary, he or she often falls prey to what we call “the closest cliché syndrome,” in which what gets summarized is not the view the author in question has actually expressed but a familiar cliché that the writer mistakes for the author’s view (sometimes because the writer believes it and mistakenly assumes the author must too). So, for example, Martin Luther King Jr.’s passionate defense of civil disobedi- ence in “Letter from Birmingham Jail” might be summarized not as the defense of political protest that it actually is but as a plea for everyone to “just get along.” Similarly, Zinczenko’s critique of the fast-food industry might be summarized as a call for overweight people to take responsibility for their weight. Whenever you enter into a conversation with others in your writing, then, it is extremely important that you go back to what those others have said, that you study it very closely, and that you not confuse it with something you already believe. A writer who fails to do this ends up essentially conversing with imaginary others who are really only the products of his or her own biases and preconceptions.

on the other hand, know where you are going

Even as writing an effective summary requires you to temporar- ily adopt the worldview of another, it does not mean ignoring

03_GRA_93584_part1_017_052.indd 33 11/8/14 3:34 PM

t w o t w o “ H E R P O I N T I S ”

3 4

your own view altogether. Paradoxically, at the same time that summarizing another text requires you to represent fairly what it says, it also requires that your own response exert a quiet influence. A good summary, in other words, has a focus or spin that allows the summary to fit with your own agenda while still being true to the text you are summarizing. Thus if you are writing in response to the essay by Zinczenko, you should be able to see that an essay on the fast-food industry in general will call for a very different summary than will an essay on parenting, corporate regulation, or warning labels. If you want your essay to encompass all three topics, you’ll need to subordinate these three issues to one of Zinczenko’s general claims and then make sure this general claim directly sets up your own argument. For example, suppose you want to argue that it is parents, not fast-food companies, who are to blame for children’s obesity. To set up this argument, you will probably want to compose a summary that highlights what Zinczenko says about the fast- food industry and parents. Consider this sample.

In his article “Don’t Blame the Eater,” David Zinczenko blames the fast-food industry for fueling today’s so-called obesity epidemic, not only by failing to provide adequate warning labels on its high-calorie foods but also by filling the nutritional void in chil- dren’s lives left by their overtaxed working parents. With many parents working long hours and unable to supervise what their children eat, Zinczenko claims, children today are easily victimized by the low-cost, calorie-laden foods that the fast-food chains are all too eager to supply. When he was a young boy, for instance, and his single mother was away at work, he ate at Taco Bell, McDonald’s, and other chains on a regular basis, and ended up overweight. Zinczenko’s hope is that with the new spate of lawsuits against

03_GRA_93584_part1_017_052.indd 34 11/8/14 3:34 PM

The Art of Summarizing

3 5

the food industry, other children with working parents will have healthier choices available to them, and that they will not, like him, become obese. In my view, however, it is the parents, and not the food chains, who are responsible for their children’s obesity. While it is true that many of today’s parents work long hours, there are still several things that parents can do to guarantee that their children eat healthy foods. . . .

The summary in the first paragraph succeeds because it points in two directions at once—both toward Zinczenko’s own text and toward the second paragraph, where the writer begins to establish her own argument. The opening sentence gives a sense of Zinczenko’s general argument (that the fast-food chains are to blame for obesity), including his two main supporting claims (about warning labels and parents), but it ends with an empha- sis on the writer’s main concern: parental responsibility. In this way, the summary does justice to Zinczenko’s arguments while also setting up the ensuing critique. This advice—to summarize authors in light of your own arguments—may seem painfully obvious. But writers often summarize a given author on one issue even though their text actually focuses on another. To avoid this problem, you need to make sure that your “they say” and “I say” are well matched. In fact, aligning what they say with what you say is a good thing to work on when revising what you’ve written. Often writers who summarize without regard to their own interests fall prey to what might be called “list summaries,” summaries that simply inventory the original author’s various points but fail to focus those points around any larger overall claim. If you’ve ever heard a talk in which the points were con- nected only by words like “and then,” “also,” and “in addition,”

03_GRA_93584_part1_017_052.indd 35 11/8/14 3:34 PM

t w o t w o “ H E R P O I N T I S ”

3 6

you know how such lists can put listeners to sleep—as shown in the figure above. A typical list summary sounds like this.

The author says many different things about his subject. First he says. . . . Then he makes the point that. . . . In addition he says. . . . And then he writes. . . . Also he shows that. . . . And then he says. . . .

It may be boring list summaries like this that give summaries in general a bad name and even prompt some instructors to discourage their students from summarizing at all. In conclusion, writing a good summary means not just repre- senting an author’s view accurately, but doing so in a way that fits your own composition’s larger agenda. On the one hand, it means playing Peter Elbow’s believing game and doing jus- tice to the source; if the summary ignores or misrepresents the

03_GRA_93584_part1_017_052.indd 36 11/8/14 3:34 PM

The Art of Summarizing

3 7

source, its bias and unfairness will show. On the other hand, even as it does justice to the source, a summary has to have a slant or spin that prepares the way for your own claims. Once a summary enters your text, you should think of it as joint property—reflecting both the source you are summarizing and your own views.

summarizing satirically

Thus far in this chapter we have argued that, as a general rule, good summaries require a balance between what someone else has said and your own interests as a writer. Now, however, we want to address one exception to this rule: the satiric summary, in which a writer deliberately gives his or her own spin to some- one else’s argument in order to reveal a glaring shortcoming in it. Despite our previous comments that well-crafted summaries generally strike a balance between heeding what someone else has said and your own independent interests, the satiric mode can at times be a very effective form of critique because it lets the summarized argument condemn itself without overt edito- rializing by you, the writer. If you’ve ever watched The Daily Show, you’ll recall that it often merely summarizes silly things political leaders have said or done, letting their words or actions undermine themselves. Consider another example. In September 2001, then- President George W. Bush in a speech to Congress urged the nation’s “continued participation and confidence in the American economy” as a means of recovering from the terror- ist attacks of 9/11. The journalist Allan Sloan criticized this proposal simply by summarizing it, observing that the president

03_GRA_93584_part1_017_052.indd 37 11/8/14 3:34 PM

t w o t w o “ H E R P O I N T I S ”

3 8

had equated “patriotism with shopping. Maxing out your credit cards at the mall wasn’t self indulgence, it was a way to get back at Osama bin Laden.” Sloan’s summary leaves no doubt where he stands—he considers Bush’s proposal ridiculous, or at least too simple.

use signal verbs that fit the action

In introducing summaries, try to avoid bland formulas like “she says,” or “they believe.” Though language like this is sometimes serviceable enough, it often fails to reflect accurately what’s been said. In some cases, “he says” may even drain the passion out of the ideas you’re summarizing. We suspect that the habit of ignoring the action in what we summarize stems from the mistaken belief we mentioned earlier that writing is about playing it safe and not making waves, a matter of piling up truths and bits of knowledge rather than a dynamic process of doing things to and with other people. People who wouldn’t hesitate to say “X totally misrepresented,” “attacked,” or “loved” something when chatting with friends will in their writing often opt for far tamer and even less accu- rate phrases like “X said.” But the authors you summarize at the college level seldom simply “say” or “discuss” things; they “urge,” “emphasize,” and “complain about” them. David Zinczenko, for example, doesn’t just say that fast-food companies contribute to obesity; he complains or protests that they do; he challenges, chastises, and indicts those companies. The Declaration of Independence doesn’t just talk about the treatment of the colonies by the British; it protests against it. To do justice to the authors you cite,

03_GRA_93584_part1_017_052.indd 38 11/8/14 3:34 PM

The Art of Summarizing

3 9

we recommend that when summarizing—or when introducing a quotation—you use vivid and precise signal verbs as often as possible. Though “he says” or “she believes” will sometimes be the most appropriate language for the occasion, your text will often be more accurate and lively if you tailor your verbs to suit the precise actions you’re describing.

templates for introducing summaries and quotations

j She advocates a radical revision of the juvenile justice system.

j They celebrate the fact that .

j , he admits.

verbs for introducing summaries and quotations

verbs for making a claim

argue insist assert observe believe remind us claim report emphasize suggest

verbs for expressing agreement

acknowledge endorse admire extol agree praise

03_GRA_93584_part1_017_052.indd 39 11/8/14 3:34 PM

t w o t w o “ H E R P O I N T I S ”

4 0

verbs for expressing agreement

celebrate the fact that reaffirm corroborate support do not deny verify

verbs for questioning or disagreeing

complain qualify complicate question contend refute contradict reject deny renounce deplore the tendency to repudiate

verbs for making recommendations

advocate implore call for plead demand recommend encourage urge exhort warn


1. To get a feel for Peter Elbow’s “believing game,” write a sum- mary of some belief that you strongly disagree with. Then write a summary of the position that you actually hold on this topic. Give both summaries to a classmate or two, and see if they can tell which position you endorse. If you’ve succeeded, they won’t be able to tell.

03_GRA_93584_part1_017_052.indd 40 11/8/14 3:34 PM

The Art of Summarizing

4 1

2. Write two different summaries of David Zinczenko’s “Don’t Blame the Eater” (pp. 462–64). Write the first one for an essay arguing that, contrary to what Zinczenko claims, there are inexpensive and convenient alternatives to fast-food restaurants. Write the second for an essay that questions whether being overweight is a genuine medical problem rather than a problem of cultural stereotypes. Compare your two summaries: though they are about the same article, they should look very different.

03_GRA_93584_part1_017_052.indd 41 11/8/14 3:34 PM

4 2


“as he himself puts it”

The Art of Quoting


A key premise of this book is that to launch an effective argument you need to write the arguments of others into your text. One of the best ways to do so is by not only summarizing what “they say,” as suggested in Chapter 2, but by quoting their exact words. Quoting someone else’s words gives a tremendous amount of credibility to your summary and helps ensure that it is fair and accurate. In a sense, then, quotations function as a kind of proof of evidence, saying to readers: “Look, I’m not just making this up. She makes this claim and here it is in her exact words.” Yet many writers make a host of mistakes when it comes to quoting, not the least of which is the failure to quote enough in the first place, if at all. Some writers quote too little— perhaps because they don’t want to bother going back to the original text and looking up the author’s exact words, or because they think they can reconstruct the author’s ideas from memory. At the opposite extreme are writers who so overquote that they end up with texts that are short on commentary of their own—maybe because they lack confidence in their abil- ity to comment on the quotations, or because they don’t fully

03_GRA_93584_part1_017_052.indd 42 11/8/14 3:34 PM

The Art of Quoting

4 3

understand what they’ve quoted and therefore have trouble explaining what the quotations mean. But the main problem with quoting arises when writers assume that quotations speak for themselves. Because the meaning of a quotation is obvious to them, many writers assume that this meaning will also be obvious to their readers, when often it is not. Writers who make this mistake think that their job is done when they’ve chosen a quotation and inserted it into their text. They draft an essay, slap in a few quotations, and whammo, they’re done. Such writers fail to see that quoting means more than sim- ply enclosing what “they say” in quotation marks. In a way, quotations are orphans: words that have been taken from their original contexts and that need to be integrated into their new textual surroundings. This chapter offers two key ways to produce this sort of integration: (1) by choosing quotations wisely, with an eye to how well they support a particular part of your text, and (2) by surrounding every major quotation with a frame explain- ing whose words they are, what the quotation means, and how the quotation relates to your own text. The point we want to emphasize is that quoting what “they say” must always be con- nected with what you say.

quote relevant passages

Before you can select appropriate quotations, you need to have a sense of what you want to do with them—that is, how they will support your text at the particular point where you insert them. Be careful not to select quotations just for the sake of

See how one author connects what “they say” to what he wants to say, pp. 401, 403, ¶7–8.

03_GRA_93584_part1_017_052.indd 43 11/8/14 3:34 PM

t h r e e t h r e e “ A S H E H I M S E L F P U T S I T ”

4 4

demonstrating that you’ve read the author’s work; you need to make sure they support your own argument. However, finding relevant quotations is not always easy. In fact, sometimes quotations that were initially relevant to your argument, or to a key point in it, become less so as your text changes during the process of writing and revising. Given the evolving and messy nature of writing, you may sometimes think that you’ve found the perfect quotation to support your argu- ment, only to discover later on, as your text develops, that your focus has changed and the quotation no longer works. It can be somewhat misleading, then, to speak of finding your thesis and finding relevant quotations as two separate steps, one coming after the other. When you’re deeply engaged in the writing and revising process, there is usually a great deal of back-and-forth between your argument and any quotations you select.

frame every quotation

Finding relevant quotations is only part of your job; you also need to present them in a way that makes their relevance and meaning clear to your readers. Since quotations do not speak for themselves, you need to build a frame around them in which you do that speaking for them. Quotations that are inserted into a text without such a frame are sometimes called “dangling” quotations for the way they’re left dangling without any explanation. One teacher we’ve worked with, Steve Benton, calls these “hit-and-run” quotations, likening them to car accidents in which the driver speeds away and avoids taking responsibility for the dent in your fender or the smashed taillights, as in the figure that follows.

03_GRA_93584_part1_017_052.indd 44 11/8/14 3:34 PM

The Art of Quoting

4 5

Here’s a typical hit-and-run quotation by a writer respond- ing to an essay by the feminist philosopher Susan Bordo, who laments that media pressures on young women to diet are spreading to previously isolated regions of the world like the Fiji islands.

Susan Bordo writes about women and dieting. “Fiji is just one example. Until television was introduced in 1995, the islands had no reported cases of eating disorders. In 1998, three years after programs from the United States and Britain began broadcasting there, 62 percent of the girls surveyed reported dieting.” I think Bordo is right. Another point Bordo makes is that. . . .

Since this writer fails to introduce the quotation ade- quately or explain why he finds it worth quoting, read- ers will have a hard time reconstructing what Bordo argued. Besides neglecting to say who Bordo is or even that the quoted words are hers, the writer does not explain how her words connect with anything he is saying or even what she says that he thinks is so “right.” He simply abandons the quotation in his haste to zoom on to another point.

See how Anne-Marie Slaughter introduces a long quote on p. 682, ¶13.

03_GRA_93584_part1_017_052.indd 45 11/8/14 3:34 PM

t h r e e t h r e e “ A S H E H I M S E L F P U T S I T ”

4 6

To adequately frame a quotation, you need to insert it into what we like to call a “quotation sandwich,” with the statement introducing it serving as the top slice of bread and the explana- tion following it serving as the bottom slice. The introductory or lead-in claims should explain who is speaking and set up what the quotation says; the follow-up statements should explain why you consider the quotation to be important and what you take it to say.

templates for introducing quotations

j X states, “not all steroids should be banned from sports.”

j As the prominent philosopher X puts it, “ .”

j According to X, “ .”

j X himself writes, “ .”

j In her book, , X maintains that “ .”

j Writing in the journal Commentary, X complains that “ .”

j In X’s view, “ .”

j X agrees when she writes, “ .”

j X disagrees when he writes, “ .”

j X complicates matters further when she writes, “ .”

templates for explaining quotations

The one piece of advice about quoting that our students say they find most helpful is to get in the habit of following every

03_GRA_93584_part1_017_052.indd 46 11/8/14 3:34 PM

The Art of Quoting

4 7

major quotation by explaining what it means, using a template like one of the ones below.

j Basically, X is warning that the proposed solution will only make

the problem worse.

j In other words, X believes .

j In making this comment, X urges us to .

j X is corroborating the age-old adage that .

j X’s point is that .

j The essence of X’s argument is that .

When offering such explanations, it is important to use lan- guage that accurately reflects the spirit of the quoted passage. It is quite serviceable to write “Bordo states” or “asserts” in introducing the quotation about Fiji. But given the fact that Bordo is clearly alarmed by the extension of the media’s reach to Fiji, it is far more accurate to use language that reflects her alarm: “Bordo is alarmed that” or “is disturbed by” or “complains.” Consider, for example, how the earlier passage on Bordo might be revised using some of these moves.

The feminist philosopher Susan Bordo deplores Western media’s obsession with female thinness and dieting. Her basic complaint is that increasing numbers of women across the globe are being led to see themselves as fat and in need of a diet. Citing the islands of Fiji as a case in point, Bordo notes that “until television was introduced in 1995, the islands had no reported cases of eating disorders. In 1998, three years after programs from the United States and Britain

See pp. 39–40 for a list of action verbs for summarizing what others say.

03_GRA_93584_part1_017_052.indd 47 11/8/14 3:34 PM

t h r e e t h r e e “ A S H E H I M S E L F P U T S I T ”

4 8

began broadcasting there, 62 percent of the girls surveyed reported dieting” (149–50). Bordo’s point is that the Western cult of dieting is spreading even to remote places across the globe. Ultimately, Bordo complains, the culture of dieting will find you, regardless of where you live. Bordo’s observations ring true to me because, now that I think about it, many women I know, regardless of where they are from, worry about their weight. . . .

This framing of the quotation not only better integrates Bordo’s words into the writer’s text, but also serves to demonstrate the writer’s interpretation of what Bordo is saying. While “the femi- nist philosopher” and “Bordo notes” provide information that readers need to know, the sentences that follow the quotation build a bridge between Bordo’s words and those of the writer. The reference to 62 percent of Fijian girls dieting is no longer an inert statistic (as it was in the flawed passage presented earlier) but a quantitative example of how “the Western cult of dieting is spreading . . . across the globe.” Just as impor- tant, these sentences explain what Bordo is saying in the writ- er’s own words—and thereby make clear that the quotation is being used purposefully to set up the writer’s own argument and has not been stuck in just for padding the essay or the works-cited list.

blend the author’s words with your own

The above framing material also works well because it accu- rately represents Bordo’s words while giving those words the writer’s own spin. Notice how the passage refers several times

03_GRA_93584_part1_017_052.indd 48 11/8/14 3:34 PM

The Art of Quoting

4 9

to the key concept of dieting, and how it echoes Bordo’s refer- ences to “television” and to U.S. and British “broadcasting” by referring to “culture,” which is further specified as “Western.” Instead of simply repeating Bordo word for word, the follow-up sentences echo just enough of her language while still moving the discussion in the writer’s own direction. In effect, the fram- ing creates a kind of hybrid mix of Bordo’s words and those of the writer.

can you overanalyze a quotation?

But is it possible to overexplain a quotation? And how do you know when you’ve explained a quotation thoroughly enough? After all, not all quotations require the same amount of explan- atory framing, and there are no hard-and-fast rules for knowing how much explanation any quotation needs. As a general rule, the most explanatory framing is needed for quotations that may be hard for readers to process: quotations that are long and complex, that are filled with details or jargon, or that contain hidden complexities. And yet, though the particular situation usually dictates when and how much to explain a quotation, we will still offer one piece of advice: when in doubt, go for it. It is better to risk being overly explicit about what you take a quotation to mean than to leave the quotation dangling and your readers in doubt. Indeed, we encourage you to provide such explanatory framing even when writing to an audience that you know to be familiar with the author being quoted and able to interpret your quotations on their own. Even in such cases, readers need to see how you inter- pret the quotation, since words—especially those of controversial figures—can be interpreted in various ways and used to support

03_GRA_93584_part1_017_052.indd 49 11/8/14 3:34 PM

t h r e e t h r e e “ A S H E H I M S E L F P U T S I T ”

5 0

different, sometimes opposing, agendas. Your readers need to see what you make of the material you’ve quoted, if only to be sure that your reading of the material and theirs is on the same page.

how not to introduce quotations

We want to conclude this chapter by surveying some ways not to introduce quotations. Although some writers do so, you should not introduce quotations by saying something like “Orwell asserts an idea that” or “A quote by Shakespeare says.” Introductory phrases like these are both redundant and mislead- ing. In the first example, you could write either “Orwell asserts that” or “Orwell’s assertion is that,” rather than redundantly combining the two. The second example misleads readers, since it is the writer who is doing the quoting, not Shakespeare (as “a quote by Shakespeare” implies). The templates in this book will help you avoid such mis- takes. Once you have mastered templates like “as X puts it,” or “in X’s own words,” you probably won’t even have to think about them—and will be free to focus on the challenging ideas that templates help you frame.


1. Find a published piece of writing that quotes something that “they say.” How has the writer integrated the quotation into his or her own text? How has he or she introduced the quota- tion, and what, if anything, has the writer said to explain it and tie it to his or her own text? Based on what you’ve read in this chapter, are there any changes you would suggest?

03_GRA_93584_part1_017_052.indd 50 11/8/14 3:34 PM

The Art of Quoting

5 1

2. Look at something you have written for one of your classes. Have you quoted any sources? If so, how have you integrated the quotation into your own text? How have you introduced it? Explained what it means? Indicated how it relates to your text? If you haven’t done all these things, revise your text to do so, perhaps using the Templates for Introducing Quotations (p. 46) and Explaining Quotations (pp. 46–47). If you’ve not written anything with quotations, try revising some academic text you’ve written to do so.

03_GRA_93584_part1_017_052.indd 51 11/8/14 3:34 PM

03_GRA_93584_part1_017_052.indd 52 11/8/14 3:34 PM

2 H


04_GRA_93584_part2_053_102.indd 53 11/8/14 3:34 PM

04_GRA_93584_part2_053_102.indd 54 11/8/14 3:34 PM

5 5


“yes / no / okay, but”

Three Ways to Respond


The first three chapters of this book discuss the “they say” stage of writing, in which you devote your attention to the views of some other person or group. In this chapter we move to the “I say” stage, in which you offer your own argument as a response to what “they” have said. Moving to the “I say” stage can be daunting in academia, where it often may seem that you need to be an expert in a field to have an argument at all. Many students have told us that they have trouble entering some of the high-powered conversations that take place in college or graduate school because they do not know enough about the topic at hand, or because, they say, they simply are not “smart enough.” Yet often these same students, when given a chance to study in depth the contribution that some scholar has made in a given field, will turn around and say things like “I can see where she is coming from, how she makes her case by building on what other scholars have said. Perhaps had I studied the situation longer I could have come up with a similar argument.” What these students came to realize is that good arguments are based not on knowledge that only a special class of experts has access to, but on everyday habits

04_GRA_93584_part2_053_102.indd 55 11/8/14 3:34 PM

f o u r f o u r “ Y E S / N O / O K A Y , B U T ”

5 6

of mind that can be isolated, identified, and used by almost anyone. Though there’s certainly no substitute for expertise and for knowing as much as possible about one’s topic, the arguments that finally win the day are built, as the title of this chapter suggests, on some very basic rhetorical patterns that most of us use on a daily basis. There are a great many ways to respond to others’ ideas, but this chapter concentrates on the three most common and recognizable ways: agreeing, disagreeing, or some combination of both. Although each way of responding is open to endless variation, we focus on these three because readers come to any text needing to learn fairly quickly where the writer stands, and they do this by placing the writer on a mental map consisting of a few familiar options: the writer agrees with those he or she is responding to, disagrees with them, or presents some combination of both agreeing and disagreeing. When writers take too long to declare their position relative to views they’ve summarized or quoted, readers get frustrated, wondering, “Is this guy agreeing or disagreeing? Is he for what this other person has said, against it, or what?” For this reason, this chapter’s advice applies to reading as well as to writing. Especially with difficult texts, you need not only to find the position the writer is responding to—the “they say”—but also to determine whether the writer is agreeing with it, challenging it, or some mixture of the two.

only three ways to respond?

Perhaps you’ll worry that fitting your own response into one of these three categories will force you to oversimplify your argu- ment or lessen its complexity, subtlety, or originality. This is

04_GRA_93584_part2_053_102.indd 56 11/8/14 3:34 PM

Three Ways to Respond

5 7

certainly a serious concern for academics who are rightly skepti- cal of writing that is simplistic and reductive. We would argue, however, that the more complex and subtle your argument is, and the more it departs from the conventional ways people think, the more your readers will need to be able to place it on their mental map in order to process the complex details you present. That is, the complexity, subtlety, and originality of your response are more likely to stand out and be noticed if readers have a baseline sense of where you stand relative to any ideas you’ve cited. As you move through this chapter, we hope you’ll agree that the forms of agreeing, disagreeing, and both agreeing and disagreeing that we discuss, far from being simplistic or one-dimensional, are able to accommodate a high degree of creative, complex thought. It is always a good tactic to begin your response not by launching directly into a mass of details but by stating clearly whether you agree, disagree, or both, using a direct, no-nonsense formula such as: “I agree,” “I disagree,” or “I am of two minds. I agree that , but I cannot agree that .” Once you have offered one of these straight- forward statements (or one of the many variations dis- cussed below), readers will have a strong grasp of your position and then be able to appreciate the complica- tions you go on to offer as your response unfolds. Still, you may object that these three basic ways of respond- ing don’t cover all the options—that they ignore interpretive or analytical responses, for example. In other words, you might think that when you interpret a literary work you don’t necessarily agree or disagree with anything but simply explain the work’s meaning, style, or structure. Many essays about literature and the arts, it might be said, take this form—they interpret a work’s meaning, thus rendering matters of agreeing or disagreeing irrelevant.

See p. 21 for suggestions on previewing where you stand.

04_GRA_93584_part2_053_102.indd 57 11/8/14 3:34 PM

f o u r f o u r “ Y E S / N O / O K A Y , B U T ”

5 8

We would argue, however, that the most interesting inter- pretations in fact tend to be those that agree, disagree, or both—that instead of being offered solo, the best interpreta- tions take strong stands relative to other interpretations. In fact, there would be no reason to offer an interpretation of a work of literature or art unless you were responding to the interpre- tations or possible interpretations of others. Even when you point out features or qualities of an artistic work that others have not noticed, you are implicitly disagreeing with what those interpreters have said by pointing out that they missed or overlooked something that, in your view, is important. In any effective interpretation, then, you need not only to state what you yourself take the work of art to mean but to do so relative to the interpretations of other readers—be they pro- fessional scholars, teachers, classmates, or even hypothetical readers (as in, “Although some readers might think that this poem is about , it is in fact about ”).

disagree—and explain why

Disagreeing may seem like one of the simpler moves a writer can make, and it is often the first thing people associate with critical thinking. Disagreeing can also be the easiest way to generate an essay: find something you can disagree with in what has been said or might be said about your topic, summarize it, and argue with it. But disagreement in fact poses hidden challenges. You need to do more than simply assert that you disagree with a par- ticular view; you also have to offer persuasive reasons why you disagree. After all, disagreeing means more than adding “not” to what someone else has said, more than just saying, “Although they say women’s rights are improving, I say women’s rights

04_GRA_93584_part2_053_102.indd 58 11/8/14 3:34 PM

Three Ways to Respond

5 9

are not improving.” Such a response merely contradicts the view it responds to and fails to add anything interesting or new. To turn it into an argument, you need to give reasons to support what you say: because another’s argument fails to take relevant factors into account; because it is based on faulty or incomplete evidence; because it rests on questionable assump- tions; or because it uses flawed logic, is contradictory, or overlooks what you take to be the real issue. To move the conversation forward (and, indeed, to justify your very act of writing), you need to demonstrate that you have something to contribute. You can even disagree by making what we call the “duh” move, in which you disagree not with the position itself but with the assumption that it is a new or stunning revelation. Here is an example of such a move, used to open an essay on the state of American schools.

According to a recent report by some researchers at Stanford Uni- versity, high school students with college aspirations “often lack crucial information on applying to college and on succeeding aca- demically once they get there.” Well, duh. . . . It shouldn’t take a Stanford research team to tell us that when it comes to “succeeding academically,” many students don’t have a clue.

Gerald Graff, “Trickle-Down Obfuscation”

Like all of the other moves discussed in this book, the “duh” move can be tailored to meet the needs of almost any writing situation. If you find the expression “duh” too brash to use with your intended audience, you can always dispense with the term itself and write something like “It is true that ; but we already knew that.”

See p. 582, ¶2 to see two authors disagree and explain why.

04_GRA_93584_part2_053_102.indd 59 11/8/14 3:34 PM

f o u r f o u r “ Y E S / N O / O K A Y , B U T ”

6 0

templates for disagreeing, with reasons

j X is mistaken because she overlooks recent fossil discoveries in

the South.

j X’s claim that rests upon the questionable assumption

that .

j I disagree with X’s view that because, as recent

research has shown, .

j X contradicts herself/can’t have it both ways. On the one

hand, she argues . On the other hand, she also

says .

j By focusing on , X overlooks the deeper problem

of .

You can also disagree by making what we call the “twist it” move, in which you agree with the evidence that someone else has presented but show through a twist of logic that this evidence actually supports your own, contrary position. For example:

X argues for stricter gun control legislation, saying that the crime rate is on the rise and that we need to restrict the circulation of guns. I agree that the crime rate is on the rise, but that’s precisely why I oppose stricter gun control legislation. We need to own guns to protect ourselves against criminals.

In this example of the “twist it” move, the writer agrees with X’s claim that the crime rate is on the rise but then argues that this increasing crime rate is in fact a valid reason for opposing gun control legislation.

04_GRA_93584_part2_053_102.indd 60 11/8/14 3:34 PM

Three Ways to Respond

6 1

At times you might be reluctant to express disagreement, for any number of reasons—not wanting to be unpleasant, to hurt someone’s feelings, or to make yourself vulnerable to being disagreed with in return. One of these reasons may in fact explain why the conference speaker we described at the start of Chapter 1 avoided mentioning the disagreement he had with other scholars until he was provoked to do so in the discussion that followed his talk. As much as we understand such fears of conflict and have experienced them ourselves, we nevertheless believe it is better to state our disagreements in frank yet considerate ways than to deny them. After all, suppressing disagreements doesn’t make them go away; it only pushes them underground, where they can fester in private unchecked. Nevertheless, disagreements do not need to take the form of personal put-downs. Further- more, there is usually no reason to take issue with every aspect of someone else’s views. You can single out for criticism only those aspects of what someone else has said that are troubling, and then agree with the rest—although such an approach, as we will see later in this chapter, leads to the somewhat more complicated terrain of both agreeing and disagreeing at the same time.

agree—but with a difference

Like disagreeing, agreeing is less simple than it may appear. Just as you need to avoid simply contradicting views you disagree with, you also need to do more than simply echo views you agree with. Even as you’re agreeing, it’s important to bring something new and fresh to the table, adding something that makes you a valuable participant in the conversation.

04_GRA_93584_part2_053_102.indd 61 11/8/14 3:34 PM

f o u r f o u r “ Y E S / N O / O K A Y , B U T ”

6 2

There are many moves that enable you to contribute some- thing of your own to a conversation even as you agree with what someone else has said. You may point out some unno- ticed evidence or line of reasoning that supports X’s claims that X herself hadn’t mentioned. You may cite some corroborating personal experience, or a situation not mentioned by X that her views help readers understand. If X’s views are particularly challenging or esoteric, what you bring to the table could be an accessible translation—an explanation for readers not already in the know. In other words, your text can usefully contribute to the conversation simply by pointing out unnoticed implications or explaining something that needs to be better understood. Whatever mode of agreement you choose, the important thing is to open up some difference or contrast between your position and the one you’re agreeing with rather than simply parroting what it says.

templates for agreeing

j I agree that diversity in the student body is educationally valuable

because my experience at Central University confirms it.

j X is surely right about because, as she may not be

aware, recent studies have shown that .

j X’s theory of is extremely useful because it sheds

light on the difficult problem of .

j Those unfamiliar with this school of thought may be interested

to know that it basically boils down to .

Some writers avoid the practice of agreeing almost as much as others avoid disagreeing. In a culture like America’s that prizes

04_GRA_93584_part2_053_102.indd 62 11/8/14 3:34 PM

Three Ways to Respond

6 3

originality, independence, and competitive individualism, writ- ers sometimes don’t like to admit that anyone else has made the same point, seemingly beating them to the punch. In our view, however, as long as you can support a view taken by someone else without merely restating what he or she has said, there is no reason to worry about being “unoriginal.” Indeed, there is good reason to rejoice when you agree with others since those others can lend credibility to your argument. While you don’t want to present yourself as a mere copycat of someone else’s views, you also need to avoid sounding like a lone voice in the wilderness. But do be aware that whenever you agree with one person’s view, you are likely disagreeing with someone else’s. It is hard to align yourself with one position without at least implicitly positioning yourself against others. The psychologist Carol Gilligan does just that in an essay in which she agrees with scientists who argue that the human brain is “hard-wired” for cooperation, but in so doing aligns herself against any- one who believes that the brain is wired for selfishness and competition.

These findings join a growing convergence of evidence across the human sciences leading to a revolutionary shift in consciousness. . . . If cooperation, typically associated with altruism and self- sacrifice, sets off the same signals of delight as pleasures commonly associated with hedonism and self-indulgence; if the opposition between selfish and selfless, self vs. relationship biologically makes no sense, then a new paradigm is necessary to reframe the very terms of the conversation.

Carol Gilligan, “Sisterhood Is Pleasurable: A Quiet Revolution in Psychology”

04_GRA_93584_part2_053_102.indd 63 11/8/14 3:34 PM

f o u r f o u r “ Y E S / N O / O K A Y , B U T ”

6 4

In agreeing with some scientists that “the opposition between selfish and selfless . . . makes no sense,” Gilligan implicitly disagrees with anyone who thinks the opposition does make sense. Basically, what Gilligan says could be boiled down to a template.

j I agree that , a point that needs emphasizing since

so many people still believe .

j If group X is right that , as I think they are, then we

need to reassess the popular assumption that .

What such templates allow you to do, then, is to agree with one view while challenging another—a move that leads into the domain of agreeing and disagreeing simultaneously.

agree and disagree simultaneously

This last option is often our favorite way of responding. One thing we particularly like about agreeing and disagreeing simul- taneously is that it helps us get beyond the kind of “is too” / “is not” exchanges that often characterize the disputes of young children and the more polarized shouting matches of talk radio and TV.

templates for agreeing and disagreeing simultaneously

“Yes and no.” “Yes, but . . . ” “Although I agree up to a point, I still insist . . . ” These are just some of the ways you can make your argument complicated and nuanced while maintaining a clear,

04_GRA_93584_part2_053_102.indd 64 11/8/14 3:34 PM

Three Ways to Respond

6 5

reader-friendly framework. The parallel structure—“yes and no”; “on the one hand I agree, on the other I disagree”—enables readers to place your argument on that map of positions we spoke of earlier in this chapter while still keeping your argument sufficiently complex. Another aspect we like about this option is that it can be tipped subtly toward agreement or disagreement, depending on where you lay your stress. If you want to stress the disagreement end of the spectrum, you would use a template like the one below.

j Although I agree with X up to a point, I cannot accept his over-

riding assumption that religion is no longer a major force today.

Conversely, if you want to stress your agreement more than your disagreement, you would use a template like this one.

j Although I disagree with much that X says, I fully endorse his

final conclusion that .

The first template above might be called a “yes, but . . . ” move, the second a “no, but . . . ” move. Other versions include the following.

j Though I concede that , I still insist that .

j X is right that , but she seems on more dubious ground

when she claims that .

j While X is probably wrong when she claims that , she

is right that .

j Whereas X provides ample evidence that , Y and

Z’s research on and convinces me that


Clive Thompson says “yes, but” to an argument that technology rewires our brains for the worse, p. 355, ¶34.

04_GRA_93584_part2_053_102.indd 65 11/8/14 3:34 PM

f o u r f o u r “ Y E S / N O / O K A Y , B U T ”

6 6

Another classic way to agree and disagree at the same time is to make what we call an “I’m of two minds” or a “mixed feelings” move.

j I’m of two minds about X’s claim that . On the one

hand, I agree that . On the other hand, I’m not sure

if .

j My feelings on the issue are mixed. I do support X’s position

that , but I find Y’s argument about and

Z’s research on to be equally persuasive.

This move can be especially useful if you are responding to new or particularly challenging work and are as yet unsure where you stand. It also lends itself well to the kind of speculative investigation in which you weigh a position’s pros and cons rather than come out decisively either for or against. But again, as we suggest earlier, whether you are agreeing, disagreeing, or both agreeing and disagreeing, you need to be as clear as pos- sible, and making a frank statement that you are ambivalent is one way to be clear.

is being undecided okay?

Nevertheless, writers often have as many concerns about expressing ambivalence as they do about expressing disagree- ment or agreement. Some worry that by expressing ambivalence they will come across as evasive, wishy-washy, or unsure of themselves. Others worry that their ambivalence will end up confusing readers who require decisive clear-cut conclusions.

04_GRA_93584_part2_053_102.indd 66 11/8/14 3:34 PM

Three Ways to Respond

6 7

The truth is that in some cases these worries are legitimate. At times ambivalence can frustrate readers, leaving them with the feeling that you failed in your obligation to offer the guidance they expect from writers. At other times, however, acknowledging that a clear-cut resolution of an issue is impos- sible can demonstrate your sophistication as a writer. In an academic culture that values complex thought, forthrightly declaring that you have mixed feelings can be impressive, especially after having ruled out the one-dimensional positions on your issue taken by others in the conversation. Ultimately, then, how ambivalent you end up being comes down to a judg- ment call based on different readers’ responses to your drafts, on your knowledge of your audience, and on the challenges of your particular argument and situation.


1. Read one of the essays in the back of this book or on, identifying those places where the author agrees with others, disagrees, or both.

2. Write an essay responding in some way to the essay that you worked with in the preceding exercise. You’ll want to summarize and/or quote some of the author’s ideas and make clear whether you’re agreeing, disagreeing, or both agreeing and disagreeing with what he or she says. Remember that there are templates in this book that can help you get started; see Chapters 1–3 for templates that will help you represent other people’s ideas, and Chapter 4 for templates that will get you started with your response.

04_GRA_93584_part2_053_102.indd 67 11/8/14 3:34 PM

6 8


“and yet”

Distinguishing What You Say

from What They Say


If good academic writing involves putting yourself into dialogue with others, it is extremely important that readers be able to tell at every point when you are expressing your own view and when you are stating someone else’s. This chapter takes up the problem of moving from what they say to what you say without confusing readers about who is saying what.

determine who is saying what in the texts you read

Before examining how to signal who is saying what in your own writing, let’s look at how to recognize such signals when they appear in the texts you read—an especially important skill when it comes to the challenging works assigned in school. Frequently, when students have trouble understanding diffi- cult texts, it is not just because the texts contain unfamiliar ideas or words, but because the texts rely on subtle clues to let

04_GRA_93584_part2_053_102.indd 68 11/8/14 3:34 PM

Distinguishing What You Say from What They Say

6 9

readers know when a particular view should be attributed to the writer or to someone else. Especially with texts that pres- ent a true dialogue of perspectives, readers need to be alert to the often subtle markers that indicate whose voice the writer is speaking in. Consider how the social critic and educator Gregory Mant- sios uses these “voice markers,” as they might be called, to distinguish the different perspectives in his essay on America’s class inequalities.

“We are all middle-class,” or so it would seem. Our national con- sciousness, as shaped in large part by the media and our political leadership, provides us with a picture of ourselves as a nation of prosperity and opportunity with an ever expanding middle-class life-style. As a result, our class differences are muted and our col- lective character is homogenized. Yet class divisions are real and arguably the most significant factor in determining both our very being in the world and the nature of the society we live in.

Gregory Mantsios, “Rewards and Opportunities: The Politics and Economics of Class in the U.S.”

Although Mantsios makes it look easy, he is actually making several sophisticated rhetorical moves here that help him dis- tinguish the common view he opposes from his own position. In the opening sentence, for instance, the phrase “or so it would seem” shows that Mantsios does not necessarily agree with the view he is describing, since writers normally don’t pres- ent views they themselves hold as ones that only “seem” to be true. Mantsios also places this opening view in quotation marks to signal that it is not his own. He then further distances

04_GRA_93584_part2_053_102.indd 69 11/8/14 3:34 PM

f i v e f i v e “ A N D Y E T ”

7 0

himself from the belief being summarized in the opening para- graph by attributing it to “our national consciousness, as shaped in large part by the media and our political leadership,” and then further attributing to this “consciousness” a negative, undesirable “result”: one in which “our class differences” get “muted” and “our collective character” gets “homogenized,” stripped of its diversity and distinctness. Hence, even before Mantsios has declared his own position in the second para- graph, readers can get a pretty solid sense of where he probably stands. Furthermore, the second paragraph opens with the word “yet,” indicating that Mantsios is now shifting to his own view (as opposed to the common view he has thus far been describ- ing). Even the parallelism he sets up between the first and second paragraphs—between the first paragraph’s claim that class differences do not exist and the second paragraph’s claim that they do—helps throw into sharp relief the differences between the two voices. Finally, Mantsios’s use of a direct, authoritative, declarative tone in the second paragraph also suggests a switch in voice. Although he does not use the words “I say” or “I argue,” he clearly identifies the view he holds by presenting it not as one that merely seems to be true or that others tell us is true, but as a view that is true or, as Mantsios puts it, “real.” Paying attention to these voice markers is an important aspect of reading comprehension. Readers who fail to notice these markers often take an author’s summaries of what some- one else believes to be an expression of what the author himself or herself believes. Thus when we teach Mantsios’s essay, some students invariably come away thinking that the statement “we are all middle-class” is Mantsios’s own position rather than the perspective he is opposing, failing to see that in writing these

04_GRA_93584_part2_053_102.indd 70 11/8/14 3:34 PM

Distinguishing What You Say from What They Say

7 1

words Mantsios acts as a kind of ventriloquist, mimicking what others say rather than directly expressing what he himself is thinking. To see how important such voice markers are, consider what the Mantsios passage looks like if we remove them.

We are all middle-class. . . . We are a nation of prosperity and opportunity with an ever expanding middle-class life-style. . . . Class divisions are real and arguably the most significant factor in determining both our very being in the world and the nature of the society we live in.

In contrast to the careful delineation between voices in Mant sios’s original text, this unmarked version leaves it hard to tell where his voice begins and the voices of others end. With the markers removed, readers cannot tell that “We are all middle-class” represents a view the author opposes, and that “Class divisions are real” represents what the author himself believes. Indeed, without the markers, especially the “Yet,” readers might well miss the fact that the second paragraph’s claim that “Class divisions are real” contradicts the first paragraph’s claim that “We are all middle-class.”

templates for signaling who is saying what in your own writing

To avoid confusion in your own writing, make sure that at every point your readers can clearly tell who is saying what. To do so, you can use as voice-identifying devices many of the templates presented in previous chapters.

See how Marion Nestle begins with a view and then refutes it on p. 497, ¶2.

04_GRA_93584_part2_053_102.indd 71 11/8/14 3:34 PM

f i v e f i v e “ A N D Y E T ”

7 2

j Although X makes the best possible case for universal,

government-funded health care, I am not persuaded.

j My view, however, contrary to what X has argued, is that


j Adding to X’s argument, I would point out that .

j According to both X and Y, .

j Politicians, X argues, should .

j Most athletes will tell you that .

but i’ve been told not to use “i”

Notice that the first three templates above use the first-person “I” or “we,” as do many of the templates in this book, thereby contradicting the common advice about avoiding the first person in academic writing. Although you may have been told that the “I” word encourages subjective, self-indulgent opinions rather than well-grounded arguments, we believe that texts using “I” can be just as well supported—or just as self-indulgent—as those that don’t. For us, well-supported argu- ments are grounded in persuasive reasons and evidence, not in the use or nonuse of any particular pronouns. Furthermore, if you consistently avoid the first person in your writing, you will probably have trouble making the key move addressed in this chapter: differentiating your views from those of others, or even offering your own views in the first place. But don’t just take our word for it. See for yourself how freely the first person is used by the writers quoted in this book, and by the writers assigned in your courses.

04_GRA_93584_part2_053_102.indd 72 11/8/14 3:34 PM

Distinguishing What You Say from What They Say

7 3

Nevertheless, certain occasions may warrant avoiding the first person and writing, for example, that “she is correct” instead of “I think that she is correct.” Since it can be monotonous to read an unvarying series of “I” statements (“I believe . . . I think . . . I argue”), it is a good idea to mix first-person assertions with ones like the following.

j X is right that certain common patterns can be found in the

communities .

j The evidence shows that .

j X’s assertion that does not fit the facts.

j Anyone familiar with should agree that .

One might even follow Mantsios’s lead, as in the following template.

j But are real, and are arguably the most significant

factor in .

On the whole, however, academic writing today, even in the sciences and social sciences, makes use of the first person fairly liberally.

another trick for identifying who is speaking

To alert readers about whose perspective you are describing at any given moment, you don’t always have to use overt voice markers like “X argues” followed by a summary of the argu- ment. Instead, you can alert readers about whose voice you’re

See pp. 361–71 for an example of the way a student essay uses the first person.

04_GRA_93584_part2_053_102.indd 73 11/8/14 3:34 PM

f i v e f i v e “ A N D Y E T ”

7 4

speaking in by embedding a reference to X’s argument in your own sentences. Hence, instead of writing:

Liberals believe that cultural differences need to be respected. I have a problem with this view, however.

you might write:

I have a problem with what liberals call cultural differences.

There is a major problem with the liberal doctrine of so-called cultural differences.

You can also embed references to something you yourself have previously said. So instead of writing two cumbersome sen- tences like:

Earlier in this chapter we coined the term “voice markers.” We would argue that such markers are extremely important for reading comprehension.

you might write:

We would argue that “voice markers,” as we identified them earlier, are extremely important for reading comprehension.

Embedded references like these allow you to economize your train of thought and refer to other perspectives without any major interruption.

04_GRA_93584_part2_053_102.indd 74 11/8/14 3:34 PM

Distinguishing What You Say from What They Say

7 5

templates for embedding voice markers

j X overlooks what I consider an important point about cultural


j My own view is that what X insists is a is in fact

a .

j I wholeheartedly endorse what X calls .

j These conclusions, which X discusses in , add weight

to the argument that .

When writers fail to use voice-marking devices like the ones discussed in this chapter, their summaries of others’ views tend to become confused with their own ideas—and vice versa. When readers cannot tell if you are summarizing your own views or endorsing a certain phrase or label, they have to stop and think: “Wait. I thought the author disagreed with this claim. Has she actually been asserting this view all along?” or “Hmmm, I thought she would have objected to this kind of phrase. Is she actually endorsing it?” Getting in the habit of using voice markers will keep you from confusing your readers and help alert you to similar markers in the challenging texts you read.


1. To see how one writer signals when she is asserting her own views and when she is summarizing those of someone else, read the following passage by the social historian Julie Charlip. As you do so, identify those spots where Charlip refers to the views of others and the signal phrases she uses to distinguish her views from theirs.

04_GRA_93584_part2_053_102.indd 75 11/8/14 3:34 PM

f i v e f i v e “ A N D Y E T ”

7 6

Marx and Engels wrote: “Society as a whole is more and more split- ting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other—the bourgeoisie and the proletariat” (10). If only that were true, things might be more simple. But in late twentieth-century America, it seems that society is splitting more and more into a plethora of class factions—the working class, the working poor, lower-middle class, upper-middle class, lower uppers, and upper uppers. I find myself not knowing what class I’m from. In my days as a newspaper reporter, I once asked a sociology pro- fessor what he thought about the reported shrinking of the middle class. Oh, it’s not the middle class that’s disappearing, he said, but the working class. His definition: if you earn thirty thousand dollars a year working in an assembly plant, come home from work, open a beer and watch the game, you are working class; if you earn twenty thousand dollars a year as a school teacher, come home from work to a glass of white wine and PBS, you are middle class. How do we define class? Is it an issue of values, lifestyle, taste? Is it the kind of work you do, your relationship to the means of production? Is it a matter of how much money you earn? Are we allowed to choose? In this land of supposed classlessness, where we don’t have the tradition of English society to keep us in our places, how do we know where we really belong? The average American will tell you he or she is “middle class.” I’m sure that’s what my father would tell you. But I always felt that we were in some no man’s land, suspended between classes, sharing similari- ties with some and recognizing sharp, exclusionary differences from others. What class do I come from? What class am I in now? As an historian, I seek the answers to these questions in the specificity of my past.

Julie Charlip, “A Real Class Act: Searching for Identity in the Classless Society”

04_GRA_93584_part2_053_102.indd 76 11/8/14 3:34 PM

Distinguishing What You Say from What They Say

7 7

2. Study a piece of your own writing to see how many perspec- tives you account for and how well you distinguish your own voice from those you are summarizing. Consider the following questions:

a. How many perspectives do you engage? b. What other perspectives might you include? c. How do you distinguish your views from the other views

you summarize? d. Do you use clear voice-signaling phrases? e. What options are available to you for clarifying who is

saying what? f. Which of these options are best suited for this particular


If you find that you do not include multiple views or clearly distinguish between others’ views and your own, revise your text to do so.

04_GRA_93584_part2_053_102.indd 77 11/8/14 3:34 PM

7 8


“skeptics may object”

Planting a Naysayer in Your Text


The writer Jane Tompkins describes a pattern that repeats itself whenever she writes a book or an article. For the first couple of weeks when she sits down to write, things go relatively well. But then in the middle of the night, several weeks into the writing process, she’ll wake up in a cold sweat, suddenly real- izing that she has overlooked some major criticism that readers will surely make against her ideas. Her first thought, invariably, is that she will have to give up on the project, or that she will have to throw out what she’s written thus far and start over. Then she realizes that “this moment of doubt and panic is where my text really begins.” She then revises what she’s written in a way that incorporates the criticisms she’s anticipated, and her text becomes stronger and more interesting as a result. This little story contains an important lesson for all writers, experienced and inexperienced alike. It suggests that even though most of us are upset at the idea of someone criticizing our work, such criticisms can actually work to our advantage. Although it’s naturally tempting to ignore criticism of our ideas, doing so may in fact be a big mistake, since our writing improves when we not only listen to these objections but give them an explicit hearing

04_GRA_93584_part2_053_102.indd 78 11/8/14 3:34 PM

Planting a Naysayer in Your Text

7 9

in our writing. Indeed, no single device more quickly improves a piece of writing than planting a naysayer in the text—saying, for example, that “although some readers may object” to something in your argument, you “would reply that .”

anticipate objections

But wait, you say. Isn’t the advice to incorporate critical views a recipe for destroying your credibility and undermining your argument? Here you are, trying to say something that will hold up, and we want you to tell readers all the negative things someone might say against you? Exactly. We are urging you to tell readers what others might say against you, but our point is that doing so will actu- ally enhance your credibility, not undermine it. As we argue throughout this book, writing well does not mean piling up uncontroversial truths in a vacuum; it means engaging others in a dialogue or debate—not only by opening your text with a summary of what others have said, as we suggest in Chapter 1, but also by imagining what others might say against your argu- ment as it unfolds. Once you see writing as an act of entering a conversation, you should also see how opposing arguments can work for you rather than against you. Paradoxically, the more you give voice to your critics’ objec- tions, the more you tend to disarm those critics, especially if you go on to answer their objections in convincing ways. When you entertain a counterargument, you make a kind of preemptive strike, identifying problems with your argument before oth- ers can point them out for you. Furthermore, by entertaining counterarguments, you show respect for your readers, treating them not as gullible dupes who will believe anything you say

04_GRA_93584_part2_053_102.indd 79 11/8/14 3:34 PM

s i x s i x “ S K E P T I C S M A Y O B J E C T ”

8 0

but as independent, critical thinkers who are aware that your view is not the only one in town. In addition, by imagining what others might say against your claims, you come across as a generous, broad-minded person who is confident enough to open himself or herself to debate—like the writer in the figure on the following page. Conversely, if you don’t entertain counterarguments, you may very likely come across as closed-minded, as if you think your beliefs are beyond dispute. You might also leave important ques- tions hanging and concerns about your arguments unaddressed. Finally, if you fail to plant a naysayer in your text, you may find that you have very little to say. Our own students often say that entertaining counterarguments makes it easier to generate enough text to meet their assignment’s page-length requirements. Planting a naysayer in your text is a relatively simple move, as you can see by looking at the following passage from a book by the writer Kim Chernin. Having spent some thirty pages complaining about the pressure on American women to be thin, Chernin inserts a whole chapter entitled “The Skeptic,” opening it as follows.

At this point I would like to raise certain objections that have been inspired by the skeptic in me. She feels that I have been ignoring some of the most common assumptions we all make about our bod- ies and these she wishes to see addressed. For example: “You know perfectly well,” she says to me, “that you feel better when you lose weight. You buy new clothes. You look at yourself more eagerly in the mirror. When someone invites you to a party you don’t stop and ask yourself whether you want to go. You feel sexier. Admit it. You like yourself better.”

Kim Chernin, The Obsession: Reflections on the Tyranny of Slenderness

04_GRA_93584_part2_053_102.indd 80 11/8/14 3:34 PM

Planting a Naysayer in Your Text

8 1

04_GRA_93584_part2_053_102.indd 81 11/8/14 3:34 PM

s i x s i x “ S K E P T I C S M A Y O B J E C T ”

8 2

The remainder of Chernin’s chapter consists of her answers to this inner skeptic. In the face of the skeptic’s challenge to her book’s central premise (that the pressure to diet seriously harms women’s lives), Chernin responds neither by repressing the skeptic’s critical voice nor by giving in to it and relinquish- ing her own position. Instead, she embraces that voice and writes it into her text. Note too that instead of dispatching this naysaying voice quickly, as many of us would be tempted to do, Chernin stays with it and devotes a full paragraph to it. By borrowing some of Chernin’s language, we can come up with templates for entertaining virtually any objection.

templates for entertaining objections

j At this point I would like to raise some objections that have been

inspired by the skeptic in me. She feels that I have been ignoring

the complexities of the situation.

j Yet some readers may challenge my view by insisting that


j Of course, many will probably disagree on the grounds that


Note that the objections in the above templates are attributed not to any specific person or group, but to “skep- tics,” “readers,” or “many.” This kind of nameless, faceless naysayer is perfectly appropriate in many cases. But the ideas that motivate arguments and objections often can—and, where possible, should—be ascribed to a specific ideology or school of thought (for example, liberals, Christian fundamentalists, neopragmatists) rather than to anonymous anybodies. In other

04_GRA_93584_part2_053_102.indd 82 11/8/14 3:34 PM

Planting a Naysayer in Your Text

8 3

words, naysayers can be labeled, and you can add precision and impact to your writing by identifying what those labels are.

templates for naming your naysayers

j Here many feminists would probably object that gender does

influence language.

j But social Darwinists would certainly take issue with the argu-

ment that .

j Biologists, of course, may want to question whether .

j Nevertheless, both followers and critics of Malcolm X will prob-

ably suggest otherwise and argue that .

To be sure, some people dislike such labels and may even resent having labels applied to themselves. Some feel that labels put individuals in boxes, stereotyping them and glossing over what makes each of us unique. And it’s true that labels can be used inappropriately, in ways that ignore individuality and promote stereotypes. But since the life of ideas, includ- ing many of our most private thoughts, is conducted through groups and types rather than solitary individuals, intellectual exchange requires labels to give definition and serve as a convenient shorthand. If you categorically reject all labels, you give up an important resource and even mislead readers by presenting yourself and others as having no connection to anyone else. You also miss an opportunity to generalize the importance and relevance of your work to some larger con- versation. When you attribute a position you are summarizing to liberalism, say, or historical materialism, your argument is no longer just about your own solitary views but about the

04_GRA_93584_part2_053_102.indd 83 11/8/14 3:34 PM

s i x s i x “ S K E P T I C S M A Y O B J E C T ”

8 4

intersection of broad ideas and habits of mind that many readers may already have a stake in. The way to minimize the problem of stereotyping, then, is not to categorically reject labels but to refine and qualify their use, as the following templates demonstrate.

j Although not all Christians think alike, some of them will prob-

ably dispute my claim that .

j Non-native English speakers are so diverse in their views that it’s

hard to generalize about them, but some are likely to object on

the grounds that .

Another way to avoid needless stereotyping is to qualify labels carefully, substituting “pro bono lawyers” for “lawyers” in gen- eral, for example, or “quantitative sociologists” for all “social scientists,” and so on.

templates for introducing objections informally

Objections can also be introduced in more informal ways. For instance, you can frame objections in the form of questions.

j But is my proposal realistic? What are the chances of its actually

being adopted?

j Yet is it necessarily true that ? Is it always the case,

as I have been suggesting, that ?

j However, does the evidence I’ve cited prove conclusively

that ?

04_GRA_93584_part2_053_102.indd 84 11/8/14 3:34 PM

Planting a Naysayer in Your Text

8 5

You can also let your naysayer speak directly.

j “Impossible,” some will say. “You must be reading the research


Moves like this allow you to cut directly to the skeptical voice itself, as the singer-songwriter Joe Jackson does in the follow- ing excerpt from a New York Times article complaining about the restrictions on public smoking in New York City bars and restaurants.

I like a couple of cigarettes or a cigar with a drink, and like many other people, I only smoke in bars or nightclubs. Now I can’t go to any of my old haunts. Bartenders who were friends have turned into cops, forcing me outside to shiver in the cold and curse under my breath. . . . It’s no fun. Smokers are being demonized and victim- ized all out of proportion. “Get over it,” say the anti-smokers. “You’re the minority.” I thought a great city was a place where all kinds of minorities could thrive. . . . “Smoking kills,” they say. As an occasional smoker with otherwise healthy habits, I’ll take my chances. Health con- sciousness is important, but so are pleasure and freedom of choice.

Joe Jackson, “Want to Smoke? Go to Hamburg”

Jackson could have begun his second paragraph, in which he shifts from his own voice to that of his imagined naysayer, more formally, as follows: “Of course anti-smokers will object that since we smokers are in the minority, we should simply stop complaining and quietly make the sacrifices we are being called on to make for the larger social good.” Or “Anti- smokers might insist, however, that the smoking minority

See the essay on Family Guy (p. 145) that addresses naysayers throughout.

04_GRA_93584_part2_053_102.indd 85 11/8/14 3:34 PM

s i x s i x “ S K E P T I C S M A Y O B J E C T ”

8 6

should submit to the non-smoking majority.” We think, though, that Jackson gets the job done in a far more lively way with the more colloquial form he chooses. Borrowing a standard move of playwrights and novelists, Jackson cuts directly to the objectors’ view and then to his own retort, then back to the objectors’ view and then to his own retort again, thereby creating a kind of dialogue or miniature play within

his own text. This move works well for Jackson, but only because he uses quotation marks and other voice markers to make clear at every point whose voice he is in.

represent objections fairly

Once you’ve decided to introduce a differing or opposing view into your writing, your work has only just begun, since you still need to represent and explain that view with fairness and generosity. Although it is tempting to give opposing views short shrift, to hurry past them, or even to mock them, doing so is usually counterproductive. When writers make the best case they can for their critics (playing Peter Elbow’s “believ-

ing game”), they actually bolster their credibility with readers rather than undermine it. They make readers think, “This is a writer I can trust.”

We recommend, then, that whenever you entertain objec- tions in your writing, you stay with them for several sentences or even paragraphs and take them as seriously as possible. We also recommend that you read your summary of opposing views with an outsider’s eye: put yourself in the shoes of someone who disagrees with you and ask if such a reader would recognize himself in your summary. Would that reader think you have

See Chapter 5 for more

advice on using voice


See pp. 31–32 for more on

the believing game.

04_GRA_93584_part2_053_102.indd 86 11/8/14 3:34 PM

Planting a Naysayer in Your Text

8 7

taken his views seriously, as beliefs that reasonable people might hold? Or would he detect a mocking tone or an oversimplifica- tion of his views? There will always be certain objections, to be sure, that you believe do not deserve to be represented, just as there will be objections that seem so unworthy of respect that they inspire ridicule. Remember, however, that if you do choose to mock a view that you oppose, you are likely to alienate those readers who don’t already agree with you—likely the very readers you want to reach. Also be aware that in mocking another’s view you may contribute to a hostile argument culture in which someone may ridicule you in return.

answer objections

Do be aware that when you represent objections successfully, you still need to be able to answer those objections persuasively. After all, when you write objections into a text, you take the risk that readers will find those objections more convincing than the argument you yourself are advancing. In the edito- rial quoted above, for example, Joe Jackson takes the risk that readers will identify more with the anti-smoking view he sum- marizes than with the pro-smoking position he endorses. This is precisely what Benjamin Franklin describes hap- pening to himself in The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (1793), when he recalls being converted to Deism (a religion that exalts reason over spirituality) by reading anti-Deist books. When he encountered the views of Deists being negatively summarized by authors who opposed them, Franklin explains, he ended up finding the Deist position more persuasive. To avoid having this kind if unintentional reverse effect on

04_GRA_93584_part2_053_102.indd 87 11/8/14 3:34 PM

s i x s i x “ S K E P T I C S M A Y O B J E C T ”

8 8

readers, you need to do your best to make sure that any counter- arguments you address are not more convincing than your own claims. It is good to address objections in your writing, but only if you are able to overcome them. One surefire way to fail to overcome an objection is to dis- miss it out of hand—saying, for example, “That’s just wrong.” The difference between such a response (which offers no sup- porting reasons whatsoever) and the types of nuanced responses we’re promoting in this book is the difference between bullying your readers and genuinely persuading them. Often the best way to overcome an objection is not to try to refute it completely but to agree with part of it while chal- lenging only the part you dispute. In other words, in answer- ing counterarguments, it is often best to say “yes, but” or “yes

and no,” treating the counterview as an opportunity to revise and refine your own position. Rather than build your argument into an impenetrable fortress, it is often

best to make concessions while still standing your ground, as Kim Chernin does in the following response to the counter- argument quoted above. While in the voice of the “skeptic,” Chernin writes: “Admit it. You like yourself better when you’ve lost weight.” In response, Chernin replies as follows.

Can I deny these things? No woman who has managed to lose weight would wish to argue with this. Most people feel better about themselves when they become slender. And yet, upon reflection, it seems to me that there is something precarious about this well- being. After all, 98 percent of people who lose weight gain it back. Indeed, 90 percent of those who have dieted “successfully” gain back more than they ever lost. Then, of course, we can no longer bear to look at ourselves in the mirror.

See pp. 61–64 for more on

agreeing, with a difference.

04_GRA_93584_part2_053_102.indd 88 11/8/14 3:34 PM

Planting a Naysayer in Your Text

8 9

In this way, Chernin shows how you can use a counterview to improve and refine your overall argument by making a conces- sion. Even as she concedes that losing weight feels good in the short run, she argues that in the long run the weight always returns, making the dieter far more miserable.

templates for making concessions while still standing your ground

j Although I grant that the book is poorly organized, I still maintain

that it raises an important issue.

j Proponents of X are right to argue that . But they

exaggerate when they claim that .

j While it is true that , it does not necessarily follow

that .

j On the one hand, I agree with X that . But on the

other hand, I still insist that .

Templates like these show that answering naysayers’ objec- tions does not have to be an all-or-nothing affair in which you either definitively refute your critics or they definitively refute you. Often the most productive engagements among differing views end with a combined vision that incorporates elements of each one. But what if you’ve tried out all the possible answers you can think of to an objection you’ve anticipated and you still have a nagging feeling that the objection is more convincing than your argument itself? In that case, the best remedy is to go back and make some fundamental revisions to your argument,

04_GRA_93584_part2_053_102.indd 89 11/8/14 3:34 PM

s i x s i x “ S K E P T I C S M A Y O B J E C T ”

9 0

even reversing your position completely if need be. Although finding out late in the game that you aren’t fully convinced by your own argument can be painful, it can actually make your final text more intellectually honest, challenging, and serious. After all, the goal of writing is not to keep proving that what- ever you initially said is right, but to stretch the limits of your thinking. So if planting a strong naysayer in your text forces you to change your mind, that’s not a bad thing. Some would argue that that is what the academic world is all about.


1. Read the following passage by the cultural critic Eric Schlosser. As you’ll see, he hasn’t planted any naysayers in this text. Do it for him. Insert a brief paragraph stating an objection to his argument and then responding to the objection as he might.

The United States must declare an end to the war on drugs. This war has filled the nation’s prisons with poor drug addicts and small- time drug dealers. It has created a multibillion-dollar black market, enriched organized crime groups and promoted the corruption of government officials throughout the world. And it has not stemmed the widespread use of illegal drugs. By any rational measure, this war has been a total failure. We must develop public policies on substance abuse that are guided not by moral righteousness or political expediency but by common sense. The United States should immediately decriminal- ize the cultivation and possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use. Marijuana should no longer be classified as a Sched- ule I narcotic, and those who seek to use marijuana as medicine

04_GRA_93584_part2_053_102.indd 90 11/8/14 3:34 PM

Planting a Naysayer in Your Text

9 1

should no longer face criminal sanctions. We must shift our entire approach to drug abuse from the criminal justice system to the public health system. Congress should appoint an independent commission to study the harm-reduction policies that have been adopted in Switzerland, Spain, Portugal, and the Netherlands. The commission should recommend policies for the United States based on one important criterion: what works. In a nation where pharmaceutical companies advertise powerful antidepressants on billboards and where alcohol companies run amus- ing beer ads during the Super Bowl, the idea of a “drug-free society” is absurd. Like the rest of American society, our drug policy would greatly benefit from less punishment and more compassion.

Eric Schlosser, “A People’s Democratic Platform”

2. Look over something you’ve written that makes an argu- ment. Check to see if you’ve anticipated and responded to any objections. If not, revise your text to do so. If so, have you anticipated all the likely objections? Who if anyone have you attributed the objections to? Have you represented the objections fairly? Have you answered them well enough, or do you think you now need to qualify your own argu- ment? Could you use any of the language suggested in this chapter? Does the introduction of a naysayer strengthen your argument? Why, or why not?

04_GRA_93584_part2_053_102.indd 91 11/8/14 3:34 PM

9 2


“so what? who cares?”

Saying Why It Matters


Baseball is the national pastime. Bernini was the best sculptor of the baroque period. All writing is conversational. So what? Who cares? Why does any of this matter? How many times have you had reason to ask these ques- tions? Regardless of how interesting a topic may be to you as a writer, readers always need to know what is at stake in a text and why they should care. All too often, however, these ques- tions are left unanswered—mainly because writers and speakers assume that audiences will know the answers already or will figure them out on their own. As a result, students come away from lectures feeling like outsiders to what they’ve just heard, just as many of us feel left hanging after talks we’ve attended. The problem is not necessarily that the speakers lack a clear, well-focused thesis or that the thesis is inadequately supported with evidence. Instead, the problem is that the speakers don’t address the crucial question of why their arguments matter. That this question is so often left unaddressed is unfortunate since the speakers generally could offer interesting, engaging answers. When pressed, for instance, most academics will tell you that their lectures and articles matter because they address

04_GRA_93584_part2_053_102.indd 92 11/8/14 3:34 PM

Saying Why It Matters

9 3

some belief that needs to be corrected or updated—and because their arguments have important, real-world consequences. Yet many academics fail to identify these reasons and consequences explicitly in what they say and write. Rather than assume that audiences will know why their claims matter, all writers need to answer the “so what?” and “who cares?” questions up front. Not everyone can claim to have a cure for cancer or a solution to end poverty. But writers who fail to show that others should care or already do care about their claims will ultimately lose their audiences’ interest. This chapter focuses on various moves that you can make to answer the “who cares?” and “so what?” questions in your own writing. In one sense, the two questions get at the same thing: the relevance or importance of what you are saying. Yet they get at this significance in different ways. Whereas “who cares?” literally asks you to identify a person or group who cares about your claims, “so what?” asks about the real-world applications and consequences of those claims—what difference it would make if they were accepted. We’ll look first at ways of making clear who cares.

“who cares?”

To see how one writer answers the “who cares?” question, consider the following passage from the science writer Denise Grady. Writing in the New York Times, she explains some of the latest research into fat cells.

Scientists used to think body fat and the cells it was made of were pretty much inert, just an oily storage compartment. But within the past decade research has shown that fat cells act like chemical factories and that body fat is potent stuff: a highly active

04_GRA_93584_part2_053_102.indd 93 11/8/14 3:34 PM

s e v e n s e v e n “ S O W H A T ? W H O C A R E S ? ”

9 4

tissue that secretes hormones and other substances with profound and sometimes harmful effects. . . . In recent years, biologists have begun calling fat an “endocrine organ,” comparing it to glands like the thyroid and pituitary, which also release hormones straight into the bloodstream.

Denise Grady, “The Secret Life of a Potent Cell”

Notice how Grady’s writing reflects the central advice we give in this book, offering a clear claim and also framing that claim as a response to what someone else has said. In so doing, Grady immediately identifies at least one group with a stake in the new research that sees fat as “active,” “potent stuff ”: namely, the scientific community, which formerly believed that body fat is inert. By referring to these scientists, Grady implicitly acknowledges that her text is part of a larger con- versation and shows who besides herself has an interest in what she says. Consider, however, how the passage would read had Grady left out what “scientists used to think” and simply explained the new findings in isolation.

Within the past few decades research has shown that fat cells act like chemical factories and that body fat is potent stuff: a highly active tissue that secretes hormones and other substances. In recent years, biologists have begun calling fat an “endocrine organ,” com- paring it to glands like the thyroid and pituitary, which also release hormones straight into the bloodstream.

Though this statement is clear and easy to follow, it lacks any indication that anyone needs to hear it. Okay, one nods while reading this passage, fat is an active, potent thing. Sounds plau- sible enough; no reason to think it’s not true. But does anyone really care? Who, if anyone, is interested?

04_GRA_93584_part2_053_102.indd 94 11/8/14 3:34 PM

Saying Why It Matters

9 5

templates for indicating who cares

To address “who cares?” questions in your own writing, we suggest using templates like the following, which echo Grady in refuting earlier thinking.

j Parents used to think spanking was necessary. But recently

[or within the past few decades] experts suggest that it can be


j This interpretation challenges the work of those critics who have

long assumed that .

j These findings challenge the work of earlier researchers, who

tended to assume that .

j Recent studies like these shed new light on , which

previous studies had not addressed.

Grady might have been more explicit by writing the “who cares?” question directly into her text, as in the following template.

j But who really cares? Who besides me and a handful of recent

researchers has a stake in these claims? At the very least, the

researchers who formerly believed should care.

To gain greater authority as a writer, it can help to name spe- cific people or groups who have a stake in your claims and to go into some detail about their views.

j Researchers have long assumed that . For instance,

one eminent scholar of cell biology, , assumed

in , her seminal work on cell structures and functions,

that fat cells . As herself put it, “ ”

(2012). Another leading scientist, , argued that fat

04_GRA_93584_part2_053_102.indd 95 11/8/14 3:34 PM

s e v e n s e v e n “ S O W H A T ? W H O C A R E S ? ”

9 6

cells “ ” (2011). Ultimately, when it came to the nature

of fat, the basic assumption was that .

But a new body of research shows that fat cells are far more

complex and that .

In other cases, you might refer to certain people or groups who should care about your claims.

j If sports enthusiasts stopped to think about it, many of them

might simply assume that the most successful athletes

. However, new research shows .

j These findings challenge neoliberals’ common assumption

that .

j At first glance, teenagers might say . But on closer

inspection .

As these templates suggest, answering the “who cares?” question involves establishing the type of contrast between what others say and what you say that is central to this book. Ultimately, such templates help you create a dramatic tension or clash of views in your writing that readers will feel invested in and want to see resolved.

“so what?”

Although answering the “who cares?” question is crucial, in many cases it is not enough, especially if you are writing for general readers who don’t necessarily have a strong investment in the particular clash of views you are setting up. In the case of Grady’s argument about fat cells, such readers may still wonder why it matters that some researchers think fat cells are active,

04_GRA_93584_part2_053_102.indd 96 11/8/14 3:34 PM

Saying Why It Matters

9 7

while others think they’re inert. Or, to move to a different field of study, American literature, so what if some scholars disagree about Huck Finn’s relationship with the runaway slave Jim in Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn? Why should anyone besides a few specialists in the field care about such disputes? What, if anything, hinges on them? The best way to answer such questions about the larger con- sequences of your claims is to appeal to something that your audience already figures to care about. Whereas the “who cares?” question asks you to identify an interested person or group, the “so what?” question asks you to link your argument to some larger matter that readers already deem important. Thus in analyzing Huckleberry Finn, a writer could argue that seemingly narrow disputes about the hero’s relationship with Jim actually shed light on whether Twain’s canonical, widely read novel is a critique of racism in America or is itself marred by it. Let’s see how Grady invokes such broad, general concerns in her article on fat cells. Her first move is to link researchers’ interest in fat cells to a general concern with obesity and health.

Researchers trying to decipher the biology of fat cells hope to find new ways to help people get rid of excess fat or, at least, prevent obesity from destroying their health. In an increasingly obese world, their efforts have taken on added importance.

Further showing why readers should care, Grady’s next move is to demonstrate the even broader relevance and urgency of her subject matter.

Internationally, more than a billion people are overweight. Obesity and two illnesses linked to it, heart disease and high blood pressure, are on the World Health Organization’s list of the top 10 global health risks. In the United States, 65 percent of adults weigh too much,

04_GRA_93584_part2_053_102.indd 97 11/8/14 3:34 PM

s e v e n s e v e n “ S O W H A T ? W H O C A R E S ? ”

9 8

compared with about 56 percent a decade ago, and government researchers blame obesity for at least 300,000 deaths a year.

What Grady implicitly says here is “Look, dear reader, you may think that these questions about the nature of fat cells I’ve been pursuing have little to do with everyday life. In fact, however, these questions are extremely important—particularly in our ‘increasingly obese world’ in which we need to prevent obesity from destroying our health.” Notice that Grady’s phrase “in an increasingly world”

can be adapted as a strategic move to address the “so what?” question in other fields as well. For example, a sociologist analyzing back-to-nature movements of the past thirty years might make the following statement.

In a world increasingly dominated by cellphones and sophisticated computer technologies, these attempts to return to nature appear futile.

This type of move can be readily applied to other disciplines because no matter how much disciplines may differ from one another, the need to justify the importance of one’s concerns is common to them all.

templates for establishing why your claims matter

j Huckleberry Finn matters/is important because it is one of the

most widely taught novels in the American school system.

j Although X may seem trivial, it is in fact crucial in terms of today’s

concern over .

Ellen Ullman uses the “so

what” move on p. 729, ¶13–15.

04_GRA_93584_part2_053_102.indd 98 11/8/14 3:34 PM

Saying Why It Matters

9 9

j Ultimately, what is at stake here is .

j These findings have important implications for the broader

domain of .

j If we are right about , then major consequences fol-

low for .

j These conclusions/This discovery will have significant applica-

tions in as well as in .

Finally, you can also treat the “so what?” question as a related aspect of the “who cares?” question.

j Although X may seem of concern to only a small group

of , it should in fact concern anyone who cares

about .

All these templates help you hook your readers. By suggesting the real-world applications of your claims, the templates not only demonstrate that others care about your claims but also tell your readers why they should care. Again, it bears repeating that simply stating and proving your thesis isn’t enough. You also need to frame it in a way that helps readers care about it.

what about readers who already know why it matters?

At this point, you might wonder if you need to answer the “who cares?” and “so what?” questions in everything you write. Is it really necessary to address these questions if you’re propos- ing something so obviously consequential as, say, a treatment for autism or a program to eliminate illiteracy? Isn’t it obvious

04_GRA_93584_part2_053_102.indd 99 11/8/14 3:34 PM

s e v e n s e v e n “ S O W H A T ? W H O C A R E S ? ”

1 0 0

that everyone cares about such problems? Does it really need to be spelled out? And what about when you’re writing for audiences who you know are already interested in your claims and who understand perfectly well why they’re important? In other words, do you always need to address the “so what?” and “who cares?” questions? As a rule, yes—although it’s true that you can’t keep answering them forever and at a certain point must say enough is enough. Although a determined skeptic can infinitely ask why

something matters—“Why should I care about earning a salary? And why should I care about supporting a fam- ily?”—you have to stop answering at some point in your text. Nevertheless, we urge you to go as far as possible in answering such questions. If you take it for granted

that readers will somehow intuit the answers to “so what?” and “who cares?” on their own, you may make your work seem less interesting than it actually is, and you run the risk that read- ers will dismiss your text as irrelevant and unimportant. By contrast, when you are careful to explain who cares and why, it’s a little like bringing a cheerleading squad into your text. And though some expert readers might already know why your claims matter, even they need to be reminded. Thus the safest move is to be as explicit as possible in answering the “so what?” question, even for those already in the know. When you step back from the text and explain why it matters, you are urging your audience to keep reading, pay attention, and care.

See how Monica Potts explains why one woman’s life reflects a

greater societal problem on

p. 593, ¶7.

04_GRA_93584_part2_053_102.indd 100 11/8/14 3:34 PM

Saying Why It Matters

1 0 1


1. Find several texts (scholarly essays, newspaper articles, emails, memos, blogs, etc.) and see whether they answer the “so what?” and “who cares?” questions. Probably some do, some don’t. What difference does it make whether they do or do not? How do the authors who answer these questions do so? Do they use any strategies or techniques that you could borrow for your own writing? Are there any strategies or techniques recommended in this chapter, or that you’ve found or developed on your own, that you’d recommend to these authors?

2. Look over something you’ve written yourself. Do you indi- cate “so what?” and “who cares”? If not, revise your text to do so. You might use the following template to get started.

My point here (that ) should interest those who

. Beyond this limited audience, however, my point

should speak to anyone who cares about the larger issue of


04_GRA_93584_part2_053_102.indd 101 11/8/14 3:34 PM

04_GRA_93584_part2_053_102.indd 102 11/8/14 3:34 PM

3 H


05_GRA_93584_part3_103_160.indd 103 11/8/14 3:35 PM

05_GRA_93584_part3_103_160.indd 104 11/8/14 3:35 PM

1 0 5


“as a result”

Connecting the Parts


We once had a student named Bill, whose characteristic sentence pattern went something like this.

Spot is a good dog. He has fleas.

“Connect your sentences,” we urged in the margins of Bill’s papers. “What does Spot being good have to do with his fleas?” “These two statements seem unrelated. Can you connect them in some logical way?” When comments like these yielded no results, we tried inking in suggested connections for him.

Spot is a good dog, but he has fleas. Spot is a good dog, even though he has fleas.

But our message failed to get across, and Bill’s disconnected sentence pattern persisted to the end of the semester. And yet Bill did focus well on his subjects. When he men- tioned Spot the dog (or Plato, or any other topic) in one sen- tence, we could count on Spot (or Plato) being the topic of the following sentence as well. This was not the case with

05_GRA_93584_part3_103_160.indd 105 11/8/14 3:35 PM

e i g h t e i g h t “ A S A R E S U L T ”

1 0 6

some of Bill’s classmates, who sometimes changed topic from sentence to sentence or even from clause to clause within a single sentence. But because Bill neglected to mark his con- nections, his writing was as frustrating to read as theirs. In all these cases, we had to struggle to figure out on our own how the sentences and paragraphs connected or failed to connect with one another. What makes such writers so hard to read, in other words, is that they never gesture back to what they have just said or forward to what they plan to say. “Never look back” might be their motto, almost as if they see writing as a process of think- ing of something to say about a topic and writing it down, then thinking of something else to say about the topic and writing that down too, and on and on until they’ve filled the assigned number of pages and can hand the paper in. Each sentence basically starts a new thought, rather than growing out of or extending the thought of the previous sentence. When Bill talked about his writing habits, he acknowl- edged that he never went back and read what he had written. Indeed, he told us that, other than using his computer software to check for spelling errors and make sure that his tenses were all aligned, he never actually reread what he wrote before turn- ing it in. As Bill seemed to picture it, writing was something one did while sitting at a computer, whereas reading was a separate activity generally reserved for an easy chair, book in hand. It had never occurred to Bill that to write a good sentence he had to think about how it connected to those that came before and after; that he had to think hard about how that sentence fit into the sentences that surrounded it. Each sentence for Bill existed in a sort of tunnel isolated from every other sentence on the page. He never bothered to fit all the parts of his essay

05_GRA_93584_part3_103_160.indd 106 11/8/14 3:35 PM

Connecting the Parts

1 0 7

together because he apparently thought of writing as a matter of piling up information or observations rather than building a sustained argument. What we suggest in this chapter, then, is that you converse not only with others in your writing but with yourself: that you establish clear relations between one statement and the next by connecting those statements. This chapter addresses the issue of how to connect all the parts of your writing. The best compositions establish a sense of momentum and direction by making explicit connections among their different parts, so that what is said in one sentence (or paragraph) both sets up what is to come and is clearly informed by what has already been said. When you write a sentence, you create an expectation in the reader’s mind that the next sentence will in some way echo and extend it, even if—especially if—that next sentence takes your argument in a new direction. It may help to think of each sentence you write as having arms that reach backward and forward, as the figure below suggests. When your sentences reach outward like this, they establish con- nections that help your writing flow smoothly in a way readers appreciate. Conversely, when writing lacks such connections and moves in fits and starts, readers repeatedly have to go back over the sentences and guess at the connections on their own. To pre- vent such disconnection and make your writing flow, we advise

05_GRA_93584_part3_103_160.indd 107 11/8/14 3:35 PM

e i g h t e i g h t “ A S A R E S U L T ”

1 0 8

following a “do it yourself ” principle, which means that it is your job as a writer to do the hard work of making the connections rather than, as Bill did, leaving this work to your readers. This chapter offers several strategies you can use to put this principle into action: (1) using transition terms (like “there- fore” and “as a result”); (2) adding pointing words (like “this” or “such”); (3) developing a set of key terms and phrases for each text you write; and (4) repeating yourself, but with a difference—a move that involves repeating what you’ve said, but with enough variation to avoid being redundant. All these moves require that you always look back and, in crafting any one sentence, think hard about those that precede it. Notice how we ourselves have used such connecting devices thus far in this chapter. The second paragraph of this chapter, for example, opens with the transitional “And yet,” signaling a change in direction, while the opening sentence of the third includes the phrase “in other words,” telling you to expect a restatement of a point we’ve just made. If you look through this book, you should be able to find many sentences that contain some word or phrase that explicitly hooks them back to some- thing said earlier, to something about to be said, or both. And many sentences in this chapter repeat key terms related to the idea of connection: “connect,” “disconnect,” “link,” “relate,” “forward,” and “backward.”

use transitions

For readers to follow your train of thought, you need not only to connect your sentences and paragraphs to each other, but also to mark the kind of connection you are making. One of the easiest ways to make this move is to use transitions (from

05_GRA_93584_part3_103_160.indd 108 11/8/14 3:35 PM

Connecting the Parts

1 0 9

the Latin root trans, “across”), which help you cross from one point to another in your text. Transitions are usually placed at or near the start of sentences so they can signal to readers where your text is going: in the same direction it has been moving, or in a new direction. More specifically, transitions tell readers whether your text is echoing a previous sentence or paragraph (“in other words”), adding something to it (“in addi- tion”), offering an example of it (“for example”), generalizing from it (“as a result”), or modifying it (“and yet”). The following is a list of commonly used transitions, catego- rized according to their different functions.


also indeed and in fact besides moreover furthermore so too in addition


actually to put it another way by extension to put it bluntly in other words to put it succinctly in short ultimately that is


after all for instance as an illustration specifically consider to take a case in point for example

05_GRA_93584_part3_103_160.indd 109 11/8/14 3:35 PM

e i g h t e i g h t “ A S A R E S U L T ”

1 1 0

cause and effect

accordingly so as a result then consequently therefore hence thus since


along the same lines likewise in the same way similarly


although nevertheless but nonetheless by contrast on the contrary conversely on the other hand despite regardless even though whereas however while yet in contrast


admittedly naturally although it is true of course granted to be sure


as a result in sum consequently therefore hence thus in conclusion to sum up in short to summarize

05_GRA_93584_part3_103_160.indd 110 11/8/14 3:35 PM

Connecting the Parts

1 1 1

Ideally, transitions should operate so unobtrusively in a piece of writing that they recede into the background and readers do not even notice that they are there. It’s a bit like what happens when drivers use their turn signals before turning right or left: just as other drivers recognize such signals almost unconsciously, readers should process transition terms with a minimum of thought. But even though such terms should function unobtrusively in your writing, they can be among the most powerful tools in your vocabulary. Think how your heart sinks when someone, immediately after praising you, begins a sentence with “but” or “however.” No matter what follows, you know it won’t be good. Notice that some transitions can help you not only to move from one sentence to another, but to combine two or more sen- tences into one. Combining sentences in this way helps prevent the choppy, staccato effect that arises when too many short sen- tences are strung together, one after the other. For instance, to combine Bill’s two choppy sentences (“Spot is a good dog. He has fleas.”) into one, better-flowing sentence, we suggested that he rewrite them as “Spot is a good dog, even though he has fleas.” Transitions like these not only guide readers through the twists and turns of your argument but also help ensure that you have an argument in the first place. In fact, we think of words like “but,” “yet,” “nevertheless,” “besides,” and others as argu- ment words, since it’s hard to use them without making some kind of argument. The word “therefore,” for instance, commits you to making sure that the claims preceding it lead logically to the conclusion that it introduces. “For example” also assumes an argument, since it requires the material you are introducing to stand as an instance or proof of some preceding generalization. As a result, the more you use transitions, the more you’ll be able not only to connect the parts of your text but also to construct

05_GRA_93584_part3_103_160.indd 111 11/8/14 3:35 PM

e i g h t e i g h t “ A S A R E S U L T ”

1 1 2

a strong argument in the first place. And if you draw on them frequently enough, using them should eventually become sec- ond nature. To be sure, it is possible to overuse transitions, so take time to read over your drafts carefully and eliminate any transitions

that are unnecessary. But following the maxim that you need to learn the basic moves of argument before you can deliberately depart from them, we advise you not to

forgo explicit transition terms until you’ve first mastered their use. In all our years of teaching, we’ve read countless essays that suffered from having few or no transitions, but cannot recall one in which the transitions were overused. Seasoned writers sometimes omit explicit transitions, but only because they rely heavily on the other types of connecting devices that we turn to in the rest of this chapter. Before doing so, however, let us warn you about inserting tran- sitions without really thinking through their meanings—using “therefore,” say, when your text’s logic actually requires “nev- ertheless” or “however.” So beware. Choosing transition terms should involve a bit of mental sweat, since the whole point of using them is to make your writing more reader-friendly, not less. The only thing more frustrating than reading Bill-style passages like “Spot is a good dog. He has fleas” is reading mis-connected sentences like “Spot is a good dog. For example, he has fleas.”

use pointing words

Another way to connect the parts of your argument is by using pointing words—which, as their name implies, point or refer backward to some concept in the previous sentence. The most common of these pointing words include “this,” “these,” “that,”

See how Mary Maxfield uses transitions on

p. 443.

05_GRA_93584_part3_103_160.indd 112 11/8/14 3:35 PM

Connecting the Parts

1 1 3

“those,” “their,” and “such” (as in “these pointing words” near the start of this sentence) and simple pronouns like “his,” “he,” “her,” “she,” “it,” and “their.” Such terms help you create the flow we spoke of earlier that enables readers to move effortlessly through your text. In a sense, these terms are like an invisible hand reaching out of your sentence, grabbing what’s needed in the previous sentences and pulling it along. Like transitions, however, pointing words need to be used carefully. It’s dangerously easy to insert pointing words into your text that don’t refer to a clearly defined object, assuming that because the object you have in mind is clear to you it will also be clear to your readers. For example, consider the use of “this” in the following passage.

Alexis de Tocqueville was highly critical of democratic societ- ies, which he saw as tending toward mob rule. At the same time, he accorded democratic societies grudging respect. This is seen in Tocqueville’s statement that . . .

When “this” is used in such a way it becomes an ambiguous or free-floating pointer, since readers can’t tell if it refers to Tocque- ville’s critical attitude toward democratic societies, his grudging respect for them, or some combination of both. “This what?” readers mutter as they go back over such passages and try to figure them out. It’s also tempting to try to cheat with pointing words, hoping that they will conceal or make up for conceptual confusions that may lurk in your argument. By referring to a fuzzy idea as “this” or “that,” you might hope the fuzziness will somehow come across as clearer than it is. You can fix problems caused by a free-floating pointer by making sure there is one and only one possible object in the vicinity that the pointer could be referring to. It also often helps

05_GRA_93584_part3_103_160.indd 113 11/8/14 3:35 PM

e i g h t e i g h t “ A S A R E S U L T ”

1 1 4

to name the object the pointer is referring to at the same time that you point to it, replacing the bald “this” in the example above with a more precise phrase like “this ambivalence toward democratic societies” or “this grudging respect.”

repeat key terms and phrases

A third strategy for connecting the parts of your argument is to develop a constellation of key terms and phrases, including their synonyms and antonyms, that you repeat throughout your text. When used effectively, your key terms should be items that readers could extract from your text in order to get a solid sense of your topic. Playing with key terms also can be a good way to come up with a title and appropriate section headings for your text. Notice how often Martin Luther King Jr. uses the key words “criticism,” “statement,” “answer,” and “correspondence” in the opening paragraph of his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

Dear Fellow Clergymen: While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities “unwise and untimely.” Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would have little time for anything other than such correspondence in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work. But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.

Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail”

05_GRA_93584_part3_103_160.indd 114 11/8/14 3:35 PM

Connecting the Parts

1 1 5

Even though King uses the terms “criticism” and “answer” three times each and “statement” twice, the effect is not overly repeti- tive. In fact, these key terms help build a sense of momentum in the paragraph and bind it together. For another example of the effective use of key terms, con- sider the following passage, in which the historian Susan Doug- las develops a constellation of sharply contrasting key terms around the concept of “cultural schizophrenics”: women like herself who, Douglas claims, have mixed feelings about the images of ideal femininity with which they are constantly bom- barded by the media.

In a variety of ways, the mass media helped make us the cultural schizophrenics we are today, women who rebel against yet submit to prevailing images about what a desirable, worthwhile woman should be. . . . [T]he mass media has engendered in many women a kind of cultural identity crisis. We are ambivalent toward feminin- ity on the one hand and feminism on the other. Pulled in opposite directions—told we were equal, yet told we were subordinate; told we could change history but told we were trapped by history—we got the bends at an early age, and we’ve never gotten rid of them. When I open Vogue, for example, I am simultaneously infu- riated and seduced. . . . I adore the materialism; I despise the materialism. . . . I want to look beautiful; I think wanting to look beautiful is about the most dumb-ass goal you could have. The magazine stokes my desire; the magazine triggers my bile. And this doesn’t only happen when I’m reading Vogue; it happens all the time. . . . On the one hand, on the other hand—that’s not just me—that’s what it means to be a woman in America. To explain this schizophrenia . . .

Susan Douglas, Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media

05_GRA_93584_part3_103_160.indd 115 11/8/14 3:35 PM

e i g h t e i g h t “ A S A R E S U L T ”

1 1 6

In this passage, Douglas establishes “schizophrenia” as a key concept and then echoes it through synonyms like “identity crisis,” “ambivalent,” “the bends”—and even demonstrates it through a series of contrasting words and phrases:

rebel against / submit told we were equal / told we were subordinate told we could change history / told we were trapped by history infuriated / seduced I adore / I despise I want / I think wanting . . . is about the most dumb-ass goal stokes my desire / triggers my bile on the one hand / on the other hand

These contrasting phrases help flesh out Douglas’s claim that women are being pulled in two directions at once. In so doing, they bind the passage together into a unified whole that, despite its complexity and sophistication, stays focused over its entire length.

repeat yourself—but with a difference

The last technique we offer for connecting the parts of your text involves repeating yourself, but with a difference—which basically means saying the same thing you’ve just said, but in a slightly different way that avoids sounding monotonous. To effectively connect the parts of your argument and keep it mov- ing forward, be careful not to leap from one idea to a different idea or introduce new ideas cold. Instead, try to build bridges between your ideas by echoing what you’ve just said while simultaneously moving your text into new territory.

05_GRA_93584_part3_103_160.indd 116 11/8/14 3:35 PM

Connecting the Parts

1 1 7

Several of the connecting devices discussed in this chapter are ways of repeating yourself in this special way. Key terms, pointing terms, and even many transitions can be used in a way that not only brings something forward from the previous sentence but in some way alters it. When Douglas, for instance, uses the key term “ambivalent” to echo her earlier reference to schizophrenics, she is repeating herself with a difference— repeating the same concept, but with a different word that adds new associations. In addition, when you use transition phrases like “in other words” and “to put it another way,” you repeat yourself with a difference, since these phrases help you restate earlier claims but in a different register. When you open a sentence with “in other words,” you are basically telling your readers that in case they didn’t fully understand what you meant in the last sentence, you are now coming at it again from a slightly different angle, or that since you’re presenting a very important idea, you’re not going to skip over it quickly but will explore it further to make sure your readers grasp all its aspects. We would even go so far as to suggest that after your first sentence, almost every sentence you write should refer back to previous statements in some way. Whether you are writing a “furthermore” comment that adds to what you have just said or a “for example” statement that illustrates it, each sentence should echo at least one element of the previous sentence in some discernible way. Even when your text changes direction and requires transitions like “in contrast,” “however,” or “but,” you still need to mark that shift by linking the sentence to the one just before it, as in the following example.

Cheyenne loved basketball. Nevertheless, she feared her height would put her at a disadvantage.

05_GRA_93584_part3_103_160.indd 117 11/8/14 3:35 PM

e i g h t e i g h t “ A S A R E S U L T ”

1 1 8

These sentences work because even though the second sen- tence changes course and qualifies the first, it still echoes key concepts from the first. Not only does “she” echo “Cheyenne,” since both refer to the same person, but “feared” echoes “loved” by establishing the contrast mandated by the term “neverthe- less.” “Nevertheless,” then, is not an excuse for changing sub- jects radically. It too requires repetition to help readers shift gears with you and follow your train of thought. Repetition, in short, is the central means by which you can move from point A to point B in a text. To introduce one last analogy, think of the way experienced rock climbers move up a steep slope. Instead of jumping or lurching from one handhold to the next, good climbers get a secure handhold on the position they have established before reaching for the next ledge. The same thing applies to writing. To move smoothly from point to point in your argument, you need to firmly ground what you say in what you’ve already said. In this way, your writing remains focused while simultaneously moving forward. “But hold on,” you may be thinking. “Isn’t repetition pre- cisely what sophisticated writers should avoid, on the grounds that it will make their writing sound simplistic—as if they are belaboring the obvious?” Yes and no. On the one hand, writers certainly can run into trouble if they merely repeat themselves and nothing more. On the other hand, repetition is key to creat- ing continuity in writing. It is impossible to stay on track in a piece of writing if you don’t repeat your points throughout the length of the text. Furthermore, writers would never make an impact on readers if they didn’t repeat their main points often enough to reinforce those points and make them stand out above subordinate points. The trick therefore is not to avoid repeating yourself but to repeat yourself in varied and interesting enough ways that you advance your argument without sounding tedious.

05_GRA_93584_part3_103_160.indd 118 11/8/14 3:35 PM

Connecting the Parts

1 1 9


1. Read the following opening to Chapter 2 of The Road to Wigan Pier, by George Orwell. Annotate the connecting devices by underlining the transitions, circling the key terms, and putting boxes around the pointing terms.

Our civilisation . . . is founded on coal, more completely than one realises until one stops to think about it. The machines that keep us alive, and the machines that make the machines, are all directly or indirectly dependent upon coal. In the metabolism of the Western world the coal-miner is second in importance only to the man who ploughs the soil. He is a sort of grimy cary- atid upon whose shoulders nearly everything that is not grimy is supported. For this reason the actual process by which coal is extracted is well worth watching, if you get the chance and are willing to take the trouble. When you go down a coal-mine it is important to try and get to the coal face when the “fillers” are at work. This is not easy, because when the mine is working visitors are a nuisance and are not encouraged, but if you go at any other time, it is possible to come away with a totally wrong impression. On a Sunday, for instance, a mine seems almost peaceful. The time to go there is when the machines are roaring and the air is black with coal dust, and when you can actually see what the miners have to do. At those times the place is like hell, or at any rate like my own mental picture of hell. Most of the things one imagines in hell are there—heat, noise, confusion, darkness, foul air, and, above all, unbearably cramped space. Everything except the fire, for there is no fire down there except the feeble beams of Davy lamps and electric torches which scarcely penetrate the clouds of coal dust.

05_GRA_93584_part3_103_160.indd 119 11/8/14 3:35 PM

e i g h t e i g h t “ A S A R E S U L T ”

1 2 0

When you have finally got there—and getting there is a job in itself: I will explain that in a moment—you crawl through the last line of pit props and see opposite you a shiny black wall three or four feet high. This is the coal face. Overhead is the smooth ceiling made by the rock from which the coal has been cut; underneath is the rock again, so that the gallery you are in is only as high as the ledge of coal itself, probably not much more than a yard. The first impression of all, overmastering everything else for a while, is the frightful, deafening din from the conveyor belt which carries the coal away. You cannot see very far, because the fog of coal dust throws back the beam of your lamp, but you can see on either side of you the line of half-naked kneeling men, one to every four or five yards, driving their shovels under the fallen coal and flinging it swiftly over their left shoulders. . . .

George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier

2. Read over something you’ve written with an eye for the devices you’ve used to connect the parts. Underline all the transitions, pointing terms, key terms, and repetition. Do you see any patterns? Do you rely on certain devices more than others? Are there any passages that are hard to follow—and if so, can you make them easier to read by trying any of the other devices discussed in this chapter?

05_GRA_93584_part3_103_160.indd 120 11/8/14 3:35 PM

1 2 1


“ain’t so / is not”

Academic Writing Doesn’t Always Mean

Setting Aside Your Own Voice


Have you ever gotten the impression that writing well in college means setting aside the kind of language you use in everyday conversation? That to impress your instructors you need to use big words, long sentences, and complex sentence structures? If so, then we’re here to tell you that it ain’t neces- sarily so. On the contrary, academic writing can—and in our view should—be relaxed, easy to follow, and even a little bit fun. Although we don’t want to suggest that you avoid using sophisticated, academic terms in your writing, we encourage you to draw upon the kinds of expressions and turns of phrase that you use every day when texting or conversing with family and friends. In this chapter, we want to show you how you can write effective academic arguments while holding on to some of your own voice. This point is important, since you may well become turned off from writing if you think your everyday language practices have to be checked at the classroom door. You may end up feeling like a student we know who, when asked how she felt

05_GRA_93584_part3_103_160.indd 121 11/8/14 3:35 PM

n i n e n i n e “ A I N ’ T S O / I S N O T ”

1 2 2

about the writing she does in college, answered, “I do it because I have to, but it’s just not me!” This is not to suggest that any language you use among friends has a place in academic writing. Nor is it to suggest that you may fall back on colloquial usage as an excuse for not learning more rigorous forms of expression. After all, learning these more rigorous forms of expression and developing a more intellectual self is a major reason for getting an education. We do, however, wish to suggest that relaxed, colloquial language can often enliven academic writing and even enhance its rigor and precision. Such informal language also helps you connect with readers in a personal as well as an intellectual way. In our view, then, it is a mistake to assume that the academic and the everyday are completely separate languages that can never be used together.

mix academic and colloquial styles

Many successful writers blend academic, professional language with popular expressions and sayings. Consider, for instance, the following passage from a scholarly article about the way teachers respond to errors in student writing.

Marking and judging formal and mechanical errors in student papers is one area in which composition studies seems to have a multiple-personality disorder. On the one hand, our mellow, student-centered, process-based selves tend to condemn mark- ing formal errors at all. Doing it represents the Bad Old Days. Ms. Fidditch and Mr. Flutesnoot with sharpened red pencils, spill- ing innocent blood across the page. Useless detail work. Inhumane, perfectionist standards, making our students feel stupid, wrong,

05_GRA_93584_part3_103_160.indd 122 11/8/14 3:35 PM

Academic Writing Doesn’t Mean Setting Aside Your Own Voice

1 2 3

trivial, misunderstood. Joseph Williams has pointed out how arbi- trary and context-bound our judgments of formal error are. And certainly our noting of errors on student papers gives no one any great joy; as Peter Elbow says, English is most often associated either with grammar or with high literature—“two things designed to make folks feel most out of it.”

Robert Connors and Andrea Lunsford, “Frequency of Formal Errors in Current College Writing,

or Ma and Pa Kettle Do Research”

This passage blends writing styles in several ways. First, it places informal, relaxed expressions like “mellow,” “the Bad Old Days,” and “folks” alongside more formal, academic phrases like “multiple-personality disorder,” “student-centered,” “process- based,” and “arbitrary and context-bound.” Even the title of the piece, “Frequency of Formal Errors in Current College Writing, or Ma and Pa Kettle Do Research,” blends formal, academic usage on the left side of the comma with a popular- culture reference to the fictional movie characters Ma and Pa Kettle on the right. Second, to give vivid, concrete form to their discussion of grading disciplinarians, Connors and Lunsford conjure up such archetypal, imaginary figures as the stuffy, old-fashioned taskmasters Ms. Fidditch and Mr. Flutes- noot. Through such imaginative uses of language, Connors and Lunsford inject greater force into what might otherwise have been dry, scholarly prose. Formal/informal mixings like this can be found in countless other texts, though more frequently in the humanities than the sciences, and more frequently still in journalism. Notice how the food industry critic Eric Schlosser describes some changes in the city of Colorado Springs in his best-selling book on fast foods in the United States.

05_GRA_93584_part3_103_160.indd 123 11/8/14 3:35 PM

n i n e n i n e “ A I N ’ T S O / I S N O T ”

1 2 4

The loopiness once associated with Los Angeles has come full blown to Colorado Springs—the strange, creative energy that crops up where the future’s consciously being made, where people walk the fine line separating a visionary from a total nutcase.

Eric Schlosser, Fast Food Nation

Schlosser could have played it safe and referred not to the “loopiness” but to the “eccentricity” associated with Los Ange- les, or to “the fine line separating a visionary from a lunatic” instead of “ . . . a total nutcase.” His decision, however, to go with the more adventuresome, colorful terms gives a liveliness to his writing that would have been lacking with the more conventional terms. Another example of writing that blends the informal with the formal comes from an essay on the American novelist Willa Cather by the literary critic Judith Fetterley. Discussing “how very successful Cather has been in controlling how we think about her,” Fetterley, building on the work of another scholar, writes as follows.

As Merrill Skaggs has put it, “She is neurotically controlling and self-conscious about her work, but she knows at all points what she is doing. Above all else, she is self-conscious.” Without question, Cather was a control freak.

Judith Fetterley, “Willa Cather and the Question of Sympathy: The Unofficial Story”

This passage demonstrates not only that specialized phrases from psychology like “self-conscious” and “neurotically control- ling” are compatible with everyday, popular expressions like “control freak,” but also that translating the one type of lan- guage into the other, the specialized into the everyday, can help

05_GRA_93584_part3_103_160.indd 124 11/8/14 3:35 PM

Academic Writing Doesn’t Mean Setting Aside Your Own Voice

1 2 5

drive home a point. By translating Skaggs’s polysyllabic description of Cather as “neurotically controlling and self-conscious” into the succinct, if blunt, claim that “Without question, Cather was a control freak,” Fetter- ley suggests that one need not choose between rarified, academic ways of talking and the everyday language of casual con- versation. Indeed, her passage offers a simple recipe for blending the high and the low: first make your point in the language of a professional field, and then make it again in everyday language—a great trick, we think, for underscoring a point. While one effect of blending languages like this is to give your writing more punch, another is to make a political statement— about the way, for example, society unfairly overvalues some dialects and devalues others. For instance, in the titles of two of her books, Talkin and Testifyin: The Language of Black America and Black Talk: Words and Phrases from the Hood to the Amen Corner, the language scholar Geneva Smitherman mixes African American vernacular phrases with more scholarly language in order to suggest, as she explicitly argues in these books, that black English vernacular is as legitimate a variety of language as “standard” English. Here are three typical passages.

In Black America, the oral tradition has served as a fundamen- tal vehicle for gittin ovuh. That tradition preserves the Afro- American heritage and reflects the collective spirit of the race.

Blacks are quick to ridicule “educated fools,” people who done gone to school and read all dem books and still don’t know nothin!

. . . it is a socially approved verbal strategy for black rappers to talk about how bad they is.

Geneva Smitherman, Talkin and Testifyin: The Language of Black America

See p. 264 for an essay that mixes colloquial and academic styles.

05_GRA_93584_part3_103_160.indd 125 11/8/14 3:35 PM

n i n e n i n e “ A I N ’ T S O / I S N O T ”

1 2 6

In these examples, Smitherman blends the standard written English of phrases like “oral tradition” and “fundamental vehi- cle” with black oral vernacular like “gittin ovuh,” “dem books,” and “how bad they is.” Indeed, she even blends standard English spelling with that of black English variants like “dem” and “ovuh,” thus mimicking what some black English vernacular actually sounds like. Although some scholars might object to these unconventional practices, this is precisely Smitherman’s point: that our habitual language practices need to be opened up, and that the number of participants in the academic con- versation needs to be expanded. Along similar lines, the writer and activist Gloria Anzaldúa mixes standard English with Tex-Mex, a hybrid blend of English, Castilian Spanish, a North Mexican dialect, and the Indian language Nahuatl, to make a political point about the suppression of the Spanish language in the United States.

From this racial, ideological, cultural, and biological cross- pollinization, an “alien” consciousness is presently in the making— a new mestiza consciousness, una conciencia de mujer.

Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands / La Frontera: The New Mestiza

Like Smitherman, Anzaldúa gets her point across not only through what she says but through the way she says it, liter- ally showing that the new hybrid, or mestiza, consciousness that she describes is, as she puts it, “presently in the making.” Ultimately, these passages suggest that blending languages— what Vershawn Ashanti Young calls “code meshing”—can call into question the very idea that the languages are distinct and separate.

05_GRA_93584_part3_103_160.indd 126 11/8/14 3:35 PM

Academic Writing Doesn’t Mean Setting Aside Your Own Voice

1 2 7

when to mix styles? consider your audience and purpose

Because there are so many options in writing, you should never feel limited in your choice of words, as if such choices are set in stone. You can always experiment with your language and improve it. You can always dress it up, dress it down, or some combination of both. In dressing down your language, for exam- ple, you can make the claim that somebody “failed to notice” something by saying instead that it “flew under the radar.” Or you can state that the person was “unaware” of something by saying that he was “out to lunch.” You could even recast the title of this book, “They Say / I Say,” as a teenager might say it: “She Goes / I’m Like.” But how do you know when it is better to play things straight and stick to standard English, and when to be more adventure- some and mix things up? When, in other words, should you write “failed to notice” and when is it okay (or more effective) to write “flew under the radar”? Is it always appropriate to mix styles? And when you do so, how do you know when enough is enough? In all situations, think carefully about your audience and purpose. When you write a letter applying for a job, for instance, or submit a grant proposal, where your words will be weighed by an official screening body, using language that’s too colloquial or slangy may well jeopardize your chances of success. On such occasions, it is usually best to err on the safe side, conforming as closely as possible to the conventions of standard written English. In other situations for other audiences, however, there is room to be more creative—in this book, for example. Ulti- mately, your judgments about the appropriate language for the

05_GRA_93584_part3_103_160.indd 127 11/8/14 3:35 PM

n i n e n i n e “ A I N ’ T S O / I S N O T ”

1 2 8

situation should always take into account your likely audience and your purpose in writing. Although it may have been in the past, academic writing in most disciplines today is no longer the linguistic equivalent of a black-tie affair. To succeed as a writer in college, then, you need not always limit your language to the strictly formal. Although academic writing does rely on complex sentence patterns and on specialized, disciplinary vocabularies, it is surprising how often such writing draws on the languages of the street, popular culture, our ethnic communities, and home. It is by blending these languages that what counts as “standard” En glish changes over time and the range of possibilities open to academic writers continues to grow.


1. Take a paragraph from this book and dress it down, rewrit- ing it in informal colloquial language. Then rewrite the same paragraph again by dressing it up, making it much more for- mal. Then rewrite the paragraph one more time in a way that blends the two styles. Share your paragraphs with a classmate, and discuss which versions are most effective and why.

2. Find something you’ve written for a course, and study it to see whether you’ve used any of your own everyday expressions, any words or structures that are not “academic.” If by chance you don’t find any, see if there’s a place or two where shifting into more casual or unexpected language would help you make a point, get your reader’s attention, or just add liveliness to your text. Be sure to keep your audience and purpose in mind, and use language that will be appropriate to both.

05_GRA_93584_part3_103_160.indd 128 11/8/14 3:35 PM

1 2 9


“but don’t get me wrong”

The Art of Metacommentary


When we tell people that we are writing a chapter on the art of metacommentary, they often give us a puzzled look and tell us that they have no idea what “metacommen tary” is. “We know what commentary is,” they’ll sometimes say, “but what does it mean when it’s meta?” Our answer is that whether or not they know the term, they practice the art of metacommen- tary on a daily basis whenever they make a point of explain- ing something they’ve said or written: “What I meant to say was ,” “My point was not , but ,” or “You’re probably not going to like what I’m about to say, but .” In such cases, they are not offering new points but telling an audience how to interpret what they have already said or are about to say. In short, then, metacommentary is a way of commenting on your claims and telling others how—and how not—to think about them. It may help to think of metacommentary as being like the chorus in a Greek play that stands to the side of the drama unfolding on the stage and explains its meaning to the audience—or like a voice-over narrator who comments on

05_GRA_93584_part3_103_160.indd 129 11/8/14 3:35 PM

t e n t e n “ B U T D O N ’ T G E T M E W R O N G ”

1 3 0

and explains the action in a television show or movie. Think of metacommentary as a sort of second text that stands along- side your main text and explains what it means. In the main text you say something; in the metatext you guide your readers in interpreting and processing what you’ve said. What we are suggesting, then, is that you think of your text as two texts joined at the hip: a main text in which you make your argument and another in which you “work” your ideas, distinguishing your views from others they may be confused with, anticipating and answering objections, connecting one point to another, explaining why your claim might be contro- versial, and so forth. The figure below demonstrates what we mean.







05_GRA_93584_part3_103_160.indd 130 11/8/14 3:35 PM

The Art of Metacommentary

1 3 1

use metacommentary to clarify and elaborate

But why do you need metacommentary to tell readers what you mean and guide them through your text? Can’t you just clearly say what you mean up front? The answer is that, no matter how clear and precise your writing is, readers can still fail to under- stand it in any number of ways. Even the best writers can provoke reactions in readers that they didn’t intend, and even good readers can get lost in a complicated argument or fail to see how one point connects with another. Readers may also fail to see what follows from your argument, or they may follow your reasoning and examples yet fail to see the larger conclusion you draw from them. They may fail to see your argument’s overall significance, or mistake what you are saying for a related argument that they have heard before but that you want to distance yourself from. As a result, no mat- ter how straightforward a writer you are, readers still need you to help them grasp what you really mean. Because the written word is prone to so much mischief and can be interpreted in so many different ways, we need metacommentary to keep misinterpreta- tions and other communication misfires at bay. Another reason to master the art of metacommentary is that it will help you develop your ideas and generate more text. If you have ever had trouble producing the required number of pages for a writing project, metacommentary can help you add both length and depth to your writing. We’ve seen many students who try to produce a five-page paper sputter to a halt at two or three pages, complaining they’ve said everything they can think of about their topic. “I’ve stated my thesis and presented my reasons and evidence,” students have told us. “What else is there to do?” It’s almost as if such writers have generated a thesis and

Jonathan Safran Foer uses lots of metacommentary; see, e.g., p. 457, ¶45.

05_GRA_93584_part3_103_160.indd 131 11/8/14 3:35 PM

t e n t e n “ B U T D O N ’ T G E T M E W R O N G ”

1 3 2

don’t know what to do with it. When these students learn to use metacommentary, however, they get more out of their ideas and write longer, more substantial texts. In sum, metacommentary can help you extract the full potential from your ideas, draw- ing out important implications, explaining ideas from different perspectives, and so forth. So even when you may think you’ve said everything pos- sible in an argument, try inserting the following types of metacommentary.

j In other words, she doesn’t realize how right she is.

j What really means is .

j My point is not but .

j Ultimately, then, my goal is to demonstrate that .

Ideally, such metacommentary should help you recognize some implications of your ideas that you didn’t initially realize were there. Let’s look at how the cultural critic Neil Postman uses meta- commentary in the following passage describing the shift in American culture when it began to move from print and read- ing to television and movies.

It is my intention in this book to show that a great . . . shift has taken place in America, with the result that the content of much of our public discourse has become dangerous nonsense. With this in view, my task in the chapters ahead is straightforward. I must, first, demonstrate how, under the governance of the printing press, discourse in America was different from what it is now— generally coherent, serious and rational; and then how, under the

05_GRA_93584_part3_103_160.indd 132 11/8/14 3:35 PM

The Art of Metacommentary

1 3 3

governance of television, it has become shriveled and absurd. But to avoid the possibility that my analysis will be interpreted as standard-brand academic whimpering, a kind of elitist complaint against “junk” on television, I must first explain that . . . I appreci- ate junk as much as the next fellow, and I know full well that the printing press has generated enough of it to fill the Grand Canyon to overflowing. Television is not old enough to have matched printing’s output of junk.

Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business

To see what we mean by metacommentary, look at the phrases above that we have italicized. With these moves, Postman essentially stands apart from his main ideas to help readers follow and understand what he is arguing.

He previews what he will argue: It is my intention in this book to show . . .

He spells out how he will make his argument: With this in view, my task in these chapters . . . is. . . . I must, first, dem- onstrate . . . and then . . .

He distinguishes his argument from other arguments it may easily be confused with: But to avoid the possibility that my analysis will be interpreted as . . . I must first explain that . . .

titles as metacommentary

Even the title of Postman’s book, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, functions as a form of metacommentary since, like all titles, it stands apart from

05_GRA_93584_part3_103_160.indd 133 11/8/14 3:35 PM

t e n t e n “ B U T D O N ’ T G E T M E W R O N G ”

1 3 4

the text itself and tells readers the book’s main point: that the very pleasure provided by contemporary show business is destructive. Titles, in fact, are one of the most important forms of metacommentary, functioning rather like carnival barkers telling passersby what they can expect if they go inside. Sub- titles, too, function as metacommentary, further explaining or elaborating on the main title. The subtitle of this book, for example, not only explains that it is about “the moves that matter in academic writing,” but indicates that “they say / I say” is one of these moves. Thinking of a title as metacommentary can actually help you develop sharper titles, ones that, like Postman’s, give readers a hint of what your argument will be. Contrast such titles with unhelpfully open-ended ones like “Shakespeare” or “Steroids” or “English Essay,” or essays with no titles at all. Essays with vague titles (or no titles) send the message that the writer has simply not bothered to reflect on what he or she is saying and is uninterested in guiding or orienting readers.

use other moves as metacommentary

Many of the other moves covered in this book function as metacommentary: entertaining objections, adding transitions, framing quotations, answering “so what?” and “who cares?” When you entertain objections, you stand outside of your text and imagine what a critic might say; when you add transitions, you essentially explain the relationship between various claims. And when you answer the “so what?” and “who cares?” ques- tions, you look beyond your central argument and explain who should be interested in it and why.

05_GRA_93584_part3_103_160.indd 134 11/8/14 3:35 PM

The Art of Metacommentary

1 3 5

templates for introducing metacommentary

to ward off potential misunderstandings

The following moves help you differentiate certain views from ones they might be mistaken for.

j Essentially, I am arguing not that we should give up the policy,

but that we should monitor effects far more closely.

j This is not to say , but rather .

j X is concerned less with than with .

to elaborate on a previous idea

The following moves elaborate on a previous point, saying to readers: “In case you didn’t get it the first time, I’ll try saying the same thing in a different way.”

j In other words, .

j To put it another way, .

j What X is saying here is that .

to provide a roadmap to your text

This move orients readers, clarifying where you have been and where you are going—and making it easier for them to process and follow your text.

j Chapter 2 explores , while Chapter 3 examines


j Having just argued that , I want now to complicate the

point by .

05_GRA_93584_part3_103_160.indd 135 11/8/14 3:35 PM

t e n t e n “ B U T D O N ’ T G E T M E W R O N G ”

1 3 6

to move from a general claim to a specific example

These moves help you explain a general point by providing a concrete example that illustrates what you’re saying.

j For example, .

j , for instance, demonstrates .

j Consider , for example.

j To take a case in point, .

to indicate that a claim is more, less, or equally important

The following templates help you give relative emphasis to the claim that you are introducing, showing whether that claim is of more or less weight than the previous one, or equal to it.

j Even more important, .

j But above all, .

j Incidentally, we will briefly note, .

j Just as important, .

j Equally, .

j Finally, .

to explain a claim when you anticipate objections

Here’s a template to help you anticipate and respond to pos- sible objections.

j Although some readers may object that , I would

answer that .

05_GRA_93584_part3_103_160.indd 136 11/8/14 3:35 PM

The Art of Metacommentary

1 3 7

to guide readers to your most general point

These moves show that you are wrapping things up and tying up various subpoints previously made.

j In sum, then, .

j My conclusion, then, is that .

j In short, .

In this chapter we have tried to show that the most persuasive writing often doubles back and comments on its own claims in ways that help readers negotiate and process them. Instead of simply piling claim upon claim, effective writers are constantly “stage managing” how their claims will be recieved. It’s true of course that to be persuasive a text has to have strong claims to argue in the first place. But even the strongest arguments will flounder unless writers use metacommentary to prevent potential misreadings and make their arguments shine.


1. Read an essay or article and annotate it to indicate the different ways the author uses metacommentary. Use the templates on pp. 135–37 as your guide. For example, you may want to circle transitional phrases and write “trans” in the margins, to put brackets around sentences that elaborate on earlier sentences and mark them “elab,” or underline sentences in which the author sums up what he or she has been saying, writing “sum” in the margins.

How does the author use metacommentary? Does the author follow any of the templates provided in this book

Chapter 6 has more templates for anticipating objections.

05_GRA_93584_part3_103_160.indd 137 11/8/14 3:35 PM

t e n t e n “ B U T D O N ’ T G E T M E W R O N G ”

1 3 8

word for word? Did you find any forms of metacommentary not discussed in this chapter? If so, can you identify them, name them, and perhaps devise templates based on them for use in your own writing? And finally, how do you think the author’s use of metacommentary enhances (or harms) his or her writing?

2. Complete each of the following metacommentary templates in any way that makes sense.

j In making a case for the medical use of marijuana, I am not

saying that .

j But my argument will do more than prove that one particular

industrial chemical has certain toxic properties. In this article,

I will also .

j My point about the national obsessions with sports reinforces

the belief held by many that .

j I believe, therefore, that the war is completely unjustified.

But let me back up and explain how I arrived at this conclu-

sion: . In this way, I came to believe that this war is

a big mistake.

05_GRA_93584_part3_103_160.indd 138 11/8/14 3:35 PM

1 3 9


“he says contends”

Using the Templates to Revise


One of the most important stages of the writing process is revision, when you look at a draft with an eye for how well you’ve made your argument and what you need to do to make it better. The challenge is to figure out what needs work—and then what exactly you need to do. Sometimes you’ll have specific comments and suggestions from a teacher, noting that you need to state your position more explicitly, that your point is unclear, that you’ve misunderstood an author you’re summarizing, and so forth. But what if you don’t have any such guidance, or aren’t sure what to do with it? The list of guidelines below offers help and points you back to relevant advice and templates in this book. Do you present your argument as a response to what others say? Do you make reference to other views besides your own? Do you use voice markers to distinguish clearly for readers between your views and those of others? In order to make your argument as convincing as possible, would it help to add more concessions to opposing views, using “yes but” templates?

05_GRA_93584_part3_103_160.indd 139 11/8/14 3:35 PM

1 4 0

e l e v e n e l e v e n “ H E S A Y S C O N T E N D S ”

Asking yourself these large-scale revision questions will help you see how well you’ve managed the “they say / I say” framework and this in turn should help you see where further revisions are needed. The checklist below follows the order of chapters in this book.

How Do You Represent What Others Say?

Do you start with what others say? If not, try revising to do so. See pp. 23–26 for templates that can help.

Do you summarize or paraphrase what they’ve said? If so, have you represented their views accurately—and adequately?

Do you quote others? Do you frame each quotation successfully, integrating it into your text? Does the quotation support your argument? Have you introduced each quotation adequately, naming the person you’re quoting (and saying who that per- son is if your readers won’t know)? Do you explain in your own words what the quotation means? Do you then clearly indicate how the quotation bears on your own argument? See pp. 44–46 for tips on creating a “quotation sandwich.”

Check the verbs you use to introduce any summaries and quo- tations: do they express accurately what was said? If you’ve used common signal phrases such as “X said” or “Y believes,” is there a verb that reflects more accurately what was said? See pp. 39–40 for a list of verbs for introducing summaries and quotations.

Have you documented all summaries and quotations, both with parenthetical documentation in your text and a references or works cited list?

05_GRA_93584_part3_103_160.indd 140 11/8/14 3:35 PM

1 4 1

Using the Templates to Revise

Do you remind readers of what others say at various points throughout your text? If not, see pp. 27–28 for help revising in order to do so.

What Do You Say?

Do you agree, disagree, or both with those you’re responding to? Have you said so explicitly?

If you disagree, do you give reasons why you disagree? If you agree, what more have you added to the conversation? If you both agree and disagree, do you do so without confusing readers or seeming evasive?

Have you stated your position and the one it responds to as a connected unit?

What reasons and evidence do you offer to support your “I say”? In other words, do your argument and the argument you are responding to—your “I say” and “they say”—address the same topic or issue, or does a switch occur that takes you on a tan- gent that will confuse readers? One way to ensure that your “I say” and “they say” are aligned rather than seeming like ships passing in the night is to use the same key terms in both. See Chapter 8 for tips on how to do so.

Will readers be able to distinguish what you say from what others say? See Chapter 5 for advice about using voice markers to make that distinction clear, especially at moments when you are moving from your view to someone else’s view or back.

05_GRA_93584_part3_103_160.indd 141 11/8/14 3:35 PM

1 4 2

e l e v e n e l e v e n “ H E S A Y S C O N T E N D S ”

Have You Introduced Any Naysayers?

Have you acknowledged likely objections to your argument? If so, have you represented these views fairly—and responded to them persuasively? See Chapter 6 for tips on how to do so.

If not, think about what other perspectives exist on your topic, and incorporate them into your draft.

Have You Used Metacommentary to Clarify What You Do or Don’t Mean?

No matter how clearly you’ve explained your points, it’s a good idea to explain what you mean—or don’t mean—with phrases like “in other words” or “don’t get me wrong.” See Chapter 10 for examples of how to do so.

Do you have a title? If so, does it tell readers what your main point or issue is, and does it do so in a lively manner? Should you add a subtitle to elaborate on the title?

Have You Tied It All Together?

Can readers follow your argument from one sentence and para- graph to the next and see how each successive point supports your overall argument?

Check your use of transitions, words like “however” and “therefore.” Such words make clear how your ideas relate to one another; if you need to add transitions, see pp. 109–10 for a complete list.

Check your use of pointing words. Do you use common pointers like “this” and “that,” which help lead readers from one sentence

05_GRA_93584_part3_103_160.indd 142 11/8/14 3:35 PM

1 4 3

Using the Templates to Revise

to the next? If so, is it always clear what “this” and “that” refer to, or do you need to add nouns in order to avoid ambiguity? See pp. 112–14 for help working with pointing words.

Have you used what we call “repetition with a difference” to help connect parts of your argument? See pp. 114–18 for examples of how to do so.

Have You Shown Why Your Argument Matters?

Don’t assume that readers will see why your argument is important—or why they should care. Be sure that you have told them why. See Chapter 7 if you need help.

a revised student essay

Here is an example of how one student, Antonia Peacocke, used this book to revise an essay. Starting with an article she’d written for her high school newspaper, Peacocke then followed the advice in our book as she turned her article into a college level academic essay. Her original article was a brief account of why she liked Family Guy, and her first step in revising was to open with a “they say” and an “I say,” previewing her overall argument in brief form at the essay’s beginning. While her original version had acknowledged that many find the show “objectionable,” she hadn’t named these people or indicated why they didn’t like the show. In her revised version, after doing further research, Peacocke identified those with whom she disagreed and responded to them at length, as the essay itself illustrates.

05_GRA_93584_part3_103_160.indd 143 11/8/14 3:35 PM

1 4 4

e l e v e n e l e v e n “ H E S A Y S C O N T E N D S ”

In addition, Peacocke strengthened existing transitions, added new ones, and clarified the stakes of her argument, saying more explicitly why readers should care about whether Family Guy is good or bad. In making these revisions she gave her own spin to several templates in this book. We’ve annotated Peacocke’s essay in the margins to point out particular rhetorical moves discussed in our book and the chapters in which those discussions appear. We hope studying her essay and our annotations will suggest how you might craft and revise your own writing. Antonia Peacocke wrote this essay in the summer between high school and her first year at Harvard. She is now a PhD student in philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley.

05_GRA_93584_part3_103_160.indd 144 11/8/14 3:35 PM

Using the Templates to Revise

1 4 5

Family Guy and Freud: Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious



While slouching in front of the television after a long day, you probably don’t think a lot about famous psychologists of the twentieth century. Somehow, these figures don’t come up often in prime-time—or even daytime—TV programming. Whether you’re watching Living Lohan or the NewsHour, the likelihood is that you are not thinking of Sigmund Freud, even if you’ve heard of his book Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. I say that you should be.

What made me think of Freud in the first place, actually, was Family Guy, the cartoon created by Seth MacFarlane. (Seriously—stay with me here.) Any of my friends can tell you that this program holds endless fascination for me; as a matter of fact, my high school rag-sheet “perfect mate” was the baby Stewie Griffin, a character on the show (see Fig. 1). Embarrassingly enough, I have almost reached the point at which I can perform

Responds to what they say (Chapter 4)

Metacomment- ary wards off potential skepticism (Chapter 10)

Starts with what others are saying (Chapter 1)

05_GRA_93584_part3_103_160.indd 145 11/8/14 3:35 PM

e l e v e n e l e v e n “ H E S A Y S C O N T E N D S ”

1 4 6

one-woman versions of several episodes. I know every website that streams the show for free, and I still refuse to return the five Family Guy DVDs a friend lent me in 2006. Before I was such a devotee, however, I was adamantly opposed to the program for its particular brand of humor.

It will come as no surprise that I was not alone in this view; many still denounce Family Guy as bigoted and crude. New York Times journalist Stuart Elliott claimed just this year that “the characters on the Fox television series Family Guy . . . purposely offen[d] just about every group of people

Quotes and summarizes what others

say (Chapters 2 and 3)

Fig 1. Peter and Stewie Griffin (Everett Collection)

05_GRA_93584_part3_103_160.indd 146 11/8/14 3:35 PM

Using the Templates to Revise

1 4 7

you could name.” Likewise Stephen Dubner, co-author of Freakonomics, called Family Guy “a cartoon comedy that packs more gags per minute about race, sex, incest, bestiality, etc. than any other show [he] can think of.” Comparing its level of offense to that of Don Imus’s infamous comments about the Rutgers women’s basketball team in the same year, comments that threw the popular CBS radio talk-show host off the air, Dubner said he wondered why Imus couldn’t get away with as much as Family Guy could.

Dubner did not know about all the trouble Family Guy has had. In fact, it must be one of the few television shows in history that has been canceled not just once, but twice. After its premiere in April 1999, the show ran until August 2000, but was besieged by so many complaints, some of them from MacFarlane’s old high school headmaster, Rev. Richardson W. Schell, that Fox shelved it until July 2001 (Weinraub). Still afraid of causing a commotion, though, Fox had the cartoon censored and irregularly scheduled; as a result, its ratings fell so low that 2002 saw its second cancellation (Weinraub). But then it came back with a vengeance—I’ll get into that later.

Family Guy has found trouble more recently, too. In 2007, comedian Carol Burnett sued Fox for 6 million dol- lars, claiming that the show’s parody of the Charwoman, a character that she had created for The Carol Burnett Show, not only violated copyright but also besmirched the

05_GRA_93584_part3_103_160.indd 147 11/8/14 3:35 PM

e l e v e n e l e v e n “ H E S A Y S C O N T E N D S ”

1 4 8

character’s name in revenge for Burnett’s refusal to grant permission to use her theme song (“Carol Burnett Sues”). The suit came after MacFarlane had made the Charwoman into a cleaning woman for a pornography store in one episode of Family Guy. Burnett lost, but U.S. district judge Dean Pregerson agreed that he could “fully appreciate how distasteful and offensive the segment [was] to Ms. Burnett” (qtd. in Grossberg).

I must admit, I can see how parts of the show might seem offensive if taken at face value. Look, for example, at the mock fifties instructional video that features in the episode “I Am Peter, Hear Me Roar.”

[The screen becomes black and white. Vapid music plays in the background. The screen reads “WOMEN IN THE WORKPLACE ca. 1956,” then switches to a shot of an office with various women working on typewriters. A businessman speaks to the camera.]

businessman : Irrational and emotionally fragile by nature, female coworkers are a peculiar animal. They are very insecure about their appearance. Be sure to tell them how good they look every day, even if they’re homely and unkempt. [He turns to an unattractive female typist.] You’re doing a great job, Muriel, and you’re prettier than Mamie van Doren! [She smiles. He grins at the camera, raising one eyebrow knowingly, and winks.]

Represents a naysayer’s

objections fairly

(Chapter 6)

05_GRA_61744_part3_103_160.indd 14805_GRA_61744_part3_103_160.indd 148 22/08/16 3:59 PM22/08/16 3:59 PM

Using the Templates to Revise

1 4 9

And remember, nothing says “Good job!” like a firm open-palm slap on the behind. [He walks past a woman bent over a file cabinet and demonstrates enthusiastically. She smiles, looking flattered. He grins at the camera again as the music comes to an end.]

Laughing at something so blatantly sexist could cause anyone a pang of guilt, and before I thought more about the show this seemed to be a huge problem. I agreed with Dubner, and I failed to see how anyone could laugh at such jokes without feeling at least slightly ashamed.

Soon, though, I found myself forced to give Family Guy a chance. It was simply everywhere: my brother and many of my friends watched it religiously, and its devoted fans relent- lessly proselytized for it. In case you have any doubts about its immense popularity, consider these facts. On Facebook, the universal forum for my generation, there are currently 23 separate Family Guy fan groups with a combined member- ship of 1,669 people (compared with only 6 groups protesting against Family Guy, with 105 members total). Users of the well-respected Internet Movie Database rate the show 8.8 out of 10. The box-set DVDs were the best-selling television DVDs of 2003 in the United States (Moloney). Among the public and within the industry, the show receives fantastic acclaim; it has won eight awards, including three prime- time Emmys (IMDb). Most importantly, each time it was cancelled fans provided the brute force necessary to get it

Agrees, but with a difference (Chapter 4)

Anticipates a naysayer’s skepticism (Chapter 6)

05_GRA_93584_part3_103_160.indd 149 11/8/14 3:35 PM

e l e v e n e l e v e n “ H E S A Y S C O N T E N D S ”

1 5 0

back on the air. In 2000, online campaigns did the trick; in 2002, devotees demonstrated outside Fox Studios, refused to watch the Fox network, and boycotted any companies that advertised on it (Moloney). Given the show’s high profile, both with my friends and family and in the world at large, it would have been more work for me to avoid the Griffin fam- ily than to let myself sink into their animated world.

With more exposure, I found myself crafting a more pos- itive view of Family Guy. Those who don’t often watch the program, as Dubner admits he doesn’t, could easily come to think that the cartoon takes pleasure in controversial humor just for its own sake. But those who pay more attention and think about the creators’ intentions can see that Family Guy intelligently satirizes some aspects of American culture.

Some of this satire is actually quite obvious. Take, for instance, a quip Brian the dog makes about Stewie’s liter- ary choices in a fourth-season episode, “PTV.” (Never mind that a dog and a baby can both read and hold lengthy conversations.)

[The Griffins are in their car. Brian turns to Stewie, who sits reading in his car seat.]

brian : East of Eden? So you, you, you pretty much do whatever Oprah tells you to, huh? stewie : You know, this book’s been around for fifty years. It’s a classic.

Distinguishes between what others say and what she says

(Chapter 5)

Mixes academic and

colloquial styles

(Chapter 9)

Uses a quotation sandwich

to explicate this excerpt (Chapter 3)

05_GRA_93584_part3_103_160.indd 150 11/8/14 3:35 PM

Using the Templates to Revise

1 5 1

brian : But you just got it last week. And there’s a giant Oprah sticker on the front. stewie : Oh—oh—oh, is that what that is? Oh, lemme just peel that right off. brian : So, uh, what are you gonna read after that one? stewie : Well, she hasn’t told us yet—damn!

Brian and Stewie demonstrate insightfully and comically how Americans are willing to follow the instructions of a celebrity blindly—and less willing to admit that they are doing so.

The more off-color jokes, though, those that give Family Guy a bad name, attract a different kind of viewer. Such viewers are not “rats in a behaviorist’s maze,” as Slate writer Dana Stevens labels modern American televi- sion consumers in her article “Thinking Outside the Idiot Box.” They are conscious and critical viewers, akin to the “screenagers” identified by Douglas Rushkoff in an essay entitled “Bart Simpson: Prince of Irreverence” (294). They are not—and this I cannot stress enough, self-serving as it may seem—immoral or easily manipulated people.

Rushkoff’s piece analyzes the humor of The Simpsons, a show criticized for many of the same reasons as Family Guy. “The people I call ‘screenagers,’ ” Rushkoff explains, “. . . speak the media language better than their parents do and they see through clumsy attempts to program them into submission” (294). He claims that gaming technology has

Distinguishes what others say from what she says (Chapter 5)

05_GRA_93584_part3_103_160.indd 151 11/8/14 3:35 PM

e l e v e n e l e v e n “ H E S A Y S C O N T E N D S ”

1 5 2

made my generation realize that television is programmed for us with certain intentions; since we can control characters in the virtual world, we are more aware that characters on TV are similarly controlled. “Sure, [these ‘screenagers’] might sit back and watch a program now and again,” Rushkoff explains, “but they do so voluntarily, and with full knowledge of their complicity. It is not an invol- untary surrender” (294). In his opinion, our critical eyes and our unwillingness to be programmed by the program- mers make for an entirely new relationship with the shows we watch. Thus we enjoy The Simpsons’ parodies of mass media culture since we are skeptical of it ourselves.

Rushkoff’s argument about The Simpsons actually applies to Family Guy as well, except in one dimen- sion: Rushkoff writes that The Simpsons’ creators do “not comment on social issues as much as they [do on] the media imagery around a particular social issue” (296). MacFarlane and company seem to do the reverse. Trusting in their viewers’ ability to analyze what they are watch- ing, the creators of Family Guy point out the weaknesses and defects of US society in a mocking and sometimes intolerant way.

Taken in this light, the “instructional video” quoted above becomes not only funny but also insightful. In its sat- ire, viewers can recognize the sickly sweet and falsely sensi- tive sexism of the 1950s in observing just how conveniently

Uses transitions to connect

the parts (Chapter 8)

05_GRA_61744_part3_103_160.indd 15205_GRA_61744_part3_103_160.indd 152 22/08/16 4:03 PM22/08/16 4:03 PM

Using the Templates to Revise

1 5 3

self-serving the speaker of the video appears. The message of the clip denounces and ridicules sexism rather than condoning it. It is an excerpt that perfectly exemplifies the bold-faced candor of the show, from which it derives a lot of its appeal.

Making such comically outrageous remarks on the air also serves to expose certain prejudiced attitudes as outra- geous themselves. Taking these comments at face value would be as foolish as taking Jonathan Swift’s “Modest Proposal” seriously. Furthermore, while they put bigoted words into the mouths of their characters, the show’s writers cannot be accused of portraying these characters positively. Peter Griffin, the “family guy” of the show’s title, probably says and does the most offensive things of all—but as a lazy, overweight, and insensitive failure of a man, he is hardly presented as someone to admire. Nobody in his or her right mind would observe Peter’s behavior and deem it worth emulation.

Family Guy has its own responses to accusations of crudity. In the episode “PTV,” Peter sets up his own television station broadcasting from home and the Griffin family finds itself confronting the Federal Communications Commission directly (see Fig. 2 for a picture of the whole family). The episode makes many tongue-in-cheek jabs at the FCC, some of which are sung in a rousing musical number, but also sneaks in some of the creator’s own

05_GRA_93584_part3_103_160.indd 153 11/8/14 3:35 PM

e l e v e n e l e v e n “ H E S A Y S C O N T E N D S ”

1 5 4

opinions. The plot comes to a climax when the FCC begins to censor “real life” in the town of Quahog; officials place black censor bars in front of newly showered Griffins and blow foghorns whenever characters curse. MacFarlane makes an important point: that no amount of television censorship will ever change the harsh nature of reality— and to censor reality is mere folly. Likewise, he puts explicit arguments about censorship into lines spoken by his

Fig 2. The Griffin Family Watches TV. (Everett Collection)

05_GRA_93584_part3_103_160.indd 154 11/8/14 3:35 PM

Using the Templates to Revise

1 5 5

characters, as when Brian says that “responsibility lies with the parents [and] there are plenty of things that are much worse for children than television.”

It must be said too that not all of Family Guy’s humor could be construed as offensive. Some of its jokes are more tame and insightful, the kind you might expect from The New Yorker. The following light commentary on the useful- ness of high school algebra from “When You Wish Upon a Weinstein” could hardly be accused of upsetting anyone— except, perhaps, a few high school math teachers.

[Shot of Peter on the couch and his son Chris lying at his feet and doing homework.]

chris : Dad, can you help me with my math? [My teacher] says if I don’t learn it, I won’t be able to func- tion in the real world.

[Shot of Chris standing holding a map in a run-down gas station next to an attendant in overalls and a trucker cap reading “PUMP THIS.” The attendant speaks with a Southern accent and gestures casually to show the different road configurations.]

attendant : Okay, now what you gotta do is go down the road past the old Johnson place, and you’re gonna find two roads, one parallel and one perpendicular. Now keep going until you come to a highway that

05_GRA_93584_part3_103_160.indd 155 11/8/14 3:35 PM

e l e v e n e l e v e n “ H E S A Y S C O N T E N D S ”

1 5 6

bisects it at a 45-degree angle. [Crosses his arms.] Solve for x.

[Shot of Chris lying on the ground next to the attendant in fetal position, sucking his thumb. His map lies abandoned near him.]

In fact, Family Guy does not aim to hurt, and its creators take certain measures to keep it from hitting too hard. In an interview on Access Hollywood, Seth MacFarlane plainly states that there are certain jokes too upsetting to certain groups to go on the air. Similarly, to ensure that the easily misunderstood show doesn’t fall into the hands of those too young to understand it, Fox will not license Family Guy rights to any products intended for children under the age of fourteen (Elliott).

However, this is not to say that MacFarlane’s mission is corrective or noble. It is worth remembering that he wants only to amuse, a goal for which he was criticized by several of his professors at the Rhode Island School of Design (Weinraub). For this reason, his humor can be dan- gerous. On the one hand, I don’t agree with George Will’s reductive and generalized statement in his article “Reality Television: Oxymoron” that “entertainment seeking a mass audience is ratcheting up the violence, sexuality, and deg- radation, becoming increasingly coarse and trying to be . . . shocking in an unshockable society.” I believe Family Guy

Uses transitions to connect

the parts (Chapter 8)

Agrees and disagrees;

makes concessions

while standing her ground (Chapters 4

and 6)

05_GRA_93584_part3_103_160.indd 156 11/8/14 3:35 PM

Using the Templates to Revise

1 5 7

has its intelligent points, and some of its seemingly “coarse” scenes often have hidden merit. I must concede, though, that a few of the show’s scenes seem to be doing just what Will claims; sometimes the creators do seem to cross—or, perhaps, eagerly race past—the line of indecency. In one such crude scene, an elderly dog slowly races a paraplegic and Peter, who has just been hit by a car, to get to a sev- ered finger belonging to Peter himself (“Whistle While Your Wife Works”). Nor do I find it particularly funny when Stewie physically abuses Brian in a bloody fight over gambling money (“Patriot Games”).

Thus, while Family Guy can provide a sort of relief by breaking down taboos, we must still wonder whether or not these taboos exist for a reason. An excess of offensive jokes, especially those that are often misconstrued, can seem to grant tacit permission to think offensively if it’s done for comedy— and laughing at others’ expense can be cruel, no matter how funny. Jokes all have their origins, and the funniest ones are those that hit home the hardest; if we listen to Freud, these are the ones that let our animalistic and aggressive impulses surface from the unconscious. The distinction between a shamelessly candid but insightful joke and a merely shameless joke is a slight but important one. While I love Family Guy as much as any fan, it’s important not to lose sight of what’s truly unfunny in real life—even as we appreciate what is hilarious in fiction.

Concludes by showing who cares and why her argument matters (Chapter 7)

05_GRA_93584_part3_103_160.indd 157 11/8/14 3:35 PM

e l e v e n e l e v e n “ H E S A Y S C O N T E N D S ”

1 5 8

Works Cited “Carole Burnett Sues over Family Guy Parody.” CBC, 16 Mar.

2007, family-guy-parody-1.693570. Accessed 14 July 2008.

Dubner, Stephen J. “Why Is Family Guy Okay When Imus Wasn’t?” Freakonomics Blog, 3 Dec. 2007, Accessed 14 July 2008.

Elliott, Stuart. “Crude? So What? These Characters Still Find Work in Ads.” New York Times, 19 June 2008, Accessed 14 July 2008.

Facebook search for Family Guy under “Groups.” www Accessed 14 July 2008.

Freud, Sigmund. Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. 1905. Translated by James Strachey, W. W. Norton, 1989.

Grossberg, Josh. “Carole Burnett Can’t Stop Stewie.” E! News, Entertainment Television, 5 June 2007, Accessed 14 July 2008.

“I Am Peter, Hear Me Roar.” Family Guy, season 2, episode 8, 20th Century Fox, 28 Mar. 2000. Hulu, watch/171050. Accessed 14 July 2008.

“Family Guy.” IMDb, IMDb, 1999–2016, title/tt0182576. Accessed 14 July 2008.

MacFarlane, Seth. Interview. Access Hollywood, NBC Universal, 8 May 2007. YouTube, watch?v=rKURWCicyQU. Accessed 14 July 2008.

Moloney, Ben Adam. “Family Guy.”, 30 Sept. 2004, Accessed 14 July 2008.

05_GRA_61744_part3_103_160.indd 15805_GRA_61744_part3_103_160.indd 158 09/09/16 4:54 PM09/09/16 4:54 PM

Using the Templates to Revise

1 5 9

“Patriot Games.” Family Guy, season 4, episode 20, 20th Century Fox, 29 Jan. 2006. Hulu, watch/171089. Accessed 22 July 2008.

“PVT.” Family Guy, season 4, episode 14, 20th Century Fox, 6 Nov. 2005. Hulu, Accessed 14 July 2008.

Rushkoff, Douglas. “Bart Simpson: Prince of Irreverence.” Leaving Springfield: The Simpsons and the Possibility of Oppositional Culture, edited by John Alberti, Wayne State UP, 2004, pp. 292–301.

Stevens, Dana. “Thinking Outside the Idiot Box.” Slate, 25 Mar. 2005, politics/surfergirl/2005/04/thinkingoutside_the_ idiot_box.html. Accessed 14 July 2008.

Weinraub, Bernard. “The Young Guy of ‘Family Guy’: A 30-Year-Old’s Cartoon Hit Makes an Unexpected Comeback.” New York Times, 7 July 2004, 1IEBiUA. Accessed 14 July 2008.

“When You Wish Upon a Weinstein.” Family Guy, season 3, episode 22, 20th Century Fox, 9 Nov. 2003. Hulu, Accessed 22 July 2008.

“Whistle While Your Wife Works.” Family Guy, season 5, episode 5, 20th Century Fox, 12 Nov. 2006. Hulu, Accessed 22 July 2008.

Will, George F. “Reality Television: Oxymoron.” Washington Post, 21 June 2001, p. A25.

05_GRA_61744_part3_103_160.indd 15905_GRA_61744_part3_103_160.indd 159 09/09/16 4:54 PM09/09/16 4:54 PM

05_GRA_93584_part3_103_160.indd 160 11/8/14 3:35 PM

4 H


06_GRA_93584_part4_161_202.indd 161 11/8/14 3:35 PM

06_GRA_93584_part4_161_202.indd 162 11/8/14 3:35 PM

1 6 3


“i take your point”

Entering Class Discussions


Have you ever been in a class discussion that feels less like a genuine meeting of the minds than like a series of discrete, disconnected monologues? You make a comment, say, that seems provocative to you, but the classmate who speaks after you makes no reference to what you said, instead going off in an entirely different direction. Then, the classmate who speaks next makes no reference either to you or to any one else, making it seem as if everyone in the conversation is more interested in their own ideas than in actually conversing with anyone else. We like to think that the principles this book advances can help improve class discussions, which increasingly include various forms of online communication. Particularly important for class discussion is the point that our own ideas become more cogent and powerful the more responsive we are to others, and the more we frame our claims not in isolation but as responses to what others before us have said. Ultimately, then, a good face-to-face classroom discussion (or online communication) doesn’t just hap- pen spontaneously. It requires the same sorts of disciplined moves and practices used in many writing situations, particularly that of identifying to what and to whom you are responding.

06_GRA_93584_part4_161_202.indd 163 11/8/14 3:35 PM

t w e l v e t w e l v e “ I T A K E Y O U R P O I N T ”

1 6 4

frame your comments as a response to something that has already been said

The single most important thing you need to do when joining a class discussion is to link what you are about to say to something that has already been said.

j I really liked Aaron’s point about the two sides being closer than

they seem. I’d add that both seem rather moderate.

j I take your point, Nadia, that . Still . . .

j Though Sheila and Ryan seem to be at odds about ,

they may actually not be all that far apart.

In framing your comments this way, it is usually best to name both the person and the idea you’re responding to. If you name the person alone (“I agree with Aaron because ”), it may not be clear to listeners what part of what Aaron said you are referring to. Conversely, if you only summa- rize what Aaron said without naming him, you’ll probably leave your classmates wondering whose comments you’re referring to. But won’t you sound stilted and deeply redundant in class if you try to restate the point your classmate just made? After all, in the case of the first template above, the entire class will have just heard Aaron’s point about the two sides being closer than they seem. Why then would you need to restate it? We agree that in oral situations, it does often sound artificial to restate what others just said precisely because they just said it. It would be awkward if, on being asked to pass the salt at

06_GRA_93584_part4_161_202.indd 164 11/8/14 3:35 PM

Entering Class Discussions

1 6 5

lunch, one were to reply: “If I understand you correctly, you have asked me to pass the salt. Yes, I can, and here it is.” But in oral discussions about complicated issues that are open to multiple interpretations, we usually do need to resummarize what others have said to make sure that everyone is on the same page. Since Aaron may have made several points when he spoke and may have been followed by other commentators, the class will probably need you to summarize which point of his you are referring to. And even if Aaron made only one point, restating that point is helpful, not only to remind the group what his point was (since some may have missed or forgotten it) but also to make sure that he, you, and others have interpreted his point in the same way.

to change the subject, indicate explicitly that you are doing so

It is fine to try to change the conversation’s direction. There’s just one catch: you need to make clear to listeners that this is what you are doing. For example:

j So far we have been talking about the characters in the film. But

isn’t the real issue here the cinematography?

j I’d like to change the subject to one that hasn’t yet been


You can try to change the subject without indicating that you are doing so. But you risk that your comment will come across as irrelevant rather than as a thoughtful contribution that moves the conversation forward.

06_GRA_93584_part4_161_202.indd 165 11/8/14 3:35 PM

t w e l v e t w e l v e “ I T A K E Y O U R P O I N T ”

1 6 6

be even more explicit than you would be in writing

Because listeners in an oral discussion can’t go back and reread what you just said, they are more easily overloaded than are readers of a print text. For this reason, in a class discussion you will do well to take some extra steps to help listeners follow your train of thought. (1) When you make a comment, limit yourself to one point only though you can elaborate on this point, fleshing it out with examples and evidence. If you feel you must make two points, either unite them under one larger umbrella point, or make one point first and save the other for later. Trying to bundle two or more claims into one comment can result in neither getting the attention it deserves. (2) Use metacommentary to highlight your key point so that listeners can readily grasp it.

j In other words, what I’m trying to get at here is .

j My point is this: .

j My point, though, is not , but .

j This distinction is important because .

06_GRA_93584_part4_161_202.indd 166 11/8/14 3:35 PM

1 6 7



Is Digital Communication

Good or Bad—or Both?


You may wonder what our advice in this book about enter- ing conversations and debates has to do with one of the major innovations in our society, the online technologies through which we now do much of our reading and writing. You may have heard parents and journalists complain that smartphones, iPads, and other electronic devices that seem almost wired into our brains are destroying our ability to think, communicate, and interact with others. At the same time, you’ve also prob- ably heard counterarguments to the effect that, on the con- trary, these digital technologies actually stretch the mind, bring people together, and even make us better writers. These arguments are part of a set of interrelated debates that are taking place today, sometimes in the blogosphere itself, among journalists, academic researchers, and other commenta- tors. In some of these debates, those who extol their virtues argue that today’s new online technologies make us smarter by

06_GRA_93584_part4_161_202.indd 167 11/8/14 3:35 PM

1 6 8

t h i r t e e n t h i r t e e n “ I M H O ”

exposing us to a wide range of perspectives and giving us instant access to massive stores of new information. Whereas once we would have had to spend hours burrowing through dusty library shelves to find the information we need, today we can access the same information with a click of a mouse in the comfort of our homes. Thanks to the internet, our potential knowledge is now thousands of times greater than ever before. How could such a development not be a huge plus for any writer? The critics, however, retort that, far from making us smarter, online technologies are actually making us dumber, even in our capacity as writers. According to these critics, many online researchers end their investigations at the first entry that comes up in a Google search (often in Wikipedia), and the constraints of email, text messaging, and tweeting force us to communicate in reductive sound bites and inane abbreviations (OMG! LOL! IMHO!). The critics also charge that the very volume of new information that the web makes so easily available overwhelms us and prevents us from thinking clearly. So much comes at us so fast from electronic sources that we can no longer think straight or organize our thoughts into clear writing. The greater the mountain of information we have at our fingertips, say the critics, the less chance there is that we will find the fraction of it that is most valuable and useful to focus on and respond to. As a result, according to one critic, researcher Clifford Nass, the multitasking encouraged by the web and other digital tech- nologies is making student writers less able to sustain a “big idea” in an essay and more prone to write in “little bursts and snippets.” Yet many challenge this pessimistic view. Rhetoric and composition professor Andrea Lunsford rejects the notion that “Google is making us stupid,” that “Facebook is frying our

06_GRA_61744_part4_161_202.indd 16806_GRA_61744_part4_161_202.indd 168 22/08/16 4:35 PM22/08/16 4:35 PM

Is Digital Communication Good or Bad—or Both?

1 6 9

brains,” and that the web is depriving students of the ability to express ideas (qtd. in Haven). According to Lunsford, reporting on a five-year research project, the Stanford Study of Writing, student writers today are remarkably “adept at crafting messages that will reach their intended audience because of their con- stant use of social media” (Lunsford). That is, today’s students are proficient “at what rhetoricians call kairos—assessing their audience and adapting their tone and technique to best get their point across” (Thompson). There is also disagreement over whether online technolo- gies create or undermine genuine conversation and commu- nity. On the one hand, some praise the web for its ability to bring people from distant places together who otherwise would remain strangers, enabling them to interact more easily with others through such mediums as email, blogs, videochat, and social networking sites. Those who make this argument might claim that our advice in this book to present your ideas as a response to the ideas of others lends itself well to online com- munication. After all, the internet allows us to post something and then get quick, even instantaneous responses. It also allows us more easily to access multiple perspectives on any topic and then directly insert the voices of others into our text in links that readers can click on. Critics, on the other hand, question the quality of the conver- sations that take place online, arguing that these conversations are rarely genuine meetings of minds and noting that online writers often speak past rather than to or with one another. Because online writers can hit “send” before reflecting, as writ- ers more likely would using slower and more deliberate print media, these critics charge that true debate in which the vari- ous parties really listen to one another is exceedingly rare on

06_GRA_93584_part4_161_202.indd 169 11/8/14 3:35 PM

1 7 0

t h i r t e e n t h i r t e e n “ I M H O ”

the web. In other words, communicating online tends to under- mine true conversation because writers can too easily dismiss or ignore other points of view, and thus are more likely to engage in egotistical monologues in which they use what others say as a pretext for expounding their own already established opinions. So go some of the arguments pro and con about the impact of online technologies on our thinking and our communicative habits, including our writing. Though we agree that the internet has given us access to previously unimaginable stores of infor- mation and greatly expanded our range of communication— and that it potentially broadens our perspectives—we think the critics have a point in noting that many conversations on the web are not exchanges so much as monologues in which writers pass one another without intersecting. We ourselves have been dismayed when our own online articles have drawn comments that begin, “I haven’t read Graff and Birkenstein’s article, but in my opinion. . . .” In our view, the best remedy for such failures of communication is to improve the listening and summarizing skills we emphasize in this book, whether these skills are practiced online, offline, or even on a stone tablet. As for how these digital technologies have influenced stu- dent writing, our own view, based on the writing we have seen in our combined seventy years of teaching, is that that this influence is neither disastrous, as the critics fear, nor won- derfully revolutionary, as the proponents claim. Contrary to Nass, student writers found it challenging to sustain a “big idea” long before the advent of the worldwide web, and, contrary to Lunsford, we see no evidence that tweeting and posting have made writers more adept at reaching audiences. As we see it,

06_GRA_93584_part4_161_202.indd 170 11/8/14 3:35 PM

Is Digital Communication Good or Bad—or Both?

1 7 1

online technologies only recycle any difficulties writers have reaching audiences; if a writer has trouble reaching audiences in one medium, he or she will have it in another. A student of ours, for example, writing to an audience of his classmates on a course listserv, began a post in the following way:

“Going off what Meg said, I would argue…”

His audience was mystified, since nobody, including Meg herself, could remember what she had said. As this incident illustrates, the immediacy of online writing—not just in course listservs, but in emails, social media, and so forth—makes it appear so much like oral communication that we are seduced into forgetting that it is still a form of writing and therefore very often requires the mastery of formal conventions, in this case that of summarizing what has previously been said. It is hard to imagine any writer, as we have already suggested, who does not struggle with the rhetorical moves of argument, from sum- marizing, explaining, and quoting what others say to responding to what they say, and the myriad other competencies covered in this book. Our purpose in this brief chapter, however, is not to try to settle these debates, but to invite you to think about how digital technologies affect your work as a reader and writer. Do these technologies make it easier to join conversations? Do they improve or degrade your thinking and writing? What is your opinion and why? To help you answer these questions, we conclude, then, with a couple of exercises that invite you to pick up where we have left off—and, as Kenneth Burke said, to put in your own oar.

06_GRA_93584_part4_161_202.indd 171 11/8/14 3:35 PM

1 7 2

t h i r t e e n t h i r t e e n “ I M H O ”

Works Cited

Haven, Cynthia. “The New Literacy: Stanford Study Finds Richness and Complexity in Students’ Writing.” Stanford Report, Stanford University, 12 Oct. 2009, .html. Accessed 14 Nov. 2013.

Lunsford, Andrea. “Everyone’s an Author.” W. W. Norton Sales Conference, 5 Aug. 2012, Park City.

Nass, Clifford. Interview. Frontline, WBGH, 1 Dec. 2009. PBS, wgbh/pages/frontline/digitalnation/interviews/nass.html. Accessed 14 Nov. 2013.

Thompson, Clive. “Clive Thompson on the New Literacy.” Wired, 24 Aug. 2009, Accessed 14 Nov. 2013.


1. Have we formulated the debatable issues above in a useful way? Have we left out anything important? Write an essay in which you summarize some of our commentary as your “they say” and offer your own response, whether to disagree, agree with a difference, or reframe the issues in some way.

2. As a test case for thinking about the questions raised in this chapter, go to the blog that accompanies this book, Examine some of the exchanges that appear there and evaluate the quality of the responses. For example, how well do the participants in these exchanges summarize one another’s claims before making their own responses? How would you characterize any discussion? Is there a true meeting of the minds or are writers sometimes caricatured or treated as straw men? How do these online dis- cussions compare with the face-to-face discussions you have in class? What advantages does each offer? Go to other blogs on topics that interest you and ask these same questions.

06_GRA_61744_part4_161_202.indd 17206_GRA_61744_part4_161_202.indd 172 09/09/16 12:48 PM09/09/16 12:48 PM

1 7 3


“what’s motivating this writer?”

Reading for the Conversation


“What is the author’s argument? What is he or she trying to say?” For many years, these were the first questions we would ask our classes in a discussion of an assigned reading. The discussion that resulted was often halting, as our students strug- gled to get a handle on the argument, but eventually, after some awkward silences, the class would come up with something we could all agree was an accurate summary of the author’s main thesis. Even after we’d gotten over that hurdle, however, the discussion would often still seem forced, and would limp along as we all struggled with the question that naturally arose next: Now that we had determined what the author was saying, what did we ourselves have to say? For a long time we didn’t worry much about these halting discussions, justifying them to ourselves as the predictable result of assigning difficult, challenging readings. Several years ago, however, as we started writing this book and began thinking about writing as the art of entering conversations, we latched onto the idea of leading with some different questions: “What other argument(s) is the writer responding to?” “Is the writer

06_GRA_93584_part4_161_202.indd 173 11/8/14 3:35 PM

f o u r t e e n f o u r t e e n “ W H A T ’ S M O T I V A T I N G T H I S W R I T E R ? ”

1 7 4

disagreeing or agreeing with something, and if so what?” “What is motivating the writer’s argument?” “Are there other ideas that you have encountered in this class or elsewhere that might be pertinent?” The results were often striking. The discussions that followed tended to be far livelier and to draw in a greater number of students. We were still asking students to look for the main argument, but we were now asking them to see that argument as a response to some other argument that provoked it, gave it a reason for being, and helped all of us see why we should care about it. What had happened, we realized, was that by changing the opening question, we changed the way our students approached reading, and perhaps the way they thought about academic work in general. Instead of thinking of the argu- ment of a text as an isolated entity, they now thought of that argument as one that responded to and provoked other argu- ments. Since they were now dealing not with one argument but at least two (the author’s argument and the one[s] he or she was responding to), they now had alternative ways of see- ing the topic at hand. This meant that, instead of just trying to understand the view presented by the author, they were more able to question that view intelligently and engage in the type of discussion and debate that is the hallmark of a college education. In our discussions, animated debates often arose between students who found the author’s argument con- vincing and others who were more convinced by the view it was challenging. In the best of these debates, the binary posi- tions would be questioned by other students, who suggested each was too simple, that both might be right or that a third alternative was possible. Still other students might object that the discussion thus far had missed the author’s real point and

06_GRA_93584_part4_161_202.indd 174 11/8/14 3:35 PM

Reading for the Conversation

1 7 5

suggest that we all go back to the text and pay closer attention to what it actually said. We eventually realized that the move from reading for the author’s argument in isolation to reading for how the author’s argument is in conversation with the arguments of others helps readers become active, critical readers rather than passive recip- ients of knowledge. On some level, reading for the conversa- tion is more rigorous and demanding than reading for what one author says. It asks that you determine not only what the author thinks, but how what the author thinks fits with what others think, and ultimately with what you yourself think. Yet on another level, reading this way is a lot simpler and more familiar than reading for the thesis alone, since it returns writ- ing to the familiar, everyday act of communicating with other people about real issues.

deciphering the conversation

We suggest, then, that when assigned a reading, you imagine the author not as sitting alone in an empty room hunched over a desk or staring at a screen, but as sitting in a crowded coffee shop talking to others who are making claims that he or she is engaging with. In other words, imagine the author as participating in an ongoing, multisided, conversation in which everyone is trying to persuade others to agree or at least to take his or her position seriously. The trick in reading for the conversation is to figure out what views the author is responding to and what the author’s own argument is—or, to put it in the terms used in this book, to determine the “they say” and how the author responds to it.

06_GRA_93584_part4_161_202.indd 175 11/8/14 3:35 PM

f o u r t e e n f o u r t e e n “ W H A T ’ S M O T I V A T I N G T H I S W R I T E R ? ”

1 7 6

One of the challenges in reading for the “they say” and “I say” can be figuring out which is which, since it may not be obvious when writers are summarizing others and when they are speak- ing for themselves. Readers need to be alert for any changes in voice that a writer might make, since instead of using explicit road-mapping phrases like “although many believe,” authors may simply summarize the view that they want to engage with and indicate only subtly that it is not their own. Consider again the opening to the selection by David Zinczenko on p. 462.

If ever there were a newspaper headline custom made for Jay Leno’s monologue, this was it. Kids taking on McDonald’s this week, suing the company for making them fat. Isn’t that like middle-aged men suing Porsche for making them get speeding tickets? Whatever happened to personal responsibility? I tend to sympathize with these portly fast-food patrons, though. Maybe that’s because I used to be one of them.

David Zinczenko, “Don’t Blame the Eater”

Whenever we teach this passage, some students inevitably assume that Zinczenko must be espousing the view expressed

in his first paragraph: that suing McDonald’s is ridicu- lous. When their reading is challenged by their class- mates, these students point to the page and reply,

“Look. It’s right here on the page. This is what Zinczenko wrote. These are his exact words.” The assumption these stu- dents are making is that if something appears on the page, the author must endorse it. In fact, however, we ventrilo- quize views that we don’t believe in, and may in fact pas- sionately disagree with, all the time. The central clues that Zinczenko disagrees with the view expressed in his opening

See Chapter 6 for more

discussion of naysayers.

06_GRA_93584_part4_161_202.indd 176 11/8/14 3:35 PM

Reading for the Conversation

1 7 7

paragraph come in the second paragraph, when he finally offers a first-person declaration and uses a constrastive transi- tion, “though,” thereby resolving any questions about where he stands.

when the “they say” is unstated

Another challenge can be identifying the “they say” when it is not explicitly identified. Whereas Zinczenko offers an up-front summary of the view he is responding to, other writers assume that their readers are so familiar with these views that they need not name or summarize them. In such cases, you the reader have to reconstruct the unstated “they say” that is motivating the text through a process of inference. See, for instance, if you can reconstruct the position that Tamara Draut is challenging in the opening paragraph of her essay “The Growing College Gap.”

“The first in her family to graduate from college.” How many times have we heard that phrase, or one like it, used to describe a success- ful American with a modest background? In today’s United States, a four-year degree has become the all-but-official ticket to middle-class security. But if your parents don’t have much money or higher edu- cation in their own right, the road to college—and beyond—looks increasingly treacherous. Despite a sharp increase in the proportion of high school graduates going on to some form of postsecondary educa- tion, socio-economic status continues to exert a powerful influence on college admission and completion; in fact, gaps in enrollment by class and race, after declining in the 1960s and 1970s, are once again as wide as they were thirty years ago, and getting wider, even as college has become far more crucial to lifetime fortunes.

Tamara Draut, “The Growing College Gap”

06_GRA_93584_part4_161_202.indd 177 11/8/14 3:35 PM

f o u r t e e n f o u r t e e n “ W H A T ’ S M O T I V A T I N G T H I S W R I T E R ? ”

1 7 8

You might think that the “they say” here is embedded in the third sentence: They say (or we all think) that a four-year degree is “the all-but-official ticket to middle-class security,” and you might assume that Draut will go on to disagree. If you read the passage this way, however, you would be mistaken. Draut is not questioning whether a college degree has become “the ticket to middle-class security,” but whether most Americans can obtain that ticket, whether college is within the financial reach of most American families. You may have been thrown off by the “but” following the statement that college has become a prerequisite for middle-class security. However, unlike the “though” in Zinczenko’s opening, this “but” does not signal that Draut will be disagreeing with the view she has just summarized, a view that in fact she takes as a given. What Draut disagrees with is that this ticket to middle-class security is still readily available to the middle and working classes. Were one to imagine Draut in a room talking with others with strong views on this topic, one would need to picture her challenging not those who think college is a ticket to financial security (something she agrees with and takes for granted), but those who think the doors of college are open to anyone willing to put forth the effort to walk through them. The view that Draut is challenging, then, is not summarized in her opening. Instead, she assumes that readers are already so familiar with this view that it need not be stated. Draut’s example suggests that in texts where the central “they say” is not immediately identified, you have to construct it your- self based on the clues the text provides. You have to start by locating the writer’s thesis and then imagine some of the argu- ments that might be made against it. What would it look like to disagree with this view? In Draut’s case, it is relatively easy to construct a counterargument: it is the familiar faith in the

06_GRA_93584_part4_161_202.indd 178 11/8/14 3:35 PM

Reading for the Conversation

1 7 9

American Dream of equal opportunity when it comes to access to college. Figuring out the counterargument not only reveals what motivated Draut as a writer but helps you respond to her essay as an active, critical reader. Constructing this counter- argument can also help you recognize how Draut challenges your own views, questioning opinions that you previously took for granted.

when the “they say” is about something “nobody has talked about”

Another challenge in reading for the conversation is that writ- ers sometimes build their arguments by responding to a lack of discussion. These writers build their case not by playing off views that can be identified (like faith in the American Dream or the idea that we are responsible for our body weight), but by pointing to something others have overlooked. As the writing theorists John M. Swales and Christine B. Feak point out, one effective way to “create a research space” and “establish a niche” in the academic world is “by indicating a gap in . . . previous research.” Much research in the sciences and humanities takes this “Nobody has noticed X” form. In such cases, the writer may be responding to scientists, for example, who have overlooked an obscure plant that offers insights into global warming, or to literary critics who have been so busy focusing on the lead character in a play that they have overlooked something important about the minor characters.

reading particularly challenging texts

Sometimes it is difficult to figure out the views that writers are responding to not because these writers do not identify

06_GRA_93584_part4_161_202.indd 179 11/8/14 3:35 PM

f o u r t e e n f o u r t e e n “ W H A T ’ S M O T I V A T I N G T H I S W R I T E R ? ”

1 8 0

those views but because their language and the concepts they are dealing with are particularly challenging. Consider, for instance, the first two sentences of Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, a book by the feminist philosopher and literary theorist Judith Butler, thought by many to be a particularly difficult academic writer.

Contemporary feminist debates over the meaning of gender lead time and again to a certain sense of trouble, as if the indeterminacy of gender might eventually culminate in the failure of feminism. Perhaps trouble need not carry such a negative valence.

Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity

There are many reasons readers may stumble over this relatively short passage, not the least of which is that Butler does not explicitly indicate where her own view begins and the view she is responding to ends. Unlike Zinczenko, Butler does not use the first-person “I” or a phrase such as “in my own view” to show that the position in the second sentence is her own. Nor does Butler offer a clear transition such as “but” or “however” at the start of the second sentence to indicate, as Zinczenko does with “though,” that in the second sentence she is questioning the argument she has summarized in the first. And finally, like many academic writers, Butler uses abstract, unfamiliar words that many readers may need to look up, like “gender” (sexual identity, male or female), “indeterminacy” (the quality of being impossible to define or pin down), “culminate” (finally result in), and “negative valence” (a term borrowed from chemistry, roughly denoting “negative significance” or “meaning”). For all

06_GRA_93584_part4_161_202.indd 180 11/8/14 3:35 PM

Reading for the Conversation

1 8 1

these reasons, we can imagine many readers feeling intimidated before they reach the third sentence of Butler’s book. But readers who break down this passage into its essential parts will find that it is actually a lucid piece of writing that conforms to the classic “they say / I say” pattern. Though it can be difficult to spot the clashing arguments in the two sentences, close analysis reveals that the first sentence offers a way of looking at a certain type of “trouble” in the realm of feminist politics that is being challenged in the second. To understand difficult passages of this kind, you need to translate them into your own words—to build a bridge, in effect, between the passage’s unfamiliar terms and ones more familiar to you. Building such a bridge should help you connect what you already know to what the author is saying—and will then help you move from reading to writing, providing you with some of the language you will need to summarize the text. One major challenge in translating the author’s words into your own, however, is to stay true to what the author is actually saying, avoiding what we call “the closest cliché syndrome,” in which one mistakes a commonplace idea for an author’s more complex one (mistaking Butler’s critique of the concept of “woman,” for instance, for the common idea that women must have equal rights). The work of complex writers like Butler, who frequently challenge conventional thinking, cannot always be collapsed into the types of ideas most of us are already familiar with. Therefore, when you translate, do not try to fit the ideas of such writers into your preexisting beliefs, but instead allow your own views to be challenged. In building a bridge to the writers you read, it is often necessary to meet those writers more than halfway. So what, then, does Butler’s opening say? Translating But- ler’s words into terms that are easier to understand, we can

For more on the closest cliché syndrome, see Chapter 2.

06_GRA_93584_part4_161_202.indd 181 11/8/14 3:35 PM

f o u r t e e n f o u r t e e n “ W H A T ’ S M O T I V A T I N G T H I S W R I T E R ? ”

1 8 2

see that the first sentence says that for many feminists today, “the indeterminacy of gender”—the inability to define the essence of sexual identity—spells the end of feminism; that for many feminists the inability to define “gender,” presumably the building block of the feminist movement, means serious “trouble” for feminist politics. In contrast, the second sen- tence suggests that this same “trouble” need not be thought of in such “negative” terms, that the inability to define feminin- ity, or “gender trouble” as Butler calls it in her book’s title, may not be such a bad thing—and, as she goes on to argue in the pages that follow, may even be something that femi- nist activists can profit from. In other words, Butler suggests, highlighting uncertainties about masculinity and femininity can be a powerful feminist tool. Pulling all these inferences together, then, the opening sen- tences can be translated as follows: “While many contempo- rary feminists believe that uncertainty about what it means to be a woman will undermine feminist politics, I, Judith Butler, believe that this uncertainty can actually help strengthen femi- nist politics.” Translating Butler’s point into our own book’s basic move: “They say that if we cannot define ‘woman,’ femi- nism is in big trouble. But I say that this type of trouble is precisely what feminism needs.” Despite its difficulty, then, we hope you agree that this initially intimidating passage does make sense if you stay with it. We hope it is clear that critical reading is a two-way street. It is just as much about being open to the way that writers can challenge you, maybe even transform you, as it is about questioning those writers. And if you translate a writer’s argu- ment into your own words as you read, you should allow the text to take you outside the ideas that you already hold and to introduce you to new terms and concepts. Even if you end

06_GRA_93584_part4_161_202.indd 182 11/8/14 3:35 PM

Reading for the Conversation

1 8 3

up disagreeing with an author, you first have to show that you have really listened to what he or she is saying, have fully grasped his or her arguments, and can accurately summarize those arguments. Without such deep, attentive listening, any critique you make will be superficial and decidedly uncritical. It will be a critique that says more about you than about the writer or idea you’re supposedly responding to. In this chapter we have tried to show that reading for the conversation means looking not just for the thesis of a text in isolation but for the view or views that motivate that thesis— the “they say.” We have also tried to show that reading for the conversation means being alert for the different strategies writers use to engage the view(s) that are motivating them, since not all writers engage other perspectives in the same way. Some writers explicitly identify and summarize a view they are responding to at the outset of their text and then return to it frequently as their text unfolds. Some refer only obliquely to a view that is motivating them, assuming that readers will be able to reconstruct that view on their own. Other writers may not explicitly distinguish their own view from the views they are questioning in ways that all of us find clear, leaving some readers to wonder whether a given view is the writer’s own or one that he or she is challenging. And some writers push off against the “they say” that is motivating them in a challeng- ing academic language that requires readers to translate what they are saying into more accessible, everyday terms. In sum, then, though most persuasive writers do follow a conversational “they say / I say” pattern, they do so in a great variety of ways. What this means for readers is that they need to be armed with various strategies for detecting the conversations in what they read, even when those conversations are not self-evident.

06_GRA_93584_part4_161_202.indd 183 11/8/14 3:35 PM

1 8 4


“analyze this”

Writing in the Social Sciences



Social science is the study of people—how they behave and relate to one another, and the organizations and institu- tions that facilitate these interactions. People are complicated, so any study of human behavior is at best partial, taking into account some elements of what people do and why, but not always explaining those actions definitively. As a result, it is the subject of constant conversation and argument. Consider some of the topics studied in the social sciences: minimum wage laws, immigration policy, health care, employ- ment discrimination. Got an opinion on any of these topics? You aren’t alone. But in the writing you do as a student of the social sciences, you need to write about more than just

Erin Ackerman is the Social Sciences Librarian at the College of New Jersey and formerly taught political science at John Jay College, City University of New York. Her research and teaching interests include women and American law, the law and politics of reproductive health, and information literacy in the social sciences.

06_GRA_93584_part4_161_202.indd 184 11/8/14 3:35 PM

Writing in the Social Sciences

1 8 5

your opinions. Good writing in the social sciences, as in other academic disciplines, requires that you demonstrate that you have thought about what it is you think. The best way to do that is to bring your views into conversation with those expressed by others and to test what you and others think against a review of data. In other words, you’ll need to start with what others say and then present what you say as a response. Consider the following example from a book about contem- porary American political culture:

Claims of deep national division were standard fare after the 2000 elections, and to our knowledge few commentators have publicly challenged them. . . . In sum, contemporary observers of American politics have apparently reached a new consensus around the proposition that old disagreements about economics now pale in comparison to new divisions based on sexuality, morality, and religion, divisions so deep as to justify fears of violence and talk of war in describing them. This short book advocates a contrary thesis: the sentiments expressed in the previously quoted pronouncements of scholars, journalists, and politicos range from simple exaggeration to sheer nonsense. . . . Many of the activists in the political parties and vari- ous cause groups do, in fact, hate each other and regard themselves as combatants in a war. But their hatreds and battles are not shared by the great mass of the American people. . . .

Morris P. Fiorina, Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America

In other words, “they” (journalists, pundits, other political scientists) say that the American public is deeply divided, whereas Fiorina replies that they have misinterpreted the evidence—specifically, that they have generalized from a few

06_GRA_93584_part4_161_202.indd 185 11/8/14 3:35 PM

f i f t e e n f i f t e e n “ A N A LY Z E T H I S ”

1 8 6

exceptional cases (activists). Even the title of the book calls into question an idea held by others, one Fiorina labels a “myth.” This chapter explores some of the basic moves social sci- ence writers make. In addition, writing in the social sciences generally includes several core components: a strong intro- duction and thesis, a literature review, and the writer’s own analysis, including presentation of data and consideration of implications. Much of your own writing will include one or more of these components as well. The introduction sets out the thesis, or point, of the paper, briefly explaining what you will say in your text and how it fits into the preexisting conversa- tion. The literature review summarizes what has already been said on your topic. Your analysis allows you to present data—the information about human behavior you are measuring or test- ing against what other people have said—and to explain the conclusions you have drawn based on your investigation. Do you agree, disagree, or some combination of both, with what has been said by others? What reasons can you give for why you feel that way? And so what? Who should be interested in what you have to say, and why?

the introduction and thesis: “this paper challenges . . .”

Your introduction sets forth what you plan to say in your essay. You might evaluate the work of earlier scholars or cer- tain widely held assumptions and find them incorrect when measured against new data. Alternatively, you might point out that an author’s work is largely correct, but that it could use some qualifications or be extended in some way. Or you might identify a gap in our knowledge—we know a great deal about

06_GRA_93584_part4_161_202.indd 186 11/8/14 3:35 PM

Writing in the Social Sciences

1 8 7

topic X but almost nothing about some other closely related topic. In each of these instances, your introduction needs to cover both “they say” and “I say” perspectives. If you stop after the “they say,” your readers won’t know what you are bringing to the conversation. Similarly, if you were to jump right to the “I say” portion of your argument, readers might wonder why you need to say anything at all. Sometimes you join the conversation at a point where the discussion seems settled. One or more views about a topic have become so widely accepted among a group of scholars or society at large that these views are essentially the conventional way of thinking about the topic. You may wish to offer new reasons to support this interpretation, or you may wish to call these standard views into question. To do so, you must first introduce and iden- tify these widely held beliefs and then pre sent your own view. In fact, much of the writing in the social sciences takes the form of calling into question that which we think we already know. Consider the following example from an article in The Journal of Economic Perspectives:

Fifteen years ago, Milton Friedman’s 1957 treatise A Theory of the Consumption Function seemed badly dated. Dynamic optimization theory had not been employed much in economics when Fried- man wrote, and utility theory was still comparatively primitive, so his statement of the “permanent income hypothesis” never actu- ally specified a formal mathematical model of behavior derived explicitly from utility maximization . . . [W]hen other economists subsequently found multiperiod maximizing models that could be solved explicitly, the implications of those models differed sharply from Friedman’s intuitive description of his “model.” Furthermore, empirical tests in the 1970s and 1980s often rejected these rigor- ous versions of the permanent income hypothesis in favor of an

06_GRA_93584_part4_161_202.indd 187 11/8/14 3:35 PM

f i f t e e n f i f t e e n “ A N A LY Z E T H I S ”

1 8 8

alternative hypothesis that many households simply spent all of their current income. Today, with the benefit of a further round of mathematical (and computational) advances, Friedman’s (1957) original analysis looks more prescient than primitive . . .

Christopher D. Carroll, “A Theory of Consumption Function, With and Without Liquidity Constraints,”

The Journal of Economic Perspectives

This introduction makes clear that Carroll will defend Milton Friedman against some major criticisms of his work. Carroll mentions what has been said about Friedman’s work and then goes on to say that the critiques turn out to be wrong and to suggest that Friedman’s work reemerges as persuasive. A tem- plate of Carroll’s introduction might look something like this: Economics research in the last fifteen years suggested Fried- man’s 1957 treatise was because . In other words, they say that Friedman’s work is not accurate because of , , and . Recent research convinces me, however, that Friedman’s work makes sense. In some cases, however, there may not be a strong consensus among experts on a topic. You might enter the ongoing debate by casting your vote with one side or another or by offering an alternative view. In the following example, Shari Berman iden- tifies two competing accounts of how to explain world events in the twentieth century and then puts forth a third view.

Conventional wisdom about twentieth-century ideologies rests on two simple narratives. One focuses on the struggle for dominance between democracy and its alternatives. . . . The other narrative focuses on the competition between free-market capitalism and its rivals. . . . Both of these narratives obviously contain some

06_GRA_93584_part4_161_202.indd 188 11/8/14 3:35 PM

Writing in the Social Sciences

1 8 9

truth. . . . Yet both only tell part of the story, which is why their common conclusion—neoliberalism as the “end of History”—is unsatisfying and misleading. What the two conventional narratives fail to mention is that a third struggle was also going on: between those ideologies that believed in the primacy of economics and those that believed in the primacy of politics.

Shari Berman, “The Primacy of Economics versus the Primacy of Politics: Understanding the Ideological Dynamics

of the Twentieth Century,” Perspectives on Politics

After identifying the two competing narratives, Berman sug- gests a third view—and later goes on to argue that this third view explains current debates over globalization. A template for this type of introduction might look something like this: In recent discussions of , a controversial aspect has been . On the one hand, some argue that . On the other hand, others argue that . Neither of these arguments, however, considers the alternative view that . Given the complexity of many of the issues studied in the social sciences, however, you may sometimes agree and disagree with existing views—pointing out things that you believe are correct or have merit, while disagreeing with or refin- ing other points. In the example below, anthropologist Sally Engle Merry agrees with another scholar about something that is a key trait of modern society but argues that this trait has a different origin than the other author identifies.

Although I agree with Rose that an increasing emphasis on governing the soul is characteristic of modern society, I see the

For more on different ways of responding, see Chapter 4.

06_GRA_93584_part4_161_202.indd 189 11/8/14 3:35 PM

f i f t e e n f i f t e e n “ A N A LY Z E T H I S ”

1 9 0

transformation not as evolutionary but as the product of social mobilization and political struggle.

Sally Engle Merry, “Rights, Religion, and Community: Approaches to Violence against Women in the

Context of Globalization,” Law and Society Review

Here are some templates for agreeing and disagreeing:

j Although I agree with X up to a point, I cannot accept his overall

conclusion that .

j Although I disagree with X on and , I agree

with her conclusion that .

j Political scientists studying have argued that it

is caused by . While contributes to the

problem, is also an important factor.

In the process of examining people from different angles, social scientists sometimes identify gaps—areas that have not been explored in previous research. In an article on African American neighborhoods, sociologist Mary Pattillo identifies such a gap.

The research on African Americans is dominated by inquiries into the lives of the black poor. Contemporary ethnographies and jour- nalistic descriptions have thoroughly described deviance, gangs, drugs, intergender relations and sexuality, stymied aspiration, and family patterns in poor neighborhoods (Dash 1989; Hagedorn 1988; Kotlowitz 1991; Lemann 1991; MacLeoad 1995; Sullivan 1989; Williams 1989). Yet, the majority of African Americans are not

06_GRA_93584_part4_161_202.indd 190 11/8/14 3:35 PM

Writing in the Social Sciences

1 9 1

poor (Billingsley 1992). A significant part of the black experience, namely that of working and middle-class blacks, remains unex- plored. We have little information about what black middle-class neighborhoods look like and how social life is organized within them. . . . this article begins to fill this empirical and theoretical gap using ethnographic data collected in Groveland, a middle-class black neighborhood in Chicago.

Mary E. Pattillo, “Sweet Mothers and Gangbangers: Managing Crime

in a Black Middle-Class Neighborhood,” Social Forces

Pattillo explains that much has been said about poor African American neighborhoods. But, she says, we have little infor- mation about the experience of working-class and middle-class black neighborhoods—a gap that her article will address. Here are some templates for introducing gaps in the existing research:

j Studies of X have indicated . It is not clear, however,

that this conclusion applies to .

j often take for granted that . Few have

investigated this assumption, however.

j X’s work tells us a great deal about . Can this work

be generalized to ?

Again, a good introduction indicates what you have to say in the larger context of what others have said. Throughout the rest of your paper, you will move back and forth between the “they say” and the “I say,” adding more details.

06_GRA_93584_part4_161_202.indd 191 11/8/14 3:35 PM

f i f t e e n f i f t e e n “ A N A LY Z E T H I S ”

1 9 2

the literature review: “prior research indicates . . .”

In the literature review, you explain what “they say” in more detail, summarizing, paraphrasing, or quoting the viewpoints to which you are responding. But you need to balance what they are saying with your own focus. You need to characterize someone else’s work fairly and accurately but set up the points you yourself want to make by selecting the details that are relevant to your own perspective and observations. It is common in the social sciences to summarize several arguments at once, identifying their major arguments or find- ings in a single paragraph.

How do employers in a low-wage labor market respond to an increase in the minimum wage? The prediction from conventional economic theory is unambiguous: a rise in the minimum wage leads perfectly competitive employers to cut employment (George J. Stigler, 1946). Although studies in the 1970’s based on aggregate teenage employ- ment rates usually confirmed this prediction, earlier studies based on comparisons of employment at affected and unaffected establish- ments often did not (e.g., Richard A. Lester, 1960, 1964). Several recent studies that rely on a similar comparative methodology have failed to detect a negative employment effect of higher minimum wages. Analyses of the 1990–1991 increases in the federal minimum wage (Lawrence F. Katz and Krueger, 1992; Card, 1992a) and of an earlier increase in the minimum wage in California (Card, 1992b) find no adverse employment impact.

David Card and Alan Krueger, “Minimum Wages and Employment: A Case Study of the

Fast-Food Industry in New Jersey and Pennsylvania,” The American Economic Review

06_GRA_93584_part4_161_202.indd 192 11/8/14 3:35 PM

Writing in the Social Sciences

1 9 3

Card and Krueger cite the key findings and conclusions of works that are relevant to the question they are investigating and the point they plan to address, asking “How do employers in a low-wage labor market respond to an increase in the mini- mum wage?” They go on, as good writers should, to answer the question they ask. And they do so by reviewing others who have answered that question, noting that this question has been answered in different, sometimes contradictory, ways. Such summaries are brief, bringing together relevant argu- ments by several scholars to provide an overview of scholarly work on a particular topic. In writing such a summary, you need to ask yourself how the authors themselves might describe their positions and also consider what in their work is relevant for the point you wish to make. This kind of summary is especially appropriate when you have a large amount of research material on a topic and want to identify the major strands of a debate or to show how the work of one author builds on that of another. Here are some templates for overview summaries:

j In addressing the question of , political scientists

have considered several explanations for . X argues

that . According to Y and Z, another plausible expla-

nation is .

j What is the effect of on ? Previous work

on by X and by Y and Z supports .

Sometimes you may need to say more about the works you cite. On a midterm or final exam, for example, you may need to demonstrate that you have a deep familiarity with a par- ticular work. And in some disciplines of the social sciences, longer, more detailed literature reviews are the standard. Your instructor and the articles he or she has assigned are your best

06_GRA_93584_part4_161_202.indd 193 11/8/14 3:35 PM

f i f t e e n f i f t e e n “ A N A LY Z E T H I S ”

1 9 4

guides for the length and level of detail of your literature review. Other times, the work of certain authors is especially important for your argument, and therefore you need to provide more details to explain what these authors have said. See how Martha Derthick summarizes an argument that is central to her book about the politics of tobacco regulation.

The idea that governments could sue to reclaim health care costs from cigarette manufacturers might be traced to “Cigarettes and Welfare Reform,” an article published in the Emory Law Journal in 1977 by Donald Gasner, a law professor at the University of Southern Illinois. Garner suggested that state governments could get a cigarette manufacturer to pay the direct medical costs “of looking after patients with smoking diseases.” He drew an analogy to the Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969, under which coal mine operators are required to pay certain disability benefits for coal miners suffering from pneumoconiosis, or black lung disease.

Martha Derthick, Up In Smoke: From Legislation to Litigation in Tobacco Politics

Note that Derthick identifies the argument she is summariz- ing, quoting its author directly and then adding details about a precedent for the argument. You may want to include direct quotations of what others have said, as Derthick does. Using an author’s exact words helps you demonstrate that you are representing him or her fairly. But you cannot simply insert a quotation; you need to explain to your readers what it means for your point. Consider the following example drawn from a political science book on the debate over tort reform.

The essence of agenda setting was well enunciated by E. E. Schattschneider: “In politics as in everything else, it makes a great

06_GRA_93584_part4_161_202.indd 194 11/8/14 3:35 PM

Writing in the Social Sciences

1 9 5

difference whose game we play” (1960, 47). In short, the ability to define or control the rules, terms, or perceived options in a contest over policy greatly affects the prospects for winning.

William Haltom and Michael McCann, Distorting the Law: Politics, Media, and the Litigation Crisis

Notice how Haltom and McCann first quote Schattschneider and then explain in their own words how political agenda set- ting can be thought of as a game, with winners and losers. Remember that whenever you summarize, quote, or paraphrase the work of others, credit must be given in the form of a citation to the original work. The words may be your own, but if the idea comes from someone else you must give credit to the original work. There are several formats for documenting sources. Consult your instructor for help choosing which citation style to use.

the analysis

The literature review covers what others have said on your topic. The analysis allows you to present and support your own response. In the introduction you indicate whether you agree, disagree, or some combination of both with what others have said. You will want to expand on how you have formed your opinion and why others should care about your topic.

“The Data Indicate . . .”

The social sciences use data to develop and test explanations. Data can be quantitative or qualitative and can come from a number of sources. You might use statistics related to GDP growth, unemployment, voting rates, or demographics. Or you could use surveys, interviews, or other first-person accounts.

06_GRA_93584_part4_161_202.indd 195 11/8/14 3:35 PM

f i f t e e n f i f t e e n “ A N A LY Z E T H I S ”

1 9 6

Regardless of the type of data used, it is important to do three things: define your data, indicate where you got the data, and then say what you have done with your data. In a journal article, political scientist Joshua C. Wilson examines a court case about protests at an abortion clinic and asks whether each side of the conflict acts in a way consistent with their general views on freedom of speech.

[T]his paper relies on close readings of in-person, semi-structured interviews with the participants involved in the real controversy that was the Williams case. Thirteen interviews ranging in length from 40 minutes to 1 hour and 50 minutes were conducted for this paper. Of those interviewed, all would be considered “elites” in terms of political psychology / political attitude research—six were active members of Solano Citizens for Life . . . ; two were members of Planned Parenthood Shasta-Diablo management; one was the lawyer who obtained the restraining order, temporary injunction, and perma- nent injunction for Planned Parenthood; one was the lawyer for the duration of the case for Solano Citizens for Life; two were lawyers for Planned Parenthood on appeal; and one was the Supe- rior Court judge who heard arguments for, and finally crafted, the restraining order and injunctions against Solano Citizens for Life. During the course of the interviews, participants were asked a range of questions about their experiences and thoughts in relation to the Williams case, as well as their beliefs about the interpretation and limits of the First Amendment right to free speech—both in general, and in relation to the Williams case.

Joshua C. Wilson. “When Rights Collide: Anti-Abortion Protests and the Ideological Dilemma in Planned Parenthood Shasta-Diablo, Inc. v. Williams,”

Studies in Law, Politics, and Society

06_GRA_93584_part4_161_202.indd 196 11/8/14 3:35 PM

Writing in the Social Sciences

1 9 7

Wilson identifies and describes his qualitative data—interviews conducted with key parties in the conflict—and explains the nature of the questions he asked. If your data are quantitative, you will need to explain them similarly. See how political scientist Brian Arbour explains the quantitative data he used to study for an article in The Forum how a change of rules might have affected the outcome of the 2008 Democratic primary contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

I evaluate these five concerns about the Democratic system of delegate allocation by “rerunning” the Obama-Clinton contest with a different set of allocation rules, those in effect for the 2008 Republican presidential contest. . . . Republicans allow each state to make their own rules, leading to “a plethora of selection plans” (Shapiro & Bello 2008, 5) . . . To “rerun” the Democratic pri- mary under Republican rules, I need data on the results of the Democratic primary for each state and congressional district and on the Republican delegate allocation rules for each state. The Green Papers (, a website that serves as an almanac of election procedures, rules, and results, provides each of these data sources. By “rerunning” the Democratic primaries and caucuses, I use the exact results of each contest.

Brian Arbour, “Even Closer, Even Longer: What If the 2008 Democratic Primary Used Republican Rules?” The Forum

Note that Arbour identifies his data as primary voting results and the rules for Republican primaries. In the rest of the paper, Arbour shows how his use of these data suggests that political commentators who thought Republican rules would have clari- fied the close race between Clinton and Obama were wrong and the race would have been “even closer, even longer.”

06_GRA_93584_part4_161_202.indd 197 11/8/14 3:35 PM

f i f t e e n f i f t e e n “ A N A LY Z E T H I S ”

1 9 8

Here are some templates for discussing data:

j In order to test the hypothesis that , we assessed

. Our calculations suggest .

j I used to investigate . The results of this

investigation indicate .

“But Others May Object . . .”

No matter how strongly your data support your argument, there are almost surely other perspectives (and thus other data) that you need to acknowledge. By considering possible objections to your argument and taking them seriously, you demonstrate that you’ve done your work and that you’re aware of other perspectives—and most important, you present your own argu- ment as part of an ongoing conversation. See how economist Christopher Carroll acknowledges that there may be objections to his argument about how people allocate their income between consumption and savings.

I have argued here that the modern version of the dynamically opti- mizing consumption model is able to match many of the important features of the empirical data on consumption and saving behavior. There are, however, several remaining reasons for discomfort with the model.

Christopher D. Carroll, “A Theory of Consumption Function, With and Without Liquidity Constraints,”

The Journal of Economic Perspectives

Carroll then goes on to identify the possible limitations of his mathematical analysis.

06_GRA_93584_part4_161_202.indd 198 11/8/14 3:35 PM

Writing in the Social Sciences

1 9 9

Someone may object because there are related phenomena that your analysis does not explain or because you do not have the right data to investigate a particular question. Or perhaps someone may object to assumptions underlying your argument or how you handled your data. Here are some templates for considering naysayers:

j might object that .

j Is my claim realistic? I have argued , but readers may

question .

j My explanation accounts for but does not explain

. This is because .

“Why Should We Care?”

Who should care about your research, and why? Since the social sciences attempt to explain human behavior, it is important to consider how your research affects the assump- tions we make about human behavior. In addition, you might offer recommendations for how other social scientists might continue to explore an issue, or what actions policymakers should take. In the following example, sociologist Devah Pager identi- fies the implications of her study of the way having a criminal record affects a person applying for jobs.

[I]n terms of policy implications, this research has troubling con- clusions. In our frenzy of locking people up, our “crime control” policies may in fact exacerbate the very conditions that lead to crime in the first place. Research consistently shows that finding

06_GRA_93584_part4_161_202.indd 199 11/8/14 3:35 PM

f i f t e e n f i f t e e n “ A N A LY Z E T H I S ”

2 0 0

quality steady employment is one of the strongest predictors of desistance from crime (Shover 1996; Sampson and Laub 1993; Uggen 2000). The fact that a criminal record severely limits employment opportunities—particularly among blacks—suggests that these individuals are left with few viable alternatives.

Devah Pager, “The Mark of a Criminal Record,” The American Journal of Sociology

Pager’s conclusion that a criminal record negatively affects employment chances creates a vicious circle, she says: steady employment discourages recidivism, but a criminal record makes it harder to get a job. In answering the “so what?” question, you need to explain why your readers should care. Although sometimes the impli- cations of your work may be so broad that they would be of interest to almost anyone, it’s never a bad idea to iden- tify explicitly any groups of people who will find your work important. Templates for establishing why your claims matter:

j X is important because .

j Ultimately, what is at stake here is .

j The finding that should be of interest to

because .

As noted at the beginning of this chapter, the complexity of people allows us to look at their behavior from many different viewpoints. Much has been, and will be, said about how and why people do the things they do. As a result, we can look at writing in the social sciences as an ongoing conversation.

06_GRA_93584_part4_161_202.indd 200 11/8/14 3:35 PM

Writing in the Social Sciences

2 0 1

When you join this conversation, the “they say / I say” frame- work will help you figure out what has already been said (they say) and what you can add (I say). The components of social science writing presented in this chapter are tools to help you join that conversation.

06_GRA_93584_part4_161_202.indd 201 11/8/14 3:35 PM

06_GRA_93584_part4_161_202.indd 202 11/8/14 3:35 PM


07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 203 11/8/14 3:35 PM

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 204 11/8/14 3:35 PM

2 0 5


is college the best option?


American society may be divided in many ways, but not when it comes to college. From a very early age, we get the message that going to college is a crucial step in life. We hear this message regularly from our families, our schools, our com- munities. We see it constantly in the media: movies, television shows, sports broadcasts, newspapers, magazines, and websites all show the allure and advantages of going to college. Even on the highways, billboards portray attractive, smiling, confident, intelligent-looking students on tree-lined campuses promoting the virtues of particular colleges: strong academics, excellent career opportunities, affordable tuition. Indeed, most young people in the United States grow up to see college as inevitable. But in addition to the success stories, we see occasional glimpses of another side of the college story: graduates unable to find good jobs, or any job at all; students with large college debts that can take years, even decades, to pay off; uncaring pro- fessors, huge classes, maze-like bureaucracies, distracted advi- sors; students who for a variety of reasons find themselves in academic trouble. As with all paths in life, it’s possible to take

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 205 11/8/14 3:35 PM

2 0 6

I S C O L L E G E T H E B E S T O P T I O N ?

a wrong turn in college, so it’s advisable for anyone who’s con- templating attending college to have specific, well-considered reasons for pursuing a so-called higher education, as well as a plan, regularly checked and updated, for how best to succeed. The readings in this chapter focus on the present state of higher education in the United States and examine the poten- tial benefits and pitfalls of going to college. The chapter begins with a report on a study showing that while college graduates on average make significantly more money than high-school graduates do, there is large variation in the return on invest- ment based on such factors as college attended, major, whether or not the student graduates, and occupation. This report is fol- lowed by an essay by Sanford Ungar, a former college president, about the value of a college education steeped in the liberal arts, as opposed to the preprofessional training that many students now prefer. Political scientist Charles Murray advances the view that far too many American students currently go on to college but would be better off attending a vocational program or going right to work after high school. Liz Addison, drawing upon her own experience, articulates the often underappreci- ated value of a community college education. Several other authors focus on ways that the faculty and the institution as a whole can support student success. Col- lege president Freeman Hrabowski argues that while it’s easy to lament how expensive and dubious a college degree is, that degree ultimately prepares people not just for a career, but for life. And First Lady Michelle Obama pays tribute to the gradu- ates of one university for their commitment to education and to helping others find opportunities to succeed.

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 206 11/8/14 3:35 PM

2 0 7

Is College the Best Option?

Finally, two pieces argue that education can take place in settings other than college and about topics other than “aca- demic” ones. Gerald Graff suggests that it matters less whether we read Macbeth or a Marvel comic book, as long as we approach what we read with a critical eye and question it in analytical, intellectual ways. And Mike Rose makes the case that people in blue-collar occupations who never attend college nonetheless develop sophisticated knowledge of how to do their work. As a college student yourself, you’ll find plenty to think about in this chapter—and on its companion blog,

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 207 11/8/14 3:35 PM

2 0 8

Should Everyone Go to College?




For the past few decades, it has been widely argued that a college degree is a prerequisite to entering the middle class

in the United States. Study after study reminds us that higher education is one of the best investments we can make, and President Obama has called it “an economic

imperative.” We all know that, on average, college graduates make significantly more money over their lifetimes than those with only a high school education. What gets less attention

Stephanie Owen and Isabel Sawhill are the authors of Should Everyone Go to College?, a report published in 2013 by the Brook- ings Institution, a centrist think tank in Washington, D.C. Owen was a senior research assistant at Brookings’ Center on Children and Families at the time of the report’s publication and currently serves as a research associate at the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan center for research on the problems of urban communities. Sawhill is codirector of the Center on Children and Families and a senior fellow in economic studies at Brookings.

See pp. 25–27 on introducing

an ongoing debate.

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 208 11/8/14 3:35 PM

Should Everyone Go to College?

2 0 9

is the fact that not all college degrees or college graduates are equal. There is enormous variation in the so-called return to education depending on factors such as institution attended, field of study, whether a student graduates, and post-graduation occupation. While the average return to obtaining a college degree is clearly positive, we emphasize that it is not universally so. For certain schools, majors, occupations, and individuals, college may not be a smart investment. By telling all young people that they should go to college no matter what, we are actually doing some of them a disservice.

The Rate of Return on Education

One way to estimate the value of education is to look at the increase in earnings associated with an additional year of schooling. However, correlation is not causation, and getting at the true causal effect of education on earnings is not so easy. The main problem is one of selection: if the smartest, most motivated people are both more likely to go to college and more likely to be financially successful, then the observed difference in earnings by years of education doesn’t measure the true effect of college. Researchers have attempted to get around this problem of causality by employing a number of clever techniques, includ- ing, for example, comparing identical twins with different levels of education. The best studies suggest that the return to an additional year of school is around 10 percent. If we apply this 10 percent rate to the median earnings of about $30,000 for a 25- to 34-year-old high school graduate working full time in 2010, this implies that a year of college increases earnings by $3,000, and four years increases them by $12,000. Notice that this amount is less than the raw differences in earnings

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 209 11/8/14 3:35 PM


2 1 0


between high school graduates and bachelor’s degree holders of $15,000, but it is in the same ballpark. Similarly, the raw difference between high school graduates and associate’s degree holders is about $7,000, but a return of 10% would predict the causal effect of those additional two years to be $6,000. There are other factors to consider. The cost of college mat- ters as well: the more someone has to pay to attend, the lower the net benefit of attending. Furthermore, we have to factor in the opportunity cost of college, measured as the foregone earn- ings a student gives up when he or she leaves or delays entering the workforce in order to attend school. Using average earn- ings for 18- and 19-year-olds and 20- and 21-year-olds with high school degrees (including those working part-time or not at all), Michael Greenstone and Adam Looney of Brookings’ Hamilton Project calculate an opportunity cost of $54,000 for a four-year degree. In this brief, we take a rather narrow view of the value of a college degree, focusing on the earnings premium. However, there are many non-monetary benefits of schooling which are harder to measure but no less important. Research suggests that additional education improves overall wellbeing by affecting things like job satisfaction, health, marriage, parenting, trust, and social interaction. Additionally, there are social benefits to education, such as reduced crime rates and higher political participation. We also do not want to dismiss personal prefer- ences, and we acknowledge that many people derive value from their careers in ways that have nothing to do with money. While beyond the scope of this piece, we do want to point out that these noneconomic factors can change the cost-benefit calculus. As noted above, the gap in annual earnings between young high school graduates and bachelor’s degree holders working full time is $15,000. What’s more, the earnings premium associated

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 210 11/8/14 3:35 PM

Should Everyone Go to College?

2 1 1

with a college degree grows over a lifetime. Hamilton Project research shows that 23- to 25-year-olds with bachelor’s degrees make $12,000 more than high school graduates but by age 50, the gap has grown to $46,500 (Figure 1). When we look at lifetime earnings—the sum of earnings over a career—the total premium is $570,000 for a bachelor’s degree and $170,000 for an associate’s degree. Compared to the average up-front cost of four years of college (tuition plus opportunity cost) of $102,000, the Hamilton Project is not alone in arguing that investing in college provides “a tremendous return.” It is always possible to quibble over specific calculations, but it is hard to deny that, on average, the benefits of a college degree far outweigh the costs. The key phrase here is “on aver- age.” The purpose of this brief is to highlight the reasons why,

$0 22 24 26 28 30 32 34 36 38 40


A ve

ra ge

A nn

ua l E

ar ni

ng s

42 44 46 48 50 52 54 56 58 60 62 64








$80,000 High School Diploma Bachelor’s Degree


Figure 1. Earning Trajectories by Educational Attainment

Source: Greenstone and Looney (2011). Note: Sample includes all civilian U.S. citizens, excluding those in school. Annual earnings are averaged over the entire sample, including those without work. Source: March CPS 2007–2010.

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 211 11/8/14 3:35 PM


2 1 2

for a given individual, the benefits may not outweigh the costs. We emphasize that a 17- or 18-year-old deciding whether and where to go to college should carefully consider his or her own likely path of education and career before committing a consid- erable amount of time and money to that degree. With tuitions rising faster than family incomes, the typical college student is now more dependent than in the past on loans, creating serious risks for the individual student and perhaps for the system as a whole, should widespread defaults occur in the future. Federal student loans now total close to $1 trillion, larger than credit card debt or auto loans and second only to mortgage debt on household balance sheets.

Variation in the Return to Education

It is easy to imagine hundreds of dimensions on which college degrees and their payoffs could differ. Ideally, we’d like to be able to look into a crystal ball and know which individual school will give the highest net benefit for a given student with her unique strengths, weaknesses, and interests. Of course, we are not able to do this. What we can do is lay out several key dimensions that seem to significantly affect the return to a college degree. These include school type, school selectiv- ity level, school cost and financial aid, college major, later occupation, and perhaps most importantly, the probability of completing a degree.

Variation by School Selectivity

Mark Schneider of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and the American Institutes for Research (AIR) used longitudinal

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 212 11/8/14 3:35 PM

Should Everyone Go to College?

2 1 3


data from the Baccalaureate and Beyond survey to calculate lifetime earnings for bachelor’s earners by type of institution attended, then compared them to the lifetime earnings of high school graduates. The difference (after accounting for tuition costs and discounting to a present value) is the value of a bach- elor’s degree. For every type of school (categorized by whether the school was a public institution or a nonprofit private insti- tution and by its selectivity) this value is positive, but it varies widely. People who attended the most selective private schools have a lifetime earnings premium of over $620,000 (in 2012 dollars). For those who attended a minimally selective or open admission private school, the premium is only a third of that. Schneider performed a similar exercise with campus-level data on college graduates (compiled by the online salary information company PayScale), calculating the return on investment (ROI) of a bachelor’s degree (Figure 2). These calculations sug- gest that public schools tend to have higher ROIs than private schools, and more selective schools offer higher returns than less selective ones. Even within a school type and selectivity category, the variation is striking. For example, the average ROI for a competitive public school in 2010 is 9 percent, but the highest rate within this category is 12 percent while the lowest is 6 percent. Another important element in estimating the ROI on a col- lege education is financial aid, which can change the expected return dramatically. For example, Vassar College is one of the most expensive schools on the 2012 list and has a relatively low annual ROI of 6%. But when you factor in its generous aid packages (nearly 60% of students receive aid, and the average amount is over $30,000), Vassar’s annual ROI increases 50%, to a return of 9% (data available at college-education-value-2012).

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 213 11/8/14 3:35 PM


2 1 4







12% Public Private, not-for-profit


Most competitive

Highly competitive

Very competitive

Competitive Less competitive

Non- competitive

Figure 2. Return on Investment of a Bachelor’s Degree by Institution Type

Source: Schneider (2010). Note: Data uses PayScale return on investment data and Barron’s index of school selectivity.

One of the most important takeaways from the PayScale data is that not every bachelor’s degree is a smart investment. After attempting to account for in-state vs. out-of-state tuition, financial aid, graduation rates, years taken to graduate, wage inflation, and selection, nearly two hundred schools on the 2012 list have negative ROIs. Students may want to think twice about attending the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia or Jackson State University in Mississippi. The prob- lem is compounded if the students most likely to attend these less selective schools come from disadvantaged families.

Variation by Field of Study and Career

Even within a school, the choices a student makes about his or her field of study and later career can have a large impact on

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 214 11/8/14 3:35 PM

Should Everyone Go to College?

2 1 5

what he or she gets out of her degree. It is no coincidence that the three schools with the highest 30-year ROIs on the 2012 PayScale list—Harvey Mudd, Caltech, and MIT—specialize in the STEM fields: science, technology, engineering, and math. Recent analysis by the Census Bureau also shows that the lifetime earnings of workers with bachelor’s degrees vary widely by college major and occupation. The highest paid major is engineering, fol- lowed by computers and math. The lowest paid major, with barely half the lifetime earnings of engineering majors, is education, fol- lowed by the arts and psychology (Figure 3). The highest-earning


En gin

eer ing

Co mp

ute rs

an d m


Sc ien

ce an

d e ng

ine eri

ng -re

lat ed

Bu sin


Ph ysi

cal sc

ien ce

So cia

l sc ien


Co mm

un ica

tio ns

Bio log

ica l sc

ien ces

Lit era

tur e

Lib era

l a rts

Psy ch

olo gy Ar


Ed uc

ati on

Ba ch

elo r’s

de gre

e ( all

m ajo


Hi gh

sc ho

ol gra

du ate






W or

k- Li

fe E

ar ni

ng s,

in $

M ill

io ns




Figure 3. Work-Life Earnings of Bachelor’s Degree Holders by College Major

Source: Julian (2012). Note: Synthetic work-life earnings estimates are calculated by finding median earnings for each 5-year age group between 25 and 64 (25–29, 30–34, etc.). Earnings for each group is multiplied by 5 to get total earnings for that period, then aggregated to get total lifetime earnings. This is done for high school graduates, bechelor’s degree holders, and bachelor’s degree holders by major.

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 215 11/8/14 3:35 PM


2 1 6

occupation category is architecture and engineering, with comput- ers, math, and management in second place. The lowest-earning occupation for college graduates is service (Figure 4). According to Census’s calculations, the lifetime earnings of an education or arts major working in the service sector are actually lower than the average lifetime earnings of a high school graduate. When we dig even deeper, we see that just as not all col- lege degrees are equal, neither are all high school diplomas.


Ar ch

ite ctu

re an

d e ng

ine eri


Co mp

ute r a

nd m


Ma na

gem en


Bu sin

ess an

d f ina

nc ial

He alt

hc are

pr act

itio ne

rs an

d t ech

nic ian


Sa les

an d r

ela ted

Sc ien


Ar ts

an d m

ed ia

Na tur

al res

ou rce

s, c on

str uc

tio n,

an d m

ain ten

an ce

Pro du

cti on

, tr an

spo rta

tio n,

an d m

ate ria

l m ov


Ed uc

ati on

Co mm

un ity

se rvi

ce an

d l ega


Se rvi


Of fic

e s up

po rt

Ba ch

elo r’s

de gre

e ( all

oc cu

pa tio


Hi gh

sc ho

ol gra

du ate






W or

k- Li

fe E

ar ni

ng s,

in $

M ill

io ns




Figure 4. Work-Life Earnings of Bachelor’s Degree Holders by Occupation

Source: Julian (2012). Note: Synthetic work-life earnings estimates are calculated by finding median earnings for each 5-year age group between 25 and 64 (25–29, 30–34, etc.). Earnings for each group is multiplied by 5 to get total earnings for that period, then aggregated to get total lifetime earnings. This is done for high school grad- uates, bechelor’s degree holders, and bachelor’s degree holders by occupation.

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 216 11/8/14 3:35 PM

Should Everyone Go to College?

2 1 7


Anthony Carnevale and his colleagues at the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce use similar method- ology to the Census calculations but disaggregate even further, estimating median lifetime earnings for all education levels by occupation. They find that 14 percent of people with a high school diploma make at least as much as those with a bachelor’s degree, and 17 percent of people with a bachelor’s degree make more than those with a professional degree. The authors argue that much of this finding is explained by occupation. In every occupation category, more educated workers earn more. But, for example, someone working in a STEM job with only a high school diploma can expect to make more over a lifetime than someone with a bachelor’s degree working in education, community service and arts, sales and office work, health sup- port, blue collar jobs, or personal services. The numbers above are for full-time workers in a given field. In fact, choice of major can also affect whether a college graduate can find a job at all. Another recent report from the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce breaks down unemploy- ment rates by major for both recent (age 22–26) and experienced (age 30–54) college graduates in 2009–2010. People who majored in education or health have very low unemployment—even though education is one of the lowest-paying majors. Architecture graduates have particularly high unemployment, which may simply reflect the decline of the construction industry during the Great Recession. Arts majors don’t fare too well, either. The expected earnings (median full-time earnings times the probability of being employed) of a young college graduate with a theater degree are about $6,000 more than the expected earnings of a young high school graduate. For a young person with a mechanical engineering degree, the expected earnings of the college graduate is a staggering $35,000 more than that of a typical high school graduate.

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 217 11/8/14 3:35 PM


2 1 8

Variation in Graduation Rates

Comparisons of the return to college by highest degree attained include only people who actually complete college. Students who fail to obtain a degree incur some or all of the costs of a bachelor’s degree without the ultimate payoff. This has major implications for inequalities of income and wealth, as the stu- dents least likely to graduate—lower-income students—are also the most likely to take on debt to finance their education. Fewer than 60 percent of students who enter four-year schools finish within six years, and for low-income students it’s even worse. Again, the variation in this measure is huge. Just within Washington, D.C., for example, six-year graduation rates range from a near-universal 93 percent at Georgetown University to a dismal 19 percent at the University of D.C. Of course, these are very different institutions, and we might expect high-achieving students at an elite school like Georgetown to have higher completion rates than at a less competitive school like UDC. In fact, Frederick Hess and his colleagues at AEI have documented that the relationship between selectivity and completion is positive, echoing other work that suggests that students are more likely to succeed in and graduate from col- lege when they attend more selective schools (Figure 5). At the most selective schools, 88 percent of students graduate within six years; at non-competitive schools, only 35 percent do. Fur- thermore, the range of completion rates is negatively correlated with school ranking, meaning the least selective schools have the widest range. For example, one non-competitive school, Arkansas Baptist College, graduates 100 percent of its students, while only 8 percent of students at Southern University at New Orleans finish. Not every student can get into Harvard, where the likelihood of graduating is 97 percent, but students

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 218 11/8/14 3:35 PM

Should Everyone Go to College?

2 1 9

can choose to attend a school with a better track record within their ability level. Unfortunately, recent evidence by Caroline Hoxby of Stanford and Christopher Avery of Harvard shows that most high-achieving low-income students never even apply to the selective schools that they are qualified to attend—and at which they would be eligible for generous financial aid. There is clearly room for policies that do a better job of matching students to schools.

Policy Implications

All of this suggests that it is a mistake to unilaterally tell young Americans that going to college—any college—is the best decision they can make. If they choose wisely and attend













40% 49%






Most competitive

Highly competitive

Very competitive

Competitive Less competitive

Non- competitive

Figure 5. Average Six-Year Graduation Rates by School Selectivity

Source: Hess et al. (2009).

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 219 11/8/14 3:35 PM


2 2 0


a school with generous financial aid and high expected earn- ings, and if they don’t just enroll but graduate, they can greatly improve their lifetime prospects. The information needed to make a wise decision, however, can be difficult to find and hard to interpret. One solution is simply to make the type of information dis- cussed above more readily available. A study by Andrew Kelly and Mark Schneider of AEI found that when parents were asked to choose between two similar public universities in their state, giving them information on the schools’ graduation rates caused them to prefer the higher-performing school. The PayScale college rankings are a step in the right direc- tion, giving potential students and their parents information with which to make better decisions. Similarly, the Obama Administration’s new College Scorecard is being developed to increase transparency in the college application process. As it operates now, a prospective student can type in a college’s name and learn its average net price, graduation rate, loan default rate, and median borrowed amount. The Department of Education is working to add information about the earnings of a given school’s graduates. There is also a multi-dimensional search feature that allows users to find schools by location, size, and degrees and majors offered. The Student Right to Know Before You Go Act, sponsored by Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Marco Rubio (R-FL), also aims to expand the data avail- able on the costs and benefits of individual schools, as well as programs and majors within schools. The College Scorecard is an admirable effort to help students and parents navigate the complicated process of choosing a college. However, it may not go far enough in improving trans- parency and helping students make the best possible decisions. A recent report by the Center for American Progress (CAP)

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 220 11/8/14 3:35 PM

Should Everyone Go to College?

2 2 1


showed a draft of the Scorecard to a focus group of college- bound high school students and found, among other things, that they are frequently confused about the term “net price” and give little weight to six-year graduation rates because they expect to graduate in four. It appears that the White House has responded to some of these critiques, for example showing median amount borrowed and default rates rather than the confusing “student loan repayment.” Nevertheless, more infor- mation for students and their parents is needed. There is also room for improvement in the financial aid system, which can seem overwhelmingly complex for families not familiar with the process. Studies have shown that stu- dents frequently underestimate how much aid they are eligible for, and don’t claim the tax incentives that would save them money. Since 2009, the Administration has worked to simplify the FAFSA, the form that families must fill out to receive fed- eral aid—but more could be done to guide low-income families through the process. In the longer run, colleges need to do more to ensure that their students graduate, particularly the lower-income students who struggle most with persistence and completion. Research suggests that grants and loans increase enrollment but that aid must be tied to performance in order to affect persistence. Cur- rently, we spend over $100 billion on Pell Grants and federal loans, despite a complete lack of evidence that this money leads to higher graduation rates. Good research on programs like Georgia’s HOPE scholarships or West Virginia’s PROM- ISE scholarships suggest that attaching strings to grant aid can improve college persistence and completion. Finally, we want to emphasize that the personal character- istics and skills of each individual are equally important. It may be that for a student with poor grades who is on the fence

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 221 11/8/14 3:35 PM


2 2 2

about enrolling in a four-year program, the most bang-for-the- buck will come from a vocationally-oriented associate’s degree or career-specific technical training. Indeed, there are many well-paid job openings going unfilled because employers can’t find workers with the right skills—skills that young potential workers could learn from training programs, apprenticeships, a vocational certificate, or an associate’s degree. Policymak- ers should encourage these alternatives at the high school as well as the postsecondary level, with a focus on high-demand occupations and high-growth sectors. There has long been resistance to vocational education in American high schools, for fear that “tracking” students reinforces socioeconomic (and racial) stratification and impedes mobility. But if the default for many lower-achieving students was a career-focused training path rather than a path that involves dropping out of tradi- tional college, their job prospects would probably improve. For example, Career Academies are high schools organized around an occupational or industry focus, and have partnerships with local employers and colleges. They have been shown by gold standard research to increase men’s wages, hours worked, and employment stability after high school, particularly for those at high risk of dropping out.


In this brief, we have corralled existing research to make the point that while on average the return to college is highly positive, there is a considerable spread in the value of going to college. A bachelor’s degree is not a smart investment for every student in every circumstance. We have outlined three impor- tant steps policymakers can take to make sure every person does make a smart investment in their choice of postsecondary

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 222 11/8/14 3:35 PM

Should Everyone Go to College?

2 2 3

education. First, we must provide more information in a com- prehensible manner. Second, the federal government should lead the way on performance-based scholarships to incentivize college attendance and persistence. Finally, there should be more good alternatives to a traditional academic path, includ- ing career and technical education and apprenticeships.

Additional Reading

Anthony P. Carnevale, Ban Cheah, and Jeff Strohl, “Hard Times: College Majors, Unemployment, and Earnings: Not All College Degrees Are Created Equal,” (Washington, D.C.: The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, January 2012).

Anthony P. Carnevale, Stephen J. Rose, and Ban Cheah, “The College Payoff: Education, Occupations, Lifetime Earnings,” (Washington, D.C.: The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, August 2011).

Michael Greenstone and Adam Looney, “Where is the Best Place to Invest $102,000—In Stocks, Bonds, or a College Degree?” (Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, June 2011).

Frederick M. Hess, Mark Schneider, Kevin Carey, and Andrew P. Kelly, “Diplomas and Dropouts: Which Colleges Actually Graduate Their Students (and Which Don’t),” (Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, June 2009).

Harry J. Holzer and Robert I. Lerman, “The Future of Middle-Skill Jobs,” (Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, February 2009).

Caroline M. Hoxby and Christopher Avery, “The Missing ‘One-Offs’: The Hidden Supply of High-Achieving, Low Income Students,” (Cambridge, MA, Working Paper, National Bureau of Economic Research, 2012).

Tiffany Julian, “Work-Life Earnings by Field of Degree and Occupation for People With a Bachelor’s Degree: 2011,” (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Census Bureau, October 2012).

Andrew P. Kelly and Mark Schneider, “Filling In the Blanks: How Information Can Affect Choice in Higher Education,” (Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, January 2011).

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 223 11/8/14 3:35 PM


2 2 4

Julie Margetta Morgan and Gadi Dechter, “Improving the College Scorecard: Using Student Feedback to Create an Effective Disclosure,” (Washington, D.C.: Center for American Progress, November 2012).

Mark Schneider, “How Much Is That Bachelor’s Degree Really Worth? The Million Dollar Misunderstanding,” (Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, May 2009).

Mark Schneider, “Is College Worth the Investment?” (Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, October 2010).

Joining the Conversation

1. Stephanie Owen and Isabel Sawhill announce the “they say” in their second sentence—“Study after study reminds us that higher education is one of the best investments we can make”—and then proceed to report on how the return on that investment varies. What factors do they say make college a questionable investment?

2. This report draws upon quite a bit of quantitative data on the economic effects of graduating from college. Look care- fully at one of the graphs that Owen and Sawhill provide, and explain in your own words what the data say.

3. Owen and Sawhill’s analysis seems to favor baccalaure- ate degree programs as conferring the greatest advantages upon students. How might essayist Liz Addison, whose essay appears on pp. 255–58, respond to their argument?

4. In the essay’s concluding paragraphs, the authors note information that students and parents should know before choosing a college. What information do they consider most important? What did you know and what did you not know about colleges you were considering as you were deciding

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 224 11/8/14 3:35 PM

Should Everyone Go to College?

2 2 5

which school to attend? How might additional knowledge have helped you make a more informed choice?

5. The questions Owen and Sawhill explore are not new ones. Go to and read what Lawrence Mishel of the Economic Policy Institute wrote in 2012. (Enter Law- rence Mishel, “College and Then What?” in the search box and press “search” to access the article.) Read what he wrote and think about your own reasons for being in college. Then click on “Join the Conversation” and write out a response to Mishel.

6. According to Owen and Sawhill, “For certain schools, majors, occupations, and individuals, college may not be a smart investment.” Taking this statement as a “they say,” write a short essay responding with what you think. Dis- cuss your own reasons for attending college, and refer to the authors’ argument and data about the pros and cons of attending college.

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 225 11/8/14 3:35 PM

2 2 6

The New Liberal Arts

S A N F O R D J . U N G A R


Hard economic times inevitably bring scrutiny of all accepted ideals and institutions, and this time around liberal-arts education has been especially hard hit. Something that has long been held up as a uniquely sensible and effective approach to learning has come under the critical gaze of policy makers and the news media, not to mention budget-conscious families. But the critique, unfortunately, seems to be fueled by reli- ance on common misperceptions. Here are a few of those misperceptions, from my vantage point as a liberal-arts college president, and my reactions to them:

Sanford J. Ungar was the president of Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland, from 2001 to 2014. He is the author of Fresh Blood: The New American Immigrants (1998) and Africa: The People and Politics of an Emerging Continent (1986). Ungar has also worked in broadcast journalism both at National Public Radio and at the Voice of America, the U.S. government–funded broadcast network for a global audience. His extensive print journalism work includes articles in Newsweek, the Economist, and the Washington Post. This article first appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education, a publication read by college faculty and administrators, on March 5, 2010.

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 226 11/8/14 3:35 PM

The New Liberal Arts

2 2 7


Misperception No. 1: A liberal-arts degree is a luxury that most families can no longer afford. “Career education” is what we now must focus on. Many families are indeed struggling, in the depths of the recession, to pay for their children’s college edu- cation. Yet one could argue that the traditional, well-rounded preparation that the liberal arts offer is a better investment than ever—that the future demands of citizenship will require not narrow technical or job-focused training, but rather a subtle understanding of the complex influences that shape the world we live in. No one could be against equipping oneself for a career. But the “career education” bandwagon seems to suggest that short- cuts are available to students that lead directly to high-paying jobs—leaving out “frills” like learning how to write and speak well, how to understand the nuances of literary texts and sci- entific concepts, how to collaborate with others on research. Many states and localities have officials or task forces in charge of “work-force development,” implying that business and industry will communicate their needs and educational institu- tions will dutifully turn out students who can head straight to the factory floor or the office cubicle to fulfill them. But history is filled with examples of failed social experiments that treated people as work units rather than individuals capable of inspi- ration and ingenuity. It is far wiser for students to prepare for change—and the multiple careers they are likely to have—than to search for a single job track that might one day become a dead end. I recently heard Geoffrey Garin, president of Hart Research Associates, suggest that the responsibility of higher education today is to prepare people “for jobs that do not yet exist.” It may be that studying the liberal arts is actually the best form of career education.

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 227 11/8/14 3:35 PM

S A N F O R D J . U N G A R

2 2 8

Misperception No. 2: College graduates are finding it harder to get good jobs with liberal-arts degrees. Who wants to hire somebody with an irrelevant major like philosophy or French? Yes, recent graduates have had difficulty in the job market, but

the recession has not differentiated among major fields of study in its impact. A 2009 survey for the Association of American Colleges and Universities actually found

that more than three-quarters of our nation’s employers recom- mend that collegebound students pursue a “liberal education.” An astounding 89 percent said they were looking for more emphasis on “the ability to effectively communicate orally and in writing,” and almost as many urged the development of bet- ter “critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills.” Seventy percent said they were on the lookout for “the ability to inno- vate and be creative.” It is no surprise, then, that a growing number of corpora- tions, including some in highly technical fields, are headed by people with liberal-arts degrees. Plenty of philosophy and physics majors work on Wall Street, and the ability to analyze and compare literature across cultures is a skill linked to many other fields, including law and medicine. Knowledge of foreign languages is an advantage in all lines of work. What seemed a radical idea in business education 10 years or so ago—that critical and creative thinking is as “relevant” as finance or accounting—is now commonplace.

Misperception No. 3: The liberal arts are particularly irrelevant for low-income and first-generation college students. They, more than their more-affluent peers, must focus on something more practical and marketable. It is condescending to imply that those who have less cannot understand and appreciate the finer elements of knowledge—another way of saying, really,

See Chapter 4 for tips on

explaining why you disagree.

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 228 11/8/14 3:35 PM

The New Liberal Arts

2 2 9


that the rich folks will do the important thinking, and the lower classes will simply carry out their ideas. That is just a form of prejudice and cannot be supported intellectually. Perhaps students who come with prior acquaintance with certain fields and a reservoir of experience have an advantage at the start of college. But in my experience, it is often the people who are newest to certain ideas and approaches who are the most original and inventive in the discussion and application of those ideas. They catch up quickly. We should respect what everyone brings to the table and train the broadest possible cross section of American society to participate in, and help shape, civil discourse. We cannot assign different socioeconomic groups to different levels or types of education. This is a country where a mixed-race child raised overseas by a stuggling single mother who confronts impossible odds can grow up to be president. It is precisely a liberal educa- tion that allowed him to catch up and move ahead.

Misperception No. 4: One should not, in this day and age, study only the arts. The STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—are where the action is. The liberal arts encompass the broadest possible range of disci- plines in the natural sciences, the humanities, and the social sciences. In fact, the historical basis of a liberal education is in the classical artes liberales, comprising the trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music). Another term sometimes substituted for liberal arts, for the sake of clarity, is “the arts and sciences.” Thus, many universities have colleges, divisions, or schools of arts and sciences among their academic units. To be sure, there is much concern about whether America is keeping up with China and other rising economies in the

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 229 11/8/14 3:35 PM

S A N F O R D J . U N G A R

2 3 0


STEM disciplines. No evidence suggests, however, that success in scientific and technical fields will be greater if it comes at the expense of a broad background in other areas of the liberal arts.

Misperception No. 5: It’s the liberal Democrats who got this country into trouble in recent years, so it’s ridiculous to con- tinue indoctrinating our young people with a liberal education. A liberal education, as properly defined above, has nothing whatsoever to do with politics—except insofar as politics is one of the fields that students often pursue under its rubric. On the contrary, because of its inclusiveness and its respect for classical traditions, the liberal arts could properly be described as a conservative approach to preparation for life. It promotes the idea of listening to all points of view and not relying on a single ideology, and examining all approaches to solving a problem rather than assuming that one technique or per- spective has all the answers. That calm and balanced sort of dialogue may be out of fashion in the American public arena today, when shouting matches are in vogue and many people seek information only from sources they know in advance they agree with. But it may be only liberal education that can help lead the way back to comity and respectful conversation about issues before us.

Misperception No. 6: America is the only country in the world that clings to such an old-fashioned form of postsecond- ary education as the liberal arts. Other countries, with more practical orientations, are running way ahead of us. It is often difficult to explain the advantages of a liberal-arts education to people from other cultures, where it is common to special- ize early. In many places, including Europe, the study of law or medicine often begins directly after high school, without

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 230 11/8/14 3:35 PM

The New Liberal Arts

2 3 1

any requirement to complete an undergraduate degree first. We should recognize, however, that a secondary education in some systems—say, those that follow the model of the German Gymnasium—often includes much that is left out of the typi- cal high-school curriculum in America. One need only look in on a student preparing for the baccalaureat examination in France to understand the distinction: Mastery of philosophical and scientific concepts is mandatory. Further, in recent years delegations from China have been visiting the United States and asking pointed questions about the liberal arts, seemingly because they feel there may be good reason to try that approach to education. The Chinese may be coming around to the view that a primary focus on technical training is not serving them adequately—that if they aspire to world leadership, they will have to provide young people with a broader perspective. Thus, it is hardly a propitious moment to toss out, or downgrade, one element of higher education that has served us so well.

Misconception No. 7: The cost of American higher education is spiraling out of control, and liberal-arts colleges are becoming irrelevant because they are unable to register gains in productiv- ity or to find innovative ways of doing things. There is plenty wrong with American higher education, including the runaway costs. But the problem of costs goes beyond individual institutions. Government at all levels has come nowhere close to supporting colleges in ways that allow them to provide the kind of access and affordability that’s needed. The best way to understand genuine national priorities is to follow the money, and by that standard, education is really not all that important to this country. Many means exist to obtain a liberal education, including at some large universities, public and private. The method

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 231 11/8/14 3:35 PM

S A N F O R D J . U N G A R

2 3 2


I happen to advocate, for obvious reasons, is the small, resi- dential liberal-arts college, usually independent, where there is close interaction between faculty members and students and, at its best, a sense of community emerges that prepares young people to develop high standards for themselves and others. Efficiency is hardly the leading quality of liberal-arts col- leges, and indeed, their financial model is increasingly com- ing into question. But because of their commitment to expand need-based financial aid, the net cost of attending a small liberal-arts college can be lower than that of a large public university. One can only hope that each institution will find ways to cut costs and develop distinguishing characteristics that help it survive through the tough times ahead. The debate over liberal education will surely continue through the recession and beyond, but it would be helpful to put these misperceptions aside. Financial issues cannot be ignored, but neither can certain eternal verities: Through immersion in liberal arts, students learn not just to make a living, but also to live a life rich in values and character. They come to terms with complexity and diversity, and otherwise devise means to solve problems—rather than just complaining about them. They develop patterns that help them understand how to keep learning for the rest of their days.

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 232 11/8/14 3:35 PM

The New Liberal Arts

2 3 3

Joining the Conversation

1. Summarize in a few sentences the seven misperceptions that Sanford Ungar discusses. These of course are all things that “they say”—and that he uses to launch what he wants to say. How does calling them “misperceptions” affect the way you read his argument? Would you read it any differently if he instead called them “common assumptions”?

2. See paragraph 6, where Geoffrey Garin suggests that “the responsibility of higher education today is to prepare people ‘for jobs that do not yet exist.’ ” Thus, according to Ungar, “It may be that studying the liberal arts is actually the best form of career education.” How would you respond to this claim?

3. Misperception 5 relates liberal education to political affilia- tion. What does Ungar have to say on this issue, and what do you think about his response?

4. On what specific points do you think Ungar would agree with Charles Murray (pp. 234–54)? On what points would he be likely to disagree?

5. Write your own essay listing and explaining five assumptions about college education. Follow Ungar’s essay as a model, and use the “they say / I say” pattern to organize your essay, with each assumption as a “they say” that sets up what you want to say.

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 233 11/8/14 3:35 PM

2 3 4

Are Too Many People Going to College?



To ask whether too many people are going to college requires us to think about the importance and nature of a liberal edu- cation. “Universities are not intended to teach the knowledge required to fit men for some special mode of gaining their livelihood,” John Stuart Mill told students at the University of St. Andrews in 1867. “Their object is not to make skillful lawyers, or physicians, or engineers, but capable and cultivated human beings.” If this is true (and I agree that it is), why say that too many people are going to college? Surely a mass democracy should encourage as many people as possible to become “capable and cultivated human beings” in Mill’s sense. We should not restrict the availability of a liberal education to a rarefied intel- lectual elite. More people should be going to college, not fewer.

Charles Murray is the W. H. Brady Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C., and describes himself as a libertarian. He is the coauthor, with Richard Herrnstein, of The Bell Curve (1994) and author, most recently, of Coming Apart (2012). This essay, adapted from his book, Real Educa- tion: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America’s Schools Back to Reality (2008), first appeared on September 8, 2008, in The American, the journal of the American Enterprise Institute.

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 234 11/8/14 3:35 PM

Are Too Many People Going to College?

2 3 5

Yes and no. More people should be getting the basics of a liberal education. But for most students, the places to provide those basics are elementary and middle school. E. D. Hirsch Jr. is the indispensable thinker on this topic, beginning with his 1987 book Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. Part of his argument involves the importance of a body of core knowledge in fostering reading speed and comprehension. With regard to a liberal education, Hirsch makes three points that are germane here:

Full participation in any culture requires familiarity with a body of core knowledge. To live in the United States and not recognize Teddy Roosevelt, Prohibition, the Minutemen, Wall Street, smoke-filled rooms, or Gettysburg is like trying to read without knowing some of the ten thousand most commonly used words in the language. It signifies a degree of cultural illiteracy about America. But the core knowledge transcends one’s own country. Not to recognize Falstaff, Apollo, the Sistine Chapel, the Inquisition, the twenty-third Psalm, or Mozart sig- nifies cultural illiteracy about the West. Not to recognize the solar system, the Big Bang, natural selection, relativity, or the periodic table is to be scientifically illiterate. Not to recognize the Mediterranean, Vienna, the Yangtze River, Mount Everest, or Mecca is to be geographically illiterate.

This core knowledge is an important part of the glue that holds the culture together. All American children, of whatever ethnic heritage, and whether their families came here 300 years ago or three months ago, need to learn about the Pilgrims, Valley Forge, Duke Ellington, Apollo 11, Susan B. Anthony, George C. Marshall, and the Freedom Riders. All students need to learn the iconic stories. For a society of immigrants such as

See Chapter 4 for ways to agree, but with a difference.

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 235 11/8/14 3:35 PM


2 3 6


ours, the core knowledge is our shared identity that makes us Americans together rather than hyphenated Americans.

K–8 are the right years to teach the core knowledge, and the effort should get off to a running start in elementary school. Starting early is partly a matter of necessity: There’s a lot to learn, and it takes time. But another reason is that small children enjoy learning myths and fables, showing off names and dates they have memorized, and hearing about great historical figures and exciting deeds. The educational establishment sees this kind of curriculum as one that forces children to memorize boring facts. That conventional wisdom is wrong on every count. The facts can be fascinating (if taught right); a lot more than memo- rization is entailed; yet memorizing things is an indispensable part of education, too; and memorizing is something that chil- dren do much, much better than adults. The core knowledge is suited to ways that young children naturally learn and enjoy learning. Not all children will be able to do the reading with the same level of comprehension, but the fact-based nature of the core knowledge actually works to the benefit of low-ability students—remembering facts is much easier than making infer- ences and deductions. The core knowledge curriculum lends itself to adaptation for students across a wide range of academic ability.

In the 20 years since Cultural Literacy was published, Hirsch and his colleagues have developed and refined his original formula- tion into an inventory of more than 6,000 items that approxi- mate the core knowledge broadly shared by literate Americans. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge Foundation has also developed a detailed, grade-by-grade curriculum for K–8, complete with lists of books and other teaching materials.

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 236 11/8/14 3:35 PM

Are Too Many People Going to College?

2 3 7

The Core Knowledge approach need not stop with eighth grade. High school is a good place for survey courses in the humanities, social sciences, and sciences taught at a level below the demands of a college course and accessible to most students in the upper two-thirds of the distribution of academic ability. Some students will not want to take these courses, and it can be counterproductive to require them to do so, but high school can put considerable flesh on the liberal education skeleton for students who are still interested.

Liberal Education in College

Saying “too many people are going to college” is not the same as saying that the average student does not need to know about history, science, and great works of art, music, and literature. They do need to know—and to know more than they are cur- rently learning. So let’s teach it to them, but let’s not wait for college to do it. Liberal education in college means taking on the tough stuff. A high-school graduate who has acquired Hirsch’s core knowledge will know, for example, that John Stuart Mill was an important 19th-century English philosopher who was associ- ated with something called Utilitarianism and wrote a famous book called On Liberty. But learning philosophy in college, which is an essential component of a liberal education, means that the student has to be able to read and understand the actual text of On Liberty. That brings us to the limits set by the nature of college-level material. Here is the first sentence of On Liberty: “The subject of this essay is not the so-called liberty of the will, so unfortunately opposed to the misnamed doctrine of philosophical necessity; but civil, or social liberty:

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 237 11/8/14 3:35 PM


2 3 8


the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual.” I will not burden you with On Liberty’s last sentence. It is 126 words long. And Mill is one of the more accessible philosophers, and On Liberty is one of Mill’s more accessible works. It would be nice if everyone could acquire a fully formed liberal education, but they cannot. Specifically: When College Board researchers defined “col- lege readiness” as the SAT score that is associated with a 65 percent chance of getting at least a 2.7 grade point average in college during the freshman year, and then applied those criteria (hardly demanding in an era of soft courses and grade inflation) to the freshmen in a sample of 41 major colleges and universities, the threshold “college readiness” score was found to be 1180 on the combined SAT math and verbal tests. It is a score that only about 10 percent of American 18-year-olds would achieve if they all took the SAT, in an age when more than 30 percent of 18-year-olds go to college. Should all of those who do have the academic ability to absorb a college-level liberal education get one? It depends. Suppose we have before us a young woman who is in the 98th percentile of academic ability and wants to become a lawyer and eventu- ally run for political office. To me, it seems essential that she spend her undergraduate years getting a rigorous liberal educa- tion. Apart from a liberal education’s value to her, the nation will benefit. Everything she does as an attorney or as an elected official should be informed by the kind of wisdom that a rigorous liberal education can encourage. It is appropriate to push her into that kind of undergraduate program. But the only reason we can get away with pushing her is that the odds are high that she will enjoy it. The odds are high because she is good at this sort of thing—it’s no problem for her to read On Liberty or Paradise Lost. It’s no problem for her to

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 238 11/8/14 3:35 PM

Are Too Many People Going to College?

2 3 9

come up with an interesting perspective on what she’s read and weave it into a term paper. And because she’s good at it, she is also likely to enjoy it. It is one of Aristotle’s central themes in his discussion of human happiness, a theme that John Rawls later distilled into what he called the Aristotelian Principle: “Other things equal, human beings enjoy the exercise of the irrealized capacities (their innate or trained abilities), and this enjoyment increases the more the capacity is realized, or the greater its complexity.” And so it comes to pass that those who take the hardest majors and who enroll in courses that look most like an old fashioned liberal education are concentrated among the stu- dents in the top percentiles of academic ability. Getting a liberal education consists of dealing with complex intellectual material day after day, and dealing with complex intellectual material is what students in the top few percentiles are really good at, in the same way that other people are really good at cooking or making pottery. For these students, doing it well is fun. Every percentile down the ability ladder—and this applies to all abilities, not just academic—the probability that a person will enjoy the hardest aspects of an activity goes down as well. Students at the 80th percentile of academic ability are still smart kids, but the odds that they will respond to a course that assigns Mill or Milton are considerably lower than the odds that a student in the top few percentiles will respond. Virtue has nothing to do with it. Maturity has nothing to do with it. Appreciation of the value of a liberal education has nothing to do with it. The probability that a student will enjoy Paradise Lost goes down as his linguistic ability goes down, but so does the probability that he works on double acrostic puzzles in his spare time or regularly plays online Scrabble, and for the identi- cal reason. The lower down the linguistic ladder he is, the less fun such activities are.

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 239 11/8/14 3:35 PM


2 4 0


And so we return to the question: Should all of those who have the academic ability to absorb a college-level liberal edu- cation get one? If our young woman is at the 80th percentile of linguistic ability, should she be pushed to do so? She has enough intellectual capacity, if she puts her mind to it and works exceptionally hard. The answer is no. If she wants to, fine. But she probably won’t, and there’s no way to force her. Try to force her (for example, by setting up a demanding core curriculum), and she will transfer to another school, because she is in college for vocational training. She wants to write computer code. Start a business. Get a job in television. She uses college to take vocational courses that pertain to her career interests. A large proportion of people who are theoretically able to absorb a liberal education have no interest in doing so. And reasonably so. Seen dispassionately, getting a tradi- tional liberal education over four years is an odd way to enjoy spending one’s time. Not many people enjoy reading for hour after hour, day after day, no matter what the material may be. To enjoy reading On Liberty and its ilk—and if you’re going to absorb such material, you must in some sense enjoy the process—is downright peculiar. To be willing to spend many more hours writing papers and answers to exam questions about that material approaches masochism. We should look at the kind of work that goes into acquiring a liberal education at the college level in the same way that we look at the grueling apprenticeship that goes into becom- ing a master chef: something that understandably attracts only a few people. Most students at today’s colleges choose not to take the courses that go into a liberal education because the capabilities they want to develop lie elsewhere. These students are not lazy, any more than students who don’t want to spend

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 240 11/8/14 3:35 PM

Are Too Many People Going to College?

2 4 1


hours learning how to chop carrots into a perfect eighth-inch dice are lazy. A liberal education just doesn’t make sense for them.

For Learning How to Make a Living, the Four-Year Brick-and-Mortar Residential College Is Increasingly Obsolete

We now go from one extreme to the other, from the ideal of liberal education to the utilitarian process of acquiring the knowledge that most students go to college to acquire— practical and vocational. The question here is not whether the traditional four-year residential college is fun or valuable as a place to grow up, but when it makes sense as a place to learn how to make a living. The answer is: in a sensible world, hardly ever. Start with the time it takes—four years. Assuming a semes- ter system with four courses per semester, four years of class work means 32 semester-long courses. The occupations for which “knowing enough” requires 32 courses are exceedingly rare. For some professions—medicine and law are the obvious examples—a rationale for four years of course work can be con- cocted (combining pre-med and pre-law undergraduate courses with three years of medical school and law school), but for every other occupation, the body of knowledge taught in classrooms can be learned more quickly. Even Ph.D.s don’t require four years of course work. The Ph.D. is supposed to signify expertise, but that expertise comes from burrowing deep in to a specialty, not from dozens of courses. Those are the jobs with the most stringent academic require- ments. For the student who wants to become a good hotel manager, software designer, accountant, hospital administrator,

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 241 11/8/14 3:35 PM


2 4 2

farmer, high-school teacher, social worker, journalist, optome- trist, interior designer, or football coach, four years of class work is ridiculous. Actually becoming good in those occupations will take longer than four years, but most of the competence is acquired on the job. The two-year community college and online courses offer more flexible options for tailoring course work to the real needs of the job. A brick-and-mortar campus is increasingly obsolete. The physical infrastructure of the college used to make sense for three reasons. First, a good library was essential to higher learn- ing, and only a college faculty and student body provided the economies of scale that made good libraries affordable. Second, scholarship flourishes through colleagueships, and the college campus made it possible to put scholars in physical proximity to each other. Third, the best teaching requires interaction between teachers and students, and physical proximity was the only way to get it. All three rationales for the brick-and- mortar campus are fading fast. The rationale for a physical library is within a few years of extinction. Even now, the Internet provides access, for a price, to all the world’s significant technical journals. The books are about to follow. Google is scanning the entire text of every book in the libraries of Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, Oxford, the New York Public Library, the Bavarian State Library, Ghent University Library, Keio Library (Tokyo), the National Library of Catalonia, University of Lausanne, and an expand- ing list of others. Collectively, this project will encompass close to the sum total of human knowledge. It will be completely searchable. Everything out of copyright will be free. Everything still under copyright will be accessible for a fee. Libraries will still be a selling point for colleges, but as a place for students to study in pleasant surroundings—an amenity in the same

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 242 11/8/14 3:35 PM

Are Too Many People Going to College?

2 4 3

way that an attractive student union is an amenity. Colleges and universities will not need to exist because they provide libraries. The rationale for colleges based on colleagueships has eroded. Until a few decades ago, physical proximity was impor- tant because correspondence and phone calls just weren’t as good. As email began to spread during the 1980s, physical prox- imity became less important. As the capacity of the Internet expanded in the 1990s, other mechanisms made those inter- actions richer. Now, regular emails from professional groups inform scholars of the latest publications in their field of inter- est. Specialized chat groups enable scholars to bounce new ideas off other people working on the same problems. Drafts are exchanged effortlessly and comments attached electronically. Whether physical proximity still has any advantages depends mostly on the personality of the scholar. Some people like being around other people during the workday and prefer face-to-face conversations to emails. For those who don’t, the value of being on a college campus instead of on a mountaintop in Montana is nil. Their electronic access to other scholars is incompara- bly greater than any scholar enjoyed even within the world’s premier universities before the advent of the Internet. Like the library, face-to-face colleagueships will be an amenity that colleges continue to provide. But colleges and universities will not need to exist because they provide a community of scholars. The third rationale for the brick-and-mortar college is that it brings teachers together with students. Working against that rationale is the explosion in the breadth and realism of what is known as distance learning. The idea of distance learning is surprisingly old—Isaac Pitman was teaching his shorthand system to British students through the postal service in the 1840s, and the University of London began offering degrees for

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 243 11/8/14 3:35 PM


2 4 4


correspondence students in 1858—but the technology of dis- tance learning changed little for the next century. The advent of inexpensive videocassettes in the 1980s opened up a way for students to hear and see lectures without being in the class- room. By the early 1990s, it was possible to buy college-level courses on audio or videotape, taught by first-rate teaching professors, on a wide range of topics, for a few hundred dollars. But without easy interaction between teacher and student, distance learning remained a poor second-best to a good col- lege seminar. Once again, the Internet is revolutionizing everything. As personal computers acquired the processing power to show high-definition video and the storage capacity to handle big video files, the possibilities for distance learning expanded by orders of magnitude. We are now watching the early expres- sion of those possibilities: podcasts and streaming videos in real time of professors’ lectures, online discussions among students scattered around the country, online interaction between stu- dents and professors, online exams, and tutorials augmented by computer-aided instruction software. Even today, the quality of student-teacher interactions in a virtual classroom competes with the interactions in a brick-and- mortar classroom. But the technology is still in its early stages of development and the rate of improvement is breathtaking. Compare video games such as Myst and SimCity in the 1990s to their descendants today; the Walkman you used in the 1990s to the iPod you use today; the cell phone you used in the 1990s to the BlackBerry or iPhone you use today. Whatever technical limitations might lead you to say, “Yes, but it’s still not the same as being there in the classroom,” are probably within a few years of being outdated.

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 244 11/8/14 3:35 PM

Are Too Many People Going to College?

2 4 5

College Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be

College looms so large in the thinking of both parents and students because it is seen as the open sesame to a good job. Reaping the economic payoff for college that shows up in econo- metric analyses is a long shot for large numbers of young people. When high-school graduates think that obtaining a B.A. will help them get a higher-paying job, they are only narrowly correct. Economists have established beyond doubt that people with B.A.s earn more on average than people without them. But why does the B.A. produce that result? For whom does the B.A. produce that result? For some jobs, the economic premium for a degree is produced by the actual education that has gone into getting the degree. Lawyers, physicians, and engineers can earn their high incomes only by deploying knowledge and skills that take years to acquire, and degrees in law, medicine, and engineering still signify competence in those knowledges and skills. But for many other jobs, the economic premium for the B.A. is created by a brutal fact of life about the American job market: Employers do not even interview applicants who do not hold a B.A. Even more brutal, the advantage conferred by the B.A. often has nothing to do with the content of the education. Employers do not value what the student learned, just that the student has a degree. Employers value the B.A. because it is a no-cost (for them) screening device for academic ability and perseverance. The more people who go to college, the more sense it makes for employers to require a B.A. When only a small percentage of people got college degrees, employers who required a B.A. would have been shutting themselves off from access to most of the talent. With more than a third of 23-year-olds now get- ting a B.A., many employers can reasonably limit their hiring

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 245 11/8/14 3:35 PM


2 4 6


pool to college graduates because bright and ambitious high- school graduates who can go to college usually do go to college. An employer can believe that exceptions exist but rationally choose not to expend time and money to identify them. Know- ing this, large numbers of students are in college to buy their admission ticket—the B.A. But while it is true that the average person with a B.A. makes more than the average person without a B.A., getting a B.A. is still going to be the wrong economic decision for many high-school graduates. Wages within occupations form a distribution. Young people with okay-but-not-great academic ability who are thinking about whether to go after a B.A. need to consider the competition they will face after they graduate. Let me put these calculations in terms of a specific example, a young man who has just graduated from high school and is trying to decide whether to become an electrician or go to college and major in business, hoping to become a white-collar manager. He is at the 70th percentile in linguistic ability and logical mathematical ability—someone who shouldn’t go to college by my standards, but who can, in today’s world, easily find a college that will give him a degree. He is exactly average in interpersonal and intrapersonal ability. He is at the 95th percentile in the small-motor skills and spatial abilities that are helpful in being a good electrician. He begins by looking up the average income of electricians and managers on the Bureau of Labor Statistics website, and finds that the mean annual income for electricians in 2005 was $45,630, only about half of the $88,450 mean for management occupations. It looks as if getting a B.A. will buy him a huge wage premium. Should he try to get the B.A. on economic grounds? To make his decision correctly, our young man must start by throwing out the averages. He has the ability to become

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 246 11/8/14 3:35 PM

Are Too Many People Going to College?

2 4 7

an excellent electrician and can reasonably expect to be near the top of the electricians’ income distribution. He does not have it in him to be an excellent manager, because he is only average in interpersonal and intrapersonal ability and only modestly above average in academic ability, all of which are important for becoming a good manager, while his com- petitors for those slots will include many who are high in all of those abilities. Realistically, he should be looking at the incomes toward the bottom of the distribution of man- agers. With that in mind, he goes back to the Bureau of Labor Statistics website and discovers that an electrician at the 90th percentile of electricians’ incomes made $70,480 in 2005, almost twice the income of a manager at the 10th percentile of managers’ incomes ($37,800). Even if our young man successfully completes college and gets a B.A. (which is far from certain), he is likely to make less money than if he becomes an electrician. Then there is job security to consider. A good way to make sure you always can find work is to be among the best at what you do. It also helps to have a job that does not require you to compete with people around the globe. When corporations downsize, they lay off mediocre managers before they lay off top electricians. When the economy gets soft, top electricians can find work when mediocre managers cannot. Low-level management jobs can often be outsourced to India, whereas electricians’ jobs cannot. What I have said of electricians is true throughout the American job market. The income for the top people in a wide variety of occupations that do not require a college degree is higher than the average income for many occupations that require a B.A. Furthermore, the range and number of such jobs are expanding rapidly. The need for assembly-line workers in

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 247 11/8/14 3:35 PM


2 4 8


factories (one of the most boring jobs ever invented) is fall- ing, but the demand for skilled technicians of every kind—in healthcare, information technology, transportation networks, and every other industry that relies on high-tech equipment— is expanding. The service sector includes many low-skill, low- paying jobs, but it also includes growing numbers of specialized jobs that pay well (for example, in healthcare and the enter- tainment and leisure industries). Construction offers an array of high-paying jobs for people who are good at what they do. It’s not just skilled labor in the standard construction trades that is in high demand. The increase in wealth in American society has increased the demand for all sorts of craftsman- ship. Today’s high-end homes and office buildings may entail the work of specialized skills in stonework, masonry, glazing, painting, cabinetmaking, machining, landscaping, and a dozen other crafts. The increase in wealth is also driving an increased demand for the custom-made and the exquisitely wrought, meaning demand for artisans in everything from pottery to jewelry to metalworking. There has never been a time in his- tory when people with skills not taught in college have been in so much demand at such high pay as today, nor a time when the range of such jobs has been so wide. In today’s America, finding a first-rate lawyer or physician is easy. Finding first-rate skilled labor is hard.

Intrinsic Rewards

The topic is no longer money but job satisfaction—intrinsic rewards. We return to our high-school graduate trying to decide between going to college and becoming an electrician. He knows that he enjoys working with his hands and likes the idea of not being stuck in the same place all day, but he also likes the idea

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 248 11/8/14 3:35 PM

Are Too Many People Going to College?

2 4 9

of being a manager sitting behind a desk in a big office, telling people what to do and getting the status that goes with it. However, he should face facts that he is unlikely to know on his own, but that a guidance counselor could help him face. His chances of getting the big office and the status are slim. He is more likely to remain in a cubicle, under the thumb of the boss in the big office. He is unlikely to have a job in which he produces something tangible during the course of the day. If he becomes a top electrician instead, he will have an expertise that he exercises at a high level. At the end of a workday, he will often be able to see that his work made a dif- ference in the lives of people whose problems he has solved. He will not be confined to a cubicle and, after his apprenticeship, will be his own supervisor in the field. Top electricians often become independent contractors who have no boss at all. The intrinsic rewards of being a top manager can be just as great as those of a top electrician (though I would not claim they are greater), but the intrinsic rewards of being a mediocre manager are not. Even as people in white-collar jobs lament the soullessness of their work, the intrinsic rewards of exercising technical skills remain undiminished. Finally, there is an overarching consideration so important it is hard to express adequately: the satisfaction of being good at what one does for a living (and knowing it), compared to the melancholy of being mediocre at what one does for a living (and knowing it). This is another truth about living a human life that a 17-year-old might not yet understand on his own, but that a guidance counselor can bring to his attention. Guidance coun- selors and parents who automatically encourage young people to go to college straight out of high school regardless of their skills and interests are being thoughtless about the best interests of young people in their charge.

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 249 11/8/14 3:35 PM


2 5 0


The Dark Side of the B.A. as Norm

It is possible to accept all that I have presented as fact and still disagree with the proposition that too many people are going to college. The argument goes something like this: The meaning of a college education has evolved since the 19th century. The traditional liberal education is still available for students who want it, but the curriculum is appropriately broader now, and includes many courses for vocational prepa- ration that today’s students want. Furthermore, intellectual requirements vary across majors. It may be true that few stu- dents can complete a major in economics or biology, but larger proportions can handle the easier majors. A narrow focus on curriculum also misses the important nonacademic functions of college. The lifestyle on today’s campuses may leave something to be desired, but four years of college still give youngsters in late adolescence a chance to encounter different kinds of peo- ple, to discover new interests, and to decide what they want to make of their lives. And if it is true that some students spend too much of their college years partying, that was also true of many Oxford students in the 18th century. Lighten up. If the only people we had to worry about were those who are on college campuses and doing reasonably well, this position would have something to be said for it. It does not address the issues of whether four years makes sense or whether a residential facility makes sense; nevertheless, college as it exists is not an intrinsically evil place for the students who are there and are coping academically. But there is the broader American soci- ety to worry about as well. However unintentionally, we have made something that is still inaccessible to a majority of the population—the B.A.—into a symbol of first-class citizenship. We have done so at the same time that other class divisions are

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 250 11/8/14 3:35 PM

Are Too Many People Going to College?

2 5 1

becoming more powerful. Today’s college system is implicated in the emergence of class-riven America. The problem begins with the message sent to young peo- ple that they should aspire to college no matter what. Some politicians are among the most visible offenders, treating every failure to go to college as an injustice that can be remedied by increasing government help. American educational administra- tors reinforce the message by instructing guidance counselors to steer as many students as possible toward a college-prep track (more than 90 percent of high-school students report that their guidance counselors encouraged them to go to college). But politicians and educators are only following the lead of the larger culture. As long as it remains taboo to acknowledge that college is intellectually too demanding for most young people, we will continue to create crazily unrealistic expecta- tions among the next generation. If “crazily unrealistic” sounds too strong, consider that more than 90 percent of high school seniors expect to go to college, and more than 70 percent of them expect to work in professional jobs. One aspect of this phenomenon has been labeled misaligned ambitions, meaning that adolescents have career ambitions that are inconsistent with their educational plans. Data from the Sloan Study of Youth and Social Development conducted dur- ing the 1990s indicate that misaligned ambitions characterized more than half of all adolescents. Almost always, the misalign- ment is in the optimistic direction, as adolescents aspire to be attorneys or physicians without understanding the educational hurdles they must surmount to achieve their goals. They end up at a four-year institution not because that is where they can take the courses they need to meet their career goals, but because college is the place where B.A.s are handed out, and everyone knows that these days you’ve got to have a B.A. Many of them

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 251 11/8/14 3:35 PM


2 5 2


drop out. Of those who entered a four-year college in 1995, only 58 percent had gotten their B.A. five academic years later. Another 14 percent were still enrolled. If we assume that half of that 14 percent eventually get their B.A.s, about a third of all those who entered college hoping for a B.A. leave without one. If these numbers had been produced in a culture where the B.A. was a nice thing to have but not a big deal, they could be interpreted as the result of young adults deciding that they didn’t really want a B.A. after all. Instead, these numbers were produced by a system in which having a B.A. is a very big deal indeed, and that brings us to the increasingly worrisome role of the B.A. as a source of class division. The United States has always had symbols of class, and the college degree has always been one of them. But through the first half of the 20th century, there were all sorts of respectable reasons a person might not go to college—not enough money to pay for college; needing to work right out of high school to support a wife, parents, or younger siblings; or the commonly held belief that going straight to work was better preparation for a business career than going to college. As long as the percentage of college graduates remained small, it also remained true, and everybody knew it, that the majority of America’s intellectually most able people did not have B.A.s. Over the course of the 20th century, three trends gath- ered strength. The first was the increasing proportion of jobs screened for high academic ability due to the advanced level of education they require—engineers, physicians, attorneys, college teachers, scientists, and the like. The second was the increasing market value of those jobs. The third was the open- ing up of college to more of those who had the academic ability to go to college, partly because the increase in American wealth

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 252 11/8/14 3:35 PM

Are Too Many People Going to College?

2 5 3


meant that more parents could afford college for their children, and partly because the proliferation of scholarships and loans made it possible for most students with enough academic ability to go. The combined effect of these trends has been to overturn the state of affairs that prevailed through World War II. Now the great majority of America’s intellectually most able peo- ple do have a B.A. Along with that transformation has come a downside that few anticipated. The acceptable excuses for not going to college have dried up. The more people who go to college, the more stigmatizing the failure to complete col- lege becomes. Today, if you do not get a B.A., many people assume it is because you are too dumb or too lazy. And all this because of a degree that seldom has an interpretable substan- tive meaning. Let’s approach the situation from a different angle. Imagine that America had no system of postsecondary education and you were made a member of a task force assigned to create one from scratch. Ask yourself what you would think if one of your colleagues submitted this proposal: First, we will set up a common goal for every young person that represents educational success. We will call it a B.A. We will then make it difficult or impossible for most people to achieve this goal. For those who can, achieving the goal will take four years no matter what is being taught. We will attach an economic reward for reaching the goal that often has little to do with the content of what has been learned. We will lure large numbers of people who do not possess adequate ability or motivation to try to achieve the goal and then fail. We will then stigmatize everyone who fails to achieve it. What I have just described is the system that we have in place. There must be a better way.

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 253 11/8/14 3:35 PM


2 5 4

Joining the Conversation

1. The “I say” here is explicit: “too many people are going to college.” We know what Charles Murray thinks. But why does he think this? In the rest of his essay, he tells us why. Summarize his argument, noting all the reasons and evi- dence he gives to support his claim.

2. Is Murray right—are too many people going to college? If you disagree, why? Whether or not you agree with him, do you find his argument persuasive?

3. In the middle of the essay is a lengthy narrative about some- one who is trying to decide what to be when he grows up, an electrician or a manager. What does this narrative con- tribute to Murray’s argument? Where would the argument be without the narrative?

4. Compare Murray’s argument that college is a waste of time for many with Sanford J. Ungar’s argument (pp. 226–33) that anyone can benefit from a college education. Which one do you find more convincing?

5. In one or two paragraphs, reflect on why you chose your current school. Did you consider, first and foremost, how your college would help you “learn how to make a living,” as Murray would recommend? Did you consider other poten- tial benefits of your college education? If you could have a well-paying job without a college education, would you go to college anyway?

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 254 11/8/14 3:35 PM

2 5 5

Two Years Are Better than Four



Oh, the hand wringing. “College as America used to understand it is coming to an end,” bemoans Rick Perlstein and his beatnik friend of fallen face. Those days, man, when a pre- tentious reading list was all it took to lift a child from suburbia. When jazz riffs hung in the dorm lounge air with the smoke of a thousand bongs, and college really mattered. Really mattered? Rick Perlstein thinks so. It mattered so much to him that he never got over his four years at the University of Privilege. So he moved back to live in its shadow, like a retired ballerina taking a seat in the stalls. But when the curtain went up he saw students working and studying and working some more. Adults

Liz Addison attended Piedmont Virginia Community College and Southern Maine Community College, where she graduated with a degree in biology in 2008. She received a graduate degree from the Royal Veterinary College in London in 2014 and now works as a veterinarian in Virginia. This essay, published in 2007, was a runner- up in a New York Times Magazine college essay contest. The essay responds to Rick Perlstein’s opinion piece “What’s the Matter With College?,” in which he argues that universities no longer matter as much as they once did.

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 255 11/8/14 3:35 PM


2 5 6


before their time. Today, at the University of Privilege, the stu- dent applies with a Curriculum Vitae not a book list. Shudder. Thus, Mr. Perlstein concludes, the college experience—a rite of passage as it was meant it to be—must have come to an end. But he is wrong. For Mr. Perlstein, so rooted in his own nostalgia, is looking for himself—and he would never think to look for himself in the one place left where the college experi- ence of self-discovery does still matter to those who get there. My guess, reading between the lines, is that Mr. Perlstein has never set foot in an American community college. The philosophy of the community college, and I have been to two of them, is one that unconditionally allows its students to begin. Just begin. Implicit in this belief is the understanding that anything and everything is possible. Just follow any one of the 1,655 road signs, and pop your head inside—yes, they let anyone in—and there you will find discoveries of a first inde- pendent film, a first independent thought, a first independent study. This college experience remains as it should. This college brochure is not marketing for the parents—because the parents, nor grandparents, probably never went to college themselves. Upon entry to my first community college I had but one O’level to my name. These now disbanded qualifications once marked the transition from lower to upper high school in the Great British education system. It was customary for the average student to proceed forward with a clutch of O’levels, say eight or nine. On a score of one, I left school hurriedly at sixteen. Thomas Jefferson once wrote, “Everybody should have an education proportional to their life.” In my case, my life became proportional to my education. But, in doing so, it had the good fortune to land me in an American community college and now, from that priceless springboard, I too seek admission to the University of Privilege. Enter on empty and leave with

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 256 11/8/14 3:35 PM

Two Years Are Better than Four

2 5 7

a head full of dreams? How can Mr. Perlstein say college does not matter anymore? The community college system is America’s hidden public service gem. If I were a candidate for office I would campaign from every campus. Not to score political points, but simply to make sure that anyone who is looking to go to college in this country knows where to find one. Just recently, I read an article in the New York Times describing a “college application essay” workshop for low-income students. I was strangely disturbed that those interviewed made no mention of community college. Mr. Perlstein might have been equally disturbed, for the thrust of the workshop was no different to that of an essay coach to the affluent. “Make Life Stories Shine,” beams the headline. Or, in other words, prove yourself worldly, insightful, cultured, mature, before you get to college. Yet, down at X.Y.C.C. it is still possible to enter the college experience as a rookie. That is the understanding—that you will grow up a little bit with your first English class, a bit more with your first psychology class, a whole lot more with your first biology, physics, chemistry. That you may shoot through the roof with calculus, philosophy, or genetics. “College is the key,” a young African American student writes for the umpteenth torturous revision of his college essay, “as well as hope.” Oh, I wanted desperately to say, please tell him about community college. Please tell him that hope can begin with just one placement test. When Mr. Perlstein and friends say college no longer holds importance, they mourn for both the individual and society. Yet, arguably, the community college experience is more criti- cal to the nation than that of former beatnik types who, lest we forget, did not change the world. The community colleges of America cover this country college by college and community

See Chapter 9 on mixing academic and colloquial styles.

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 257 11/8/14 3:35 PM


2 5 8

by community. They offer a network of affordable future, of accessible hope, and an option to dream. In the cold light of day, is it perhaps not more important to foster students with dreams rather than a building take-over? I believe so. I believe the community college system to be one of America’s uniquely great institutions. I believe it should be celebrated as such. “For those who find it necessary to go to a two-year college,” begins one University of Privilege admis- sions paragraph. None too subtle in its implication, but very true. For some students, from many backgrounds, would never breathe the college experience if it were not for the community college. Yes, it is here that Mr. Perlstein will find his college years of self-discovery, and it is here he will find that college does still matter.

Joining the Conversation

1. What view is Liz Addison responding to? Write out a sen- tence or two summarizing the “they say.”

2. Addison discusses her own educational experience as part of her argument. What role does this use of autobiographical narrative play in her argument?

3. How does Addison make clear that her topic is really impor- tant—and that it should matter to readers?

4. In closing, Addison writes of community colleges: “It is here that Mr. Perlstein will find his college years of self- discovery, and it is here he will find that college does still matter.” Do you think college still matters? Write an essay responding to this point from your own perspective as a college student.

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 258 11/8/14 3:35 PM

2 5 9

Colleges Prepare People for Life



Those Who Claim Education Is a Waste of Time Are Missing the Bigger Picture

A recent New York Times illustration read, “College Is for Suckers.” The words were emblazoned across the sweatshirts of four students, and the accompanying article made essentially that point. It echoed an increasingly common refrain that college is expensive, that students are taking on unmanageable debt and that they too often graduate unprepared for the world of work.

Freeman Hrabowski has been the president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, since 1992. In 2012, President Obama named him chair of the President’s Advisory Commission on Educa- tional Excellence for African Americans. Hrabowski is the coauthor of the books Beating the Odds: Raising Academically Successful African American Males (1998) and Overcoming the Odds: Raising Academically Successful African American Young Women (2001). This article first appeared in the Baltimore Sun on December 22, 2013.

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 259 11/8/14 3:35 PM


2 6 0


In contrast, many economists and educators point to data showing that the fastest growing job categories require at least a college degree. College graduates are much more likely to be employed than those with only a high school diploma and earn substantially higher salaries. According to this viewpoint, col- lege graduates aren’t suckers; they’re the winners in a globally competitive economy. Both sides have points. However, the first argument treats colleges as monolithic, and the second turns individual students into averages. The reality is far more nuanced. Too often, our current system fails to help students identify the insti- tutions best suited to them—based on their academic prepara- tion, aspirations and resources. When we focus so heavily on monetary inputs and outputs, we ignore the question of what it truly means to be educated, such as contributing to the public good. Yes, colleges prepare people for jobs, but more critically, they prepare people for life. A job may be the starting point for the good life, but it shouldn’t be the end point. One strength of American higher education is the diversity of missions among our 4,700 colleges and universities. Students can find institutions—public and private, two-year and four- year—for just about any educational niche and budget. Stu- dents and families should learn as much as possible about each institution they are considering. They should also estimate the net costs, looking carefully at expenses and anticipated grants and loans. Colleges and universities must also be more transparent. President Barack Obama has called on higher education to standardize the information given to students and families about costs, financial aid packages, students’ debt at gradua- tion and graduation rates. The University System of Maryland

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 260 11/8/14 3:35 PM

Colleges Prepare People for Life

2 6 1


was one of the first systems to sign on to that initiative, and campuses now provide new details in a revised financial aid award letter sent to families. Maryland families are fortunate. Thanks to the support of Gov. Martin O’Malley and the Maryland General Assembly, tuition at our public colleges and universities has increased only 3 percent each year for the past three years, following four years of tuition freezes. In addition, our public and private institu- tions have an impressive record of admitting and educating a broad range of students who have become leaders in Maryland and beyond. Enrollments at our institutions are healthy because families have seen that our graduates succeed. Even so, students need strong counseling to identify the best possible options. Lack of counseling is one reason that fewer than 10 percent of Americans from the lowest income quartile have earned a college degree by age 24, compared to 80 percent of those in the top quartile. My colleagues spend countless hours advising prospective students, some of whom ultimately choose UMBC, while others decide we’re not the best fit. That type of counseling is critical, but it is time consuming and expensive for both colleges and high schools. College preparatory initiatives such as Way2go Maryland, led by the University System of Maryland, have proven promis- ing. So, too, have programs run by such private organizations as the CollegeBound Foundation in Baltimore and CollegeTracks in Montgomery County. However, adequate funding continues to be a challenge, and much work remains in educating students about their options. Higher education must continue to partner with school systems to prepare more students for college. At stake isn’t just a clearer path to financial stability, but the path to limitless possibilities.

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 261 11/8/14 3:35 PM


2 6 2

I’m reminded of that each day when I walk past a statue of the late Walter Sondheim that stands in the heart of our cam- pus and reminds us of the power of education each day. When Sondheim graduated from college, he took a job at Hochschild, Kohn & Company in Baltimore and had no idea what else he wanted to do with his life. Fortunately, college had given him a strong grounding in the liberal arts and the ability to think broadly. That uncertain young man became the most admired civic leader in Maryland. He advised mayors and governors, led desegregation of the city schools, and was an active leader for decades. Sondheim’s education helped him get a job. More impor- tant, it helped him change Maryland—and we all are the beneficiaries.

Joining the Conversation

1. After reading Freeman Hrabowski’s essay carefully, pick the one sentence that you think expresses its main idea, and be prepared to explain your choice.

2. In what way does Hrabowski use a “they say / I say” format to structure his argument? What oth er points might he have included in his “I say’” response?

3. Hrabowski stresses the role of college in preparing leaders who help their communities. What counterarguments could you present to his emphasis on college as a place to learn how to help others?

4. How do you think Hrabowski might respond to Charles Mur- ray’s argument (pp. 234−54) that not everyone should go to college?

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 262 11/8/14 3:35 PM

Colleges Prepare People for Life

2 6 3

5. “Higher education as we know it is about to come to an end.” That’s the opening line of an article by two other college presidents. Go to and enter “Give Colleges More Credit” in the search box. How does this article’s argument compare with Hrabowski’s? Which piece do you find more persuasive, and why?

6. This piece appeared as an op-ed essay in the Baltimore Sun, a newspaper read primarily by people living in that city and its surrounding areas. In what ways did Hrabowski tailor his essay to this particular audience? How might he revise it to address a national audience?

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 263 11/8/14 3:35 PM

2 6 4

Hidden Intellectualism



Everyone knows some young person who is impressively “street smart” but does poorly in school. What a waste, we think, that one who is so intelligent about so many things in life seems unable to apply that intelligence to academic work. What doesn’t occur to us, though, is that schools and colleges might be at fault for missing the opportunity to tap into such street smarts and channel them into good academic work. Nor do we consider one of the major reasons why schools and colleges overlook the intellectual potential of street smarts: the fact that we associate those street smarts with anti-intellectual concerns. We associate the educated life, the life of the mind, too narrowly and exclusively with subjects and texts that we consider inherently weighty and academic. We assume that

Gerald Graff, one of the coauthors of this book, is a professor of English and education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is a past president of the Modern Language Association, the world’s largest professional association of university scholars and teachers. This essay is adapted from his 2003 book, Clueless in Aca deme: How Schooling Obscures the Life of the Mind.

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 264 11/8/14 3:35 PM

Hidden Intellectualism

2 6 5


it’s possible to wax intellectual about Plato, Shakespeare, the French Revolution, and nuclear fission, but not about cars, dating, fashion, sports, TV, or video games. The trouble with this assumption is that no necessary connec- tion has ever been established between any text or subject and the educational depth and weight of the discussion it can generate. Real intellectuals turn any subject, how- ever lightweight it may seem, into grist for their mill through the thoughtful questions they bring to it, whereas a dullard will find a way to drain the interest out of the richest subject. That’s why a George Orwell writing on the cultural meanings of penny postcards is infinitely more substantial than the cogitations of many professors on Shakespeare or globalization. Students do need to read models of intellectually challeng- ing writing—and Orwell is a great one—if they are to become intellectuals themselves. But they would be more prone to take on intellectual identities if we encouraged them to do so at first on subjects that interest them rather than ones that interest us. I offer my own adolescent experience as a case in point. Until I entered college, I hated books and cared only for sports. The only reading I cared to do or could do was sports maga- zines, on which I became hooked, becoming a regular reader of Sport magazine in the late forties, Sports Illustrated when it began publishing in 1954, and the annual magazine guides to professional baseball, football, and basketball. I also loved the sports novels for boys of John R. Tunis and Clair Bee and autobiographies of sports stars like Joe DiMaggio’s Lucky to Be a Yankee and Bob Feller’s Strikeout Story. In short, I was your typical teenage anti-intellectual—or so I believed for a long time. I have recently come to think, however, that my prefer- ence for sports over schoolwork was not anti-intellectualism so much as intellectualism by other means.

See pp. 58–61 for tips on disagreeing, with reasons.

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 265 11/8/14 3:35 PM


2 6 6

In the Chicago neighborhood I grew up in, which had become a melting pot after World War II, our block was solidly middle class, but just a block away—doubtless concentrated there by the real estate companies—were African Americans, Native Americans, and “hillbilly” whites who had recently fled postwar joblessness in the South and Appalachia. Negotiating this class boundary was a tricky matter. On the one hand, it was necessary to maintain the boundary between “clean-cut” boys like me and working-class “hoods,” as we called them, which meant that it was good to be openly smart in a bookish sort of way. On the other hand, I was desperate for the approval of the hoods, whom I encountered daily on the playing field and in the neighborhood, and for this purpose it was not at all good to be book-smart. The hoods would turn on you if they sensed you were putting on airs over them: “Who you lookin’ at, smart ass?” as a leather-jacketed youth once said to me as he relieved me of my pocket change along with my self-respect. I grew up torn, then, between the need to prove I was smart and the fear of a beating if I proved it too well; between the need not to jeopardize my respectable future and the need to impress the hoods. As I lived it, the conflict came down to a choice between being physically tough and being verbal. For a boy in my neighborhood and elementary school, only being “tough” earned you complete legitimacy. I still recall endless, complicated debates in this period with my closest pals over who was “the toughest guy in the school.” If you were less than negligible as a fighter, as I was, you settled for the next best thing, which was to be inarticulate, carefully hiding telltale marks of literacy like correct grammar and pronunciation. In one way, then, it would be hard to imagine an adolescence more thoroughly anti-intellectual than mine. Yet in retrospect, I see that it’s more complicated, that I and the 1950s themselves

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 266 11/8/14 3:35 PM

Hidden Intellectualism

2 6 7


were not simply hostile toward intellectualism, but divided and ambivalent. When Marilyn Monroe married the playwright Arthur Miller in 1956 after divorcing the retired baseball star Joe DiMaggio, the symbolic triumph of geek over jock suggested the way the wind was blowing. Even Elvis, according to his biographer Peter Guralnick, turns out to have supported Adlai over Ike in the presidential election of 1956. “I don’t dig the intellectual bit,” he told reporters. “But I’m telling you, man, he knows the most.” Though I too thought I did not “dig the intellectual bit,” I see now that I was unwittingly in training for it. The germs had actually been planted in the seemingly philistine debates about which boys were the toughest. I see now that in the interminable analysis of sports teams, movies, and toughness that my friends and I engaged in—a type of analysis, needless to say, that the real toughs would never have stooped to—I was already betray- ing an allegiance to the egghead world. I was practicing being an intellectual before I knew that was what I wanted to be. It was in these discussions with friends about toughness and sports, I think, and in my reading of sports books and magazines, that I began to learn the rudiments of the intellectual life: how to make an argument, weigh different kinds of evidence, move between particulars and generalizations, summarize the views of others, and enter a conversation about ideas. It was in reading and arguing about sports and toughness that I experi- enced what it felt like to propose a generalization, restate and respond to a counterargument, and perform other intellectual- izing operations, including composing the kind of sentences I am writing now. Only much later did it dawn on me that the sports world was more compelling than school because it was more intellec- tual than school, not less. Sports after all was full of challenging

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 267 11/8/14 3:35 PM


2 6 8

arguments, debates, problems for analysis, and intricate statis- tics that you could care about, as school conspicuously was not. I believe that street smarts beat out book smarts in our culture not because street smarts are nonintellectual, as we generally suppose, but because they satisfy an intellectual thirst more thoroughly than school culture, which seems pale and unreal. They also satisfy the thirst for community. When you entered sports debates, you became part of a community that was not limited to your family and friends, but was national and public. Whereas schoolwork isolated you from others, the pennant race or Ted Williams’s .400 batting average was something you could talk about with people you had never met. Sports introduced you not only to a culture steeped in argument, but to a public argument culture that transcended the personal. I can’t blame my schools for failing to make intellectual culture resemble the Super Bowl, but I do fault them for failing to learn anything from the sports and entertainment worlds about how to organize and represent intellectual culture, how to exploit its gamelike element and turn it into ar-resting public spectacle that might have competed more successfully for my youthful attention. For here is another thing that never dawned on me and is still kept hidden from students, with tragic results: that the real intellectual world, the one that existed in the big world beyond school, is organized very much like the world of team sports, with rival texts, rival interpretations and evaluations of texts, rival theories of why they should be read and taught, and elaborate team competitions in which “fans” of writers, intellectual systems, methodologies, and -isms contend against each other. To be sure, school contained plenty of competition, which became more invidious as one moved up the ladder (and has become even more so today with the advent of high-stakes

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 268 11/8/14 3:35 PM

Hidden Intellectualism

2 6 9


testing). In this competition, points were scored not by making arguments, but by a show of information or vast reading, by grade- grubbing, or other forms of oneupmanship. School competition, in short, reproduced the less attractive features of sports culture without those that create close bonds and community. And in distancing themselves from anything as enjoyable and absorbing as sports, my schools missed the opportunity to capi- talize on an element of drama and conflict that the intellectual world shares with sports. Consequently, I failed to see the parallels between the sports and academic worlds that could have helped me cross more readily from one argument culture to the other. Sports is only one of the domains whose potential for literacy training (and not only for males) is seriously underestimated by educators, who see sports as competing with academic develop- ment rather than a route to it. But if this argument suggests why it is a good idea to assign readings and topics that are close to students’ existing interests, it also suggests the limits of this tactic. For students who get excited about the chance to write about their passion for cars will often write as poorly and unreflectively on that topic as on Shakespeare or Plato. Here is the flip side of what I pointed out before: that there’s no necessary relation between the degree of interest a student shows in a text or subject and the quality of thought or expres- sion such a student manifests in writing or talking about it. The challenge, as college professor Ned Laff has put it, “is not simply to exploit students’ nonacademic interests, but to get them to see those interests through academic eyes.” To say that students need to see their interests “through aca- demic eyes” is to say that street smarts are not enough. Making students’ nonacademic interests an object of academic study is useful, then, for getting students’ attention and overcoming their boredom and alienation, but this tactic won’t in itself

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 269 11/8/14 3:35 PM


2 7 0

write about cars, sports, or clothing fashions does not have to be a pedagogical cop-out as long as students are required to see these interests “through academic eyes,” that is, to think and write about cars, sports, and fashions in a reflective, analytical way, one that sees them as microcosms of what is going on in the wider culture. If I am right, then schools and colleges are missing an opportunity when they do not encourage students to take their nonacademic interests as objects of academic study. It is self- defeating to decline to introduce any text or subject that figures to engage students who will otherwise tune out academic work entirely. If a student cannot get interested in Mill’s On Liberty but will read Sports Illustrated or Vogue or the hip-hop magazine Source with absorption, this is a strong argument for assigning the magazines over the classic. It’s a good bet that if students get hooked on reading and writing by doing term papers on Source, they will eventually get to On Liberty. But even if they don’t, the magazine reading will make them more literate and reflec- tive than they would be otherwise. So it makes pedagogical sense to develop classroom units on sports, cars, fashions, rap music, and other such topics. Give me the student anytime who writes a sharply argued, sociologically acute analysis of an issue in Source over the student who writes a lifeless explication of Hamlet or Socrates’ Apology.

Works Cited

Cramer, Richard Ben. Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life. Simon & Schuster, 2000. DiMaggio, Joe. Lucky to Be a Yankee. Bantam, 1949. Feller, Bob. Strikeout Story. Bantam, 1948. Guralnick, Peter. Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley. Little,

Brown, 1994. Orwell, George. A Collection of Essays. Harcourt, 1953.

07_GRA_61744_Readings_203_295.indd 27007_GRA_61744_Readings_203_295.indd 270 09/09/16 4:56 PM09/09/16 4:56 PM

Hidden Intellectualism

2 7 1

Joining the Conversation

1. Gerald Graff begins his essay with the view that we gen- erally associate “book smarts” with intellectualism and “street smarts” with anti-intellectualism. Graff then provides an extended example from his early life to counter this view- point. What do you think of his argument that boyhood conversations about sports provided a solid foundation for his later intellectual life? What support does he provide, and how persuasive is it?

2. Graff argues in paragraph 13 that the intellectual world is much like the world of team sports, with “rival texts . . . , rival theories . . . , and elaborate team competitions.” Can you think of any examples from your own experience that support this assertion? In what ways do you think “the real intellectual world” is different from the world of team sports?

3. Imagine a conversation between Graff and Mike Rose (pp. 272–84) on the intellectual skills people can develop outside the realm of formal education and the benefits of these skills.

4. So what? Who cares? Graff does not answer these questions explicitly. Do it for him: write a brief paragraph saying why his argument matters, and for whom.

5. Graff argues that schools should encourage students to think critically, read, and write about areas of personal interest such as cars, fashion, or music—as long as they do so in an intellectually serious way. What do you think? Write an essay considering the educational merits of such a proposal, taking Graff’s argument as a “they say.”

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 271 11/8/14 3:35 PM

2 7 2

Blue-Collar Brilliance



My mother, Rose Meraglio Rose (Rosie), shaped her adult identity as a waitress in coffee shops and family restaurants. When I was growing up in Los Angeles during the 1950s, my father and I would occasionally hang out at the restaurant until her shift ended, and then we’d ride the bus home with her. Sometimes she worked the register and the counter, and we sat there; when she waited booths and tables, we found a booth in the back where the waitresses took their breaks. There wasn’t much for a child to do at the restaurants, and so as the hours stretched out, I watched the cooks and waitresses and listened to what they said. At mealtimes, the pace of the kitchen staff and the din from customers picked up. Weaving in and out around the room, waitresses warned behind you in impassive but urgent voices. Standing at the service window

Mike Rose is a professor at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. He is well known for his writing on issues of literacy, including the books Lives on the Boundary: The Struggles and Achievements of America’s Underprepared (1989) and Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education (2012). This article originally appeared in 2009 in the American Scholar, a magazine published by the Phi Beta Kappa Society.

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 272 11/8/14 3:35 PM

Blue-Collar Brilliance

2 7 3

facing the kitchen, they called out abbreviated orders. Fry four on two, my mother would say as she clipped a check onto the metal wheel. Her tables were deuces, four-tops, or six-tops according to their size; seating areas also were nicknamed. The racetrack, for instance, was the fast-turnover front section. Lingo conferred authority and signaled know-how. Rosie took customers’ orders, pencil poised over pad, while fielding questions about the food. She walked full tilt through the room with plates stretching up her left arm and two cups of coffee somehow cradled in her right hand. She stood at a table or booth and removed a plate for this person, another for that person, then another, remembering who had the hamburger, who had

Rosie solved technical problems and human problems on the fly.

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 273 11/8/14 3:35 PM


2 7 4


the fried shrimp, almost always getting it right. She would haggle with the cook about a returned order and rush by us, saying, He gave me lip, but I got him. She’d take a minute to flop down in the booth next to my father. I’m all in, she’d say, and whisper something about a customer. Gripping the outer edge of the table with one hand, she’d watch the room and note, in the flow of our conversation, who needed a refill, whose order was taking longer to prepare than it should, who was finishing up. I couldn’t have put it in words when I was growing up, but what I observed in my mother’s restaurant defined the world of adults, a place where competence was synonymous with physical work. I’ve since studied the working habits of blue-collar work- ers and have come to understand how much my mother’s kind of work demands of both body and brain. A waitress acquires knowledge and intuition about the ways and the rhythms of the restaurant business. Waiting on seven to nine tables, each with two to six customers, Rosie devised memory strategies so that she could remember who ordered what. And because she knew the average time it took to prepare different dishes, she could monitor an order that was taking too long at the service station. Like anyone who is effective at physical work, my mother learned to work smart, as she put it, to make every move count. She’d sequence and group tasks: What could she do first, then second, then third as she circled through her station? What tasks could be clustered? She did everything on the fly, and when problems arose—technical or human—she solved them within the flow of work, while taking into account the emotional state of her co-workers. Was the manager in a good mood? Did the cook wake up on the wrong side of the bed? If so, how could she make an extra request or effectively return an order? And then, of course, there were the customers who entered the restaurant with all sorts of needs, from physiological ones,

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 274 11/8/14 3:35 PM

Blue-Collar Brilliance

2 7 5

including the emotions that accompany hunger, to a sometimes complicated desire for human contact. Her tip depended on how well she responded to these needs, and so she became adept at reading social cues and managing feelings, both the custom- ers’ and her own. No wonder, then, that Rosie was intrigued by psychology. The restaurant became the place where she studied human behavior, puzzling over the problems of her regular cus- tomers and refining her ability to deal with people in a difficult world. She took pride in being among the public, she’d say. There isn’t a day that goes by in the restaurant that you don’t learn something. My mother quit school in the seventh grade to help raise her brothers and sisters. Some of those siblings made it through high school, and some dropped out to find work in railroad yards, factories, or restaurants. My father finished a grade or two in primary school in Italy and never darkened the schoolhouse door again. I didn’t do well in school either. By high school I had accumulated a spotty academic record and many hours of hazy disaffection. I spent a few years on the vocational track, but in my senior year I was inspired by my English teacher and managed to squeak into a small college on probation. My freshman year was academically bumpy, but gradually I began to see formal education as a means of fulfillment and as a road toward making a living. I studied the humanities and later the social and psychological sciences and taught for ten years in a range of situations—elementary school, adult education courses, tutoring centers, a program for Vietnam veterans who wanted to go to college. Those students had socio economic and educational backgrounds similar to mine. Then I went back to graduate school to study education and cognitive psychology and eventually became a faculty member in a school of education.

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 275 11/8/14 3:35 PM


2 7 6


Intelligence is closely associated with formal education— the type of schooling a person has, how much and how

long—and most people seem to move comfortably from that notion to a belief that work requiring less schooling requires less intelligence. These assumptions run through our cultural history, from the post-Revo- lutionary War period, when mechanics were character-

ized by political rivals as illiterate and therefore incapable of participating in government, until today. More than once I’ve heard a manager label his workers as “a bunch of dummies.” Generalizations about intelligence, work, and social class deeply affect our assumptions about ourselves and each other, guiding the ways we use our minds to learn, build knowledge, solve problems, and make our way through the world. Although writers and scholars have often looked at the work- ing class, they have generally focused on the values such work- ers exhibit rather than on the thought their work requires—a subtle but pervasive omission. Our cultural iconography pro- motes the muscled arm, sleeve rolled tight against biceps, but no brightness behind the eye, no image that links hand and brain. One of my mother’s brothers, Joe Meraglio, left school in the ninth grade to work for the Pennsylvania Railroad. From there he joined the Navy, returned to the railroad, which was already in decline, and eventually joined his older brother at General Motors where, over a 33-year career, he moved from working on the assembly line to supervising the paint-and-body depart- ment. When I was a young man, Joe took me on a tour of the factory. The floor was loud—in some places deafening—and when I turned a corner or opened a door, the smell of chemicals knocked my head back. The work was repetitive and taxing, and the pace was inhumane.

See Chapter 1 for ways to

introduce something implied or assumed.

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 276 11/8/14 3:35 PM

Blue-Collar Brilliance

2 7 7

Still, for Joe the shop floor provided what school did not; it was like schooling, he said, a place where you’re constantly learning. Joe learned the most efficient way to use his body by acquiring a set of routines that were quick and preserved energy. Otherwise he would never have survived on the line. As a foreman, Joe constantly faced new problems and became a consummate multi-tasker, evaluating a flurry of demands quickly, parceling out physical and mental resources, keeping a number of ongoing events in his mind, returning to whatever task had been interrupted, and maintaining a cool head under the pressure of grueling production schedules. In the midst of all this, Joe learned more and more about the auto industry, the technological and social dynamics of the shop floor, the machinery and production processes, and the basics of paint chemistry and of plating and baking. With further promotions, he not only solved problems but also began to find problems to solve: Joe initiated the redesign of the nozzle on a paint sprayer, thereby eliminating costly and unhealthy over- spray. And he found a way to reduce energy costs on the baking ovens without affecting the quality of the paint. He lacked formal knowledge of how the machines under his supervision worked, but he had direct experience with them, hands-on knowledge, and was savvy about their quirks and operational capabilities. He could experiment with them. In addition, Joe learned about budgets and management. Coming off the line as he did, he had a perspective of workers’ needs and management’s demands, and this led him to think of ways to improve efficiency on the line while relieving some of the stress on the assemblers. He had each worker in a unit learn his or her co-workers’ jobs so they could rotate across stations to relieve some of the monotony. He believed that rotation would allow assemblers to get longer and more frequent breaks. It was

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 277 11/8/14 3:35 PM


2 7 8


an easy sell to the people on the line. The union, however, had to approve any modification in job duties, and the managers were wary of the change. Joe had to argue his case on a number of fronts, providing him a kind of rhetorical education. Eight years ago I began a study of the thought processes involved in work like that of my mother and uncle. I catalogued the cognitive demands of a range of blue-collar and service jobs, from waitressing and hair styling to plumbing and welding. To gain a sense of how knowledge and skill develop, I observed experts as well as novices. From the details of this close exami- nation, I tried to fashion what I called “cognitive biographies” of blue-collar workers. Biographical accounts of the lives of scientists, lawyers, entrepreneurs, and other professionals are rich with detail about the intellectual dimension of their work.

With an eighth-grade education, Joe (hands together) advanced to supervisor of a G.M. paint-and-body department.

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 278 11/8/14 3:35 PM

Blue-Collar Brilliance

2 7 9

But the life stories of working-class people are few and are typi- cally accounts of hardship and courage or the achievements wrought by hard work. Our culture—in Cartesian fashion—separates the body from the mind, so that, for example, we assume that the use of a tool does not involve abstraction. We reinforce this notion by defining intelligence solely on grades in school and num- bers on IQ tests. And we employ social biases pertaining to a person’s place on the occupational ladder. The distinctions among blue, pink, and white collars carry with them attribu- tions of character, motivation, and intelligence. Although we rightly acknowledge and amply compensate the play of mind in white-collar and professional work, we diminish or erase it in considerations about other endeavors—physical and service work particularly. We also often ignore the experience of every- day work in administrative deliberations and policymaking. But here’s what we find when we get in close. The plumber seeking leverage in order to work in tight quarters and the hair stylist adroitly handling scissors and comb manage their bodies strategically. Though work-related actions become routine with experience, they were learned at some point through observa- tion, trial and error, and, often, physical or verbal assistance from a co-worker or trainer. I’ve frequently observed novices talking to themselves as they take on a task, or shaking their head or hand as if to erase an attempt before trying again. In fact, our traditional notions of routine performance could keep us from appreciating the many instances within routine where quick decisions and adjustments are made. I’m struck by the thinking-in-motion that some work requires, by all the mental activity that can be involved in simply getting from one place to another: the waitress rushing back through her station to the kitchen or the foreman walking the line.

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 279 11/8/14 3:35 PM


2 8 0


The use of tools requires the studied refinement of stance, grip, balance, and fine-motor skills. But manipulating tools is intimately tied to knowledge of what a particular instrument can do in a particular situation and do better than other similar tools. A worker must also know the characteristics of the mate- rial one is engaging—how it reacts to various cutting or com- pressing devices, to degrees of heat, or to lines of force. Some of these things demand judgment, the weighing of options, the consideration of multiple variables, and, occasionally, the creative use of a tool in an unexpected way. In manipulating material, the worker becomes attuned to aspects of the environment, a training or disciplining of per- ception that both enhances knowledge and informs perception. Carpenters have an eye for length, line, and angle; mechanics troubleshoot by listening; hair stylists are attuned to shape, texture, and motion. Sensory data merge with concept, as when an auto mechanic relies on sound, vibration, and even smell to understand what cannot be observed. Planning and problem solving have been studied since the earliest days of modern cognitive psychology and are considered core elements in Western definitions of intelligence. To work is to solve problems. The big difference between the psycholo- gist’s laboratory and the workplace is that in the former the problems are isolated and in the latter they are embedded in the real-time flow of work with all its messiness and social complexity. Much of physical work is social and interactive. Movers determining how to get an electric range down a flight of stairs require coordination, negotiation, planning, and the establish- ing of incremental goals. Words, gestures, and sometimes a quick pencil sketch are involved, if only to get the rhythm right. How important it is, then, to consider the social and

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 280 11/8/14 3:35 PM

Blue-Collar Brilliance

2 8 1

communicative dimension of physical work, for it provides the medium for so much of work’s intelligence. Given the ridicule heaped on blue-collar speech, it might seem odd to value its cognitive content. Yet, the flow of talk at work provides the channel for organizing and distributing tasks, for troubleshooting and problem solving, for learning new information and revising old. A significant amount of teaching, often informal and indirect, takes place at work. Joe Meraglio saw that much of his job as a supervisor involved instruction. In some service occupations, language and communication are central: observing and interpreting behavior and expression, inferring mood and motive, taking on the perspective of oth- ers, responding appropriately to social cues, and knowing when you’re understood. A good hair stylist, for instance, has the ability to convert vague requests (I want something light and summery) into an appropriate cut through questions, pictures, and hand gestures. Verbal and mathematical skills drive measures of intelli- gence in the Western Hemisphere, and many of the kinds of work I studied are thought to require relatively little proficiency in either. Compared to certain kinds of white-collar occupa- tions, that’s true. But written symbols flow through physical work. Numbers are rife in most workplaces: on tools and gauges, as measurements, as indicators of pressure or concentration or temperature, as guides to sequence, on ingredient labels, on lists and spreadsheets, as markers of quantity and price. Certain jobs require workers to make, check, and verify calcu- lations, and to collect and interpret data. Basic math can be involved, and some workers develop a good sense of numbers and patterns. Consider, as well, what might be called material mathematics: mathematical functions embodied in materials

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 281 11/8/14 3:35 PM


2 8 2


and actions, as when a carpenter builds a cabinet or a flight of stairs. A simple mathematical act can extend quickly beyond itself. Measuring, for example, can involve more than record- ing the dimensions of an object. As I watched a cabinetmaker measure a long strip of wood, he read a number off the tape out loud, looked back over his shoulder to the kitchen wall, turned back to his task, took another measurement, and paused for a moment in thought. He was solving a problem involving the molding, and the measurement was important to his deliberation about structure and appearance. In the blue-collar workplace, directions, plans, and refer- ence books rely on illustrations, some representational and others, like blueprints, that require training to interpret. Eso- teric symbols—visual jargon—depict switches and receptacles, pipe fittings, or types of welds. Workers themselves often make sketches on the job. I frequently observed them grab a pencil to sketch something on a scrap of paper or on a piece of the material they were installing. Though many kinds of physical work don’t require a high literacy level, more reading occurs in the blue-collar workplace than is generally thought, from manuals and catalogues to work orders and invoices, to lists, labels, and forms. With routine tasks, for example, reading is integral to understanding produc- tion quotas, learning how to use an instrument, or applying a product. Written notes can initiate action, as in restaurant orders or reports of machine malfunction, or they can serve as memory aids. True, many uses of writing are abbreviated, routine, and repet- itive, and they infrequently require interpretation or analysis. But analytic moments can be part of routine activities, and seem- ingly basic reading and writing can be cognitively rich. Because workplace language is used in the flow of other activities, we

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 282 11/8/14 3:35 PM

Blue-Collar Brilliance

2 8 3

can overlook the remarkable coordination of words, numbers, and drawings required to initiate and direct action. If we believe everyday work to be mindless, then that will affect the work we create in the future. When we devalue the full range of everyday cognition, we offer limited educational opportunities and fail to make fresh and meaningful instructional connections among disparate kinds of skill and knowledge. If we think that whole categories of people—identified by class or occupation—are not that bright, then we reinforce social separa- tions and cripple our ability to talk across cultural divides. Affirmation of diverse intelligence is not a retreat to a softhearted definition of the mind. To acknowledge a broader range of intellectual capacity is to take seriously the concept of cognitive variability, to appreciate in all the Rosies and Joes the thought that drives their accomplishments and defines who they are. This is a model of the mind that is worthy of a demo- cratic society.

Joining the Conversation

1. This essay begins with a fairly detailed description of Mike Rose’s mother at her work as a waitress in the 1950s, when he was a child. How is this description related to his argu- ment? Is it an effective opening? Why or why not?

2. How would you summarize Rose’s overall argument? What evidence does he offer as support? How convincing is his argument?

3. Where does Rose mention differing views, and what is his reason for bringing them up? What are these other views, and who holds them?

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 283 11/8/14 3:35 PM


2 8 4

4. How do you think Rose would respond to Charles Murray’s argument (pp. 234–54) that many students lack the intel- lectual potential to succeed in college?

5. Write an essay in which you consider the intellectual demands of a kind of work that you have done or are interested in.

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 284 11/8/14 3:35 PM

2 8 5

Bowie State University Commencement Speech



Well, thank you. (Applause.) Oh, my goodness. Thank you so much. (Applause.) Oh, my goodness. It is such a—you all, rest yourselves. You’ve got a long day ahead. It is beyond a pleasure and an honor for me to be here with all of you today. Of course, I want to start by thanking President Bernim for that very kind introduction, for this wonderful degree, and for his outstanding leadership here at Bowie State University. I also want to recognize Chancellor Kirwan, Provost Jackson,

Michelle Obama, First Lady of the United States, has been assis- tant commissioner of planning and development in Chicago, dean of student services at the University of Chicago, and vice president of community and external affairs for the University of Chicago Medical Center. In 2014, Obama started the “Reach Higher” initiative, which encourages young people to continue their education after high school by completing another degree, whether through vocational training, community college, or a four-year college or university. This text comes from a commencement speech Obama made in 2013 at Bowie State University in Maryland.

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 285 11/8/14 3:35 PM


2 8 6

Michelle Obama delivering the commencement speech at Bowie State.

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 286 11/8/14 3:35 PM

Bowie State University Commencement Speech

2 8 7


Executive Vice President and General Counsel Karen Johnson Shaheed, Vice Chair Barry Gossett. And of course, I want to thank the BSU Madrigal Singers—they did a great job—the university choir, and DeMarcus Franklin for their wonderful performances here today. You all are amazing. I just wish I could sing. Can’t sing a lick. I also want to recognize today’s Presidential Medal of Excel- lence recipient, Professor Freeman Hrabowski, who’s a for-real brother as well. (Applause.) And I want to thank him for his tremendous work as the Chair of the President’s Advisory Com- mission on Educational Excellence for African Americans. He has done some magnificent work, but we have so much more work to do. And let’s take another moment to thank all of the beautiful people sitting all around us today—the folks who have loved you and pushed you and put up with you every step of the way. (Applause.) Give another round of applause to all the family members who are here today. (Applause.) Yes, indeed. This is your day, too. But most of all, to the Bowie State University class of 2013, congratulations. (Applause.) Oh, congratulations. You don’t know how proud we all are of you. Just look at you. We’re so proud of how hard you worked, all those long hours in the classroom, in the library. Oh, yeah. Amen. (Laughter.) All those jobs you worked to help pay your tui- tion. Many of you are the first in your families to get a college degree. (Applause.) Some of you are balancing school with raising families of your own. (Applause.) So I know this journey hasn’t been easy. I know you’ve had plenty of moments of doubt and frustration and just plain exhaustion. But listen, you dug deep and you kept pushing forward to make it to this magnificent day. (Applause.) And in doing so,

See Chapter 9 for tips on considering your audience.

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 287 11/8/14 3:35 PM


2 8 8

you didn’t just complete an important chapter in your own story, you also became part of the story of this great university— a story that began nearly 150 years ago, not far from where we all sit today. As you all know, this school first opened its doors in January of 1865, in an African Baptist church in Baltimore. And by 1866, just a year later, it began offering education courses to train a new generation of African American teachers. Now, just think about this for a moment: For generations, in many parts of this country, it was illegal for black people to get an education. Slaves caught reading or writing could be beaten to within an inch of their lives. Anyone—black or white—who dared to teach them could be fined or thrown into jail. And yet, just two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, this school was founded not just to educate African Americans, but to teach them how to educate others. It was in many ways an act of defiance, an eloquent rebuttal to the idea that black people couldn’t or shouldn’t be educated. And since then, generations of students from all backgrounds have come to this school to be challenged, inspired, and empowered. And they have gone on to become leaders here in Maryland and across this country, run- ning businesses, educating young people, leading the high-tech industries that will power our economy for decades to come. That is the story of Bowie State University, the commitment to educating our next generation and building ladders of opportu- nity for anyone willing to work for it. All of you are now part of that story. And with that tremendous privilege comes an impor- tant set of responsibilities—responsibilities that you inherit the moment you leave this stadium with that diploma in your hand. And that’s what I want to talk with you about today. I want to talk about the obligations that come with a Bowie State education, and how you can fulfill those obligations by how you live your lives.

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 288 11/8/14 3:35 PM

Bowie State University Commencement Speech

2 8 9

10 So let’s return, for a moment, to the time when the school and others like it were founded. Many of these schools were little more than drafty log cabins with mud floors, leaky roofs and smoke-wood stoves in the corner. Blackboards, maps, and even books were considered luxuries. And both students and teachers faced constant threats from those who refused to accept freedom for African Americans. In one Eastern Shore town, a teacher reported to work one morning to find that someone had smashed the windows of her schoolhouse. Other black schools across Maryland were burned to the ground. Teachers received death threats. One was even beaten by an angry mob. But despite the risks, understand, students flocked to these schools in droves, often walking as many as eight to ten miles a day to get their education. In fact, the educational association that founded Bowie State wrote in their 1864 report that—and this is a quote—“These people are coming in beyond our ability to receive them.” Desperately poor communities held fundraisers for these schools, schools which they often built with their own hands. And folks who were barely scraping by dug deep into their own pockets to donate money. You see, for these folks, education was about more than just learning to read or write. As the abolitionist Frederick Douglass put it, “Education means emancipation,” he said. He said, “It means light and liberty. It means the uplifting of the soul of man into the glorious light of truth, the only light by which men can be free.” You hear that? The only light by which men can be free. (Applause.) So to the folks who showed up to your school on that January day back in 1865, education meant nothing less than freedom. It meant economic independence, a chance to provide for their families. It meant political empowerment, the chance to read

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 289 11/8/14 3:35 PM


2 9 0


the newspaper and articulate an informed opinion and take their rightful place as full citizens of this nation. So back then, people were hungry to learn. Do you hear me? Hungry to get what they needed to succeed in this country. And that hunger did not fade over time. If anything, it only grew stronger. I mean, think about the century-long battle that so many folks waged to end the evil of segregation. Think about civil rights icons like Thurgood Marshall, Dr. King, who argued groundbreaking school integration cases, led historic marches, protests, and boycotts. As you know, Dr. King’s house was bombed. A police chief pulled a gun on Thurgood Marshall. They both received piles of hate mail and countless death threats, but they kept on fighting. Think about those nine young men and women who faced down an angry mob just to attend school in Little Rock, Arkan- sas. And that was just the first day. For months afterwards, they were spat on, jeered at, punched, and tripped as they walked down the halls. Their classmates threw food at them in the cafeteria and hurled ink at them during class. But they kept on showing up. They kept claiming their rightful place at that school. And think about little Ruby Bridges, who was just six years old when she became one of the first black children in New Orleans to attend an all-white school. Parents actually pulled their children out of that school in protest. People retaliated against her family. Her father lost his job. And only one teacher at that entire school would agree to teach her. But the Bridges family refused to back down. So for an entire year, little Ruby sat all alone, a class of one, dutifully learning her lessons. See, that is the sacrifice that those folks and so many others have made. That is the hunger they felt. For them and so many others, getting an education was literally a matter of life or death.

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 290 11/8/14 3:35 PM

Bowie State University Commencement Speech

2 9 1


But today, more than 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, more than 50 years after the end of “separate but equal,” when it comes to getting an education, too many of our young people just can’t be bothered. Today, instead of walking miles every day to school, they’re sitting on couches for hours playing video games, watching TV. Instead of dream- ing of being a teacher or a lawyer or a business leader, they’re fantasizing about being a baller or a rapper. (Applause.) Right now, one in three African American students are dropping out of high school. Only one in five African Americans between the ages of twenty-five and twenty-nine has gotten a college degree—one in five. But let’s be very clear. Today, getting an education is as important if not more important than it was back when this university was founded. Just look at the statistics. (Applause.) People who earn a bachelor’s degree or higher make nearly three times more money than high school dropouts, and they’re far less likely to be unemployed. A recent study even found that African American women with a college degree live an aver- age of six-and-a-half years longer than those without. And for men, it’s nearly ten years longer. So yes, people who are more educated actually live longer. So I think we can agree, and we need to start feeling that hunger again, you know what I mean? (Applause.) We need to once again fight to educate ourselves and our children like our lives depend on it, because they do. We need to dig deep and find the same kind of grit and determination that drove those first students at this school and generations of students who came after them. I am talk- ing about the kind of grit and determination displayed by folks right here at Bowie State. Folks like Ariel Williams- Edwards, one of today’s graduates. (Applause.) Yeah, Ariel!

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 291 11/8/14 3:35 PM


2 9 2


Ariel’s mother struggled with substance abuse, and Ariel and her sister were removed from her care and sent to live with their grandmother. But Ariel decided to draw inspiration from her struggle—she majored in social work so she could help families like hers. (Applause.) Yes! She became a member of the Phi Alpha national honor society. And she’s been accepted to graduate school to get her master’s degree in social work starting in September. Yes, indeed. (Applause.) And then there’s Audrey Marie Lugmayer, another one of this year’s graduates. Audrey is the daughter of a single father, and her dad has struggled with some serious health issues. So after graduating from high school, Audrey worked full time for a year, because she couldn’t bear the thought of putting any more financial burdens on her father. She kept on working here at Bowie State, even while juggling a full course load. And today, she is graduating with a perfect 4.0 GPA. (Applause.) Yes. God is very good. It is that kind of unwavering determination—that relent- less focus on getting an education in the face of obstacles— that’s what we need to reclaim, as a community and as a nation. That was the idea at the very heart of the founding of this school. It’s even in the words of your school song: “Oh Bowie State, dear Bowie State, may you forever be the flame of faith, the torch of truth to guide the steps of youth.” And that’s not just a lyric—it is a call to action. Many of you will answer that call by carrying on the proud Bowie State tradition of serving as teachers, devoting your careers to guiding the steps of the next generation. But for those of you who aren’t going into education, you’re not off the hook. Oh, no. Oh, no. No matter what career you

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 292 11/8/14 3:35 PM

Bowie State University Commencement Speech

2 9 3


pursue, every single one of you has a role to play as educators for our young people. So if you have friends or cousins or siblings who are not taking their education seriously, shake them up. Go talk some sense into them. Get them back on track. (Applause.) If the school in your neighborhood isn’t any good, don’t just accept it. Get in there, fix it. Talk to the parents. Talk to the teachers. Get business and community leaders involved as well, because we all have a stake in building schools worthy of our children’s promise. And when it comes to your own kids, if you don’t like what they’re watching on TV, turn it off. (Applause.) If you don’t like the video games they’re playing, take them away. (Applause.) Take a stand against the media that elevates today’s celebrity gossip instead of the serious issues of our time. Take a stand against the culture that glorifies instant gratification instead of hard work and lasting success. And as my husband has said often, please stand up and reject the slander that says a black child with a book is trying to act white. Reject that. (Applause.) In short, be an example of excellence for the next genera- tion and do everything you can to help them understand the power and purpose of a good education. See, that’s what my own parents did for me and my brother. See, my parents didn’t go to college, but they were deter- mined to give us that opportunity. My dad was a pump operator at the city water plant, diagnosed with MS in his early thirties. And every morning I watched him struggle to get out of bed and inch his way to his walker, and painstakingly button his uniform, but never once did I hear him complain. Not once. He just kept getting up, day after day, year after year, to do whatever he could to give our family a better shot at life.

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 293 11/8/14 3:35 PM


2 9 4


So when it came time for my brother and I to go to college, most of our tuition came from student loans and grants. But my dad still had to pay a small portion of that tuition each semester, and he was always determined to pay his share right on time—even taking out loans when he fell short, because he couldn’t bear the thought of us missing a registration deadline because his check was late. And there is not a day that goes by when I don’t think about the sacrifices that my mom and dad made for me. There is not a day that goes by when I don’t think about living up to the example they set, and how I must do everything in my power to make them proud of the daughter they raised. (Applause.) And today, I am thinking about all the mothers and fathers just like my parents, all the folks who dug into their pockets for that last dime, the folks who built those schools brick by brick, who faced down angry mobs just to reach those schoolhouse doors. I am thinking about all the folks who worked that extra shift and took that extra job, and toiled and bled and prayed so that we could have something better. (Applause.) The folks who, as the poet Alice Walker once wrote, “Knew what we must know without knowing a page of it themselves.” Their sacrifice is your legacy. Do you hear me? And now it is up to all of you to carry that legacy forward, to be that flame of fate, that torch of truth to guide our young people toward a better future for themselves and for this country. And if you do that, and I know that you will, if you uphold that obligation, then I am confident we will build an even bet- ter future for the next generation of graduates from this fine school and for all of the children in this country—because our lives depend on it. I wish you Godspeed, good luck. I love you all. Do good things. God bless. (Applause.)

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 294 11/8/14 3:35 PM

Bowie State University Commencement Speech

2 9 5

Joining the Conversation

1. One purpose of this speech was to celebrate the achieve- ments of the graduates. But at the same time, Michelle Obama is making an argument about some things she hopes those graduates will do. What’s her main point, and how does she support that point?

2. Throughout her address, Obama explains why her argument matters, but she does not, as this book advises, start with what others are saying and then introduce her own ideas as a response. What do you think her “they say” would be?

3. Obama addresses much of the speech to the graduates and their families. Find some specific examples of her references to this audience, and discuss the ways in which she tries to make a connection with them.

4. Obama refers to college president Freeman Hrabowski in paragraph 3 of her speech. What parallels, if any, can you find between her speech and Hrabowski’s op-ed (pp. 259–63)?

5. Imagine you were in the audience that day at Bowie State. Write a tweet summarizing something Obama said—and then responding in some way. You may need to write two tweets.

07_GRA_93584_Readings_203_295.indd 295 11/8/14 3:35 PM

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 296 11/8/14 3:35 PM

2 9 7


are we in a race against the machine?


Do we need to worry about technology? Many com- mentators worry that constant technological changes have serious repercussions for our brains, our bodies, and our soci- eties. Neuroscientist Susan Greenfield argues that our brains are “under threat” from “an ever-expanding world of new technology: multichannel television, video games, MP3 play- ers, the Internet, wireless networks, Bluetooth links” and that “attention spans are shorter, personal communication skills are reduced and there’s a marked reduction in the ability to think abstractly.” Scientists used to believe that the human brain changed up through adolescence but was relatively stable after that until it began to decline in old age. Now, however, there is strong evidence for what Greenfield calls “the malleability of the adult brain,” with alterations in brain structure caused by the devices we have come to rely upon—and even some indications that we are losing important mental skills. A number of experts argue that such claims are seriously over- stated. In their view, as we adapt to new technologies, we are actually becoming smarter, happier, and more productive. Clive Thompson, for example, highlights the growing role of com- puters in chess playing in arguing that technology is changing

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 297 11/8/14 3:35 PM

2 9 8

A R E W E I N A R A C E A G A I N S T T H E M A C H I N E ?

our minds—and our lives—for the better. Similarly, Kevin Kelly asserts that robots will inevitably take over virtually all work now done by people but, at the same time, will allow us to develop rewarding careers that we presently can’t even imagine. Using a graphic format, Brooke Gladstone and Josh Neufeld show that new technologies have been a source of anxiety since at least the fourth century bce, when Greek philosopher Plato warned in the Phaedrus that reading and writing would harm people’s memories. Responding to concerns that digital com- munication is leading to a decline in face-to-face interaction, Jenna Wortham writes about several smartphone applications that she claims can actually enhance relationships. Along these same lines, college student Michaela Cullington discusses her own research study, which found that, contrary to widespread belief, text messaging is a practical form of communication and does not weaken students’ academic writing skills. These optimistic views are countered by those of several other commentators. Nicholas Carr, for example, believes that extensive use of the internet is hurting our capacity for deep thought. Once a strong proponent of digital technologies, Sherry Turkle now argues that they are leading to a decline in intimacy and a move away from self-reflection. Malcolm Gladwell questions the potential of Twitter and other social media to play more than a superficial role in fostering political activism. The readings in this chapter give us much to think about, raising a number of complex problems and providing no easy solutions. And while some commentators may paint a rosy pic- ture of technology while others contemplate doomsday sce- narios, there’s a little bit of optimism and pessimism in each piece, which is one of the factors that make this conversation one worth joining.

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 298 11/8/14 3:35 PM

2 9 9

Better than Human: Why Robots Will—and Must—Take Our Jobs



Imagine that 7 out of 10 working Americans got fired tomorrow. What would they all do?

It’s hard to believe you’d have an economy at all if you gave pink slips to more than half the labor force. But that— in slow motion—is what the industrial revolution did to the workforce of the early 19th century. Two hundred years ago, 70 percent of American workers lived on the farm. Today auto- mation has eliminated all but 1 percent of their jobs, replac- ing them (and their work animals) with machines. But the displaced workers did not sit idle. Instead, automation created hundreds of millions of jobs in entirely new fields. Those who

Kevin Kelly was a founding member of Wired and served as its execu- tive editor for six years. He is now “senior maverick” at Wired and the editor of the Cool Tools website. His books include Cool Tools: A Catalog of Possibilities (2013), What Technology Wants (2010), and New Rules for the New Economy (1998). This essay first appeared on the Wired website on December 24, 2012.

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 299 11/8/14 3:35 PM


3 0 0

once farmed were now manning the legions of factories that churned out farm equipment, cars, and other industrial prod- ucts. Since then, wave upon wave of new occupations have arrived—appliance repairman, offset printer, food chemist, photographer, web designer—each building on previous auto- mation. Today, the vast majority of us are doing jobs that no farmer from the 1800s could have imagined.

It may be hard to believe, but before the end of this century, 70 percent of today’s occupations will likewise be replaced by automation. Yes, dear reader, even you will have your job taken away by machines. In other words,

robot replacement is just a matter of time. This upheaval is being led by a second wave of automation, one that is centered on arti- ficial cognition, cheap sensors, machine learning, and distributed smarts. This deep automation will touch all jobs, from manual labor to knowledge work. First, machines will consolidate their gains in already- automated industries. After robots finish replacing assembly line workers, they will replace the workers in warehouses. Speedy bots able to lift 150 pounds all day long will retrieve boxes, sort them, and load them onto trucks. Fruit and veg- etable picking will continue to be robotized until no humans pick outside of specialty farms. Pharmacies will feature a single pill-dispensing robot in the back while the pharmacists focus on patient consulting. Next, the more dexterous chores of cleaning in offices and schools will be taken over by late-night robots, starting with easy-to-do floors and windows and eventually get- ting to toilets. The highway legs of long-haul trucking routes will be driven by robots embedded in truck cabs. All the while, robots will continue their migration into white-collar work. We already have artificial intelligence in many of our machines; we just don’t call it that. Witness one

For more on ways to address

a skeptical reader, see Chapter 6.

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 300 11/8/14 3:35 PM

3 0 1

Better than Human


piece of software by Narrative Science . . . that can write newspaper stories about sports games directly from the games’ stats or generate a synopsis of a company’s stock performance each day from bits of text around the web. Any job dealing with reams of paperwork will be taken over by bots, including much of medicine. Even those areas of medicine not defined by paperwork, such as surgery, are becoming increasingly robotic. The rote tasks of any information-intensive job can be auto- mated. It doesn’t matter if you are a doctor, lawyer, architect, reporter, or even programmer: The robot takeover will be epic. And it has already begun.

Here’s why we’re at the inflection point: Machines are acquir- ing smarts. We have preconceptions about how an intelligent robot should look and act, and these can blind us to what is already happening around us. To demand that artificial intelligence be humanlike is the same flawed logic as demanding that artificial flying be birdlike, with flapping wings. Robots will think dif- ferent. To see how far artificial intelligence has penetrated our lives, we need to shed the idea that they will be humanlike. Consider Baxter, a revolutionary new workbot from Rethink Robotics. Designed by Rodney Brooks, the former MIT profes- sor who invented the best-selling Roomba vacuum cleaner and its descendants, Baxter is an early example of a new class of industrial robots created to work alongside humans. Baxter does not look impressive. It’s got big strong arms and a flatscreen display like many industrial bots. And Baxter’s hands perform repetitive manual tasks, just as factory robots do. But it’s dif- ferent in three significant ways. First, it can look around and indicate where it is looking by shifting the cartoon eyes on its head. It can perceive humans

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 301 11/8/14 3:35 PM


3 0 2

Baxter, a workbot created to work alongside humans.

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 302 11/8/14 3:35 PM

3 0 3


working near it and avoid injuring them. And workers can see whether it sees them. Previous industrial robots couldn’t do this, which means that working robots have to be physically segregated from humans. The typical factory robot is impris- oned within a chain-link fence or caged in a glass case. They are simply too dangerous to be around, because they are oblivious to others. This isolation prevents such robots from working in a small shop, where isolation is not practical. Optimally, workers should be able to get materials to and from the robot or to tweak its controls by hand throughout the workday; isolation makes that difficult. Baxter, however, is aware. Using force-feedback technology to feel if it is colliding with a person or another bot, it is courteous. You can plug it into a wall socket in your garage and easily work right next to it. Second, anyone can train Baxter. It is not as fast, strong, or precise as other industrial robots, but it is smarter. To train the bot you simply grab its arms and guide them in the cor- rect motions and sequence. It’s a kind of “watch me do this” routine. Baxter learns the procedure and then repeats it. Any worker is capable of this show-and-tell; you don’t even have to be literate. Previous workbots required highly educated engineers and crack programmers to write thousands of lines of code (and then debug them) in order to instruct the robot in the simplest change of task. The code has to be loaded in batch mode, i.e., in large, infrequent batches, because the robot cannot be reprogrammed while it is being used. Turns out the real cost of the typical industrial robot is not its hardware but its operation. Industrial robots cost $100,000-plus to purchase but can require four times that amount over a lifespan to pro- gram, train, and maintain. The costs pile up until the average lifetime bill for an industrial robot is half a million dollars or more.

Better than Human

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 303 11/8/14 3:35 PM


3 0 4

The third difference, then, is that Baxter is cheap. Priced at $22,000, it’s in a different league compared with the $500,000 total bill of its predecessors. It is as if those established robots, with their batch-mode programming, are the mainframe com- puters of the robot world, and Baxter is the first PC robot. It is likely to be dismissed as a hobbyist toy, missing key features like sub-millimeter precision, and not serious enough. But as with the PC, and unlike the mainframe, the user can interact with it directly, immediately, without waiting for experts to mediate— and use it for nonserious, even frivolous things. It’s cheap enough that small-time manufacturers can afford one to package up their wares or custom paint their product or run their 3-D printing machine. Or you could staff up a factory that makes iPhones. Baxter was invented in a century-old brick building near the Charles River in Boston. In 1895 the building was a manufactur- ing marvel in the very center of the new manufacturing world. It even generated its own electricity. For a hundred years the factories inside its walls changed the world around us. Now the capabilities of Baxter and the approaching cascade of superior robot workers spur Brooks to speculate on how these robots will shift manufacturing in a disruption greater than the last revo- lution. Looking out his office window at the former industrial neighborhood, he says, “Right now we think of manufacturing as happening in China. But as manufacturing costs sink because of robots, the costs of transportation become a far greater factor than the cost of production. Nearby will be cheap. So we’ll get this network of locally franchised factories, where most things will be made within 5 miles of where they are needed.” That may be true of making stuff, but a lot of jobs left in the world for humans are service jobs. I ask Brooks to walk with me through a local McDonald’s and point out the jobs that his kind of robots can replace. He demurs and suggests it

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 304 11/8/14 3:35 PM

3 0 5


might be 30 years before robots will cook for us. “In a fast food place you’re not doing the same task very long. You’re always changing things on the fly, so you need special solutions. We are not trying to sell a specific solution. We are building a general- purpose machine that other workers can set up themselves and work alongside.” And once we can cowork with robots right next to us, it’s inevitable that our tasks will bleed together, and soon our old work will become theirs—and our new work will become something we can hardly imagine.

To understand how robot replacement will happen, it’s useful to break down our relationship with robots into four categories, as summed up in this chart:





Robot jobs that we can’t even

imagine yet.

Jobs that only humans will be able

to do—at first.

Jobs today that humans do—but

machines will eventually do better.

Current jobs that humans can’t do but

machines can.

Better than Human

The rows indicate whether robots will take over existing jobs or make new ones, and the columns indicate whether these jobs seem (at first) like jobs for humans or for machines.

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 305 11/8/14 3:35 PM


3 0 6

Let’s begin with quadrant A: jobs humans can do but robots can do even better. Humans can weave cotton cloth with great effort, but automated looms make perfect cloth, by the mile, for a few cents. The only reason to buy handmade cloth today is because you want the imperfections humans introduce. We no longer value irregularities while traveling 70 miles per hour, though—so the fewer humans who touch our car as it is being made, the better. And yet for more complicated chores, we still tend to believe computers and robots can’t be trusted. That’s why we’ve been slow to acknowledge how they’ve mastered some conceptual routines, in some cases even surpassing their mastery of physical routines. A computerized brain known as the autopilot can fly a 787 jet unaided, but irrationally we place human pilots in the cockpit to babysit the autopilot “just in case.” In the 1990s, computerized mortgage appraisals replaced human appraisers wholesale. Much tax preparation has gone to computers, as well as routine x-ray analysis and pretrial evidence-gathering— all once done by highly paid smart people. We’ve accepted utter reliability in robot manufacturing; soon we’ll accept it in robotic intelligence and service. Next is quadrant B: jobs that humans can’t do but robots can. A trivial example: Humans have trouble making a single brass screw unassisted, but automation can produce a thousand exact ones per hour. Without automation, we could not make a single computer chip—a job that requires degrees of precision, control, and unwavering attention that our animal bodies don’t possess. Likewise no human, indeed no group of humans, no matter their education, can quickly search through all the web pages in the world to uncover the one page revealing the price of eggs in Katmandu yesterday. Every time you click on the search button you are employ-

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 306 11/8/14 3:35 PM

3 0 7


ing a robot to do something we as a species are unable to do alone. While the displacement of formerly human jobs gets all the headlines, the greatest benefits bestowed by robots and auto- mation come from their occupation of jobs we are unable to do. We don’t have the attention span to inspect every square millimeter of every CAT scan looking for cancer cells. We don’t have the millisecond reflexes needed to inflate molten glass into the shape of a bottle. We don’t have an infallible memory to keep track of every pitch in Major League Baseball and calculate the probability of the next pitch in real time. We aren’t giving “good jobs” to robots. Most of the time we are giving them jobs we could never do. Without them, these jobs would remain undone. Now let’s consider quadrant C, the new jobs created by automation—including the jobs that we did not know we wanted done. This is the greatest genius of the robot takeover: With the assistance of robots and computerized intelligence, we already can do things we never imagined doing 150 years ago. We can remove a tumor in our gut through our navel, make a talking-picture video of our wedding, drive a cart on Mars, print a pattern on fabric that a friend mailed to us through the air. We are doing, and are sometimes paid for doing, a million new activities that would have dazzled and shocked the farmers of 1850. These new accomplishments are not merely chores that were difficult before. Rather they are dreams that are created chiefly by the capabilities of the machines that can do them. They are jobs the machines make up. Before we invented automobiles, air-conditioning, flatscreen video displays, and animated cartoons, no one living in ancient Rome wished they could watch cartoons while riding to Ath- ens in climate-controlled comfort. Two hundred years ago not

Better than Human

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 307 11/8/14 3:35 PM


3 0 8

a single citizen of Shanghai would have told you that they would buy a tiny slab that allowed them to talk to faraway friends before they would buy indoor plumbing. Crafty AIs embedded in first-person-shooter games have given millions of teenage boys the urge, the need, to become professional game designers—a dream that no boy in Victorian times ever had. In a very real way our inventions assign us our jobs. Each successful bit of automation generates new occupations—occupations we would not have fantasized about without the prompting of the automation. To reiterate, the bulk of new tasks created by automation are tasks only other automation can handle. Now that we have search engines like Google, we set the servant upon a thou- sand new errands. Google, can you tell me where my phone is? Google, can you match the people suffering depression with the doctors selling pills? Google, can you predict when the next viral epidemic will erupt? Technology is indiscriminate this way, pil- ing up possibilities and options for both humans and machines. It is a safe bet that the highest-earning professions in the year 2050 will depend on automations and machines that have not been invented yet. That is, we can’t see these jobs from here, because we can’t yet see the machines and technologies that will make them possible. Robots create jobs that we did not even know we wanted done.

Finally, that leaves us with quadrant D, the jobs that only humans can do—at first. The one thing humans can do that robots can’t (at least for a long while) is to decide what it is that humans want to do. This is not a trivial trick; our desires are inspired by our previous inventions, making this a circular question.

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 308 11/8/14 3:35 PM

3 0 9

25 When robots and automation do our most basic work, mak- ing it relatively easy for us to be fed, clothed, and sheltered, then we are free to ask, “What are humans for?” Industrializa- tion did more than just extend the average human lifespan. It led a greater percentage of the population to decide that humans were meant to be ballerinas, full-time musicians, math- ematicians, athletes, fashion designers, yoga masters, fan-fiction authors, and folks with one-of-a kind titles on their business cards. With the help of our machines, we could take up these roles; but of course, over time, the machines will do these as well. We’ll then be empowered to dream up yet more answers to the question “What should we do?” It will be many genera- tions before a robot can answer that. This postindustrial economy will keep expanding, even though most of the work is done by bots, because part of your task tomorrow will be to find, make, and complete new things to do, new things that will later become repetitive jobs for the robots. In the coming years robot-driven cars and trucks will become ubiquitous; this automation will spawn the new human occupation of trip optimizer, a person who tweaks the traffic system for optimal energy and time usage. Routine robo-surgery will necessitate the new skills of keep- ing machines sterile. When automatic self-tracking of all your activities becomes the normal thing to do, a new breed of professional analysts will arise to help you make sense of the data. And of course we will need a whole army of robot nan- nies, dedicated to keeping your personal bots up and running. Each of these new vocations will in turn be taken over by robots later. The real revolution erupts when everyone has personal workbots, the descendants of Baxter, at their beck and call.

Better than Human

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 309 11/8/14 3:35 PM


3 1 0


Imagine you run a small organic farm. Your fleet of worker bots do all the weeding, pest control, and harvesting of produce, as directed by an overseer bot, embodied by a mesh of probes in the soil. One day your task might be to research which variety of heirloom tomato to plant; the next day it might be to update your custom labels. The bots perform everything else that can be measured. Right now it seems unthinkable: We can’t imagine a bot that can assemble a stack of ingredients into a gift or manufacture spare parts for our lawn mower or fabricate materials for our new kitchen. We can’t imagine our nephews and nieces run- ning a dozen workbots in their garage, churning out inverters for their friend’s electric-vehicle startup. We can’t imagine our children becoming appliance designers, making custom batches of liquid-nitrogen dessert machines to sell to the millionaires in China. But that’s what personal robot automation will enable. Everyone will have access to a personal robot, but simply owning one will not guarantee success. Rather, success will go to those who innovate in the organization, optimization, and customization of the process of getting work done with bots and machines. Geographical clusters of production will matter, not for any differential in labor costs but because of the differential in human expertise. It’s human-robot symbiosis. Our human assignment will be to keep making jobs for robots—and that is a task that will never be finished. So we will always have at least that one “job.”

In the coming years our relationships with robots will become ever more complex. But already a recurring pattern is emerg- ing. No matter what your current job or your salary, you will progress through these Seven Stages of Robot Replacement, again and again:

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 310 11/8/14 3:35 PM

3 1 1

1. A robot/computer cannot possibly do the tasks I do.


2. OK, it can do a lot of them, but it can’t do everything I do. [Later.]

3. OK, it can do everything I do, except it needs me when it breaks down, which is often.


4. OK, it operates flawlessly on routine stuff, but I need to train it for new tasks.


5. OK, it can have my old boring job, because it’s obvious that was not a job that humans were meant to do.


6. Wow, now that robots are doing my old job, my new job is much more fun and pays more!


7. I am so glad a robot/computer cannot possibly do what I do now.

This is not a race against the machines. If we race against them, we lose. This is a race with the machines. You’ll be paid in the future based on how well you work with robots. Ninety percent of your coworkers will be unseen machines. Most of what you do will not be possible without them. And there will be a blurry line between what you do and what they do. You might no longer think of it as a job, at least at first, because anything that seems like drudgery will be done by robots. We need to let robots take over. They will do jobs we have been doing, and do them much better than we can. They will do jobs we can’t do at all. They will do jobs we never imagined

Better than Human

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 311 11/8/14 3:35 PM


3 1 2

even needed to be done. And they will help us discover new jobs for ourselves, new tasks that expand who we are. They will let us focus on becoming more human than we were. Let the robots take the jobs, and let them help us dream up new work that matters.

Joining the Conversation

1. Kevin Kelly argues that machines will eventually take over many of the jobs that we now perform. This scenario may seem dire, yet he doesn’t appear at all worried. To the con- trary, in fact. Why not? Find statements in the article that explain his attitude.

2. This article appeared in Wired, a magazine for people who know and care about digital technology. How is the article geared toward a pro-technology audience? How might Kelly have presented his argument for a readership that was less enthusiastic about technology?

3. Though he acknowledges that some of his ideas are “hard to believe,” Kelly does not begin by saying explicitly what other ideas or assumptions he’s responding to. How does he begin, and how does that beginning set the stage for his argument?

4. Nicholas Carr (pp. 313−29) is less optimistic than Kelly about the future impact of technology. Who do you find more persuasive, and why?

5. Kelly concludes by saying that robots will help us find “new work that matters.” Does that outcome seem likely? Write an essay responding to that assertion, perhaps focusing on one profession that interests you.

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 312 11/8/14 3:35 PM

3 1 3

Is Google Making Us Stupid?



“Dave, stop. Stop, will you? Stop, Dave. Will you stop, Dave?” So the supercomputer HAL pleads with the implacable astronaut Dave Bowman in a famous and weirdly poignant scene toward the end of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Bowman, having nearly been sent to a deep-space death by the malfunctioning machine, is calmly, coldly disconnecting the memory circuits that control its artificial “brain.” “Dave, my mind is going,” HAL says, forlornly. “I can feel it. I can feel it.” I can feel it, too. Over the past few years I’ve had an uncom- fortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can

Nicholas Carr writes frequently on issues of technology and culture. His books include Does IT Matter? (2004), The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google (2008), The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (2010), and The Glass Cage: Automation and Us (2014). Carr also has written for periodicals including the Guardian, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and Wired, and he blogs at This essay appeared originally as the cover article in the July/August 2008 issue of the Atlantic.

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 313 11/8/14 3:35 PM


3 1 4

feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle. I think I know what’s going on. For more than a decade now, I’ve been spending a lot of time online, searching and surfing and sometimes adding to the great databases of the Internet. The Web has been a godsend to me as a writer. Research that once required days in the stacks or periodical rooms of librar- ies can now be done in minutes. A few Google searches, some quick clicks on hyperlinks, and I’ve got the telltale fact or pithy quote I was after. Even when I’m not working, I’m as likely as not to be foraging in the Web’s info-thickets reading and writing e-mails, scanning headlines and blog posts, watching videos and listening to podcasts, or just tripping from link to

Dave (Keir Dullea) removes HAL’s “brain” in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 314 11/8/14 3:35 PM

Is Google Making Us Stupid?

3 1 5


link to link. (Unlike footnotes, to which they’re sometimes likened, hyperlinks don’t merely point to related works; they propel you toward them.) For me, as for others, the Net is becoming a universal medium, the conduit for most of the information that flows through my eyes and ears and into my mind. The advantages of having immediate access to such an incredibly rich store of information are many, and they’ve been widely described and duly applauded. “The perfect recall of silicon memory,” Wired’s Clive Thompson has written, “can be an enormous boon to thinking.” But that boon comes at a price. As the media theo- rist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski. I’m not the only one. When I mention my troubles with reading to friends and acquaintances—literary types, most of them—many say they’re having similar experiences. The more they use the Web, the more they have to fight to stay focused on long pieces of writing. Some of the bloggers I follow have also begun mentioning the phenomenon. Scott Karp, who writes a blog about online media, recently confessed that he has stopped reading books altogether. “I was a lit major in college, and used to be [a] voracious book reader,” he wrote. “What happened?” He speculates on the answer: “What if I do all my reading on the web not so much because the way I read has changed, i.e. I’m just seeking convenience, but because the way I think has changed?”

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 315 11/8/14 3:35 PM


3 1 6

Bruce Friedman, who blogs regularly about the use of com- puters in medicine, also has described how the Internet has altered his mental habits. “I now have almost totally lost the ability to read and absorb a longish article on the web or in print,” he wrote earlier this year. A pathologist who has long been on the faculty of the University of Michigan Medical School, Friedman elaborated on his comment in a telephone conversation with me. His thinking, he said, has taken on a “staccato” quality, reflecting the way he quickly scans short passages of text from many sources online. “I can’t read War and Peace anymore,” he admitted. “I’ve lost the ability to do that. Even a blog post of more than three or four paragraphs is too much to absorb. I skim it.” Anecdotes alone don’t prove much. And we still await the long-term neurological and psychological experiments that will provide a definitive picture of how Internet use affects cogni- tion. But a recently published study of online research habits, conducted by scholars from University College London, sug- gests that we may well be in the midst of a sea change in the way we read and think. As part of the five-year research pro- gram, the scholars examined computer logs documenting the behavior of visitors to two popular research sites, one operated by the British Library and one by a U.K. educational consor- tium, that provide access to journal articles, e-books, and other sources of written information. They found that people using the sites exhibited “a form of skimming activity,” hopping from one source to another and rarely returning to any source they’d already visited. They typically read no more than one or two pages of an article or book before they would “bounce” out to another site. Sometimes they’d save a long article, but there’s no evidence that they ever went back and actually read it. The authors of the study report:

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 316 11/8/14 3:35 PM

Is Google Making Us Stupid?

3 1 7

It is clear that users are not reading online in the traditional sense; indeed there are signs that new forms of “reading” are emerging as users “power browse” horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts going for quick wins. It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense.

Thanks to the ubiquity of text on the Internet, not to men- tion the popularity of text-messaging on cell phones, we may well be reading more today than we did in the 1970s or 1980s, when television was our medium of choice. But it’s a different kind of reading, and behind it lies a different kind of thinking— perhaps even a new sense of the self. “We are not only what we read,” says Maryanne Wolf, a developmental psychologist at Tufts University and the author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. “We are how we read.” Wolf worries that the style of reading promoted by the Net, a style that puts “efficiency” and “immediacy” above all else, may be weakening our capacity for the kind of deep reading that emerged when an earlier technology, the printing press, made long and complex works of prose commonplace. When we read online, she says, we tend to become “mere decoders of information.” Our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged. Reading, explains Wolf, is not an instinctive skill for human beings. It’s not etched into our genes the way speech is. We have to teach our minds how to translate the symbolic char- acters we see into the language we understand. And the media or other technologies we use in learning and practicing the craft of reading play an important part in shaping the neural circuits inside our brains. Experiments demonstrate that readers of ideograms, such as the Chinese, develop a mental circuitry

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 317 11/8/14 3:35 PM


3 1 8


for reading that is very different from the circuitry found in those of us whose written language employs an alphabet. The variations extend across many regions of the brain, including those that govern such essential cognitive functions as memory and the interpretation of visual and auditory stimuli. We can expect as well that the circuits woven by our use of the Net will be different from those woven by our reading of books and other printed works.

Sometime in 1882, Friedrich Nietzsche bought a typewriter— a Malling-Hansen Writing Ball, to be precise. His vision was failing, and keeping his eyes focused on a page had become exhausting and painful, often bringing on crushing headaches. He had been forced to curtail his writing, and he feared that he would soon have to give it up. The typewriter rescued him, at least for a time. Once he had mastered touch-typing, he was

Friedrich Nietzsche and his Malling-Hansen Writing Ball.

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 318 11/8/14 3:35 PM

Is Google Making Us Stupid?

3 1 9

able to write with his eyes closed, using only the tips of his fingers. Words could once again flow from his mind to the page. But the machine had a subtler effect on his work. One of Nietzsche’s friends, a composer, noticed a change in the style of his writing. His already terse prose had become even tighter, more telegraphic. “Perhaps you will through this instrument even take to a new idiom,” the friend wrote in a letter, noting that, in his own work, his “ ‘thoughts’ in music and language often depend on the quality of pen and paper.” “You are right,” Nietzsche replied, “our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts.” Under the sway of the machine, writes the German media scholar Friedrich A. Kittler, Nietzsche’s prose “changed from arguments to apho- risms, from thoughts to puns, from rhetoric to telegram style.” The human brain is almost infinitely malleable. People used to think that our mental meshwork, the dense connections formed among the 100 billion or so neurons inside our skulls, was largely fixed by the time we reached adulthood. But brain researchers have discovered that that’s not the case. James Olds, a professor of neuroscience who directs the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study at George Mason University, says that even the adult mind “is very plastic.” Nerve cells routinely break old connections and form new ones. “The brain,” accord- ing to Olds, “has the ability to reprogram itself on the fly, altering the way it functions.” As we use what the sociologist Daniel Bell has called our “intellectual technologies”—the tools that extend our mental rather than our physical capacities—we inevitably begin to take on the qualities of those technologies. The mechanical clock, which came into common use in the 14th century, provides a compelling example. In Technics and Civilization, the historian and cultural critic Lewis Mumford described how the clock

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 319 11/8/14 3:35 PM


3 2 0


“disassociated time from human events and helped create the belief in an independent world of mathematically measurable sequences.” The “abstract framework of divided time” became “the point of reference for both action and thought.” The clock’s methodical ticking helped bring into being the scientific mind and the scientific man. But it also took something away. As the late MIT computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum observed in his 1976 book, Computer Power and Human Reason: From Judgment to Calculation, the concep- tion of the world that emerged from the widespread use of timekeeping instruments “remains an impoverished version of the older one, for it rests on a rejection of those direct experiences that formed the basis for, and indeed constituted, the old reality.” In deciding when to eat, to work, to sleep, to rise, we stopped listening to our senses and started obeying the clock. The process of adapting to new intellectual technologies is reflected in the changing metaphors we use to explain ourselves to ourselves. When the mechanical clock arrived, people began thinking of their brains as operating “like clockwork.” Today, in the age of software, we have come to think of them as operat- ing “like computers.” But the changes, neuroscience tells us, go much deeper than metaphor. Thanks to our brain’s plasticity, the adaptation occurs also at a biological level. The Internet promises to have particularly far-reaching effects on cognition. In a paper published in 1936, the British mathema- tician Alan Turing proved that a digital computer, which at the time existed only as a theoretical machine, could be programmed to perform the function of any other information-processing device. And that’s what we’re seeing today. The Internet, an immeasur- ably powerful computing system, is subsuming most of our other intellectual technologies. It’s becoming our map and our clock,

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 320 11/8/14 3:35 PM

Is Google Making Us Stupid?

3 2 1


our printing press and our typewriter, our calculator and our tele- phone, and our radio and TV. When the Net absorbs a medium, that medium is re-created in the Net’s image. It injects the medium’s content with hyper- links, blinking ads, and other digital gewgaws, and it surrounds the content with the content of all the other media it has absorbed. A new e-mail message, for instance, may announce its arrival as we’re glancing over the latest headlines at a news- paper’s site. The result is to scatter our attention and diffuse our concentration. The Net’s influence doesn’t end at the edges of a computer screen, either. As people’s minds become attuned to the crazy quilt of Internet media, traditional media have to adapt to the audience’s new expectations. Television programs add text crawls and pop-up ads, and magazines and newspapers shorten their articles, introduce capsule summaries, and crowd their pages with easy-to-browse info-snippets. When, in March of this year, the New York Times decided to devote the second and third pages of every edition to article abstracts, its design director, Tom Bodkin, explained that the “shortcuts” would give harried readers a quick “taste” of the day’s news, sparing them the “less efficient” method of actually turning the pages and reading the articles. Old media have little choice but to play by the new-media rules. Never has a communications system played so many roles in our lives—or exerted such broad influence over our thoughts— as the Internet does today. Yet, for all that’s been written about the Net, there’s been little consideration of how, exactly, it’s reprogramming us. The Net’s intellectual ethic remains obscure.

About the same time that Nietzsche started using his type- writer, an earnest young man named Frederick Winslow Taylor

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 321 11/8/14 3:35 PM


3 2 2

carried a stopwatch into the Midvale Steel plant in Phila- delphia and began a historic series of experiments aimed at improving the efficiency of the plant’s machinists. With the approval of Midvale’s owners, he recruited a group of factory hands, set them to work on various metalworking machines, and recorded and timed their every movement as well as the operations of the machines. By breaking down every job into a sequence of small, discrete steps and then testing different ways of performing each one, Taylor created a set of precise instructions—an “algorithm,” we might say today—for how each worker should work. Midvale’s employees grumbled about the strict new regime, claiming that it turned them into little more than automatons, but the factory’s productivity soared. More than a hundred years after the invention of the steam engine, the Industrial Revolution had at last found its philosophy

A testing engineer (possibly Taylor) observes a Midvale Steel worker c. 1885.

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 322 11/8/14 3:35 PM

Is Google Making Us Stupid?

3 2 3

and its philosopher. Taylor’s tight industrial choreography—his “system,” as he liked to call it—was embraced by manufactur- ers throughout the country and, in time, around the world. Seeking maximum speed, maximum efficiency, and maximum output, factory owners used time-and-motion studies to orga- nize their work and configure the jobs of their workers. The goal, as Taylor defined it in his celebrated 1911 treatise, The Principles of Scientific Management, was to identify and adopt, for every job, the “one best method” of work and thereby to effect “the gradual substitution of science for rule of thumb throughout the mechanic arts.” Once his system was applied to all acts of manual labor, Taylor assured his followers, it would bring about a restructuring not only of industry but of society, creating a utopia of perfect efficiency. “In the past the man has been first,” he declared; “in the future the system must be first.” Taylor’s system is still very much with us; it remains the ethic of industrial manufacturing. And now, thanks to the growing power that computer engineers and software coders wield over our intellectual lives, Taylor’s ethic is beginning to govern the realm of the mind as well. The Internet is a machine designed for the efficient and automated collection, transmission, and manipulation of information, and its legions of programmers are intent on finding the “one best method”— the perfect algorithm—to carry out every mental movement of what we’ve come to describe as “knowledge work.”

Google’s headquarters, in Mountain View, California—the Googleplex—is the Internet’s high church, and the religion practiced inside its walls is Taylorism. Google, says its chief executive, Eric Schmidt, is “a company that’s founded around the science of measurement,” and it is striving to “systematize everything” it does. Drawing on the terabytes of behavioral data

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 323 11/8/14 3:35 PM


3 2 4


it collects through its search engine and other sites, it carries out thousands of experiments a day, according to the Harvard Business Review, and it uses the results to refine the algorithms that increasingly control how people find information and extract meaning from it. What Taylor did for the work of the hand, Google is doing for the work of the mind. The company has declared that its mission is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” It seeks to develop “the perfect search engine,” which it defines as something that “understands exactly what you mean and gives you back exactly what you want.” In Google’s view, information is a kind of commodity, a utilitarian resource that can be mined and processed with industrial efficiency. The more pieces of information we can “access” and the faster we can extract their gist, the more productive we become as thinkers. Where does it end? Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the gifted young men who founded Google while pursuing doctoral degrees in computer science at Stanford, speak frequently of their desire to turn their search engine into an artificial intelli- gence, a HAL-like machine that might be connected directly to

The Googleplex.

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 324 11/8/14 3:35 PM

Is Google Making Us Stupid?

3 2 5

our brains. “The ultimate search engine is something as smart as people—or smarter,” Page said in a speech a few years back. “For us, working on search is a way to work on artificial intelligence.” In a 2004 interview with Newsweek, Brin said, “Certainly if you had all the world’s information directly attached to your brain, or an artificial brain that was smarter than your brain, you’d be better off.” Last year, Page told a convention of scientists that Google is “really trying to build artificial intelligence and to do it on a large scale.” Such an ambition is a natural one, even an admirable one, for a pair of math whizzes with vast quantities of cash at their disposal and a small army of computer scientists in their employ. A fundamentally scientific enterprise, Google is motivated by a desire to use technology, in Eric Schmidt’s words, “to solve problems that have never been solved before,” and artificial intelligence is the hardest problem out there. Why wouldn’t Brin and Page want to be the ones to crack it? Still, their easy assumption that we’d all “be better off ” if our brains were supplemented, or even replaced, by an artificial intelligence is unsettling. It suggests a belief that intelligence is the output of a mechanical process, a series of discrete steps that can be isolated, measured, and optimized. In Google’s world, the world we enter when we go online, there’s little place for the fuzziness of contemplation. Ambiguity is not an opening for insight but a bug to be fixed. The human brain is just an outdated computer that needs a faster processor and a bigger hard drive. The idea that our minds should operate as high-speed data- processing machines is not only built into the workings of the Internet, it is the network’s reigning business model as well. The faster we surf across the Web—the more links we click and pages we view—the more opportunities Google and other companies gain to collect information about us and to feed

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 325 11/8/14 3:35 PM


3 2 6


us advertisements. Most of the proprietors of the commercial Internet have a financial stake in collecting the crumbs of data we leave behind as we flit from link to link—the more crumbs, the better. The last thing these companies want is to encourage leisurely reading or slow, concentrated thought. It’s in their economic interest to drive us to distraction.

Maybe I’m just a worrywart. Just as there’s a tendency to glo- rify technological progress, there’s a countertendency to expect the worst of every new tool or machine. In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates bemoaned the development of writing. He feared that, as people came to rely on the written word as a substitute for the knowledge they used to carry inside their heads, they would, in the words of one of the dialogue’s characters, “cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful.” And because they would be able to “receive a quantity of information without proper instruction,” they would “be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant.” They would be “filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom.” Socrates wasn’t wrong—the new technology did often have the effects he feared—but he was shortsighted. He couldn’t foresee the many ways that writing and reading would serve to spread information, spur fresh ideas, and expand human knowledge (if not wisdom). The arrival of Gutenberg’s printing press, in the 15th century, set off another round of teeth gnashing. The Italian humanist Hieronimo Squarciafico worried that the easy availability of books would lead to intellectual laziness, making men “less stu- dious” and weakening their minds. Others argued that cheaply printed books and broadsheets would undermine religious authority, demean the work of scholars and scribes, and spread sedition and debauchery. As New York University professor

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 326 11/8/14 3:35 PM

Is Google Making Us Stupid?

3 2 7

Clay Shirky notes, “Most of the arguments made against the printing press were correct, even prescient.” But, again, the doomsayers were unable to imagine the myr- iad blessings that the printed word would deliver. So, yes, you should be skeptical of my skepticism. Perhaps those who dismiss critics of the Internet as Luddites or nostal- gists will be proved correct, and from our hyperactive, data- stoked minds will spring a golden age of intellectual discovery and universal wisdom. Then again, the Net isn’t the alphabet, and although it may replace the printing press, it produces something altogether different. The kind of deep reading that a sequence of printed pages promotes is valuable not just for the knowledge we acquire from the author’s words but for the intel- lectual vibrations those words set off within our own minds. In the quiet spaces opened up by the sustained, undistracted reading of a book, or by any other act of contemplation, for that matter, we make our own associations, draw our own inferences and analogies, foster our own ideas. Deep reading, as Maryanne Wolf argues, is indistinguishable from deep thinking. If we lose those quiet spaces, or fill them up with “content,” we will sacrifice something important not only in our selves but in our culture. In a recent essay, the playwright Richard Foreman eloquently described what’s at stake:

I come from a tradition of Western culture, in which the ideal (my ideal) was the complex, dense and “cathedral-like” structure of the highly educated and articulate personality—a man or woman who carried inside themselves a personally constructed and unique version of the entire heritage of the West. [But now] I see within us all (myself included) the replacement of complex inner density with a new kind of self—evolving under the pressure of information overload and the technology of the “instantly available.”

See p. 31 for tips on putting yourself in their shoes.

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 327 11/8/14 3:35 PM


3 2 8

As we are drained of our “inner repertory of dense cultural inheritance,” Foreman concluded, we risk turning into “ ‘pancake people’—spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button.” I’m haunted by that scene in 2001. What makes it so poi- gnant, and so weird, is the computer’s emotional response to the disassembly of its mind: its despair as one circuit after another goes dark, its childlike pleading with the astronaut— “I can feel it. I can feel it. I’m afraid”—and its final rever- sion to what can only be called a state of innocence. HAL’s outpouring of feeling contrasts with the emotionlessness that characterizes the human figures in the film, who go about their business with an almost robotic efficiency. Their thoughts and actions feel scripted, as if they’re following the steps of an algorithm. In the world of 2001, people have become so machinelike that the most human character turns out to be a machine. That’s the essence of Kubrick’s dark prophecy: as we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world, it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence.

Joining the Conversation

1. “Is Google making us stupid?” How does Nicholas Carr answer this question, and what evidence does he provide to support his answer?

2. What possible objections to his own position does Carr introduce—and why do you think he does so? How effec- tively does he counter these objections?

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 328 11/8/14 3:35 PM

Is Google Making Us Stupid?

3 2 9

3. Carr begins this essay by quoting an exchange between HAL and Dave, a supercomputer and an astronaut in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey—and he concludes by reflecting on that scene. What happens to HAL and Dave, and how does this outcome support his argument?

4. How does Carr use transitions to connect the parts of his text and to help readers follow his train of thought? (See Chapter 8 to help you think about how transitions help develop an argument.)

5. In his essay on pp. 340−60, Clive Thompson reaches a dif- ferent conclusion than Carr does, saying that “At their best, today’s digital tools help us see more, retain more, com- municate more. At their worst, they leave us prey to the manipulation of the toolmakers. But on balance . . . what is happening is deeply positive.” Write a paragraph or two discussing how Carr might respond. What would he agree with, and what would he disagree with?

6. This article sparked widespread debate and conversation when it first appeared in 2008, and the discussion contin- ues today. Go to and click on “Are We in a Race against the Machine?” to read some of what’s been written on the topic recently.

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 329 11/8/14 3:35 PM

3 3 0

The Influencing Machines



Brooke Gladstone is a media analyst and host of NPR’s On the Media. She has received two Peabody awards, and her work also has appeared in periodicals such as the Boston Globe, London Observer, and Wash- ington Post. Josh Neufeld is a cartoonist whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. He is the author of the graphic narrative A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge (2009). This selection is from Gladstone and Neufeld’s collaboration, The Influencing Machine: Brooke Gladstone on the Media (2011).

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 330 11/8/14 3:35 PM

The Influencing Machines

3 3 1

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 331 11/8/14 3:35 PM


3 3 2

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 332 11/8/14 3:35 PM

The Influencing Machines

3 3 3

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 333 11/8/14 3:35 PM


3 3 4

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 334 11/8/14 3:35 PM

The Influencing Machines

3 3 5

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 335 11/8/14 3:36 PM


3 3 6

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 336 11/8/14 3:36 PM

The Influencing Machines

3 3 7

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 337 11/8/14 3:36 PM


3 3 8

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 338 11/8/14 3:36 PM

The Influencing Machines

3 3 9

Joining the Conversation

1. What is Brooke Gladstone and Josh Neufeld’s argument, and how do they support their position?

2. What “they say” has motivated her argument? How do you know?

3. Gladstone quotes or paraphrases a number of writers across time. Some support her position and some do not, but she is very much in conversation with many thinkers on the subject of technology. Choose four and explain what they contribute to her argument.

4. See the “hint” Gladstone adds on p. 332. How does it func- tion as metacommentary? (See Chapter 10 for a reminder about how writers use metacommentary.)

5. Write a response to Gladstone and Neufeld presenting your views in graphic form. Or if you prefer, choose one page of her piece and summarize it using words alone.

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 339 11/8/14 3:36 PM

3 4 0

Smarter than You Think: How Technology Is Changing

Our Minds for the Better



Who’s better at chess—computers or humans? The question has long fascinated observers, perhaps because chess seems like the ultimate display of human thought: the players sit like Rodin’s Thinker, silent, brows furrowed, mak- ing lightning-fast calculations. It’s the quintessential cognitive activity, logic as an extreme sport. So the idea of a machine outplaying a human has always provoked both excitement and dread. In the eighteenth cen- tury, Wolfgang von Kempelen caused a stir with his clockwork Mechanical Turk—an automaton that played an eerily good game of chess, even beating Napoleon Bonaparte. The spec- tacle was so unsettling that onlookers cried out in astonishment

Clive Thompson is a freelance journalist and blogger who writes for the New York Times Magazine and Wired. He was awarded a 2002 Knight Science Journalism Fellowship at MIT. He blogs at collision- This essay is adapted from his book, Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better (2013).

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 340 11/8/14 3:36 PM

3 4 1

Smarter than You Think

The Thinker, by French sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840–1917).

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 341 11/8/14 3:36 PM


3 4 2


when the Turk’s gears first clicked into motion. But the gears, and the machine, were fake; in reality, the automaton was con- trolled by a chess savant cunningly tucked inside the wooden cabinet. In 1915, a Spanish inventor unveiled a genuine, honest-to-goodness robot that could actually play chess—a simple endgame involving only three pieces, anyway. A writer for Scientific American fretted that the inventor “Would Sub- stitute Machinery for the Human Mind.” Eighty years later, in 1997, this intellectual standoff clanked to a dismal conclusion when world champion Garry Kasparov was defeated by IBM’s Deep Blue supercomputer in a tourna- ment of six games. Faced with a machine that could calcu- late two hundred million positions a second, even Kasparov’s notoriously aggressive and nimble style broke down. In its final game, Deep Blue used such a clever ploy—tricking Kasparov into letting the computer sacrifice a knight—that it trounced him in nineteen moves. “I lost my fighting spirit,” Kasparov said afterward, pronouncing himself “emptied completely.” Riveted, the journalists announced a winner. The cover of Newsweek proclaimed the event “The Brain’s Last Stand.” Doom-sayers predicted that chess itself was over. If machines could out-think even Kasparov, why would the game remain interesting? Why would anyone bother playing? What’s the challenge? Then Kasparov did something unexpected.

The truth is, Kasparov wasn’t completely surprised by Deep Blue’s victory. Chess grand masters had predicted for years that computers would eventually beat humans, because they under- stood the different ways humans and computers play. Human chess players learn by spending years studying the world’s best opening moves and endgames; they play thousands of games,

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 342 11/8/14 3:36 PM

3 4 3

slowly amassing a capacious, in-brain library of which strategies triumphed and which flopped. They analyze their opponents’ strengths and weaknesses, as well as their moods. When they look at the board, that knowledge manifests as intuition—a eureka moment when they suddenly spy the best possible move. In contrast, a chess-playing computer has no intuition at all. It analyzes the game using brute force; it inspects the pieces currently on the board, then calculates all options. It prunes away moves that lead to losing positions, then takes the prom- ising ones and runs the calculations again. After doing this a few times—and looking five or seven moves out—it arrives at a few powerful plays. The machine’s way of “thinking” is fundamentally unhuman. Humans don’t sit around crunching every possible move, because our brains can’t hold that much information at once. If you go eight moves out in a game of chess, there are more possible games than there are stars in our galaxy. If you total up every game possible? It outnumbers the atoms in the known universe. Ask chess grand masters, “How many moves can you see out?” and they’ll likely deliver the answer attributed to the Cuban grand master José Raúl Capablanca: “One, the best one.” The fight between computers and humans in chess was, as Kasparov knew, ultimately about speed. Once computers could see all games roughly seven moves out, they would wear humans down. A person might make a mistake; the computer wouldn’t. Brute force wins. As he pondered Deep Blue, Kasparov mused on these different cognitive approaches. It gave him an audacious idea. What would happen if, instead of competing against one another, humans and com- puters collaborated? What if they played on teams together— one computer and a human facing off against another human and a computer? That way, he theorized, each might benefit

Smarter than You Think

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 343 11/8/14 3:36 PM


3 4 4


from the other’s peculiar powers. The computer would bring the lightning-fast—if uncreative—ability to analyze zillions of moves, while the human would bring intuition and insight, the ability to read opponents and psych them out. Together, they would form what chess players later called a centaur: a hybrid beast endowed with the strengths of each. In June 1998, Kasparov played the first public game of human-computer collaborative chess, which he dubbed “advanced chess,” against Veselin Topalov, a top-rated grand master. Each used a regular computer with off-the-shelf chess software and databases of hundreds of thousands of chess games, including some of the best ever played. They considered what moves the computer recommended, they examined historical databases to see if anyone had ever been in a situation like theirs before. Then they used that information to help plan. Each game was limited to sixty minutes, so they didn’t have infinite time to consult the machines; they had to work swiftly. Kasparov found the experience “as disturbing as it was excit- ing.” Freed from the need to rely exclusively on his memory, he was able to focus more on the creative texture of his play. It was, he realized, like learning to be a race-car driver: He had to learn how to drive the computer, as it were—developing a split-second sense of which strategy to enter into the computer for assessment, when to stop an unpromising line of inquiry, and when to accept or ignore the computer’s advice. “Just as a good Formula One driver really knows his own car, so did we have to learn the way the computer program worked,” he later wrote. Topalov, as it turns out, appeared to be an even better Formula One “thinker” than Kasparov. On purely human terms, Kasparov was a stronger player; a month before, he’d trounced Topalov 4–0. But the centaur play evened the odds. This time, Topalov fought Kasparov to a 3–3 draw.

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 344 11/8/14 3:36 PM

3 4 5

In 2005, there was a “freestyle” chess tournament in which a team could consist of any number of humans or comput- ers, in any combination. Many teams consisted of chess grand masters who’d won plenty of regular, human-only tournaments, achieving chess scores of 2,500 (out of 3,000). But the winning team didn’t include any grand masters at all. It consisted of two young New England men, Steven Cramton and Zackary Stephen (who were comparative amateurs, with chess rankings down around 1,400 to 1,700), and their computers. Why could these relative amateurs beat chess players with far more experience and raw talent? Because Cramton and Stephen were expert at collaborating with computers. They knew when to rely on human smarts and when to rely on the machine’s advice. Working at rapid speed—these games, too, were limited

Garry Kasparov (right) plays Veselin Topalov (left) in Sofia, Bulgaria, on May 3, 1998.

Smarter than You Think

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 345 11/8/14 3:36 PM


3 4 6


to sixty minutes—they would brainstorm moves, then check to see what the computer thought, while also scouring databases to see if the strategy had occurred in previous games. They used three different computers simultaneously, running five different pieces of software; that way they could cross-check whether different programs agreed on the same move. But they wouldn’t simply accept what the machine accepted, nor would they merely mimic old games. They selected moves that were low-rated by the computer if they thought they would rattle their opponents psychologically. In essence, a new form of chess intelligence was emerging. You could rank the teams like this: (1) a chess grand master was good; (2) a chess grand master playing with a laptop was better. But even that laptop-equipped grand master could be beaten by (3) relative newbies, if the amateurs were extremely skilled at integrating machine assistance. “Human strategic guidance combined with the tactical acuity of a computer,” Kasparov concluded, “was overwhelming.” Better yet, it turned out these smart amateurs could even outplay a supercomputer on the level of Deep Blue. One of the entrants that Cramton and Stephen trounced in the freestyle chess tournament was a version of Hydra, the most powerful chess computer in existence at the time; indeed, it was prob- ably faster and stronger than Deep Blue itself. Hydra’s owners let it play entirely by itself, using raw logic and speed to fight its opponents. A few days after the advanced chess event, Hydra destroyed the world’s seventh-ranked grand master in a man-versus-machine chess tournament. But Cramton and Stephen beat Hydra. They did it using their own talents and regular Dell and Hewlett-Packard com- puters, of the type you probably had sitting on your desk in 2005, with software you could buy for sixty dollars. All of which

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 346 11/8/14 3:36 PM

3 4 7


brings us back to our original question here: Which is smarter at chess—humans or computers? Neither. It’s the two together, working side by side.

We’re all playing advanced chess these days. We just haven’t learned to appreciate it. Our tools are everywhere, linked with our minds, working in tandem. Search engines answer our most obscure questions; status updates give us an ESP-like awareness of those around us; online collaborations let far-flung collaborators tackle prob- lems too tangled for any individual. We’re becoming less like Rodin’s Thinker and more like Kasparov’s centaurs. This trans- formation is rippling through every part of our cognition— how we learn, how we remember, and how we act upon that knowledge emotionally, intellectually, and politically. As with Cramton and Stephen, these tools can make even the amateurs among us radically smarter than we’d be on our own, assuming (and this is a big assumption) we understand how they work. At their best, today’s digital tools help us see more, retain more, communicate more. At their worst, they leave us prey to the manipulation of the toolmakers. But on balance, I’d argue, what is happening is deeply positive. . . . In a sense, this is an ancient story. The “extended mind” theory of cognition argues that the reason humans are so intel- lectually dominant is that we’ve always outsourced bits of cogni- tion, using tools to scaffold our thinking into ever-more-rarefied realms. Printed books amplified our memory. Inexpensive paper and reliable pens made it possible to externalize our thoughts quickly. Studies show that our eyes zip around the page while performing long division on paper, using the handwritten digits as a form of prosthetic short-term memory. “These resources

Smarter than You Think

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 347 11/8/14 3:36 PM


3 4 8

enable us to pursue manipulations and juxtapositions of ideas and data that would quickly baffle the unaugmented brain,” as Andy Clark, a philosopher of the extended mind, writes. Granted, it can be unsettling to realize how much thinking already happens outside our skulls. Culturally, we revere the Rodin ideal—the belief that genius breakthroughs come from our gray matter alone. The physicist Richard Feynman once got into an argument about this with the historian Charles Weiner. Feynman understood the extended mind; he knew that writing his equations and ideas on paper was crucial to his thought. But when Weiner looked over a pile of Feynman’s notebooks, he called them a wonderful “record of his day-to-day work.” No, no, Feynman replied testily. They weren’t a record of his thinking process. They were his thinking process:

“I actually did the work on the paper,” he said. “Well,” Weiner said, “the work was done in your head, but the

record of it is still here.” ‘ “No, it’s not a record, not really. It’s working. You have to work on

paper and this is the paper. Okay?”

Every new tool shapes the way we think, as well as what we think about. The printed word helped make our cognition linear and abstract, along with vastly enlarging our stores of knowledge. Newspapers shrank the world; then the telegraph shrank it even more dramatically. With every innovation, cultural prophets bickered over whether we were facing a technological apocalypse or a utopia. Depending on which Victorian-age pundit you asked, the telegraph was either going usher in an era of world peace (“It is impossible that old prejudices and hostilities should longer exist,” as Charles F. Briggs and Augustus Maverick intoned) or drown us in a Sargasso of idiotic trivia (“We are eager to tunnel under the

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 348 11/8/14 3:36 PM

3 4 9

Atlantic . . . but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad, flapping American ear will be that the Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough,” as Thoreau opined). Neither prediction was quite right, of course, yet neither was quite wrong. The one thing that both apocalyptics and utopians understand and agree upon is that every new technology pushes us toward new forms of behavior while nudging us away from older, familiar ones. Harold Innis—the lesser-known but arguably more interest- ing intellectual midwife of Marshall McLuhan—called this the bias of a new tool. Living with new technologies means under- standing how they bias everyday life. What are the central biases of today’s digital tools? There are many, but I see three big ones that have a huge impact on our cognition. First, they allow for prodigious external memory: smart- phones, hard drives, cameras, and sensors routinely record more information than any tool before them. We’re shifting from a stance of rarely recording our ideas and the events of our lives to doing it habitually. Second, today’s tools make it easier for us to find connections—between ideas, pictures, people, bits of news— that were previously invisible. Third, they encourage a superfluity of communication and publishing. This last feature has many surprising effects that are often ill understood. Any economist can tell you that when you suddenly increase the availability of a resource, people do more things with it, which also means they do increasingly unpredictable things. As electricity became cheap and ubiquitous in the West, its role expanded from things you’d expect—like night-time lighting—to the unexpected and seem- ingly trivial: battery-driven toy trains, electric blenders, vibrators. The superfluity of communication today has produced everything from a rise in crowd-organized projects like Wikipedia to curious new forms of expression: television-show recaps, map-based story- telling, discussion threads that spin out of a photo posted to a

Smarter than You Think

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 349 11/8/14 3:36 PM


3 5 0


smartphone app, Amazon product-review threads wittily hijacked for political satire. Now, none of these three digital biases is immu- table, because they’re the product of software and hardware, and can easily be altered or ended if the architects of today’s tools (often corporate and governmental) decide to regulate the tools or find they’re not profitable enough. But right now, these big effects dominate our current and near-term landscape. In one sense, these three shifts—infinite memory, dot connecting, explosive publishing—are screamingly obvious to anyone who’s ever used a computer. Yet they also some- how constantly surprise us by producing ever-new “tools for thought” (to use the writer Howard Rheingold’s lovely phrase) that upend our mental habits in ways we never expected and often don’t apprehend even as they take hold. Indeed, these phenomena have already woven themselves so deeply into the lives of people around the globe that it’s difficult to stand back and take account of how much things have changed and why. While [here I map] out what I call the future of thought, it’s also frankly rooted in the present, because many parts of our future have already arrived, even if they are only dimly understood. As the sci-fi author William Gibson famously quipped: “The future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed.” This is an attempt to understand what’s happening to us right now, the better to see where our augmented thought is headed. Rather than dwell in abstractions, like so many marketers and pundits—not to mention the creators of technology, who are often remarkably poor at predicting how people will use their tools—I focus more on the actual experiences of real people.

To provide a concrete example of what I’m talking about, let’s take a look at something simple and immediate: my activities while writing the pages you’ve just read.

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 350 11/8/14 3:36 PM

3 5 1

As I was working, I often realized I couldn’t quite remember a detail and discovered that my notes were incomplete. So I’d zip over to a search engine. (Which chess piece did Deep Blue sacrifice when it beat Kasparov? The knight!) I also pushed some of my thinking out into the open: I blogged admiringly about the Spanish chess-playing robot from 1915, and within min- utes commenters offered smart critiques. (One pointed out that the chess robot wasn’t that impressive because it was playing an endgame that was almost impossible to lose: the robot started with a rook and a king, while the human opponent had only a mere king.) While reading Kasparov’s book How Life Imitates Chess on my Kindle, I idly clicked on “popular highlights” to see what passages other readers had found interesting—and wound up becoming fascinated by a section on chess strategy I’d only lightly skimmed myself. To understand centaur play better, I read long, nuanced threads on chess-player discus- sion groups, effectively eavesdropping on conversations of people who know chess far better than I ever will. (Chess players who follow the new form of play seem divided—some think advanced chess is a grim sign of machines’ taking over the game, and others think it shows that the human mind is much more valuable than computer software.) I got into a long instant-messaging session with my wife, during which I realized that I’d explained the gist of advanced chess better than I had in my original draft, so I cut and pasted that explanation into my notes. As for the act of writing itself? Like most writers, I constantly have to fight the procrastinator’s urge to meander online, idly checking Twitter links and Wikipedia entries in a dreamy but pointless haze—until I look up in horror and realize I’ve lost two hours of work, a missing-time experience redolent of a UFO abduction. So I’d switch my word processor into full-screen mode, fading my computer desktop to black so

Smarter than You Think

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 351 11/8/14 3:36 PM


3 5 2

I could see nothing but the page, giving me temporary mental peace. [Let’s] explore each of these trends. First off, there’s the emergence of omnipresent computer storage, which is upend- ing the way we remember, both as individuals and as a cul- ture. Then there’s the advent of “public thinking”: the ability to broadcast our ideas and the catalytic effect that has both inside and outside our minds. We’re becoming more conversa- tional thinkers—a shift that has been rocky, not least because everyday public thought uncorks the incivility and prejudices that are commonly repressed in face-to-face life. But at its best (which, I’d argue, is surprisingly often), it’s a thrilling develop- ment, reigniting ancient traditions of dialogue and debate. At the same time, there’s been an explosion of new forms of expres- sion that were previously too expensive for everyday thought— like video, mapping, or data crunching. Our social awareness is shifting, too, as we develop ESP-like “ambient awareness,” a persistent sense of what others are doing and thinking. On a social level, this expands our ability to understand the people we care about. On a civic level, it helps dispel traditional politi- cal problems like “pluralistic ignorance,” catalyzing political action, as in the Arab Spring. Are these changes good or bad for us? If you asked me twenty years ago, when I first started writing about technology, I’d have said “bad.” In the early 1990s, I believed that as people migrated online, society’s worst urges might be uncorked: pseudonymity would poison online conversation, gossip and trivia would domi-

nate, and cultural standards would collapse. Certainly some of those predictions have come true, as anyone who’s wandered into an angry political forum knows.

But the truth is, while I predicted the bad stuff, I didn’t fore- see the good stuff. And what a torrent we have: Wikipedia, a

See p. 66 for ways to make

the “I’m of two minds” move.

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 352 11/8/14 3:36 PM

3 5 3


global forest of eloquent bloggers, citizen journalism, political fact-checking—or even the way status-update tools like Twitter have produced a renaissance in witty, aphoristic, haikuesque expression. If [I accentuate] the positive, that’s in part because we’ve been so flooded with apocalyptic warnings of late. We need a new way to talk clearly about the rewards and pleasures of our digital experiences—one that’s rooted in our lived experi- ence and also detangled from the hype of Silicon Valley. The other thing that makes me optimistic about our cog- nitive future is how much it resembles our cognitive past. In the sixteenth century, humanity faced a printed-paper wave of information overload—with the explosion of books that began with the codex and went into overdrive with Gutenberg’s movable type. As the historian Ann Blair notes, scholars were alarmed: How would they be able to keep on top of the flood of human expression? Who would separate the junk from what was worth keeping? The mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz bemoaned “that horrible mass of books which keeps on grow- ing,” which would doom the quality writers to “the danger of general oblivion” and produce “a return to barbarism.” Thank- fully, he was wrong. Scholars quickly set about organizing the new mental environment by clipping their favorite passages from books and assembling them into huge tomes—florilegia, bouquets of text—so that readers could sample the best parts. They were basically blogging, going through some of the same arguments modern bloggers go through. (Is it enough to clip a passage, or do you also have to verify that what the author wrote was true? It was debated back then, as it is today.) The past turns out to be oddly reassuring, because a pattern emerges. Each time we’re faced with bewildering new thinking tools, we panic—then quickly set about deducing how they can be used to help us work, meditate, and create.

Smarter than You Think

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 353 11/8/14 3:36 PM


3 5 4

History also shows that we generally improve and refine our tools to make them better. Books, for example, weren’t always as well designed as they are now. In fact, the earliest ones were, by modern standards, practically unusable—often devoid of the navigational aids we now take for granted, such as indexes, paragraph breaks, or page numbers. It took decades—centuries, even—for the book to be redesigned into a more flexible cogni- tive tool, as suitable for quick reference as it is for deep reading. This is the same path we’ll need to tread with our digital tools. It’s why we need to understand not just the new abilities our tools give us today, but where they’re still deficient and how they ought to improve.

I have one caveat to offer. If you were hoping to read about the neuroscience of our brains and how technology is “rewiring” them, [I] will disappoint you. This goes against the grain of modern discourse, I real- ize. In recent years, people interested in how we think have become obsessed with our brain chemistry. We’ve marveled at the ability of brain scanning—picturing our brain’s electrical activity or blood flow—to provide new clues as to what parts of the brain are linked to our behaviors. Some people panic that our brains are being deformed on a physiological level by today’s technology: spend too much time flipping between windows and skimming text instead of reading a book, or interrupting your conversations to read text messages, and pretty soon you won’t be able to concentrate on anything— and if you can’t concentrate on it, you can’t understand it either. In his book The Shallows, Nicholas Carr eloquently raised this alarm, arguing that the quality of our thought, as a species, rose in tandem with the ascendance of slow-moving, linear print and began declining with the arrival of the zingy,

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 354 11/8/14 3:36 PM

3 5 5


flighty Internet. “I’m not thinking the way I used to think,” he worried. I’m certain that many of these fears are warranted. It has always been difficult for us to maintain mental habits of con- centration and deep thought; that’s precisely why societies have engineered massive social institutions (everything from univer- sities to book clubs and temples of worship) to encourage us to keep it up. It’s part of why only a relatively small subset of people become regular, immersive readers, and part of why an even smaller subset go on to higher education. Today’s multitasking tools really do make it harder than before to stay focused during long acts of reading and contemplation. They require a high level of “mindfulness’’—paying attention to your own atten- tion. While I don’t dwell on the perils of distraction [here], the importance of being mindful resonates throughout these pages. One of the great challenges of today’s digital thinking tools is knowing when not to use them, when to rely on the powers of older and slower technologies, like paper and books. That said, today’s confident talk by pundits and journalists about our “rewired” brains has one big problem: it is very prema- ture. Serious neuroscientists agree that we don’t really know how our brains are wired to begin with. Brain chemistry is particularly mysterious when it comes to complex thought, like memory, creativity, and insight. “There will eventually be neuroscientific explanations for much of what we do; but those explanations will turn out to be incredibly complicated,” as the neuroscientist Gary Marcus pointed out when critiquing the popular fascina- tion with brain scanning. “For now, our ability to understand how all those parts relate is quite limited, sort of like trying to understand the political dynamics of Ohio from an airplane window above Cleveland.” I’m not dismissing brain scanning; indeed, I’m confident it’ll be crucial in unlocking these mysteries

Smarter than You Think

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 355 11/8/14 3:36 PM


3 5 6

in the decades to come. But right now the field is so new that it is rash to draw conclusions, either apocalyptic or Utopian, about how the Internet is changing our brains. Even Carr, the most diligent explorer in this area, cited only a single brain-scanning study that specifically probed how people’s brains respond to using the Web, and those results were ambiguous. The truth is that many healthy daily activities, if you scanned the brains of people participating in them, might appear outright dangerous to cognition. Over recent years, professor of psychiatry James Swain and teams of Yale and University of Michigan scien- tists scanned the brains of new mothers and fathers as they listened to recordings of their babies’ cries. They found brain circuit activ- ity similar to that in people suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder. Now, these parents did not actually have OCD. They were just being temporarily vigilant about their newborns. But since the experiments appeared to show the brains of new par- ents being altered at a neural level, you could write a pretty scary headline if you wanted: becoming a parent erodes your brain function! In reality, as Swain tells me, it’s much more benign. Being extra fretful and cautious around a newborn is a good thing for most parents: Babies are fragile. It’s worth the tradeoff. Simi- larly, living in cities—with their cramped dwellings and pounding noise—stresses us out on a straightforwardly physiological level and floods our system with cortisol, as I discovered while research- ing stress in New York City several years ago. But the very urban density that frazzles us mentally also makes us 50 percent more productive, and more creative, too, as Edward Glaeser argues in Triumph of the City, because of all those connections between people. This is “the city’s edge in producing ideas.” The upside of creativity is tied to the downside of living in a sardine tin, or, as Glaeser puts it, “Density has costs as well as benefits.” Our digital environments likely offer a similar push and pull. We tolerate

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 356 11/8/14 3:36 PM

3 5 7


their cognitive hassles and distractions for the enormous upside of being connected, in new ways, to other people. I want to examine how technology changes our mental hab- its, but for now, we’ll be on firmer ground if we stick to what’s observably happening in the world around us: our cognitive behavior, the quality of our cultural production, and the social science that tries to measure what we do in everyday life. In any case, I won’t be talking about how your brain is being “rewired.” Almost everything rewires it. . . . The brain you had before you read this paragraph? You don’t get that brain back. I’m hoping the trade-off is worth it.

The rise of advanced chess didn’t end the debate about man versus machine, of course. In fact, the centaur phenomenon only complicated things further for the chess world—raising questions about how reliant players were on computers and how their presence affected the game itself. Some worried that if humans got too used to consulting machines, they wouldn’t be able to play without them. Indeed, in June 2011, chess master Christoph Natsidis was caught illicitly using a mobile phone during a regular human-to-human match. During tense moments, he kept vanishing for long bathroom visits; the ref- eree, suspicious, discovered Natsidis entering moves into a piece of chess software on his smartphone. Chess had entered a phase similar to the doping scandals that have plagued baseball and cycling, except in this case the drug was software and its effect cognitive. This is a nice metaphor for a fear that can nag at us in our everyday lives, too, as we use machines for thinking more and more. Are we losing some of our humanity? What happens if the Internet goes down: Do our brains collapse, too? Or is the question naive and irrelevant—as quaint as worrying about

Smarter than You Think

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 357 11/8/14 3:36 PM


3 5 8

whether we’re “dumb” because we can’t compute long division without a piece of paper and a pencil? Certainly, if we’re intellectually lazy or prone to cheating and shortcuts, or if we simply don’t pay much attention to how our tools affect the way we work, then yes—we can become, like Natsidis, overreliant. But the story of computers and chess offers a much more optimistic ending, too. Because it turns out that when chess players were genuinely passionate about learn- ing and being creative in their game, computers didn’t degrade their own human abilities. Quite the opposite: it helped them internalize the game much more profoundly and advance to new levels of human excellence. Before computers came along, back when Kasparov was a young boy in the 1970s in the Soviet Union, learning grand-master-level chess was a slow, arduous affair. If you showed promise and you were very lucky, you could find a local grand master to teach you. If you were one of the tiny handful who showed world-class promise, Soviet leaders would fly you to Moscow and give you access to their elite chess library, which contained laboriously transcribed paper records of the world’s top games. Retrieving records was a painstaking affair; you’d contemplate a possible opening, use the catalog to locate games that began with that move, and then the librarians would retrieve records from thin files, pulling them out using long sticks resembling knitting needles. Books of chess games were rare and incomplete. By gaining access to the Soviet elite library, Kasparov and his peers developed an enormous advan- tage over their global rivals. That library was their cognitive augmentation. But beginning in the 1980s, computers took over the library’s role and bested it. Young chess enthusiasts could buy CD-ROMs filled with hundreds of thousands of chess games.

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 358 11/8/14 3:36 PM

3 5 9


Chess-playing software could show you how an artificial oppo- nent would respond to any move. This dramatically increased the pace at which young chess players built up intuition. If you were sitting at lunch and had an idea for a bold new opening move, you could instantly find out which historic players had tried it, then war-game it yourself by playing against software. The iterative process of thought experiments—“If I did this, then what would happen?”—sped up exponentially. Chess itself began to evolve. “Players became more creative and daring,” as Frederic Friedel, the publisher of the first popu- lar chess databases and software, tells me. Before computers, grand masters would stick to lines of attack they’d long stud- ied and honed. Since it took weeks or months for them to research and mentally explore the ramifications of a new move, they stuck with what they knew. But as the next generation of players emerged, Friedel was astonished by their unusual gambits, particularly in their opening moves. Chess players today, Kasparov has written, “are almost as free of dogma as the machines with which they train. Increasingly, a move isn’t good or bad because it looks that way or because it hasn’t been done that way before. It’s simply good if it works and bad if it doesn’t.” Most remarkably, it is producing players who reach grand master status younger. Before computers, it was extremely rare for teenagers to become grand masters. In 1958, Bobby Fischer stunned the world by achieving that status at fifteen. The feat was so unusual it was over three decades before the record was broken, in 1991. But by then computers had emerged, and in the years since, the record has been broken twenty times, as more and more young players became grand masters. In 2002, the Ukrainian Sergey Karjakin became one at the tender age of twelve.

Smarter than You Think

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 359 11/8/14 3:36 PM


3 6 0

So yes, when we’re augmenting ourselves, we can be smarter. We’re becoming centaurs. But our digital tools can also leave us smarter even when we’re not actively using them.

Joining the Conversation

1. Clive Thompson lists three shifts—infinite memory, dot connecting, and explosive publishing—that he believes have strongly affected our cognition. What exactly does he mean by these three shifts, and in what ways does he think they have changed our thinking?

2. Thompson starts paragraph 20 by saying “Our tools are everywhere, linked with our minds, working in tandem.” What do you think? Does his statement reflect your own experience with technology?

3. In paragraphs 33−35, Thompson cites Nicholas Carr, whose views about technology differ from his. How does he respond to Carr—and how does acknowledging views he disagrees with help support his own position?

4. So what? Has Thompson convinced you that his topic mat- ters? If so, how and where does he do so?

5. Write an essay reflecting on the ways digital technologies have influenced your own intellectual development, drawing from Thompson’s text and other readings in this chapter— and on your own experience as support for your argument. Be sure to acknowledge views other than your own.

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 360 11/8/14 3:36 PM

3 6 1

Does Texting Affect Writing?



It’s taking over our lives. We can do it almost anywhere—walking to class, waiting in line at the grocery store, or hanging out at home. It’s quick, easy, and convenient. It has become a concern of doctors, parents, and teachers alike. What is it? It’s texting! Text messaging—or texting, as it’s more commonly called— is the process of sending and receiving typed messages via a cellular phone. It is a common means of communication among teenagers and is even becoming popular in the business world because it allows quick messages to be sent without people having to commit to a telephone conversation. A person is able to say what is needed, and the other person will receive the information and respond when it’s convenient to do so. In order to more quickly type what they are trying to say, many people use abbreviations instead of words. The language created by these abbreviations is called textspeak. Some people

Michaela Cullington was a student at Marywood University in Pennsylvania when she wrote this essay, which originally appeared in Young Scholars in Writing, an undergraduate journal of writing pub- lished by the University of Missouri-Kansas City. She received a mas- ters degree in speech and language pathology from Marywood in 2014.

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 361 11/8/14 3:36 PM


3 6 2


believe that using these abbreviations is hindering the writing abilities of students, and others argue that tex- ting is actually having a positive effect on writing. In fact, it seems likely that texting has no significant effect on student writing.

Concerns about Textspeak

A September 2008 article in USA Today entitled “Texting, Test- ing Destroys Kids’ Writing Style” summarizes many of the most common complaints about the effect of texting. It states that according to the National Center for Education Statistics, only 25% of high school seniors are “proficient” writers. The article quotes Jacquie Ream, a former teacher and author of K.I.S.S .— Keep It Short and Simple, a guide for writing more effectively. Ream states, “[W]e have a whole generation being raised with- out communication skills.” She blames the use of acronyms and shorthand in text messages for students’ inability to spell and ulti- mately to write well. Ream also points out that students struggle to convey emotion in their writing because, as she states, in text messages “emotions are always sideways smiley faces.” This debate became prominent after some teachers began to believe they were seeing a decline in the writing abilities of their students. Many attributed this perceived decline to the increasing popularity of text messaging and its use of abbrevia- tions. Naomi Baron, a linguistics professor at American Univer- sity, blames texting for what she sees as the fact that “so much of American society has become sloppy and laissez faire about the mechanics of writing” (“Should We Worry or LOL?”). Teachers report finding “2” for “to,” “gr8” for “great,” “dat” for “that,” and “wut” for “what,” among other examples of textspeak, in their students’ writing. A Minnesota teacher of the seventh

Here’s the summary of an ongoing

debate. For tips on this move,

see Chapter 1.

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 362 11/8/14 3:36 PM

Does Texting Affect Writing?

3 6 3

and ninth grades says that she has to spend extra time in class editing papers and must “explicitly” remind her students that it is not acceptable to use text slang and abbreviations in writing (Walsh). Another English teacher believes that text language has become “second nature” to her students (Carey); they are so used to it that they do not even catch themselves doing it. Many also complain that because texting does not stress the importance of punctuation, students are neglecting it in their formal writing. Teachers say that their students are forgetting commas, apostrophes, and even capital letters to begin sen- tences. Another complaint is that text messages lack emotion. Many argue that texts lack feeling because of their tendency to be short, brief, and to the point. Because students are not able to communicate emotion effectively through texts, some teachers worry, they may lose the ability to do so in writing. To get a more personal perspective on the question of how teachers perceive texting to be influencing student writing, I interviewed two of my former high school teachers—my junior- year English teacher and my senior-year theology teacher. Both teachers stress the importance of writing in their courses. They maintain that they notice text abbreviations in their students’ writing often. To correct this problem, they point it out when it occurs and take points off for its use. They also remind their stu- dents to use proper sentence structure and complete sentences. The English teacher says that she believes texting inhibits good writing—it reinforces simplistic writing that may be acceptable for conversation but is “not so good for critical thinking or analy- sis.” She suggests that texting tends to generate topic sentences without emphasizing the following explanation. According to these teachers, then, texting is inhibiting good writing. How- ever, their evidence is limited, based on just a few personal experiences rather than on a significant amount of research.

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 363 11/8/14 3:36 PM


3 6 4


Responses to Concerns about Textspeak

In response to these complaints that texting is having a nega- tive impact on student writing, others insist that texting should be viewed as beneficial because it provides students with motivation to write, practice in specific writing skills, and an opportunity to gain confidence in their writing. For example, Sternberg, Kaplan, and Borck argue that texting is a good way to motivate students: teens enjoy texting, and if they frequently write through texts, they will be more motivated to write for- mally. Texting also helps to spark students’ creativity, these authors argue, because they are always coming up with new ways to express their ideas (417). In addition, because they are engaging in written commu- nication rather than oral speech, texting teens learn how to convey their message to a reader in as few words as possible. In his book Txtng: The Gr8 Db8, David Crystal discusses a study that concludes that texting actually helps foster “the ability to summarize and express oneself concisely” in writing (168). Furthermore, Crystal explains that texting actually helps people to “sharpen their diplomatic skills . . . [because] it allows more time to formulate their thoughts and express them carefully” (168). One language arts teacher from Minnesota believes that texting helps students develop their own “individual voice” (qtd. in Walsh). Perfecting such a voice allows the writer to offer personal insights and express feelings that will interest and engage readers. Supporters of texting also argue that it not only teaches elements of writing but provides extra practice to those who struggle with the conventions of writing. As Crystal points out, children who struggle with literacy will not choose to use a technology that requires them to do something that is difficult

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 364 11/8/14 3:36 PM

Does Texting Affect Writing?

3 6 5

for them. However, if they do choose to text, the experience will help them “overcome their awkwardness and develop their social and communication skills” (Txtng 171). Shirley Holm, a junior high school teacher, describes texting as a “comfortable form of communication” (qtd. in Walsh). Teenagers are used to texting, enjoy doing so, and as a result are always writing. Through this experience of writing in ways they enjoy, they can learn to take pleasure in writing formally. If students are continually writing in some form, they will eventually develop better skills. Furthermore, those who favor texting explain that with prac- tice comes the confidence and courage to try new things, which some observers believe they are seeing happen with writing as a result of texting. Teenagers have, for example, created an entirely new language—one that uses abbreviations and sym- bols instead of words, does not require punctuation, and uses short, incomplete phrases throughout the entire conversation. It’s a way of speaking that is a language in and of itself. Crystal, among others, sees this “language evolution” as a positive effect of texting; he seems, in fact, fascinated that teenagers are capa- ble of creating such a phenomenon, which he describes as the “latest manifestation of the human ability” (Txtng 175). David Warlick, a teacher and author of books about technology in the classroom, would agree with Crystal. He believes students should be given credit for “inventing a new language ideal for communicating in a high-tech world” (qtd. in Carey).


I decided to conduct my own research into this controversy. I wanted to get different, more personal, perspectives on the issue. First, I surveyed seven students on their opinions about

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 365 11/8/14 3:36 PM


3 6 6


the impact of texting on writing. Second, I questioned two high school teachers, as noted above. Finally, in an effort to compare what students are actually doing to people’s percep- tions of what they are doing, I analyzed student writing samples for instances of textspeak.1

To let students speak for themselves, I created a list of ques- tions for seven high school and college students, some of my closest and most reliable friends. Although the number of respondents was small, I could trust my knowledge of them to help me interpret their responses. In addition, these students are very different from one another, and I believed their differ- ences would allow for a wide array of thoughts and opinions on the issue. I was thus confident in the reliability and diversity of their answers but was cautious not to make too many assump- tions because of the small sample size. I asked the students how long they had been texting; how often they texted; what types of abbreviations they used most and how often they used them; and whether they noticed them- selves using any type of textspeak in their formal writing. In analyzing their responses, I looked for commonalities to help me draw conclusions about the students’ texting habits and if / how they believed their writing was affected. I created a list of questions for teachers similar to the one for the students and asked two of my high school teachers to provide their input. I asked if they had noticed their students using textspeak in their writing assignments and, if so, how they dealt with it. I also asked if they believed texting had a positive or negative effect on writing. Next, I asked if they were texters themselves. And, finally, I solicited their opin- ions on what they believed should be done to prevent teens from using text abbreviations and other textspeak in their writing.

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 366 11/8/14 3:36 PM

Does Texting Affect Writing?

3 6 7

I was surprised at how different the students’ replies and opinions were from the teachers’. I decided to find out for myself whose impressions were more accurate by comparing some stu- dents’ actual writing with students’ and teachers’ perceptions of that writing. To do this I looked at twenty samples of student writing—end-of-semester research arguments written in two first-year college writing courses with different instructors. The topics varied from increased airport security after September 11 to the weapons of the Vietnam War to autism, and lengths ranged from eight to ten pages. To analyze the papers for the presence of textspeak, I looked closely for use of abbreviations and other common slang terms, especially those usages which the students had stated in their surveys were most common. These included “hbu” (“How about you?”); “gtg” (“Got to go”); and “cuz” (“because”). I also looked for the numbers 2 and 4 used instead of the words “to” and “for.”

Discussion of Findings

My research suggests that texting actually has a minimal effect on student writing. It showed that students do not believe textspeak is appropriate in formal writing assignments. They recognize the difference between texting friends and writing formally and know what is appropriate in each situation. This was proven true in the student samples, in which no examples of textspeak were used. Many experts would agree that there is no harm in textspeak, as long as students continue to be taught and reminded that occasions where formal language is expected are not the place for it. As Crystal explains, the purpose of the abbreviations used in text messages is not to replace language but rather to make quick communica- tions shorter and easier, since in a standard text message,

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 367 11/8/14 3:36 PM


3 6 8

the texter is allowed only 160 characters for a communication (“Texting” 81). Dennis Baron, an English and linguistics professor at the University of Illinois, has done much research on the effect of technology on writing, and his findings are aligned with those of my own study. In his book A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution, he concludes that students do not use textspeak in their writing. In fact, he suggests students do not even use abbreviations in their text messages very often. Baron says that college students have “put away such childish things, and many of them had already abandoned such signs of middle-school immaturity in high school” (qtd. in Golden). In surveying the high school and college students, I found that most have been texting for a few years, usually starting around ninth grade. The students said they generally text between thirty and a hundred messages every day but use abbre- viations only occasionally, with the most common being “lol” (“Laugh out loud”), “gtg” (“Got to go”), “hbu” (“How about you?”), “cuz” (“because”), and “jk” (“Just kidding”). None of them believed texting abbreviations were acceptable in for- mal writing. In fact, research has found that most students report that they do not use textspeak in formal writing. As one Minnesota high school student says, “[T]here is a time and a place for everything,” and formal writing is not the place for communicating the way she would if she were texting her friends (qtd. in Walsh). Another student admits that in writing for school she sometimes finds herself using these abbrevia- tions. However, she notices and corrects them before handing in her final paper (Carey). One teacher reports that, despite texting, her students’ “formal writing remains solid.” She occa- sionally sees an abbreviation; however, it is in informal, “warm- up” writing. She believes that what students choose to use in

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 368 11/8/14 3:36 PM

Does Texting Affect Writing?

3 6 9


everyday types of writing is up to them as long as they use standard English in formal writing (qtd. in Walsh). Also supporting my own research findings are those from a study which took place at a midwestern research university. This study involved eighty-six students who were taking an Intro- duction to Education course at the university. The participants were asked to complete a questionnaire that included questions about their texting habits, the spelling instruction they had received, and their proficiency at spelling. They also took a standardized spelling test. Before starting the study, the research- ers had hypothesized that texting and the use of abbreviations would have a negative impact on the spelling abilities of the students. However, they found that the results did not support their hypothesis. The researchers did note that text messaging is continuing to increase in popularity; therefore, this issue should continue to be examined (Shaw et al.). I myself am a frequent texter. I chat with my friends from home every day through texting. I also use texting to commu- nicate with my school friends, perhaps to discuss what time we are going to meet for dinner or to ask quick questions about homework. According to my cell phone bill, I send and receive around 6,400 texts a month. In the messages I send, I rarely notice myself using abbreviations. The only time I use them is if I do not have time to write out the complete phrase. However, sometimes I find it more time-consuming to try to figure out how to abbreviate something so that my message will still be comprehensible. Since I rarely use abbreviations in my texting, I never use them in my formal writing. I know that they are unacceptable and that it would make me look unintelligent if I included acronyms and symbols instead of proper and formal language. I also have not noticed an effect on my spelling as a result

08_GRA_61744_Readings_296_415.indd 36908_GRA_61744_Readings_296_415.indd 369 22/08/16 4:57 PM22/08/16 4:57 PM


3 7 0

of texting. I am confident in my spelling abilities, and even when I use an abbreviation, I know how to spell the word(s) it stands for. On the basis of my own research, expert research, and per- sonal observations, I can confidently state that texting is not interfering with students’ use of standard written English and has no effect on their writing abilities in general. It is inter- esting to look at the dynamics of the arguments over these issues. Teachers and parents who claim that they are seeing a decline in the writing abilities of their students and children mainly support the negative-impact argument. Other teachers and researchers suggest that texting provides a way for teens to practice writing in a casual setting and thus helps prepare them to write formally. Experts and students themselves, however, report that they see no effect, positive or negative. Anecdotal experiences should not overshadow the actual evidence.


1. All participants in the study have given permission for their responses to be published.

Works Cited

Baron, Dennis. A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution. Oxford UP, 2009.

Carey, Bridget. “The Rise of Text, Instant Messaging Vernacular Slips into Schoolwork.” Miami Herald, 6 Mar. 2007. Academic Search Elite, www Accessed 27 Oct. 2009.

Crystal, David. “Texting.” ELT Journal, vol. 62, no. 1, Jan. 2008, pp. 77–83. WilsonWeb, doi: 10.1093/elt/ccm080. Accessed 8 Nov. 2009.

. Txting: The Gr8 Db8. Oxford UP, 2008.

08_GRA_61744_Readings_296_415.indd 37008_GRA_61744_Readings_296_415.indd 370 09/09/16 1:43 PM09/09/16 1:43 PM

Does Texting Affect Writing?

3 7 1

Golden, Serena. Review of A Better Pencil, by Dennis Baron. Inside Higher Ed, 18 Sept. 2009, Accessed 9 Nov. 2009.

Shaw, Donita M., et al. “An Exploratory Investigation into the Relationship between Text Messaging and Spelling.” New England Reading Association Journal, vol. 43, no. 1, June 2007, pp. 57–62. EbscoHOST, connection relationship-between-text-messaging-spelling. Accessed 8 Nov. 2009.

“Should We Worry or LOL?” NEA Today, vol. 22, no. 6, Mar. 2004, p. 12. EbscoHOST, worry-lol. Accessed 27 Oct. 2009.

Sternberg, Betty, et al. “Enhancing Adolescent Literacy Achievement through Integration of Technology in the Classroom.” Reading Research Quarterly, vol. 42, no. 3, July–Sept. 2007, pp. 416–20. ERIC, Accessed 8 Nov. 2009.

“Texting, Testing Destroys Kids’ Writing Style.” USA Today, vol. 137, no. 2760, Sept. 2008, p. 8. EbscoHOST, articles/34214935/texting-testing-destroys-kids-writing-style. Accessed 9 Nov. 2009.

Walsh, James. “Txt Msgs Creep in2 class—Some Say That’s gr8.” Star Tribune, 23 Oct. 2007. Academic Search Elite, academic/academic-search-elite. Accessed 27 Oct. 2009.

Joining the Conversation

1. Michaela Cullington makes clear in her first paragraph what viewpoint she’s responding to. What is this view (her “they say”), and what is her view (her “I say”)? What kinds of evidence does she offer in support of her argument?

2. Cullington acknowledges the views of quite a few naysayers, including teachers who believe that texting has a negative effect on their students’ writing. How—and where in her essay—does she respond to this criticism? Is her response persuasive—and if not, why not?

08_GRA_61744_Readings_296_415.indd 37108_GRA_61744_Readings_296_415.indd 371 09/09/16 1:44 PM09/09/16 1:44 PM


3 7 2

4. Cullington focuses on how texting affects on writing, whereas Sherry Turkle is concerned with the way it affects communication more broadly (pp. 373−92). How do you think Cullington would respond to Turkle’s concerns?

5. Cullington “send[s] and receive[s] around 6,400 texts a month” (paragraph 21). About how many do you send and receive? Write a paragraph reflecting on how your texting affects your other writing. First write it as a text, and then revise it to meet the standards of academic writing. How do the two differ?

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 372 11/19/14 4:54 PM

3 7 3

No Need to Call



“So many people hate the telephone,” says Elaine, seventeen. Among her friends at Roosevelt High School, “it’s all texting and messaging.” She herself writes each of her six closest friends roughly twenty texts a day. In addition, she says, “there are about forty instant messages out, forty in, when I’m at home on the computer.” Elaine has strong ideas about how electronic media “levels the playing field” between people like her—outgoing, on the soccer team, and in drama club—and the shy: “It’s only on the screen that shy people open up.” She explains why: “When you can think about what you’re going to say, you can talk to someone you’d have trouble talking to. And it doesn’t seem weird that you pause for two minutes to

Sherry Turkle teaches in the program in science, technology, and society at MIT and directs the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self. She has been described as the “Margaret Mead of digital culture.” Her books include Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (2011), Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet (1995), and The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit (1984). This essay is from Alone Together.

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 373 11/8/14 3:36 PM


3 7 4

think about what you’re going to say before you say it, like it would be if you were actually talking to someone.” Elaine gets specific about the technical designs that help shy people express themselves in electronic messaging. The person to whom you are writing shouldn’t be able to see your process of revision or how long you have been working on the message. “That could be humiliating.” The best communica- tion programs shield the writer from the view of the reader. The advantage of screen communication is that it is a place to reflect, retype, and edit. “It is a place to hide,” says Elaine. The notion that hiding makes it easier to open up is not new. In the psychoanalytic tradition, it inspired technique. Classical analysis shielded the patient from the analyst’s gaze in order to facilitate free association, the golden rule of saying whatever comes to mind. Likewise, at a screen, you feel protected and less burdened by expectations. And, although you are alone, the potential for almost instantaneous contact gives an encourag- ing feeling of already being together. In this curious relational space, even sophisticated users who know that electronic com- munications can be saved, shared, and show up in court, suc- cumb to its illusion of privacy. Alone with your thoughts, yet in contact with an almost tangible fantasy of the other, you feel free to play. At the screen, you have a chance to write yourself into the person you want to be and to imagine others as you wish them to be, constructing them for your purposes.1 It is a seductive but dangerous habit of mind. When you cultivate this sensibility, a telephone call can seem fearsome because it reveals too much. Elaine is right in her analysis: teenagers flee the telephone. Perhaps more surprisingly, so do adults. They claim exhaustion and lack of time; always on call, with their time highly lever- aged through multitasking, they avoid voice communication

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 374 11/8/14 3:36 PM

No Need to Call

3 7 5


outside of a small circle because it demands their full attention when they don’t want to give it. Technologies live in complex ecologies. The meaning of any one depends on what others are available. The telephone was once a way to touch base or ask a simple question. But once you have access to e-mail, instant messaging, and texting, things change. Although we still use the phone to keep up with those closest to us, we use it less outside this circle.2 Not only do people say that a phone call asks too much, they worry it will be received as demanding too much. Randolph, a forty-six-year-old architect with two jobs, two young children, and a twelve-year- old son from a former marriage, makes both points. He avoids the telephone because he feels “tapped out. . . . It promises more than I’m willing to deliver.” If he keeps his communications to text and e-mail, he believes he can “keep it together.” He explains, “Now that there is e-mail, people expect that a call will be more complicated. Not about facts. A fuller thing. People expect it to take time—or else you wouldn’t have called.” Tara, a fifty-five-year-old lawyer who juggles children, a job, and a new marriage, makes a similar point: “When you ask for a call, the expectation is that you have pumped it up a level. People say to themselves: ‘It’s urgent or she would have sent an e-mail.’” So Tara avoids the telephone. She wants to meet with friends in person; e-mail is for setting up these meetings. “That is what is most efficient,” she says. But efficiency has its downside. Business meetings have agendas, but friends have unscheduled needs. In friendship, things can’t always wait. Tara knows this; she feels guilty and she experiences a loss: “I’m at the point where I’m processing my friends as though they were items of inventory . . . or clients.” Leonora, fifty-seven, a professor of chemistry, reflects on her similar practice: “I use e-mail to make appointments to

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 375 11/8/14 3:36 PM


3 7 6

see friends, but I’m so busy that I’m often making an appoint- ment one or two months in the future. After we set things up by e-mail, we do not call. Really. I don’t call. They don’t call. They feel that they have their appointment. What do I feel? I feel I have ‘taken care of that person.’” Leonora’s pained tone makes it clear that by “taken care of ” she means that she has crossed someone off a to-do list. Tara and Leonora are discontent but do not feel they have a choice. This is where technology has brought them. They subscribe to a new etiquette, claiming the need for efficiency in a realm where efficiency is costly.

Audrey: A Life on the Screen

. . . Audrey, sixteen, a Roosevelt junior[,] talked about her Facebook profile as “the avatar of me.” She’s one of Elaine’s shy friends who prefers texting to talking. She is never without her phone, sometimes using it to text even as she instant-messages at an open computer screen. Audrey feels lonely in her fam- ily. She has an older brother in medical school and a second, younger brother, just two years old. Her parents are divorced, and she lives half time with each of them. Their homes are about a forty-five-minute drive apart. This means that Audrey spends a lot of time on the road. “On the road,” she says. “That’s daily life.” She sees her phone as the glue that ties her life together. Her mother calls her to pass on a message to her father. Her father does the same. Audrey says, “They call me to say, ‘Tell your mom this. . . . Make sure your dad knows that.’ I use the cell to pull it together.” Audrey sums up the situa- tion: “My parents use me and my cell like instant messenger. I am their IM.”

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 376 11/8/14 3:36 PM

No Need to Call

3 7 7


Like so many other children who tell me similar stories, Audrey complains of her mother’s inattention when she picks her up at school or after sports practice. At these times, Audrey says, her mother is usually focused on her cell phone, either texting or talking to her friends. Audrey describes the scene: she comes out of the gym exhausted, carrying heavy gear. Her mother sits in her beaten-up SUV, immersed in her cell, and doesn’t even look up until Audrey opens the car door. Some- times her mother will make eye contact but remain engrossed with the phone as they begin the drive home. Audrey says, “It gets between us, but it’s hopeless. She’s not going to give it up. Like, it could have been four days since I last spoke to her, then I sit in the car and wait in silence until she’s done.”3

Audrey has a fantasy of her mother, waiting for her, expect- ant, without a phone. But Audrey is resigned that this is not to be and feels she must temper her criticism of her mother because of her own habit of texting when she is with her friends. Audrey does everything she can to avoid a call.4 “The phone, it’s awkward. I don’t see the point. Too much just a recap and sharing feelings. With a text . . . I can answer on my own time. I can respond. I can ignore it. So it really works with my mood. I’m not bound to anything, no commitment. . . . I have control over the conversation and also more control over what I say.” Texting offers protection:

Nothing will get spat at you. You have time to think and prepare what you’re going to say, to make you appear like that’s just the way you are. There’s planning involved, so you can control how you’re portrayed to this person, because you’re choosing these words, editing it before you send it. . . . When you instant-message you can cross things out, edit what you say, block a person, or sign off. A phone conversation is a lot of pressure. You’re always expected

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 377 11/8/14 3:36 PM


3 7 8

to uphold it, to keep it going, and that’s too much pressure. . . . You have to just keep going . . . “Oh, how was your day?” You’re trying to think of something else to say real fast so the conversa- tion doesn’t die out.

Then Audrey makes up a new word. A text, she argues, is better than a call because in a call “there is a lot less bound- ness to the person.” By this she means that in a call, she could learn too much or say too much, and things could get “out of control.” A call has insufficient boundaries. She admits that “later in life I’m going to need to talk to people on the phone. But not now.” When texting, she feels at a reassuring distance. If things start to go in a direction she doesn’t like, she can eas- ily redirect the conversation—or cut it off: “In texting, you get your main points off; you can really control when you want the conversation to start and end. You say, ‘Got to go, bye.’ You

Teenagers plugged into their devices but not each other.

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 378 11/8/14 3:36 PM

No Need to Call

3 7 9


just do it . . . much better than the long drawn-out good-byes, when you have no real reason to leave, but you want to end the conversation.” This last is what Audrey likes least—the end of conversations. A phone call, she explains, requires the skill to end a conversation “when you have no real reason to leave. . . . It’s not like there is a reason. You just want to. I don’t know how to do that. I don’t want to learn.” Ending a call is hard for Audrey because she experiences separation as rejection; she projects onto others the pang of abandonment she feels when someone ends a conversation with her. Feeling unthreatened when someone wants to end a con- versation may seem a small thing, but it is not. It calls upon a sense of self-worth; one needs to be at a place where Audrey has not arrived. It is easier to avoid the phone; its beginnings and endings are too rough on her. Audrey is not alone in this. Among her friends, phone calls are infrequent, and she says, “Face-to-face conversations happen way less than they did before. It’s always, ‘Oh, talk to you online.”’ This means, she explains, that things happen online that “should happen in person. . . . Friendships get bro- ken. I’ve had someone ask me out in a text message. I’ve had someone break up with me online.’’ But Audrey is resigned to such costs and focuses on the bounties of online life. One of Audrey’s current enthusiasms is playing a more social, even flirtatious version of herself in online worlds. “I’d like to be more like I am online,” she says. As we’ve seen, for Audrey, building an online avatar is not so different from writ- ing a social-networking profile. An avatar, she explains, “is a Facebook profile come to life.” And avatars and profiles have a lot in common with the everyday experiences of texting and instant messaging. In all of these, as she sees it, the point is to do “a performance of you.”

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 379 11/8/14 3:36 PM


3 8 0

Making an avatar and texting. Pretty much the same. You’re cre- ating your own person; you don’t have to think of things on the spot really, which a lot of people can’t really do. You’re creating your own little ideal person and sending it out. Also on the Inter- net, with sites like MySpace and Facebook, you put up the things you like about yourself, and you’re not going to advertise the bad aspects of you. You’re not going to post pictures of how you look every day. You’re going to get your makeup on, put on your cute little outfit, you’re going to take your picture and post it up as your default, and that’s what people are going to expect that you are every day, when really you’re making it up for all these people. . . . You can write anything about yourself; these people don’t know. You can create who you want to be. You can say what kind of stereotype mold you want to fit in without . . . maybe in real life it won’t work for you, you can’t pull it off. But you can pull it off on the Internet.

Audrey has her cell phone and its camera with her all day; all day she takes pictures and posts them to Facebook. She boasts that she has far more Facebook photo albums than any of her friends. “I like to feel,” she says, “that my life is up there.” But, of course, what is up on Facebook is her edited life. Audrey is preoccupied about which photographs to post. Which put her in the best light? Which show her as a “bad” girl in potentially appealing ways? If identity play is the work of adolescence, Audrey is at work all day: “If Facebook were deleted, I’d be deleted. . . . All my memories would probably go along with it. And other people have posted pictures of me. All of that would be lost. If Facebook were undone, I might actually freak out. . . . That is where I am. It’s part of your life. It’s a second you.” It is at this point that Audrey says of a Facebook avatar: “It’s your little twin on the Internet.”

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 380 11/8/14 3:36 PM

No Need to Call

3 8 1

Since Audrey is constantly reshaping this “twin,” she won- ders what happens to the elements of her twin that she edits away. “What does Facebook do with pictures you put on and then take off?” She suspects that they stay on the Internet forever, an idea she finds both troubling and comforting. If everything is archived, Audrey worries that she will never be able to escape the Internet twin. That thought is not so nice. But if everything is archived, at least in fantasy, she will never have to give her up. That thought is kind of nice. On Facebook, Audrey works on the twin, and the twin works on her. She describes her relationship to the site as a “give-and-take.” Here’s how it works: Audrey tries out a “flirty” style. She receives a good response from Facebook friends, and so she ramps up the flirtatious tone. She tries out “an ironic, witty” tone in her wall posts. The response is not so good, and she retreats. Audrey uses the same kind of tinkering as she experiments with her avatars in virtual worlds. She builds a first version to “put something out there.” Then comes months of adjusting, of “seeing the new kinds of people I can hang with” by changing how she represents herself. Change your avatar, change your world.

. . .

Overwhelmed across the Generations

The teenagers I studied were born in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Many were introduced to the Internet through America Online when they were only a little past being toddlers. Their parents, however, came to online life as grown-ups. In this domain, they are a generation that, from the beginning, has been playing catch-up with their children. This pattern continues: the fastest-growing demographic on Facebook is adults from

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 381 11/8/14 3:36 PM


3 8 2


thirty-five to forty-four.5 Conventional wisdom stresses how different these adults are from their children—lay- ing out fundamental divides between those who migrated to digital worlds and those who are its “natives.” But the

migrants and natives share a lot: perhaps above all, the feeling of being overwhelmed. If teenagers, overwhelmed with demands for academic and sexual performance, have come to treat online life as a place to hide and draw some lines, then their parents, claiming exhaustion, strive to exert greater control over what reaches them. And the only way to filter effectively is to keep most communications online and text based. So, they are always on, always at work, and always on call. I remember the time, not many years ago, when I celebrated Thanksgiving with a friend and her son, a young lawyer, who had just been given a beeper by his firm. At the time, everyone at the table, including him, joked about the idea of his “legal emergencies.” By the following year, he couldn’t imagine not being in continual contact with the office. There was a time when only physicians had beepers, a “burden” shared in rota- tion. Now, we have all taken up the burden, reframed as an asset—or as just the way it is. We are on call for our families as well as our colleagues. On a morning hike in the Berkshires, I fall into step with Hope, forty-seven, a real estate broker from Manhattan. She carries her BlackBerry. Her husband, she says, will probably want to be in touch. And indeed, he calls at thirty-minute intervals. Hope admits, somewhat apologetically, that she is “not fond” of the calls, but she loves her husband, and this is what he needs. She answers her phone religiously until finally a call comes in with spotty reception. “We’re out of range, thank goodness,” she says, as she disables her phone. “I need a rest.”

“Conventional wisdom” is the

“standard view.” For more on

this move, see pp. 23−24.

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 382 11/8/14 3:36 PM

No Need to Call

3 8 3


Increasingly, people feel as though they must have a reason for taking time alone, a reason not to be available for calls. It is poignant that people’s thoughts turn to technology when they imagine ways to deal with stresses that they see as having been brought on by technology. They talk of filters and intelligent agents that will handle the messages they don’t want to see. Hope and Audrey, though thirty years apart in age, both see texting as the solution to the “problem” of the telephone. And both rede- fine “stress” in the same way—as pressure that happens in real time. With this in mind, my hiking partner explains that she is trying to “convert” her husband to texting. There will be more messages; he will be able to send more texts than he can place calls. But she will not have to deal with them “as they happen.” Mixed feelings about the drumbeat of electronic communi- cation do not suggest any lack of affection toward those with whom we are in touch. But a stream of messages makes it impos- sible to find moments of solitude, time when other people are showing us neither dependency nor affection. In solitude we don’t reject the world but have the space to think our own thoughts. But if your phone is always with you, seeking solitude can look suspiciously like hiding. We fill our days with ongoing connection, denying ourselves time to think and dream. Busy to the point of depletion, we make a new Faustian* bargain. It goes something like this: if we are left alone when we make contact, we can handle being together.

. . .

The barrier to making a call is so high that even when people have something important to share, they hold back. Tara, the lawyer who admits to “processing” her friends by dealing with

*Faustian Relating to Faust, a character of German folklore, and used to describe something or someone that is concerned only with present gain and not future consequences.

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 383 11/8/14 3:36 PM


3 8 4

them on e-mail, tells me a story about a friendship undermined. About four times a year, Tara has dinner with Alice, a classmate from law school. Recently, the two women exchanged multiple e-mails trying to set a date. Finally, after many false starts, they settled on a time and a restaurant. Alice did not come to the dinner with good news. Her sister had died. Though they lived thousands of miles apart, the sisters had spoken once a day. Without her sister, without these calls, Alice feels ungrounded. At dinner, when Alice told Tara about her sister’s death, Tara became upset, close to distraught. She and Alice had been e-mailing for months. Why hadn’t Alice told her about this? Alice explained that she had been taken up with her family, with arrangements. And she said, simply, “I didn’t think it was something to discuss over e-mail.” Herself in need of support, Alice ended up comforting Tara. As Tara tells me this story, she says that she was ashamed of her reaction. Her focus should have been—and should now be—on Alice’s loss, not on her own ranking as a confidant. But she feels defensive as well. She had, after all, “been in touch.’’ She’d e-mailed; she’d made sure that their dinner got arranged. Tara keeps coming back to the thought that if she and Alice had spoken on the telephone to set up their dinner date, she would have learned about her friend’s loss. She says, “I would have heard something in her voice. I would have suspected. I could have drawn her out.” But for Tara, as for so many, the telephone call is for family. For friends, even dear friends, it is close to being off the menu. Tara avoids the voice but knows she has lost something. For the young, this is less clear. I talk with Meredith, a junior at Silver Academy who several months before had learned of a friend’s death via instant message and had been glad that she didn’t have to see or speak to anyone. She says, “It was a day

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 384 11/8/14 3:36 PM

No Need to Call

3 8 5


off, so I was at home, and I hadn’t seen anyone who lives around me, and then my friend Rosie IM’ed me and told me my friend died. I was shocked and everything, but I was more okay than I would’ve been if I saw people. I went through the whole thing not seeing anyone and just talking to people online about it, and I was fine. I think it would’ve been much worse if they’d told me in person.” I ask Meredith to say more. She explains that when bad news came in an instant message, she was able to compose herself. It would have been “terrible,” she says, to have received a call. “I didn’t have to be upset in front of someone else.” Indeed, for a day after hearing the news, Meredith only communicated with friends by instant message. She describes the IMs as fre- quent but brief: “Just about the fact of it. Conversations like, ‘Oh, have you heard?’ ‘Yeah, I heard.’ And that’s it.” The IMs let her put her emotions at a distance. When she had to face other people at school, she could barely tolerate the rush of feeling: “The second I saw my friends, it got so much worse.” Karen and Beatrice, two of Meredith’s friends, tell similar sto- ries. Karen learned about the death of her best friend’s father in an instant message. She says, “It was easier to learn about it on the computer. It made it easier to hear. I could take it in pieces. I didn’t have to look all upset to anyone.” Beatrice reflects, “I don’t want to hear bad things, but if it is just texted to me, I can stay calm.” These young women prefer to deal with strong feelings from the safe haven of the Net. It gives them an alternative to pro- cessing emotions in real time. Under stress, they seek compo- sure above all. But they do not find equanimity. When they meet and lose composure, they find a new way to flee: often they take their phones out to text each other and friends not in the room. I see a vulnerability in this generation, so quick

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 385 11/8/14 3:36 PM


3 8 6

to say, “Please don’t call.” They keep themselves at a distance from their feelings. They keep themselves from people who could help.


When I first read how it is through our faces that we call each other up as human beings, I remember thinking I have always felt that way about the human voice. But like many of those I study, I have been complicit with technology in removing many voices from my life. I had plans for dinner with a colleague, Joyce. On the day before we were to meet, my daughter got admitted to college. I e-mailed Joyce that we would have much to celebrate. She e-mailed back a note of congratulations. She had been through the college admissions process with her children and under- stood my relief. At dinner, Joyce said that she had thought of calling to congratulate me, but a call had seemed “intrusive.” I admitted that I hadn’t called her to share my good news for the same reason. Joyce and I both felt constrained by a new etiquette but were also content to follow it. “I feel more in control of my time if I’m not disturbed by calls,” Joyce admit- ted. Both Joyce and I have gained something we are not happy about wanting. License to feel together when alone, comforted by e-mails, excused from having to attend to people in real time. We did not set out to avoid the voice but end up denying ourselves its pleasures. For the voice can be experienced only in real time, and both of us are so busy that we don’t feel we have it to spare. Apple’s visual voicemail for the iPhone was welcomed because it saves you the trouble of having to listen to a message

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 386 11/8/14 3:36 PM

No Need to Call

3 8 7


to know who sent it. And now there are applications that auto- matically transcribe voicemail into text. I interview Maureen, a college freshman, who is thrilled to have discovered one of these programs. She says that only her parents send her voice- mail: “I love my parents, but they don’t know how to use the phone. It’s not the place to leave long voice messages. Too long to listen to. Now, I can scroll through the voicemail as text messages. Great.” Here, in the domain of connectivity, we meet the narra- tive of better than nothing becoming simply better. People have long wanted to connect with those at a distance. We sent letters, then telegrams, and then the telephone gave us a way to hear their voices. All of these were better than noth- ing when you couldn’t meet face-to-face. Then, short of time, people began to use the phone instead of getting together. By the 1970s, when I first noticed that I was living in a new regime of connectivity, you were never really “away” from your phone because answering machines made you responsible for any call that came in. Then, this machine, originally designed as a way to leave a message if someone was not at home, became a screening device, our end-of-millennium Victorian calling card. Over time, voicemail became an end in itself, not the result of a frustrated telephone call. People began to call purposely when they knew that no one would be home. People learned to let the phone ring and “let the voicemail pick it up.” In a next step, the voice was taken out of voicemail because communicating with text is faster. E-mail gives you more con- trol over your time and emotional exposure. But then, it, too, was not fast enough. With mobile connectivity (think text and Twitter), we can communicate our lives pretty much at the rate we live them. But the system backfires. We express ourselves in staccato texts, but we send out a lot and often to

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 387 11/8/14 3:36 PM


3 8 8

large groups. So we get even more back—so many that the idea of communicating with anything but texts seems too exhaust- ing. Shakespeare might have said, we are “consumed with that which we are nourished by.”6

I sketched out this narrative to a friend for whom it rang true as a description but seemed incredible all the same. A professor of poetry and a voracious reader, she said, “We cannot all write like Lincoln or Shakespeare, but even the least gifted among of us has this incredible instrument, our voice, to communicate the range of human emotion. Why would we deprive ourselves of that?” The beginning of an answer has become clear: in text mes- saging and e-mail, you hide as much as you show. You can present yourself as you wish to be “seen.” And you can “process” people as quickly as you want to. Listening can only slow you down. A voice recording can be sped up a bit, but it has to unfold in real time. Better to have it transcribed or avoid it altogether. We work so hard to give expressive voices to our robots but are content not to use our own. Like the letters they replace, e-mail, messaging, texting, and, more recently, Tweeting carry a trace of the voice. When Tara regretted that she had not called her friend Alice—on the phone she would have heard her friend’s grief—she expressed the point of view of someone who grew up with the voice and is sorry to have lost touch with it. Hers is a story of trying to rebalance things in a traditional framework. Trey, her law partner, confronts something different, something he cannot rebalance.

My brother found out that his wife is pregnant and he put it on his blog. He didn’t call me first. I called him when I saw the blog entry. I was mad at him. He didn’t see why I was making a big

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 388 11/8/14 3:36 PM

No Need to Call

3 8 9


deal. He writes his blog every day, as things happen, that’s how he lives. So when they got home from the doctor—bam, right onto the blog. Actually, he said it was part of how he celebrated the news with his wife—to put it on the blog together with a picture of him raising a glass of champagne and she raising a glass of orange juice. Their idea was to celebrate on the blog, almost in real time, with the photos and everything. When I complained they made me feel like such a girl. Do you think I’m old-school?7

Trey’s story is very different from Tara’s. Trey’s brother was not trying to save time by avoiding the telephone. His brother did not avoid or forget him or show preference to other family members. Blogging is part of his brother’s intimate life. It is how he and his wife celebrated the most important milestone in their life as a family. In a very different example of our new genres of online intimacy, a friend of mine underwent a stem cell transplant. I felt honored when invited to join her family’s blog. It is set up as a news feed that appears on my computer desktop. Every day, and often several times a day, the family posts medical reports, poems, reflections, and photographs. There are messages from the patient, her hus- band, her children, and her brother, who donated his stem cells. There is progress and there are setbacks. On the blog, one can follow this family as it lives, suffers, and rejoices for a year of treatment. Inhibitions lift. Family members tell stories that would be harder to share face-to-face. I read every post. I send e-mails. But the presence of the blog changes something in my behavior. I am grateful for every piece of information but feel strangely shy about calling. Would it be an intrusion? I think of Trey. Like him, I am trying to get my bearings in a world where the Net has become a place of intimate enclosure.

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 389 11/8/14 3:36 PM


3 9 0


1. In the object relations tradition of psychoanalysis, an object is that which one relates to. Usually, objects are people, especially a significant person who is the object or target of another’s feelings or intentions. A whole object is a person in his or her entirety. It is common in development for people to internalize part objects, representations of others that are not the whole person. Online life provides an environment that makes it easier for people to relate to part objects. This puts relationships at risk. On object relations theory, see, for example, Stephen A. Mitchell and Margaret J. Black, Freud and Beyond: A History of Modern Psychoanalytic Thought (New York: Basic Books, 1995).

2. See Stefana Broadbent, “How the Internet Enables Intimacy,”, html (accessed August 8, 2010). According to Broadbent, 80 percent of calls on cell phones are made to four people, 80 percent of Skype calls are made to two people, and most Facebook exchanges are with four to six people.

3. This mother is being destructive to her relationship with her daughter. Research shows that people use the phone in ways that surely undermine rela- tionships with adult partners as well. In one striking finding, according to Dan Schulman, CEO of cell operator Virgin Mobile, one in five people will interrupt sex to answer their phone. David Kirkpatrick, “Do You Answer Your Cellphone During Sex?” Fortune, August 28, 2006, technology/fastforward_kirpatrick.fortune/index.htm (accessed November 11, 2009).

4. See Amanda Lenhart et al., “Teens and Mobile Phones,” The Pew Foundation, April 20, 2010, Mobile-Phones.aspx?r=i (accessed August 10, 2010).

5. “Number of US Facebook Users over 35 Nearly Doubles in Last 60 Days,” Inside Facebook, March 25, 2009, www.insidefacebookcom/2009/03/25/ number-of-us-facebook-users-over-35-nearly-doubles-in-last-60-days (accessed October 19, 2009).

6. This paraphrases a line from Sonnet 73: “Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by . . .”

7. The author of a recent blog post titled “I Hate the Phone” would not call Trey old-school, but nor would she want to call him. Anna-Jane Grossman admits to growing up loving her pink princess phone, answering machine, and long, drawn-out conversations with friends she had just seen at school. Now she

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 390 11/8/14 3:36 PM

No Need to Call

3 9 1

hates the phone: “I feel an inexplicable kind of dread when I hear a phone ring, even when the caller ID displays the number of someone I like. . . . My dislike for the phone probably first started to grow when I began using Instant Mes- senger. Perhaps phone-talking is a skill that one has to practice, and the more IMing I’ve done, the more my skills have dwindled to the level of a modern day 13-year-old who never has touched a landline. . . . I don’t even listen to my [phone] messages any more: They get transcribed automatically and then are sent to me via e-mail or text.” The author was introduced to Skype and sees its virtues; she also sees the ways in which it undermines conversation: “It occurs to me that if there’s one thing that’ll become obsolete because of video-chatting, it’s not phones: it’s natural flowing conversations with people far away.” See Grossman, “I Hate the Phone.”

In my experience with Skype, pauses seem long and awkward, and it is an effort not to look bored. Peggy Ornstein makes this point in “The Over- extended Family,” New York Times Magazine, June 25, 2009, ww.nytimes. com/2009/06/28/magazine/28fob-wwln-t.html (accessed October 17, 2009). Ornstein characterizes Skype as providing “too much information,” something that derails intimacy: “Suddenly I understood why slumber-party confessions always came after lights were out, why children tend to admit the juicy stuff to the back of your head while you’re driving, why psychoanalysts stay out of a patient’s sightline.”

Joining the Conversation

1. Sherry Turkle was once optimistic about the potential for technology to improve human lives but now takes a more complex view. What does she mean here by the title, “No Need to Call”? What pitfalls does she see in our increasing reluctance to talk on the phone or face-to-face?

2. This reading consists mainly of stories about how people communicate on social media, on the phone, and face-to- face. Summarize the story about Audrey (pp. 376−81) in one paragraph.

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 391 11/8/14 3:36 PM


3 9 2

3. According to Turkle, we “hide as much as [we] show” in text messages and email, presenting ourselves “as [we] wish to be ‘seen’” (paragraph 38). Is this so different from what we do in most of our writing? How do you present yourself in your academic writing, and how does that presentation differ from what you do in text messages or email?

4. Is digital communication good or bad—or both? Read Chapter 13, which summarizes both sides of that discus- sion. Which side (or sides) do you come down on? Where do you think Turkle stands?

5. Turkle says she sees “a vulnerability” in those who prefer social media to phone calls or face-to-face communication: “I see a vulnerability in this generation, so quick to say, ‘Please don’t call’” (paragraph 30). Write an essay about your own views on communicating with social media, draw- ing upon this and other readings in the chapter for ideas to consider, to question, and to support your view.

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 392 11/8/14 3:36 PM

3 9 3

I Had a Nice Time with You Tonight. On the App.



Last Sunday, I spent a lazy afternoon with my boyfriend. We chatted while I made brunch, discussed the books we were reading, laughed at some cat pictures and then settled down with dinner, before bidding each other good night. We did all of this despite living more than 3,000 miles apart, thanks to smartphone applications and services that helped to collapse time and space. Video chat apps like Google Hangouts, FaceTime and Skype, of course, already make it possible to see and talk to one another in real time. But those formats can be awkward and require both parties to coordinate a time to talk and find someplace quiet with a decent Internet connection—a challenge with busy schedules in different time zones. I prefer to use applications that already figure into my daily routine, like Google’s instant-messaging application, Gchat, as

Jenna Wortham writes about technology for the New York Times. Her work also has appeared in Bust magazine, Vogue, and Wired, and she is a cofounder of the zine Girl Crush. Her Twitter handle is @jennydeluxe. This column first appeared in the New York Times on April 6, 2014.

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 393 11/8/14 3:36 PM


3 9 4


well as Facebook Messenger, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat. This way, we can talk about travel plans while I’m waiting for the train or talk about what he’s making for dinner while I’m at work. I’ve found that all of my conversational habits have matured beyond the static phone dates of yore. We are now in constant and continuous communication with our friends, co-workers and family over the course of a day. These interactions can help us feel physically close, even if they happen through a screen. And because this kind of communication is less formal than a phone call or an email, it feels more like the kind of casual conversation you might have over a meal or while watching television together. These conversations can also be infused with a lot more fun than a regular text message, because they often include cutesy features that let you add digital doodles to video messages, or send virtual kisses or cartoon characters. The downside is that it can be hard to juggle all the various ways to communicate. But a modern kind of application, includ- ing one that we were experimenting with on that lazy Sunday, combines all those interactions—and is designed with couples in mind. This focus on couples is relatively new. The online and mobile dating industry has built many tools and services for single people who are looking for romantic partners and new friends. They’ve evolved from websites like and OKCupid to mobile apps like Tinder that let people swipe through potential dates and select the ones that pique their interest. But in recent months, several entrepreneurs have been shift- ing their attention to people after they meet a mate. “Tech entrepreneurs, long obsessed with making apps to help you find a relationship, have now begun trying to solve the problem of staying happy in one,” wrote Ann Friedman on The Cut, a blog of New York magazine. Ms. Friedman points to

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 394 11/8/14 3:36 PM

I Had a Nice Time with You Tonight. On the App.

3 9 5


apps like Avocado, Couple and Bet ween as smartphone apps that “keep you close with your partner through the power of a smartphone alone.” The application that my boyfriend and I were using, called You & Me, is scheduled for public release in early May. It was created by the founders of the online dating site HowAboutWe, which initially built its business around people proposing dates— as in, “How about we go to a trivia night?”—as a means for finding matches. The original HowAboutWe dating service was started in 2010 and has attracted two million users to date. But it had a business-model problem, said Aaron Schildkrout, one of the founders of HowAboutWe. The site lost users—and potential customers—once they were in a relationship. “The couples market is huge,” he said. He and his business partner were getting feedback from “couples who had met on the service but couldn’t use it anymore” and decided to build an application “to facilitate communication and interaction.” The new You & Me application lets two people send pho- tographs and voice messages and play a selfie-exchanging game called “Halfsie.” I tested an early version for a few weeks. When I described it to others, they often furrowed their brows and asked me whether people really needed yet another application to talk to people they are closest to. Sherry Turkle, the author of Alone Together, says she believes that using an application in place of real-world, face-to-face interactions is having a detrimental effect on how we prioritize offline communication and, potentially, on our ability to inter- act even when we aren’t relying on technology as a mediator. “We’ve given ourselves something so gratifying that we can forget other ways we can communicate,” she said. “What starts out being better than nothing becomes better than anything.”

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 395 11/8/14 3:36 PM


3 9 6

15 Ms. Turkle, who is researching the impact of technol- ogy on communication, said technology-saturated types could “forget what a face-to-face interaction can do.” She says she is not opposed to messaging applications,

but she cautions that their most frequent users should be aware of the potential impact. In my experience, however, I’ve found the opposite to be true, especially as more and more of my daily interactions with friends, colleagues and family happen through a screen. If any- thing, the pervasiveness of technology in my life has heightened my desire for actual one-on-one meetings. Anyone who spends much time online and on a smartphone knows that it’s no substitute for the real thing—it’s just an appe- tizer that can delight and satisfy until the main course arrives. But that satisfaction is real. Although I am using a vast array of apps to deal with a real challenge—trying to date someone who lives on a different continent—they still hold their appeal when that distance is erased. Even when we’re both in the same city for an extended time, we still use them, albeit to a lesser degree and not to the detriment of spending actual time together. In many cases, adding the Internet to the mix can strengthen a relationship over all, because online interactions have their own kind of entertaining rapport that can coexist with their offline counterparts. In her blog post, Ms. Friedman pointed to a February study from the Pew Research Center’s Internet Research project that surveyed 2,252 adults about their digital habits in relationships. Seventy-four percent of the couples surveyed reported that the Internet had had a positive impact on their relationship. In addition, 41 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds in serious relation- ships said they felt closer to their partner because of online or text-message conversations.

See Chapter 2 for

ways to blend the author’s words with your own.

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 396 11/8/14 3:36 PM

I Had a Nice Time with You Tonight. On the App.

3 9 7

20 Mr. Schildkrout, at You & Me, hopes to appeal to people who want to build their relationships through the screen as well as beyond it. Although the couples app will be free, he says, the company may eventually add features that let their users ask each other out on prepackaged evenings or events sold through the application. “At the end of the day,” Mr. Schildkrout said, “technology is where some of the most beautiful interactions happen and deepen.” The jury is still out on whether You & Me will replace the swath of services we already use, but for what it’s worth, I think that Mr. Schildkrout is right. I’ve had some of my most emo- tionally intimate and honest conversations with friends and romantic partners on mobile devices. And while virtual chats and hugs will never be the same as their real-world counterparts, they can come awfully close in a pinch.

“I Had a Nice Time with You Tonight. On the App,” by Jenna Wortham. From The New York Times, April 6, 2014. © 2014 The New York Times. All rights reserved. Used by permission and protected by the Copyright Laws of the United States. The printing, copying, redistribution, or retransmission of this Content without express written permission is prohibited.

Joining the Conversation

1. How would you summarize Jenna Wortham’s attitude about using apps to communicate with her boyfriend and others? What benefits does she see, and what limitations?

2. Wortham begins her piece with a short narrative about “a lazy afternoon” with her boyfriend. Why is this an effective way to begin this essay? How else might the piece have begun?

3. So what? Who cares? Where in this piece does Wortham explain why her argument matters? Has she persuaded you— and if not, why not?

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 397 11/8/14 3:36 PM


3 9 8

4. Sherry Turkle writes (pp. 373−92) that young women often “prefer to deal with strong feelings from the safe haven of the Net” and that doing so provides “an alternative to processing emotions in real time.” What do you think Wortham would say to that?

5. What if Romeo and Juliet had to communicate using only an app? What about Samson and Delilah? Or Roosevelt and Churchill? How would the technology have affected their conversations? Write an essay developing your own argu- ment about the larger effects of digital media, citing your experiences as well as ideas from readings in this chapter.

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 398 11/8/14 3:36 PM

3 9 9

Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted



At four-thirty in the afternoon on Monday, February 1, 1960, four college students sat down at the lunch counter at the Woolworth’s in downtown Greensboro, North Carolina. They were freshmen at North Carolina A. & T., a black college a mile or so away. “I’d like a cup of coffee, please,” one of the four, Ezell Blair, said to the waitress. “We don’t serve Negroes here,” she replied. The Woolworth’s lunch counter was a long L-shaped bar that could seat sixty-six people, with a standup snack bar at one end. The seats were for whites. The snack bar was for blacks. Another employee, a black woman who worked at the steam

Malcolm Gladwell writes for the New Yorker and was named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in 2005. His best-selling books include The Tipping Point: How Little Things Make a Big Differ- ence (2000), Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking (2005), Outliers: The Story of Success (2008), and David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling (2013). This essay first appeared in the New Yorker on October 14, 2010.

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 399 11/8/14 3:36 PM


4 0 0


table, approached the students and tried to warn them away. “You’re acting stupid, ignorant!” she said. They didn’t move. Around five-thirty, the front doors to the store were locked. The four still didn’t move. Finally, they left by a side door. Outside, a small crowd had gathered, including a photographer from the Greensboro Record. “I’ll be back tomorrow with A. & T. College,” one of the students said. By next morning, the protest had grown to twenty-seven men and four women, most from the same dormitory as the orig- inal four. The men were dressed in suits and ties. The students had brought their schoolwork, and studied as they sat at the counter. On Wednesday, students from Greensboro’s “Negro” secondary school, Dudley High, joined in, and the number of protesters swelled to eighty. By Thursday, the protesters num- bered three hundred, including three white women, from the Greensboro campus of the University of North Carolina. By Saturday, the sit-in had reached six hundred. People spilled out onto the street. White teenagers waved Confederate flags. Someone threw a firecracker. At noon, the A. & T. football team arrived. “Here comes the wrecking crew,” one of the white students shouted. By the following Monday, sit-ins had spread to Winston- Salem, twenty-five miles away, and Durham, fifty miles away. The day after that, students at Fayetteville State Teachers Col- lege and at Johnson C. Smith College, in Charlotte, joined in, followed on Wednesday by students at St. Augustine’s College and Shaw University, in Raleigh. On Thursday and Friday, the protest crossed state lines, surfacing in Hampton and Portsmouth, Virginia, in Rock Hill, South Carolina, and in Chattanooga, Tennessee. By the end of the month, there were sit-ins throughout the South, as far west as Texas. “I asked every student I met what the first day of the sitdowns had

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 400 11/8/14 3:36 PM

Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted

4 0 1

been like on his campus,” the political theorist Michael Walzer wrote in Dissent. “The answer was always the same: ‘It was like a fever. Everyone wanted to go.’ ’’ Some seventy thousand students eventually took part. Thousands were arrested and untold thousands more radicalized. These events in the early sixties became a civil-rights war that engulfed the South for the rest of the decade—and it happened without e-mail, texting, Facebook, or Twitter.

The world, we are told, is in the midst of a revolution. The new tools of social media have reinvented social activism. With Facebook and Twitter and the like, the traditional relationship between political authority and popular will has been upended, making it easier for the powerless to collaborate, coordinate, and give voice to their concerns. When ten thousand protest- ers took to the streets in Moldova in the spring of 2009 to protest against their country’s Communist government, the action was dubbed the Twitter Revolution, because of the means by which the demonstrators had been brought together. A few months after that, when student protests rocked Tehran, the State Department took the unusual step of asking Twitter to suspend scheduled maintenance of its Web site, because the Administration didn’t want such a critical organizing tool out of service at the height of the demonstrations. “Without Twitter the people of Iran would not have felt empowered and confident to stand up for free- dom and democracy,” Mark Pfeifle, a former national-security adviser, later wrote, calling for Twitter to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Where activists were once defined by their causes, they are now defined by their tools. Facebook warriors go online to push for change. “You are the best hope for us all,” James K. Glassman, a former senior State Department official,

See Chapter 3 for tips on incorporating quotations.

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 401 11/8/14 3:36 PM


4 0 2

Social media can’t provide what social change has always required.

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 402 11/8/14 3:36 PM

Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted

4 0 3

told a crowd of cyber activists at a recent conference sponsored by Facebook, A.T.&T., Howcast, MTV, and Google. Sites like Facebook, Glassman said, “give the U.S. a significant competi- tive advantage over terrorists. Some time ago, I said that Al Qaeda was ‘eating our lunch on the Internet.’ That is no longer the case. Al Qaeda is stuck in Web 1.0. The Internet is now about interactivity and conversation.” These are strong, and puzzling, claims. Why does it matter who is eating whose lunch on the Internet? Are people who log on to their Facebook page really the best hope for us all? As for Moldova’s so-called Twitter Revolution, Evgeny Morozov, a scholar at Stanford who has been the most persistent of digital evangelism’s critics, points out that Twitter had scant inter- nal significance in Moldova, a country where very few Twitter accounts exist. Nor does it seem to have been a revolution, not least because the protests—as Anne Applebaum suggested in the Washington Post—may well have been a bit of stagecraft cooked up by the government. (In a country paranoid about Romanian revanchism, the protesters flew a Romanian flag over the Parliament building.) In the Iranian case, meanwhile, the people tweeting about the demonstrations were almost all in the West. “It is time to get Twitter’s role in the events in Iran right,” Golnaz Esfandiari wrote, this past summer, in Foreign Policy. “Simply put: There was no Twitter Revolution inside Iran.” The cadre of prominent bloggers, like Andrew Sullivan, who championed the role of social media in Iran, Esfandiari continued, misunderstood the situation. “Western journalists who couldn’t reach—or didn’t bother reaching?—people on the ground in Iran simply scrolled through the English-language tweets post with tag #iranelection,” she wrote. “Through it all, no one seemed to wonder why people trying to coordinate pro- tests in Iran would be writing in any language other than Farsi.”

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 403 11/8/14 3:36 PM


4 0 4


Some of this grandiosity is to be expected. Innovators tend to be solipsists. They often want to cram every stray fact and expe- rience into their new model. As the historian Robert Darnton has written, “The marvels of communication technology in the present have produced a false consciousness about the past— even a sense that communication has no history, or had noth- ing of importance to consider before the days of television and the Internet.” But there is something else at work here, in the outsized enthusiasm for social media. Fifty years after one of the most extraordinary episodes of social upheaval in American history, we seem to have forgotten what activism is.

Greensboro in the early nineteen-sixties was the kind of place where racial insubordination was routinely met with violence. The four students who first sat down at the lunch counter were terrified. “I suppose if anyone had come up behind me and yelled ‘Boo,’ I think I would have fallen off my seat,” one of them said later. On the first day, the store manager notified the police chief, who immediately sent two officers to the store. On the third day, a gang of white toughs showed up at the lunch counter and stood ostentatiously behind the protesters, ominously muttering epithets such as “burr-head nigger.” A local Ku Klux Klan leader made an appearance. On Saturday, as tensions grew, someone called in a bomb threat, and the entire store had to be evacuated. The dangers were even clearer in the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project of 1964, another of the sentinel campaigns of the civil-rights movement. The Student Nonviolent Coordinat- ing Committee recruited hundreds of Northern, largely white unpaid volunteers to run Freedom Schools, register black vot- ers, and raise civil-rights awareness in the Deep South. “No one should go anywhere alone, but certainly not in an automobile and certainly not at night,” they were instructed. Within days of

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 404 11/8/14 3:36 PM

Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted

4 0 5

arriving in Mississippi, three volunteers—Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman—were kidnapped and killed, and during the rest of the summer, thirty-seven black churches were set on fire and dozens of safe houses were bombed; volunteers were beaten, shot at, arrested, and trailed by pickup trucks full of armed men. A quarter of those in the program dropped out. Activism that challenges the status quo—that attacks deeply rooted problems—is not for the faint of heart. What makes people capable of this kind of activism? The Stanford sociologist Doug McAdam compared the Freedom Summer dropouts with the participants who stayed, and dis- covered that the key difference wasn’t, as might be expected, ideological fervor. “All of the applicants—participants and withdrawals alike—emerge as highly committed, articulate supporters of the goals and values of the summer program,” he concluded. What mattered more was an applicant’s degree of personal connection to the civil-rights movement. All the volunteers were required to provide a list of personal contacts— the people they wanted kept apprised of their activities—and participants were far more likely than dropouts to have close friends who were also going to Mississippi. High-risk activism, McAdam concluded, is a “strong-tie” phenomenon. This pattern shows up again and again. One study of the Red Brigades, the Italian terrorist group of the nineteen- seventies, found that seventy per cent of recruits had at least one good friend already in the organization. The same is true of the men who joined the mujahideen in Afghanistan. Even revolutionary actions that look spontaneous, like the demon- strations in East Germany that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall, are, at core, strong-tie phenomena. The opposition movement in East Germany consisted of several hundred groups, each with roughly a dozen members. Each group was in limited contact

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 405 11/8/14 3:36 PM


4 0 6


with the others: at the time, only thirteen per cent of East Germans even had a phone. All they knew was that on Monday nights, outside St. Nicholas Church in downtown Leipzig, peo- ple gathered to voice their anger at the state. And the primary determinant of who showed up was “critical friends”—the more friends you had who were critical of the regime the more likely you were to join the protest. So one crucial fact about the four freshman at the Greensboro lunch counter—David Richmond, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair, and Joseph McNeil—was their relationship with one another. McNeil was a roommate of Blair’s in A. & T.’s Scott Hall dormi- tory. Richmond roomed with McCain one floor up, and Blair, Richmond, and McCain had all gone to Dudley High School. The four would smuggle beer into the dorm and talk late into the night in Blair and McNeil’s room. They would all have remem- bered the murder of Emmett Till in 1955, the Montgomery bus boycott that same year, and the showdown in Little Rock in 1957. It was McNeil who brought up the idea of a sit-in at Woolworth’s. They’d discussed it for nearly a month. Then McNeil came into the dorm room and asked the others if they were ready. There was a pause, and McCain said, in a way that works only with people who talk late into the night with one another, “Are you guys chicken or not?” Ezell Blair worked up the courage the next day to ask for a cup of coffee because he was flanked by his roommate and two good friends from high school.

The kind of activism associated with social media isn’t like this at all. The platforms of social media are built around weak ties. Twitter is a way of following (or being followed by) people you may never have met. Facebook is a tool for efficiently manag- ing your acquaintances, for keeping up with the people you would not otherwise be able to stay in touch with. That’s why

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 406 11/8/14 3:36 PM

Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted

4 0 7

you can have a thousand “friends” on Facebook, as you never could in real life. This is in many ways a wonderful thing. There is strength in weak ties, as the sociologist Mark Granovetter has observed. Our acquaintances—not our friends—are our greatest source of new ideas and information. The Internet lets us exploit the power of these kinds of distant connections with marvelous efficiency. It’s terrific at the diffusion of innovation, inter- disciplinary collaboration, seamlessly matching up buyers and sellers, and the logistical functions of the dating world. But weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism. In a new book called The Dragonfly Effect: Quick, Effective, and Powerful Ways to Use Social Media to Drive Social Change, the business consultant Andy Smith and the Stanford Busi- ness School professor Jennifer Aaker tell the story of Sameer Bhatia, a young Silicon Valley entrepreneur who came down with acute myelogenous leukemia. It’s a perfect illustration of social media’s strengths. Bhatia needed a bone-marrow trans- plant, but he could not find a match among his relatives and friends. The odds were best with a donor of his ethnicity, and there were few South Asians in the national bone-marrow data- base. So Bhatia’s business partner sent out an e-mail explaining Bhatia’s plight to more than four hundred of their acquaint- ances, who forwarded the e-mail to their personal contacts; Facebook pages and YouTube videos were devoted to the Help Sameer campaign. Eventually, nearly twenty-five thousand new people were registered in the bone-marrow database, and Bhatia found a match. But how did the campaign get so many people to sign up? By not asking too much of them. That’s the only way you can get someone you don’t really know to do something on your behalf. You can get thousands of people to sign up for a donor

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 407 11/8/14 3:36 PM


4 0 8

registry, because doing so is pretty easy. You have to send in a cheek swab and—in the highly unlikely event that your bone marrow is a good match for someone in need—spend a few hours at the hospital. Donating bone marrow isn’t a trivial mat- ter. But it doesn’t involve financial or personal risk; it doesn’t mean spending a summer being chased by armed men in pickup trucks. It doesn’t require that you confront socially entrenched norms and practices. In fact, it’s the kind of commitment that will bring only social acknowledgment and praise. The evangelists of social media don’t understand this dis- tinction; they seem to believe that a Facebook friend is the same as a real friend and that signing up for a donor registry in Silicon Valley today is activism in the same sense as sitting at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro in 1960. “Social networks are particularly effective at increasing motivation,” Aaker and Smith write. But that’s not true. Social networks are effective at increasing participation—by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires. The Facebook page of the Save Darfur Coalition has 1,282,339 members, who have donated an average of nine cents apiece. The next biggest Darfur charity on Facebook has 22,073 members, who have donated an average of thirty-five cents. Help Save Darfur has 2,797 members, who have given, on average, fifteen cents. A spokesperson for the Save Darfur Coalition told Newsweek, “We wouldn’t necessarily gauge someone’s value to the advo- cacy movement based on what they’ve given. This is a powerful mechanism to engage this critical population. They inform their community, attend events, volunteer. It’s not something you can measure by looking at a ledger.” In other words, Face- book activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 408 11/8/14 3:36 PM

Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted

4 0 9


real sacrifice. We are a long way from the lunch counters of Greensboro.

The students who joined the sit-ins across the South during the winter of 1960 described the movement as a “fever.” But the civil-rights movement was more like a military campaign than like a contagion. In the late nineteen-fifties, there had been sixteen sit-ins in various cities throughout the South, fifteen of which were formally organized by civil-rights organizations like the N.A.A.C.P. and core. Possible locations for activism were scouted. Plans were drawn up. Movement activists held training sessions and retreats for would-be protesters. The Greensboro Four were a product of this groundwork: all were members of the N.A.A.C.P. Youth Council. They had close ties with the head of the local N.A.A.C.P. chapter. They had been briefed on the earlier wave of sit-ins in Durham, and had been part of a series of movement meetings in activist churches. When the sit-in movement spread from Greensboro throughout the South, it did not spread indiscriminately. It spread to those cities which had preexisting “movement centers”—a core of dedicated and trained activists ready to turn the “fever” into action. The civil-rights movement was high-risk activism. It was also, crucially, strategic activism: a challenge to the establish- ment mounted with precision and discipline. The N.A.A.C.P. was a centralized organization, run from New York according to highly formalized operating procedures. At the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Martin Luther King, Jr., was the unquestioned authority. At the center of the movement was the black church, which had, as Aldon D. Morris points out in his superb 1984 study, The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement, a carefully demarcated division of labor, with various standing committees and disciplined groups. “Each group was

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 409 11/8/14 3:36 PM


4 1 0

task-oriented and coordinated its activities through authority structures,” Morris writes. “Individuals were held accountable for their assigned duties, and important conflicts were resolved by the minister, who usually exercised ultimate authority over the congregation.” This is the second crucial distinction between traditional activism and its online variant: social media are not about this kind of hierarchical organization. Facebook and the like are tools for building networks, which are the opposite, in structure and character, of hierarchies. Unlike hierarchies, with their rules and procedures, networks aren’t controlled by a single central authority. Decisions are made through consensus, and the ties that bind people to the group are loose. This structure makes networks enormously resilient and adaptable in low-risk situations. Wikipedia is a perfect example. It doesn’t have an editor, sitting in New York, who directs and corrects each entry. The effort of putting together each entry is self-organized. If every entry in Wikipedia were to be erased tomorrow, the content would swiftly be restored, because that’s what happens when a network of thousands spontane- ously devote their time to a task. There are many things, though, that networks don’t do well. Car companies sensibly use a network to organize their hundreds of suppliers, but not to design their cars. No one believes that the articulation of a coherent design philosophy is best handled by a sprawling, leaderless organizational system. Because networks don’t have a centralized leadership structure and clear lines of authority, they have real difficulty reaching consensus and setting goals. They can’t think strategically; they are chronically prone to conflict and error. How do you make difficult choices about tactics or strategy or philosophical direc- tion when everyone has an equal say?

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 410 11/8/14 3:36 PM

Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted

4 1 1

25 The Palestine Liberation Organization originated as a net- work, and the international-relations scholars Mette Eilstrup- Sangiovanni and Calvert Jones argue in a recent essay in International Security that this is why it ran into such trouble as it grew: “Structural features typical of networks—the absence of central authority, the unchecked autonomy of rival groups, and the inability to arbitrate quarrels through formal mechanisms— made the P.L.O. excessively vulnerable to outside manipulation and internal strife.” In Germany in the nineteen-seventies, they go on, “the far more unified and successful left-wing terrorists tended to orga- nize hierarchically, with professional management and clear divisions of labor. They were concentrated geographically in universities, where they could establish central leadership, trust, and camaraderie through regular, face-to-face meet- ings.” They seldom betrayed their comrades in arms during police interrogations. Their counterparts on the right were organized as decentralized networks, and had no such disci- pline. These groups were regularly infiltrated, and members, once arrested, easily gave up their comrades. Similarly, Al Qaeda was most dangerous when it was a unified hierarchy. Now that it has dissipated into a network, it has proved far less effective. The drawbacks of networks scarcely matter if the network isn’t interested in systemic change—if it just wants to frighten or humiliate or make a splash—or if it doesn’t need to think strategically. But if you’re taking on a powerful and organized establishment you have to be a hierarchy. The Montgomery bus boycott required the participation of tens of thousands of people who depended on public transit to get to and from work each day. It lasted a year. In order to persuade those people to stay true to the cause, the boycott’s organizers tasked each

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 411 11/8/14 3:36 PM


4 1 2

local black church with maintaining morale, and put together a free alternative private carpool service, with forty-eight dis- patchers and forty-two pickup stations. Even the White Citi- zens Council, King later said, conceded that the carpool system moved with “military precision.” By the time King came to Birmingham, for the climactic showdown with Police Com- missioner Eugene (Bull) Connor, he had a budget of a million dollars, and a hundred full-time staff members on the ground, divided into operational units. The operation itself was divided into steadily escalating phases, mapped out in advance. Support was maintained through consecutive mass meetings rotating from church to church around the city. Boycotts and sit-ins and nonviolent confrontations—which were the weapons of choice for the civil-rights movement— are high-risk strategies. They leave little room for conflict and error. The moment even one protester deviates from the script and responds to provocation, the moral legitimacy of the entire protest is compromised. Enthusiasts for social media would no doubt have us believe that King’s task in Birming- ham would have been made infinitely easier had he been able to communicate with his followers through Facebook, and contented himself with tweets from a Birmingham jail. But networks are messy: think of the ceaseless pattern of correc- tion and revision, amendment and debate, that characterizes Wikipedia. If Martin Luther King Jr. had tried to do a wiki- boycott in Montgomery, he would have been steamrollered by the white power structure. And of what use would a digi- tal communication tool be in a town where ninety-eight per cent of the black community could be reached every Sunday morning at church? The things that King needed in Birming- ham—discipline and strategy—were things that online social media cannot provide.

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 412 11/8/14 3:36 PM

Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted

4 1 3


The bible of the social-media movement is Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody. Shirky, who teaches at New York Univer- sity, sets out to demonstrate the organizing power of the Inter- net, and he begins with the story of Evan, who worked on Wall Street, and his friend Ivanna, after she left her smart phone, an expensive Sidekick, on the back seat of a New York City taxicab. The telephone company transferred the data on Ivanna’s lost phone to a new phone, whereupon she and Evan discovered that the Sidekick was now in the hands of a teen- ager from Queens, who was using it to take photographs of herself and her friends. When Evan e-mailed the teenager, Sasha, asking for the phone back, she replied that his “white ass” didn’t deserve to have it back. Miffed, he set up a Web page with her picture and a description of what had happened. He forwarded the link to his friends, and they forwarded it to their friends. Someone found the MySpace page of Sasha’s boyfriend, and a link to it found its way onto the site. Someone found her address online and took a video of her home while driving by; Evan posted the video on the site. The story was picked up by the news filter Digg. Evan was now up to ten e-mails a min- ute. He created a bulletin board for his readers to share their stories, but it crashed under the weight of responses. Evan and Ivanna went to the police, but the police filed the report under “lost,” rather than “stolen,” which essentially closed the case. “By this point millions of readers were watching,” Shirky writes, “and dozens of mainstream news outlets had covered the story.” Bowing to the pressure, the N.Y.P.D. reclassified the item as “stolen.” Sasha was arrested, and Evan got his friend’s Sidekick back. Shirky’s argument is that this is the kind of thing that could never have happened in the pre-Internet age—and he’s

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 413 11/8/14 3:36 PM


4 1 4

right. Evan could never have tracked down Sasha. The story of the Sidekick would never have been publicized. An army of people could never have been assembled to wage this fight. The police wouldn’t have bowed to the pressure of a lone person who had misplaced something as trivial as a cell phone. The story, to Shirky, illustrates “the ease and speed with which a group can be mobilized for the right kind of cause” in the Internet age. Shirky considers this model of activism an upgrade. But it is simply a form of organizing which favors the weak-tie con- nections that give us access to information over the strong-tie connections that help us persevere in the face of danger. It shifts our energies from organizations that promote strategic and disciplined activity and toward those which promote resilience and adaptability. It makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact. The instruments of social media are well suited to making the existing social order more efficient. They are not a natural enemy of the status quo. If you are of the opinion that all the world needs is a little buffing around the edges, this should not trouble you. But if you think that there are still lunch counters out there that need integrating it ought to give you pause. Shirky ends the story of the lost Sidekick by asking, por- tentously, “What happens next?”—no doubt imagining future waves of digital protesters. But he has already answered the question. What happens next is more of the same. A networked, weak-tie world is good at things like helping Wall Streeters get phones back from teenage girls. Viva la revolución.

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 414 11/8/14 3:36 PM

Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted

4 1 5

Joining the Conversation

1. What claims about the power of social media to create large-scale social change is Malcolm Gladwell responding to? What does he say, and where in his text does he bring up the views he disagrees with?

2. What is Gladwell’s view of the relationship between social media and social change? What are the main arguments he presents to support his position? How does his discussion of the Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-in of 1960, which he threads through his article, fit into his argument?

3. How does Gladwell define activism? How does he distinguish between “strong tie” and “weak tie” social activism? Explain this distinction and its relevance to Gladwell’s argument.

4. Read Dennis Baron’s blog post on How do his views compare with Gladwell’s—how are they similar, and how do they differ?

5. Write an essay responding to Gladwell, drawing on your own experience using social media and framing your argument as a response to something specific that Gladwell says. (See Chapter 2 for templates for responding in this way.)

08_GRA_93584_Readings_296_415.indd 415 11/8/14 3:36 PM

09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 416 11/8/14 3:42 PM

4 1 7


what should we eat? H

What should we eat? The answer may seem obvious: food, what else? But today we have more choices than ever before about what we eat. An increasing number of ethnic foods, regional dishes, and unfamiliar ingredients appear on menus in fast-food places and so-called fancy restaurants alike. TV cook- ing shows have never been so numerous—or so widely watched. Supermarkets have entire aisles of specialty, organic, and glu- ten-free foods. Recipes of all types are only a few clicks away online, typically accompanied by mouth-watering photographs. And yet, as our food choices grow in number, we, too, are expanding. Obesity, often beginning in early childhood, has become a national concern and, with it, diabetes, high blood pressure, and hypertension. Medical costs for these illnesses are skyrocketing. With tantalizing foods readily available, we need to learn how to make wise choices—but that can be easier said than done. Some civic leaders and public-health experts believe the government should step in to ensure that healthy foods are available for everyone, to educate us about our options, and to tax or even to outlaw the most unhealthy items, as former mayor Michael Bloomberg tried (but failed) to do in his bid to ban extra-large soft drinks in New York City. Meanwhile, civil libertarians, food and beverage producers, and those who

09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 417 11/8/14 3:42 PM

4 1 8

W H A T S H O U L D W E E A T ?

enjoy the unhealthy items strongly oppose such governmental efforts. So, what should we eat? The readings in this chapter answer this question from various perspectives. The chapter opens with an essay by food activist Michael Pollan outlining his rationale for ending our reliance on pro- cessed foods and moving to a diet of local, organic foods, espe- cially vegetables. Steven Shapin, a professor of the history of science, argues that the health benefits of organic food are in many cases dubious. Mary Maxfield challenges the assumption that overeating is a social problem that needs to be fixed and suggests that Michael Pollan and other critics exaggerate its dangers. Fiction writer Jonathan Safran Foer explores his own family history to explain why he and his wife became vegetarian and are raising their children not to eat meat. On the issue of government intervention versus personal responsibility, David Zinczenko blames the fast-food industry for the growing rate of obesity in the United States and argues that this industry should be regulated by the government. In contrast, libertarian commentator Radley Balko argues that what we eat should remain a matter of personal responsibility and that staying trim is a matter of individual willpower. Next come two arguments about the effects of research and marketing on what we eat. Michael Moss provides a fascinating look at ways in which fast-food companies make their products difficult to resist. Similarly, professor Marion Nestle reveals how supermarkets design stores in order to maximize profits, to the detriment of customers’ health and budget concerns. The chapter concludes with an essay by David H. Freedman arguing that Pollan and those who share his views should not consider fast food the enemy; rather, he suggests, fast-food companies may be the best vehicle for making millions of Americans healthier.

09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 418 11/8/14 3:42 PM

4 1 9

What Should We Eat?

So read on for a wide range of opinions on food and eating today. You’ll likely find plenty to agree with, and just as much to disagree with. But whatever you think, this conversation matters. The arguments in this chapter will challenge you to think about what you believe and why. And you’ll find even more readings on, along with a space where you respond with what you think— and literally add your own voice to the conversation.

09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 419 11/8/14 3:42 PM

4 2 0

Escape from the Western Diet



The undertow of nutritionism is powerful. . . . Much nutrition science qualifies as reductionist science, focusing as it does on individual nutrients (such as certain fats or carbo- hydrates or antioxidants) rather than on whole foods or dietary patterns. . . . But using this sort of science to try to figure out what’s wrong with the Western diet is probably unavoidable. However imperfect, it’s the sharpest experimental and explana- tory tool we have. It also satisfies our hunger for a simple, one-nutrient explanation. Yet it’s one thing to entertain such explanations and quite another to mistake them for the whole truth or to let any one of them dictate the way you eat. [And] many of the scientific theories put forward to account for exactly what in the Western diet is responsible for Western diseases conflict with one another. The lipid hypothesis cannot

Michael Pollan has written many books on food and eating, including The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (2006), Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual (2010), Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation (2013), and In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto (2008), from which this essay was excerpted. He was named one of Time magazine’s top 100 Most Influential People in 2010 and teaches at the University of California at Berkeley.

09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 420 11/8/14 3:42 PM

Escape from the Western Diet

4 2 1

be reconciled with the carbohydrate hypothesis, and the theory that a deficiency of omega-3 fatty acids (call it the neolipid hypothesis) is chiefly to blame for chronic illness is at odds with the theory that refined carbohydrates are the key. And while everyone can agree that the flood of refined carbohydrates has pushed important micronutrients out of the modern diet, the scientists who blame our health problems on deficiencies of these micro nutrients are not the same scientists who see a sugar- soaked diet leading to metabolic syndrome and from there to diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. It is only natural for sci- entists no less than the rest of us to gravitate toward a single, all-encompassing explanation. That is probably why you now find some of the most fervent critics of the lipid hypothesis embracing the carbohydrate hypothesis with the same absolut- ist zeal that they once condemned in the Fat Boys. In the course of my own research into these theories, I have been specifically warned by scientists allied with the carbohydrate camp not to “fall under the spell of the omega-3 cult.” Cult? There is a lot more religion in science than you might expect. So here we find ourselves . . . lost at sea amid the cross-currents of conflicting science. Or do we? Because it turns out we don’t need to declare our allegiance to any one of these schools of thought in order to figure out how best to eat. In the end, they are only theories, scientific explanations for an empirical phenomenon that is not itself in doubt: People eating a Western diet are prone to a complex of chronic diseases that seldom strike people eating more tradi- tional diets. Scientists can argue all they want about the bio- logical mechanisms behind this phenomenon, but whichever it is, the solution to the problem would appear to remain very much the same: Stop eating a Western diet.

See pp. 84–86 for tips on introducing objections informally.


09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 421 11/8/14 3:42 PM


4 2 2

In truth the chief value of any and all theories of nutrition, apart from satisfying our curiosity about how things work, is not to the eater so much as it is to the food industry and the medical community. The food industry needs theories so it can better redesign specific processed foods; a new theory means a new line of products, allowing the industry to go on tweaking the Western diet instead of making any more radical change to its business model. For the industry it’s obviously preferable to have a scientific rationale for further processing foods—whether by lowering the fat or carbs or by boosting omega-3s or fortify- ing them with antioxidants and probiotics—than to entertain seriously the proposition that processed foods of any kind are a big part of the problem. For the medical community too scientific theories about diet nourish business as usual. New theories beget new drugs to treat diabetes, high blood pressure, and cholesterol; new treatments and procedures to ameliorate chronic diseases; and new diets organized around each new theory’s elevation of one class of nutrient and demotion of another. Much lip service is paid to the importance of prevention, but the health care industry, being an industry, stands to profit more handsomely from new drugs and procedures to treat chronic diseases than it does from a wholesale change in the way people eat. Cynical? Perhaps. You could argue that the medical community’s willingness to treat the broad contours of the Western diet as a given is a reflection of its realism rather than its greed. “People don’t want to go there,” as Walter Willett responded to the critic who asked him why the Nurses’ Health Study didn’t study the benefits of more alternative diets. Still, medicalizing the whole problem of the Western diet instead of working to overturn it (whether at the level of the patient or politics) is exactly what you’d expect from a health care community that is sympathetic

09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 422 11/8/14 3:42 PM

Escape from the Western Diet

4 2 3

to nutritionism as a matter of temperament, philosophy, and economics. You would not expect such a medical community to be sensitive to the cultural or ecological dimensions of the food problem—and it isn’t. We’ll know this has changed when doctors kick the fast-food franchises out of the hospitals. So what would a more ecological or cultural approach to the food problem counsel us? How might we plot our escape from nutritionism and, in turn, from the most harmful effects of the Western diet? To Denis Burkitt, the English doctor stationed in Africa during World War II who gave the Western diseases their name, the answer seemed straightforward, if daunting. “The only way we’re going reduce disease,” he said, “is to go backwards to the diet and lifestyle of our ancestors.” This sounds uncomfortably like the approach of the diabetic Aborigines who went back to the bush to heal themselves. But I don’t think this is what Burkitt had in mind; even if it was, it is not a very attractive or practical strategy for most of us. No, the challenge we face today is figuring out how to escape the worst elements of the Western diet and lifestyle without going back to the bush. In theory, nothing could be simpler: To escape the Western diet and the ideology of nutritionism, we have only to stop eating and thinking that way. But this is harder to do in prac- tice, given the treacherous food environment we now inhabit and the loss of cultural tools to guide us through it. Take the question of whole versus processed foods, presumably one of the simpler distinctions between modern industrial foods and older kinds. Gyorgy Scrinis, who coined the term “nutrition- ism,” suggests that the most important fact about any food is not its nutrient content but its degree of processing. He writes that “whole foods and industrial foods are the only two food groups I’d consider including in any useful food ‘pyramid.’ ” In other

09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 423 11/8/14 3:42 PM


4 2 4

words, instead of worrying about nutrients, we should simply avoid any food that has been processed to such an extent that it is more the product of industry than of nature. This sounds like a sensible rule of thumb until you real- ize that industrial processes have by now invaded many whole foods too. Is a steak from a feedlot steer that consumed a diet of corn, various industrial waste products, antibiotics, and hor- mones still a “whole food”? I’m not so sure. The steer has itself been raised on a Western diet, and that diet has rendered its meat substantially different—in the type and amount of fat in it as well as its vitamin content—from the beef our ancestors ate. The steer’s industrial upbringing has also rendered its meat so cheap that we’re likely to eat more of it more often than our ancestors ever would have. This suggests yet another sense in which this beef has become an industrial food: It is designed to be eaten industrially too—as fast food. So plotting our way out of the Western diet is not going to be simple. Yet I am convinced that it can be done, and in the course of my research, I have collected and devel- oped some straightforward (and distinctly unscientific) rules of thumb, or personal eating policies, that might at least point us in the right direction. They don’t say much about specific foods—about what sort of oil to cook with or whether you should eat meat. They don’t have much to say about nutrients or calories, either, though eating according to these rules will perforce change the balance of nutrients and amount of calories in your diet. I’m not interested in dictating anyone’s menu, but rather in developing what I think of as eating algorithms—mental programs that, if you run them when you’re shopping for food or deciding on a meal, will produce a great many different dinners, all of them “healthy” in the broadest sense of that word.


09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 424 11/8/14 3:42 PM

Escape from the Western Diet

4 2 5

And our sense of that word stands in need of some broaden- ing. When most of us think about food and health, we think in fairly narrow nutritionist terms—about our personal physi- cal health and how the ingestion of this particular nutrient or rejection of that affects it. But I no longer think it’s possible to separate our bodily health from the health of the environment from which we eat or the environment in which we eat or, for that matter, from the health of our general outlook about food (and health). If my explorations of the food chain have taught me anything, it’s that it is a food chain, and all the links in it are in fact linked: the health of the soil to the health of the plants and animals we eat to the health of the food culture in which we eat them to the health of the eater, in body as well as mind. [So you will find rules here] concerning not only what to eat but also how to eat it as well as how that food is produced. Food consists not just in piles of chemicals; it also comprises a set of social and ecological relationships, reaching back to the land and outward to other people. Some of these rules may strike you as having nothing whatever to do with health; in fact they do. Many of the policies will also strike you as involving more work—and in fact they do. If there is one important sense in which we do need to heed Burkitt’s call to “go backwards” or follow the Aborigines back into the bush, it is this one: In order to eat well we need to invest more time, effort, and resources in providing for our sustenance, to dust off a word, than most of us do today. A hallmark of the Western diet is food that is fast, cheap, and easy. Americans spend less than 10 percent of their income on food; they also spend less than a half hour a day preparing meals and little more than an hour enjoying them.1 For most people for most of history, gathering and preparing food has been an occupation at the very heart

09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 425 11/8/14 3:42 PM


4 2 6

of daily life. Traditionally people have allocated a far greater proportion of their income to food—as they still do in several of the countries where people eat better than we do and as a consequence are healthier than we are.2 Here, then, is one way in which we would do well to go a little native: backward, or perhaps it is forward, to a time and place where the gathering and preparing and enjoying of food were closer to the center of a well-lived life.

[I’d like to propose] three rules—“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”—that I now need to unpack, providing some elabora- tion and refinement in the form of more specific guidelines, injunctions, subclauses, and the like. Each of these three main rules can serve as category headings for a set of personal policies to guide us in our eating choices without too much trouble or thought. The idea behind having a simple policy like “avoid foods that make health claims” is to make the process simpler and more pleasurable than trying to eat by the numbers and nutrients, as nutritionism encourages us to do. So under “Eat Food,” I propose some practical ways to separate, and defend, real food from the cascade of foodlike products that now surround and confound us, especially in the supermarket. Many of the tips under this rubric concern shop- ping and take the form of filters that should help keep out the sort of products you want to avoid. Under “Mostly Plants,” I’ll dwell more specifically, and affirmatively, on the best types of foods (not nutrients) to eat. Lest you worry, there is, as the adverb suggests, more to this list than fruits and vegetables. Last, under “Not Too Much,” the focus shifts from the foods themselves to the question of how to eat them—the manners, mores, and habits that go into creating a healthy, and pleasing, culture of eating.


09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 426 11/8/14 3:42 PM

Escape from the Western Diet

4 2 7


1. David M. Cutler, et al., “Why Have Americans Become More Obese?,” Journal of Economic Perspectives, Vol. 17, No. 3 (Summer, 2003), pp. 93–118. In 1995 Americans spent twenty-seven minutes preparing meals and four minutes cleaning up after them; in 1965 the figure was forty-four minutes of prepara- tion and twenty-one minutes of cleanup. Total time spent eating has dropped from sixty-nine minutes to sixty-five, all of which suggests a trend toward prepackaged meals.

2. Compared to the 9.9 percent of their income Americans spend on food, the Italians spend 14.9 percent, the French 14.9 percent, and the Spanish 17.1 percent.

Joining the Conversation

1. What does Michael Pollan mean when he refers to the “Western diet”? Why does he believe Americans need to “escape” from it?

2. Pollan begins with a “they say,” citing a variety of scientific theories known as nutritionism. Summarize his response to these views. What is his objection to such views, and to the business and research interests that promote them?

3. If Pollan were to read Mary Maxfield’s response to this article (pp. 442–47), how might he, in turn, respond to her?

4. It’s likely that Pollan favors (and shops at) local farmers’ markets. Go to and search for “Mark Bittman on Farmers’ Markets.” What does he say about them: who, according to Bittman, do they most benefit?

5. Write an essay that begins where Pollan’s piece ends, perhaps by quoting from paragraph 14: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” You’ll need to explain his argument, and then respond with your own views.

09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 427 11/8/14 3:42 PM

4 2 8

What Are You Buying When You Buy Organic?



The plastic package of Earthbound Farm baby arugula in Whole Foods was grown without synthetic fertilizers; no toxic pesticides or fumigants were used to control insect predators; no herbicides were applied to deal with weeds; no genes from other species were introduced into its genome to increase yield or pest resistance; no irradiation was used to extend its shelf life. It complies with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program, a set of standards that came into full effect in 2002 to regulate the commercial use of the word “organic.” So what’s the problem?

Steven Shapin teaches at Harvard University and is the author of several books on the history and sociology of science, including The Scientific Life: A Moral History of a Late Modern Vocation (2008). He also writes for the London Review of Books and the New Yorker and is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. This essay first appeared with the title “Paradise Sold” in the New Yorker on May 15, 2006.

09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 428 11/8/14 3:42 PM

What Are You Buying When You Buy Organic?

4 2 9

It all depends on what you think you’re buying when you buy organic. If the word conjures up the image of a small, family-owned, local operation, you may be disappointed. Like Whole Foods, Earthbound Farm is a very big business. Earth- bound’s founders, Drew and Myra Goodman, Manhattanites who went to college in the Bay Area, and then started a two- and-a-half-acre raspberry-and-baby-greens farm near Carmel to produce food they “felt good about,” are now the nation’s largest grower of organic produce, with revenues for this year projected at more than $450 million. Their greens, includ- ing the arugula, are produced on giant farms in six different counties in California, two in Arizona, one in Colorado, and in three Mexican states. Earthbound grows more than seventy per cent of all the organic lettuce sold in America; big organic retailers like Whole Foods require big organic suppli- ers. (Earthbound actually dropped the “organic” specification when it started its mass-distribution program, in 1993—even though the stuff was organic—because its first client, Costco, thought it might put customers off.) By 2004, Earthbound was farming twenty-six thousand acres; its production plants in California and Arizona total four hundred thousand square feet, and its products are available in supermarkets in every state of the Union. The Carmel Valley farm stand is still there, largely for public-relations purposes, and is as much an icon of California’s entrepreneurial roots as the Hewlett-Packard garage in downtown Palo Alto. Success is not necessarily a sin, of course, and, for many people, buying organic is a way of being environmentally sensitive. Earthbound notes that its farming techniques annually obviate the use of more than a quarter of a million pounds of toxic chemical pesticides and almost 8.5 million pounds of synthetic fertilizers, which saves 1.4 million gallons

09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 429 11/8/14 3:42 PM


4 3 0

of the petroleum needed to produce those chemicals. Their tractors even use biodiesel fuel. Yet the net benefit of all this to the planet is hard to assess. Michael Pollan, who thinks that we ought to take both a wider and a deeper view of the social, economic, and physical chains that deliver food to fork, cites a Cornell scientist’s estimate that growing, processing, and shipping one calorie’s worth of arugula to the East Coast costs fifty-seven calories of fossil fuel. The growing of the arugula is indeed organic, but almost everything else is late-capitalist business as usual. Earthbound’s compost is trucked in; the salad-green farms are models of West Coast monoculture, laser-levelled fields facilitating awesomely efficient mechanical harvesting; and the whole supply chain from California to Manhattan is only

Peter Harrington grows organic vegetables on two acres at Ten Barn Farm in Ghent, New York, and sells them at farmers’ markets.

09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 430 11/8/14 3:42 PM

What Are You Buying When You Buy Organic?

4 3 1

four per cent less gluttonous a consumer of fossil fuel than that of a conventionally grown head of iceberg lettuce—though Earthbound plants trees to offset some of its carbon footprint. “Organic,” then, isn’t necessarily “local,” and neither “organic” nor “local” is necessarily “sustainable.” Earthbound and other large-scale organic growers have embraced not only the logic of capitalism but the specific logic of California agribusiness. As the geographer Julie Guthman shows in Agrarian Dreams: The Paradox of Organic Farming in California, ever since the gold rush, the state’s growers have aimed at maximizing monetary yield per acre. First, it was wheat to feed the influx of gold miners and those dependent on the mining industry; then, after railways and refrigerated cars enabled the delivery of shining fresh produce across the country,


Myra and Drew Goodman began Earthbound Farm with two and half acres of raspberries and baby greens, and it’s now the largest grower of organic produce in the nation.

09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 431 11/8/14 3:42 PM


4 3 2

it was orchard fruit. Later still, tract housing and mini-malls proved more profitable, which is why you’ll have a hard time finding orange groves in Orange County. Guthman writes that big, concentrated, high-value organic agriculture in California is “the legacy of the state’s own style of agrarian capitalism.” You saw this style in action when, in 1989, a 60 Minutes exposé about residues of the carcinogenic pesticide Alar found on apples caused a consumer stampede to the organic-produce bins. “Don’t panic, buy organic,” was the mantra, and growers responded by borrowing heavily to expand their organic enterprises. When the scare subsided, supply outstripped demand, and, in the inevitable shakeout, some small-scale organic farmers had to sell out to larger players in the food industry. Washington State’s Cascadian Farm was one such. Its founder, a “onetime hippie” named Gene Kahn, sold a majority holding to Welch’s, and now it is a division of the $17.8 billion giant General Mills. He hasn’t the least regret: “We’re part of the food industry now.” The investors bankrolling Big Organic have no reason to fear the vestigial hippie rhetoric: it’s not so much a counterculture as a bean-counter culture. According to the business writer Samuel Fromartz in Organic, Inc.: Natural Foods and How They Grew, 90 percent of “frequent” organic buyers think they’re buying better “health and nutrition.” They may be right. If, for any reason, you don’t want the slightest pesticide residue in your salad, or you want to insure that there are no traces of recombinant bovine somatotropin hormone (rbST) in your children’s milk, you’re better off spending the extra money for organically produced food. But scientific evidence for the risks of such residues is iffy, as it is, too, for the benefits of the micro-nutrients that are said to be more plentiful in an organic carrot than in its conventional equivalent.

09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 432 11/8/14 3:42 PM

What Are You Buying When You Buy Organic?

4 3 3

Other people are buying taste, but there’s little you can say about other people’s taste in carrots and not much more you can intelligibly articulate about your own. The taste of an heirloom carrot bought five years ago from the Chino family farm in Rancho Santa Fe, California, sticks indelibly in my memory, though at the time I hadn’t any idea whether artificial fertilizers or pesticides had been applied to it. (I later learned that they had not.) For many fruits and vegetables, freshness, weed control, and the variety grown may be far more important to taste than whether the soil in which they were grown was dosed with ammonium nitrate. Pollan did his own taste test by shopping at Whole Foods for an all-organic meal: everything was pretty good, except for the six-dollar bunch of organic asparagus, which had been grown in Argentina, air-freighted six thousand miles to the States, and immured for a week in the distribution chain. Pollan shouldn’t have been surprised that it tasted like “cardboard.”

The twentieth-century origins of the organic movement can be traced to the writings of the English agronomist Sir Albert Howard, particularly his 1940 book An Agricultural Testament. Howard was a critic of the rise of scientific agriculture. In the mid-nineteenth century, following the work of the German chemist Justus von Liebig, it was thought that all plants really needed from the soil was the correct quantities and propor- tions of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium: the N-P-K ratios that you see on bags of garden fertilizer. For many crops, it is the availability of nitrogen that limits growth. Legumes apart, plants cannot extract nitrogen directly from the practically unlimited stores of the gas in the atmosphere, so farmers in the nineteenth century routinely enhanced soil fertility using animal manures, guano, or mined nitrates. But, just before the

09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 433 11/8/14 3:42 PM


4 3 4

First World War, the German chemist Fritz Haber and the industrialist Carl Bosch devised a way of synthesizing ammo- nia from atmospheric nitrogen. From there, the commercial production of enormous quantities of nitrogenous fertilizers was a relatively easy matter. The result was a technological revolu- tion in agriculture. But Howard had worked in India as “Imperial Economic Botanist” to the government of the Raj at Pusa, and his experiences there convinced him that traditional Indian farming techniques were in many respects superior to those of the modern West. Howard was a pragmatist—the criterion of agricultural success was what worked—but he was also a holist and a taker of the long view. The health of the soil, the health of what grew in it, and the health of those who ate what grew in it were “one great subject.” To reduce this intricacy to a simple set of chemical inputs, as Liebig’s followers did, was reductionist science at its worst. Soils treated this way would ultimately collapse, and so would the societies that abused them: “Artificial manures lead inevitably to artificial nutrition, artificial food, artificial animals and finally to artificial men and women,” racked with disease and physically stunted. You could indeed get short-term boosts in yield through the generous application of synthetic fertilizers, but only by robbing future generations of their patrimony. Soil, Howard wrote, is “the capital of the nations which is real, permanent, and independent of everything except a market for the products of farming.” We have no choice but to go “back to nature” and to “safeguard the land of the Empire from the operations of finance.” The “supremacy of the West” depends upon it. Howard’s ideas reached America largely through J. I. Rodale’s magazine Organic Gardening and Farming, and, later, through a widely read essay by Wendell Berry in The Last Whole Earth


09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 434 11/8/14 3:42 PM

What Are You Buying When You Buy Organic?

4 3 5

Catalogue. The organic movement that sprang up in America during the postwar years, manured by the enthusiasm of both the hippies and their New Age successors, supplemented Howard’s ideas of soil health with the imperative that the scale should be small and the length of the food chain from farm to consumer short. You were supposed to know who it was that produced your food, and to participate in a network of trust in familiar people and transparent agricultural practices. A former nutritionist at Columbia, who went on to grow produce upstate, recalls, “When we said organic, we meant local. We meant healthful. We meant being true to the ecologies of regions. We meant mutually respectful growers and eaters. We meant social justice and equality.” There is no way to make food choices without making moral choices as well, and anthropologists have had much to say about the inevitable link between what’s good to eat and what’s good to think. Decisions about how we want our food produced and delivered are decisions about what counts as social virtue. One of the founding texts of modern social theory, Émile Durkheim’s The Division of Labor in Society, drew a distinction between what he called mechanical and organic solidarity. In societies characterized by mechanical solidarity, each person knew pretty much what every other person did and each social unit encom- passed pretty much all the functions it needed in order to sur- vive. Mechanical solidarity, in Durkheim’s scheme, was largely a premodern form. By contrast, organic solidarity flowed from the division of labor. Individuals depended upon one another for the performance of specialized tasks, and, as modernity pro- ceeded, the networks of dependence that bound them together became increasingly anonymous. You didn’t know who grew the food at the end of your fork, or, indeed, who made the fork. But, then, the original English sense of “organ” was an

09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 435 11/8/14 3:42 PM


4 3 6

instrument or a machine made up of interdependent specialized parts, as in the musical pipe organ. The application to living things came only later, by way of analogy with machines; the eye, for example, is the “organ of seeing.” And so, by semantic inversion, champions of organic farming actually seek virtue not in organic but in mechanical solidarity.

The quest for the shortest possible chain between producer and consumer is the narrative dynamic of Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, which is cleverly structured around four meals, each representing a different network of relations between produc- ers, eaters, and the environment, and each an attempt at greater virtue than the last. Pollan’s first meal is fast food, and he follows a burger back to vast monocultural industrial

blocs of Iowan corn, planted by G.P.S.-guided tractors and dosed with tons of synthetic fertilizer, whose mas- sive runoff into the Mississippi River—as much as 1.5 million tons of nitrogen a year—winds up feeding

algal blooms and depleting the oxygen needed by other forms of life in the Gulf of Mexico. Pollan then follows the corn to enormous feedlots in Kansas, where a heifer that he bought in South Dakota is speed-fattened—fourteen pounds of corn for each pound of edible beef—for which its naturally grass- processing rumen was not designed, requiring it to be dosed with antibiotics, which breed resistant strains of bacteria. Pollan would have liked to follow his heifer through the industrial slaughterhouse, but the giant beef-packing com- pany was too canny to let him in, and so we are spared the stomach-churning details, which, in any case, were minutely related a few years ago in Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation. Pollan also follows the American mountains of industrial

See Chapter 2 for tips on

summarizing what others


09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 436 11/8/14 3:42 PM

What Are You Buying When You Buy Organic?

4 3 7

corn into factories, where the wonders of food technology transform it into the now ubiquitous high-fructose corn syrup, which sweetens the soda that, consumed in super-sized quantities across the nation, contributes to the current epi- demic of type 2 diabetes. All very bad things. The second meal is the Big Organic one that he bought at his local Whole Foods store in California, featuring an “organic” chicken whose “free-range” label was authorized by U.S.D.A. statutes, but which actually shared a shed with twenty thou- sand other genetically identical birds. Two small doors in the shed opened onto a patch of grass, but they remained shut until the birds were five or six weeks old, and two weeks later Pollan’s “free range” chicken was a $2.99-a-pound package in his local Whole Foods. This meal was better—the corn-and- soybean chicken feed was certified organic and didn’t contain antibiotics—but still not perfect. Pollan’s third meal was even more virtuous. After spending several weeks doing heavy lifting on a polycultural, sustainable smallholding in the Shenandoah Valley, Pollan cooked a meal wholly made up of ingredients that he himself had a hand in producing: eggs from (genuinely) free-range, grub-eating hens, corn grown with compost from those happy birds, and, finally, a chicken whose throat he had slit himself. Very good, indeed—and no nitrogenous runoff, and no massive military machine to protect America’s supplies of Middle East oil and the natural gas needed to make the synthetic fertilizer. Finally, Pollan decides to eat a meal—“the perfect meal”— for which he had almost total personal responsibility: wild morels foraged in the Sierra foothills, the braised loin and leg of a wild pig he had shot himself in Sonoma County, a chamomile tisane made from herbs picked in the Berkeley Hills, salad greens from his own garden, cherries taken by right

09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 437 11/8/14 3:42 PM


4 3 8

of usufruct from a neighbor’s tree, sea salt scraped from a pond at the southern end of San Francisco Bay, and—O.K., strict perfection is unobtainable—a bottle of California Petite Sirah, presumably organic. This was not a way of eating that Pollan thinks is realistic on a routine basis, but he wanted to test what it felt like to have “a meal that is eaten in full consciousness of what it took to make it.” That consciousness, for Pollan, is more religious than political—every meal a sacrament. “We eat by the grace of nature, not industry, and what we’re eating is never anything more or less than the body of the world,” he says. Pollan winds up demanding that we know much more about what we’re putting into our mouths: “What it is we’re eating. Where it came from. How it found its way to our table. And what, in a true accounting, it really cost.” The “naked lunch,” William Burroughs wrote, is the “frozen moment when every- one sees what is on the end of every fork.” Burroughs meant it metaphorically; Pollan means it literally. He wants to know his farmer’s name, and to know that his hamburger was once part of the muscles of a particular cow. He wants to do his bit to save the planet. That means he wants to eat locally, within a network of familiarity. But, even so, the knowledge required is potentially infinite. What particular bacteria, fungi, and trace elements lurk in the soil of your sustainable community farm? Does your friendly local farmer use a tractor or a horse? If a tractor, does it use fuel made from biomass? If a horse, are the oats it eats organic? If the oats are organic, does the manure with which they were grown come from organically fed animals? How much of this sort of knowledge can you digest?

Pollan seems aware of the contradictions entailed in trying to eat in this rigorously ethical spirit, but he doesn’t give much


09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 438 11/8/14 3:42 PM

What Are You Buying When You Buy Organic?

4 3 9

space to the most urgent moral problem with the organic ideal: how to feed the world’s population. At the beginning of the twentieth century, there was a serious scare about an imminent Malthusian crisis: the world’s rapidly expanding population was coming up against the limits of agricultural productivity. The Haber-Bosch process averted disaster, and was largely responsible for a fourfold increase in the world’s food supply during the twentieth century. Earl Butz, Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture, was despised by organic farmers, but he might not have been wrong when he said, in 1971, that if America returned to organic methods “someone must decide which fifty million of our people will starve!” According to a more recent estimate, if synthetic fertilizers suddenly disappeared from the face of the earth, about two billion people would perish. Supporters of organic methods maintain that total food- energy productivity per acre can be just as high as with con- ventional agriculture, and that dousings of N-P-K are made necessary only by the industrial scale of modern agriculture and its long-chain systems of distribution. Yet the fact remains that, to unwind conventional agriculture, you would have to unwind some highly valued features of the modern world order. Given the way the world now is, sustainably grown and locally pro- duced organic food is expensive. Genetically modified, industri- ally produced monocultural corn is what feeds the victims of an African famine, not the gorgeous organic technicolor Swiss chard from your local farmers’ market. Food for a “small planet” will, for the foreseeable future, require a much smaller human population on the planet. Besides, for most consumers that Earthbound Farm organic baby arugula from Whole Foods isn’t an opportunity to disman- tle the infrastructures of the modern world; it’s simply salad. Dressed with a little Tuscan extra-virgin olive oil, a splash

09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 439 11/8/14 3:42 PM


4 4 0

of sherry vinegar, some shavings of Parmigiano Reggiano, and fleur de sel from the Camargue, it makes a very nice appetizer. To insist that we are consuming not just salad but a vision of society isn’t wrong, but it’s biting off more than most people are able and willing to chew. Cascadian Farm’s Gene Kahn, countering the criticism that by growing big he had sold out, volunteered his opinion on the place that food has in the aver- age person’s life: “This is just lunch for most people. Just lunch. We can call it sacred, we can talk about communion, but it’s just lunch.”

Joining the Conversation

1. Steven Shapin focuses on Earthbound Farm and other such companies to illustrate some of the practices of organic food companies and their effects on society. What does he say about the overall impact these companies and others like them have on the environment?

2. Shapin lists the four meals Michael Pollan discusses in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, ranging from factory- farm-raised fast food to a “perfect meal” for which he had “almost total personal responsibility,” and notes that Pollan “wants to eat locally” and “to do his bit to save the planet.” How does Shapin respond to what Pollan says?

3. Shapin claims that Earthbound Farms is not a small opera- tion but rather “a very big business” that is no more sustain- able than any other food company. With this in mind, visit and read Elizabeth Weiss’s article “What Does ‘The Scarecrow’ Tell Us about Chipotle?” Do you think Shapin would characterize Chipotle in the same way?

09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 440 11/8/14 3:42 PM

What Are You Buying When You Buy Organic?

4 4 1

Why or why not? Cite examples from Weiss’s article to sup- port your response.

4. Shapin concludes by suggesting that, while a small number of people may believe that eating organic arugula is a matter of great importance, for most people, “it’s simply salad.” What do you think he means by this statement? How might Michael Pollan (pp. 420–27) respond to this assertion?

5. Visit a grocery store, look closely at the organic foods there, and then examine the nonorganic versions of the same prod- ucts. Write an essay comparing organic and nonorganic items in terms of price, calories, ingredients, packaging, loca- tion in the store, and other factors that you find significant. You might frame your essay as a response to Shapin, using something he says as a “they say.”

09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 441 11/8/14 3:42 PM

4 4 2

Food as Thought: Resisting the Moralization of Eating



How do French people eat so unhealthily—famously indulging in cheese, cream, and wine—but stay, on average, healthier than Americans? Journalist Michael Pollan offers readers a simple solution: quit obsessing over this French paradox and start obsessing over the french fry. Pointing to what he considers the American paradox—“a notably unhealthy population preoccupied with . . . the idea of eating healthy” (9)—Pollan contends that our definition of healthy eating is driven by a well-funded corporate machine. According to Pollan, the food industry, along with nutrition science and journalism, is capitalizing on our confusion over how to eat.

Mary Maxfield is a graduate student in American Studies at Bowling Green State University. She graduated from Fontbonne University in 2010 with a degree in creative social change and minors in sociology, American culture studies, and women’s and gender studies. Her academic interests include bodies, gender, sexuality, politics, and rhetoric. Read her blog at, or follow her on Twitter @missmarymax.

09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 442 11/8/14 3:42 PM

Food as Thought: Resisting the Moralization of Eating

4 4 3

While Pollan implicates his own profession in this critique, he simultaneously contributes to our cultural anxiety over food. The same critic who argues that “any and all theories of nutri- tion [serve] not the eater [but] the food industry,” nevertheless proposes his own theory: the elimination of processed foods (141). Likewise, even after noting that the connections between diet and health that we take as gospel apparently aren’t, Pollan nevertheless adheres to contemporary common-sense science, making assumptions about diet, health, and weight that under- pin the very food industry he critiques. Thus as he attempts to dismantle one paradox, Pollan embodies another: he’s a critic of nutrition and food science who nevertheless bolsters the American investment in those industries. After publishing In Defense of Food (and its equally successful predecessor, The Omnivore’s Dilemma), Pollan released Food Rules, a pocket-sized manual for better eating. Of course, Pollan contends that his guidelines function differently than the prescriptions (and proscriptions) of food scientists, because his rules function as “eating algorithms” that “produce many different dinners” (144) rather than specifying a concrete menu. Yet no matter how many meals fit Pollan’s formula—“Eat food, not too much, mostly plants” (1)—it remains a dictate provided by an expert to those who apparently can’t properly nourish themselves. Pollan and other like-minded nutrition hawks consistently back up their claims with concerns over American health. Although acknowledging that eating primarily for health represents a departure from the historical purpose of food—fuel for our bodies—these gastronomical philosophers nevertheless position themselves as protectors of health. Americans need this protection, we are told, because we’re a nation stricken by heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. According to this line

See pp. 33–36 for tips on how to summarize and know where you’re going.

09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 443 11/8/14 3:42 PM


4 4 4

of thought, each of these maladies is tied to our diet and essentially to our weight. As a culture, we no longer discuss healthy eating without also discussing unhealthy weights. Linking nutrition and body type, voices like Pollan’s warn us against eating too much—often without any parallel warnings against eating too little. Pollan himself insists that overeating constitutes “the greatest threat” to our survival (7), and our government concurs, pouring resources into a fight against the obesity epidemic, that plague of fatness that supposedly threatens our national health. The problem is that our understanding of health is as based in culture as it is in fact. Despite some doubt in academic circles over connections between diet, health, and weight, common-sense reportage continues to presume that they are directly connected. Pollan, for example, twice notes that our diet of processed foods makes us “sick and fat” (10), and then— without evidence to support that claim—conflates health with weight and condemns fatness out of hand. Later, he refers to obesity as a Western disease (11)—again presuming a corre- lation between weight and health—and even cites statistics on eating habits from a study entitled “Why Have Americans Become More Obese?” (145). A growing group of academics who have examined the research on obesity at length have discovered fundamental flaws behind perceptions of fatness, diet, and health. Law professor and journalist Paul Campos notes that “lies about fat, fitness, and health . . . not coincidentally serve the interests of America’s $50-billion-per-year diet industry,” and fat-acceptance activist Kate Harding elaborates on this point, observing that “if you scratch an article on the obesity crisis, you will almost always find a press release from a company that’s developing a weight loss drug—or from a ‘research group’ . . . funded by such


09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 444 11/8/14 3:42 PM

Food as Thought: Resisting the Moralization of Eating

4 4 5

companies.” Harding and Campos both belong to a school that has repeatedly challenged the validity of the body mass index (BMI), a tool that uses height and weight measurements to calculate body fat. Originally developed by a mathematician as a purely statistical tool, the BMI has become medicine’s go-to means for predicting heart disease and other maladies, despite research that suggests a low BMI presents a greater mortality risk than a high one and that, in general, BMI cannot accurately predict one’s health (Campos). Culturally, however, we resist these scientific findings in favor of a perspective that considers fatness fatal and thinness immortal. Our skewed views of fatness then facilitate skewed views of food. We continue to believe in a “right” or “healthy” way of eating that involves eating less and eating differently than we instinctively would, despite evidence to the contrary provided both by scholars like Harding and Campos, and by Health at Every Size (HAES) nutritionists like Michelle Allison. HAES advocates challenge our cultural misconceptions, suggesting that—outside of specific medical conditions like celiac disease and anorexia—“what a person eats [rarely] takes primacy over how they eat it” (Allison, “Eating”). In essence, we can eat as we always have—which includes eating for emotional and social reasons—and still survive or even thrive. Few of us, however, manage to think about eating this way. As Allison notes, “there are a lot of pressures and barriers in this world that get in our way, that confuse us, that distract us and attempt to control us in counterproductive ways” (“Rules vs. Trust”). In this context, “health” functions moralistically. It results from making decisions like choosing fresh mozzarella over spray cheese, the “right” foods over the “wrong” ones. Experts offer science to substantiate those designations, yet science—as Campos, Harding, and Allison show—does not

09_GRA_61744_Readings_416_537.indd 44509_GRA_61744_Readings_416_537.indd 445 22/08/16 5:08 PM22/08/16 5:08 PM


4 4 6

actually support these systems. Instead, as even Pollan notes, there remains “a lot [of ] religion in science” (140). That “religion” presents itself in the moralizing of food, the attempt—in how we eat—to rise above our beastly natures. As a culture, when we imagine eating like animals, we visualize a feeding frenzy. Allison observes that when she says “Adult human beings are allowed to eat whatever and however much they want,” what people actually hear is: “Go out and cram your face with Twinkies!” (“Eat Food”). (Indeed, for Pollan, the total elimination of American anxiety about food trans- lates to a laissez-faire policy of “let them eat Twinkies” [9].) Yet Allison and other HAES nutritionists suggest that adult humans will eat in a way that is good for them, given the opportunity (“Eat Food”). When we attempt to rise above our animal nature through the moralization of food, we unneces- sarily complicate the practice of eating. Food—be it french fry or granola bar, Twinkie or brown rice—isn’t moral or immoral. Inherently, food is ethically neutral; notions of good and bad, healthy and unhealthy are projected onto it by culture. Staying mindful of that culture (and critical of the hidden interests that help guide it) can free us each to follow a formula we have long known but recently forgotten: Trust yourself. Trust your body. Meet your needs.

Works Cited

Allison, Michelle. “Eat Food. Stuff You Like. As Much As You Want.” The Fat Nutritionist, 15 Feb. 2010, eat-food-stuff-you-like-as-much-as-you-want. Accessed 19 Jan. 2011.

. “Eating—the WHAT or the HOW?” The Fat Nutritionist, 17 Aug. 2009, Accessed 19 Jan. 2011.

09_GRA_61744_Readings_416_537.indd 44609_GRA_61744_Readings_416_537.indd 446 23/08/16 4:56 PM23/08/16 4:56 PM

Food as Thought: Resisting the Moralization of Eating

4 4 7

. “Rules vs. Trust in Eating.” The Fat Nutritionist, 15 Dec. 2009, Accessed 19 Jan. 2011.

Campos, Paul. ”Being Fat Is OK.” Jewish World Review, 23 Apr. 2001, Accessed 25 Mar. 2011.

Harding, Kate. “Don’t You Realize Fat Is Unhealthy?” Shapely Prose, 20 June 2007, Accessed 19 Jan. 2011.

Pollan, Michael. In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. Penguin, 2008.

Joining the Conversation

1. In what ways does Mary Maxfield disagree with Michael Pollan (pp. 420–27) and other critics of the Western diet? What is her “they say,” and what does she say?

2. What supporting evidence does Maxfield offer to counter the views of Michael Pollan and other critics?

3. Read Jonathan Safran Foer’s article (pp. 448–61), and compare what he says with what Maxfield says. Which of them is more convincing and why?

4. Maxfield concludes by offering a formula for eating: “Trust yourself. Trust your body. Meet your needs.” This formula contrasts with Michael Pollan’s “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Write an essay responding to these argu- ments and presenting your own formula for eating.

5. Go to and click on “What Should We Eat?” Read the article by Stuart Elliott about the ad cam- paign promoting Whole Foods as “America’s Healthiest Grocery Store.” How do you think Maxfield would respond to this message? How do you respond?

09_GRA_61744_Readings_416_537.indd 44709_GRA_61744_Readings_416_537.indd 447 23/08/16 4:36 PM23/08/16 4:36 PM

4 4 8

Against Meat



The Fruits of Family Trees

When I was young, I would often spend the weekend at my grandmother’s house. On my way in, Friday night, she would lift me from the ground in one of her fire-smothering hugs. And on the way out, Sunday afternoon, I was again taken into the air. It wasn’t until years later that I realized she was weighing me. My grandmother survived World War II barefoot, scavenging Eastern Europe for other people’s inedibles: rotting potatoes, discarded scraps of meat, skins and the bits that clung to bones and pits. So she never cared if I colored outside the lines, as long as I cut coupons along the dashes. I remember hotel buffets: while the rest of us erected Golden

Jonathan Safran Foer is the author of the best-selling novels Everything Is Illuminated (2002) and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005), both of which were adapted into films. He has been named one of Rolling Stone’s “People of the Year” and Esquire’s “Best and Brightest,” and his writing has appeared in the New Yorker’s “20 Under 40” issue, among other places. He currently teaches at New York University. This essay—adapted from his book Eating Animals (2009)—appeared in the New York Times on October 11, 2009.

09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 448 11/8/14 3:42 PM

Against Meat

4 4 9

Calves of breakfast, she would make sandwich upon sandwich to swaddle in napkins and stash in her bag for lunch. It was my grandmother who taught me that one tea bag makes as many cups of tea as you’re serving, and that every part of the apple is edible. Her obsession with food wasn’t an obsession with money. (Many of those coupons I clipped were for foods she would never buy.) Her obsession wasn’t with health. (She would beg me to drink Coke.) My grandmother never set a place for herself at family dinners. Even when there was nothing more to be done—no soup bowls to be topped off, no pots to be stirred or ovens checked—she stayed in the kitchen, like a vigilant guard (or prisoner) in a tower. As far as I could tell, the sustenance she got from the food she made didn’t require her to eat it. We thought she was the greatest chef who ever lived. My brothers and I would tell her as much several times a meal. And yet we were worldly enough kids to know that the greatest chef who ever lived would probably have more than one recipe (chicken with carrots), and that most great recipes involved more than two ingredients. And why didn’t we question her when she told us that dark food is inherently more healthful than light food, or that the bulk of the nutrients are found in the peel or crust? (The sand- wiches of those weekend stays were made with the saved ends of pumpernickel loaves.) She taught us that animals that are bigger than you are very good for you, animals that are smaller than you are good for you, fish (which aren’t animals) are fine for you, then tuna (which aren’t fish), then vegetables, fruits, cakes, cookies and sodas. No foods are bad for you. Sugars are great. Fats are tremendous. The fatter a child is, the fitter it


09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 449 11/8/14 3:42 PM


4 5 0

is—especially if it’s a boy. Lunch is not one meal, but three, to be eaten at 11, 12:30 and 3. You are always starving. In fact, her chicken with carrots probably was the most deli- cious thing I’ve ever eaten. But that had little to do with how it was prepared, or even how it tasted. Her food was delicious because we believed it was delicious. We believed in our grand- mother’s cooking more fervently than we believed in God. More stories could be told about my grandmother than about anyone else I’ve ever met—her otherwordly childhood, the hairline margin of her survival, the totality of her loss, her immigration and further loss, the triumph and tragedy of her assimilation—and while I will one day try to tell them to my children, we almost never told them to one another. Nor did we call her by any of the obvious and earned titles. We called her the Greatest Chef. The story of her relationship to food holds all of the other stories that could be told about her. Food, for her, is not food. It is terror, dignity, gratitude, vengeance, joy, humiliation, reli- gion, history and, of course, love. It was as if the fruits she always offered us were picked from the destroyed branches of our family tree.

Possible Again

When I was 2, the heroes of all my bedtime books were animals. The first thing I can remember learning in school was how to pet a guinea pig without accidentally killing it. One summer my family fostered a cousin’s dog. I kicked it. My father told me we don’t kick animals. When I was 7, I mourned the death of a goldfish I’d won the previous weekend. I discovered that my father had flushed it down the toilet. I told my father—using other, less familial language—we don’t flush animals down


09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 450 11/8/14 3:42 PM

Against Meat

4 5 1

the toilet. When I was 9, I had a baby sitter who didn’t want to hurt anything. She put it just like that when I asked her why she wasn’t having chicken with my older brother and me. “Hurt anything?” I asked. “You know that chicken is chicken, right?” Frank shot me a look: Mom and Dad entrusted this stupid woman with their precious babies? Her intention might or might not have been to convert us, but being a kid herself, she lacked whatever restraint it is that so often prevents a full telling of this particular story. Without drama or rhetoric, skipping over or euphemizing, she shared what she knew. My brother and I looked at each other, our mouths full of hurt chickens, and had simultaneous how-in-the-world-could- I-have-never-thought-of-that-before-and-why-on-earth- didn’t-someone-tell-me? moments. I put down my fork. Frank finished the meal and is probably eating a chicken as I type these words. What our baby sitter said made sense to me, not only because it seemed so self-evidently true, but also because it was the extension to food of everything my parents had taught me. We don’t hurt family members. We don’t hurt friends or strang- ers. We don’t even hurt upholstered furniture. My not hav- ing thought to include farmed animals in that list didn’t make them the exceptions to it. It just made me a child, ignorant of the world’s workings. Until I wasn’t. At which point I had to change my life. Until I didn’t. My vegetarianism, so bombastic and unyield- ing in the beginning, lasted a few years, sputtered and quietly died. I never thought of a response to our baby sitter’s code but found ways to smudge, diminish and ignore it. Generally speaking, I didn’t cause hurt. Generally speaking, I strove to do


See Chapter 9 for tips on mixing formal and informal language.

09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 451 11/8/14 3:42 PM


4 5 2

the right thing. Generally speaking, my conscience was clear enough. Pass the chicken, I’m starving. Mark Twain said that quitting smoking is among the easiest things you can do; he did it all the time. I would add vegetarian- ism to the list of easy things. In high school I became vegetarian more times than I can now remember, most often as an effort to claim a bit of identity in a world of people whose identities seemed to come effortlessly. I wanted a slogan to distinguish my mom’s Volvo’s bumper, a bake-sale cause to fill the self- conscious half-hour of school break, an occasion to get closer to the breasts of activist women. (And I continued to think it was wrong to hurt animals.) Which isn’t to say that I refrained from eating meat. Only that I refrained in public. Many din- ners of those years began with my father asking, “Any dietary restrictions I need to know about tonight?” When I went to college, I started eating meat more ear- nestly. Not “believing in it”—whatever that would mean—but


09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 452 11/8/14 3:42 PM

Against Meat

4 5 3

willfully pushing the questions out of my mind. It might well have been the prevalence of vegetarianism on campus that discouraged my own—I find myself less likely to give money to a street musician whose case is overflowing with bills. But when, at the end of my sophomore year, I became a philosophy major and started doing my first seriously preten- tious thinking, I became a vegetarian again. The kind of active forgetting that I was sure meat eating required felt too paradoxi- cal to the intellectual life I was trying to shape. I didn’t know the details of factory farming, but like most everyone, I knew the gist: it is miserable for animals, the environment, farmers, public health, biodiversity, rural communities, global poverty and so on. I thought life could, should and must conform to the mold of reason, period. You can imagine how annoying this made me. When I graduated, I ate meat—lots of every kind of meat— for about two years. Why? Because it tasted good. And because more important than reason in shaping habits are the stories

09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 453 11/8/14 3:42 PM


4 5 4

we tell ourselves and one another. And I told a forgiving story about myself to myself: I was only human. Then I was set up on a blind date with the woman who would become my wife. And only a few weeks later we found ourselves talking about two surprising topics: marriage and vegetarianism. Her history with meat was remarkably similar to mine: there were things she believed while lying in bed at night, and there were choices made at the breakfast table the next morning. There was a gnawing (if only occasional and short-lived) dread that she was participating in something deeply wrong, and there was the acceptance of complexity and fallibility. Like me, she had intuitions that were very strong, but apparently not strong enough. People marry for many different reasons, but one that animated our decision to take that step was the prospect of explicitly marking a new beginning. Jewish ritual and symbolism strongly encourage this notion of demarcating a sharp division with what came before—the most well-known example being the smashing of the glass at the end of the wedding ceremony. Things were as they were, but they will be different now. Things will be better. We will be better. Sounds and feels great, but better how? I could think of end- less ways to make myself better (I could learn foreign languages, be more patient, work harder), but I’d already made too many such vows to trust them anymore. I could also think of ways to make “us” better, but the meaningful things we can agree on and change in a relationship are few. Eating animals, a concern we’d both had and had both for- gotten, seemed like a place to start. So much intersects there, and so much could flow from it. In the same week, we became engaged and vegetarian.


09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 454 11/8/14 3:42 PM

Against Meat

4 5 5

Of course our wedding wasn’t vegetarian, because we persuaded ourselves that it was only fair to offer animal protein to our guests, some of whom traveled from great distances to share our joy. (Find that logic hard to follow?) And we ate fish on our honeymoon, but we were in Japan, and when in Japan. . . . And back in our new home, we did occasionally eat burgers and chicken soup and smoked salmon and tuna steaks. But only whenever we felt like it. And that, I thought, was that. And I thought that was just fine. I assumed we’d maintain a diet of conscientious inconsis- tency. Why should eating be different from any of the other ethical realms of our lives? We were honest people who occa- sionally told lies, careful friends who sometimes acted clumsily. We were vegetarians who from time to time ate meat. But then we decided to have a child, and that was a different story that would necessitate a different story. About half an hour after my son was born, I went into the waiting room to tell the gathered family the good news. “You said ‘he’! So it’s a boy?” “What’s his name? “Who does he look like?” “Tell us everything!” I answered their questions as quickly as I could, then went to the corner and turned on my cellphone. “Grandma,” I said. “We have a baby.” Her only phone is in the kitchen. She picked up halfway into the first ring. It was just after midnight. Had she been clipping coupons? Preparing chicken with carrots to freeze for someone else to eat at some future meal? I’d never once seen or heard her cry, but tears pushed through her words as she asked, “How much does it weigh?” A few days after we came home from the hospital, I sent a letter to a friend, including a photo of my son and some first



09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 455 11/8/14 3:42 PM


4 5 6

impressions of fatherhood. He responded, simply, “Everything is possible again.” It was the perfect thing to write, because that was exactly how it felt. The world itself had another chance.

Eating Animals

Seconds after being born, my son was breast-feeding. I watched him with an awe that had no precedent in my life. Without explanation or experience, he knew what to do. Millions of years of evolution had wound the knowledge into him, as it had encoded beating into his tiny heart and expansion and contraction into his newly dry lungs. Almost four years later, he is a big brother and a remark- ably sophisticated little conversationalist. Increasingly the food he eats is digested together with stories we tell. Feeding my children is not like feeding myself: it matters more. It matters because food matters (their physical health matters, the plea- sure they take in eating matters), and because the stories that are served with food matter. Some of my happiest childhood memories are of sushi “lunch dates” with my mom, and eating my dad’s turkey burgers with mustard and grilled onions at backyard celebrations, and of course my grandmother’s chicken with carrots. Those occasions simply wouldn’t have been the same without those foods— and that is important. To give up the taste of sushi, turkey or chicken is a loss that extends beyond giving up a pleasurable eating experience. Changing what we eat and letting tastes fade from memory create a kind of cultural loss, a forgetting. But per- haps this kind of forgetfulness is worth accepting—even worth cultivating (forgetting, too, can be cultivated). To remember my values, I need to lose certain tastes and find other handles for the memories that they once helped me carry.


09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 456 11/8/14 3:42 PM

Against Meat

4 5 7

My wife and I have chosen to bring up our children as vegetarians. In another time or place, we might have made a different decision. But the realities of our present moment compelled us to make that choice. According to an analysis of U.S.D.A. data by the advocacy group Farm Forward, factory farms now produce more than 99 percent of the animals eaten in this country. And despite labels that suggest otherwise, genuine alternatives—which do exist, and make many of the ethical questions about meat moot—are very difficult for even an educated eater to find. I don’t have the ability to do so with regularity and confidence. (“Free range,” “cage free,” “natural” and “organic” are nearly meaningless when it comes to animal welfare.) According to reports by the Food and Agriculture Orga- nization of the U.N. and others, factory farming has made animal agriculture the No. 1 contributor to global warming (it is significantly more destructive than transportation alone), and one of the Top 2 or 3 causes of all of the most seri- ous environmental problems, both global and local: air and water pollution, deforestation, loss of biodiversity. . . . Eating factory-farmed animals—which is to say virtually every piece of meat sold in supermarkets and prepared in restaurants—is almost certainly the single worst thing that humans do to the environment. Every factory-farmed animal is, as a practice, treated in ways that would be illegal if it were a dog or a cat. Turkeys have been so genetically modified they are incapable of natural reproduction. To acknowledge that these things matter is not sentimental. It is a confrontation with the facts about animals and ourselves. We know these things matter. Meat and seafood are in no way necessary for my family— unlike some in the world, we have easy access to a wide variety


09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 457 11/8/14 3:42 PM


4 5 8

of other foods. And we are healthier without it. So our choices aren’t constrained. While the cultural uses of meat can be replaced—my mother and I now eat Italian, my father grills veggie burgers, my grand- mother invented her own “vegetarian chopped liver”—there is still the question of pleasure. A vegetarian diet can be rich and fully enjoyable, but I couldn’t honestly argue, as many vegetar- ians try to, that it is as rich as a diet that includes meat. (Those who eat chimpanzee look at the Western diet as sadly deficient of a great pleasure.) I love calamari, I love roasted chicken, I love a good steak. But I don’t love them without limit. This isn’t animal experimentation, where you can imagine some proportionate good at the other end of the suffering. This is what we feel like eating. Yet taste, the crudest of our senses, has been exempted from the ethical rules that govern our other senses. Why? Why doesn’t a horny person have as strong a claim to raping an animal as a hungry one does to confining, kill- ing and eating it? It’s easy to dismiss that question but hard to respond to it. Try to imagine any end other than taste for which it would be justifiable to do what we do to farmed animals. Children confront us with our paradoxes and dishonesty, and we are exposed. You need to find an answer for every why—Why do we do this? Why don’t we do that?—and often there isn’t a good one. So you say, simply, because. Or you tell a story that you know isn’t true. And whether or not your face reddens, you blush. The shame of parenthood—which is a good shame—is that we want our children to be more whole than we are, to have satisfactory answers. My children not only inspired me to reconsider what kind of eating animal I would be, but also shamed me into reconsideration. And then, one day, they will choose for themselves. I don’t know what my reaction will be if they decide to eat meat. (I don’t


09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 458 11/8/14 3:42 PM

Against Meat

4 5 9

know what my reaction will be if they decide to renounce their Judaism, root for the Red Sox or register Republican.) I’m not as worried about what they will choose as much as my ability to make them conscious of the choices before them. I won’t measure my success as a parent by whether my children share my values, but by whether they act according to their own. In the meantime, my choice on their behalf means they will never eat their great-grandmother’s singular dish. They will never receive that unique and most direct expression of her love, will perhaps never think of her as the greatest chef who ever lived. Her primal story, our family’s primal story, will have to change. Or will it? It wasn’t until I became a parent that I under- stood my grandmother’s cooking. The greatest chef who ever lived wasn’t preparing food, but humans. I’m thinking of those Saturday afternoons at her kitchen table, just the two of us— black bread in the glowing toaster, a humming refrigerator that couldn’t be seen through its veil of family photographs. Over pumpernickel ends and Coke, she would tell me about her escape from Europe, the foods she had to eat and those she wouldn’t. It was the story of her life—“Listen to me,” she would plead—and I knew a vital lesson was being transmitted, even if I didn’t know, as a child, what that lesson was. I know, now, what it was.

Listen to Me

“We weren’t rich, but we always had enough. Thursday we baked bread, and challah and rolls, and they lasted the whole week. Friday we had pancakes. Shabbat we always had a chicken, and soup with noodles. You would go to the butcher and ask for a little more fat. The fattiest piece was the best piece. It wasn’t

09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 459 11/8/14 3:42 PM


4 6 0

like now. We didn’t have refrigerators, but we had milk and cheese. We didn’t have every kind of vegetable, but we had enough. The things that you have here and take for granted. . . . But we were happy. We didn’t know any better. And we took what we had for granted, too. “Then it all changed. During the war it was hell on earth, and I had nothing. I left my family, you know. I was always running, day and night, because the Germans were always right behind me. If you stopped, you died. There was never enough food. I became sicker and sicker from not eating, and I’m not just talking about being skin and bones. I had sores all over my body. It became difficult to move. I wasn’t too good to eat from a garbage can. I ate the parts others wouldn’t eat. If you helped yourself, you could survive. I took whatever I could find. I ate things I wouldn’t tell you about. “Even at the worst times, there were good people, too. Some- one taught me to tie the ends of my pants so I could fill the legs with any potatoes I was able to steal. I walked miles and miles like that, because you never knew when you would be lucky again. Someone gave me a little rice, once, and I traveled two days to a market and traded it for some soap, and then traveled to another market and traded the soap for some beans. You had to have luck and intuition. “The worst it got was near the end. A lot of people died right at the end, and I didn’t know if I could make it another day. A farmer, a Russian, God bless him, he saw my condition, and he went into his house and came out with a piece of meat for me.” “He saved your life.” “I didn’t eat it.” “You didn’t eat it?” “It was pork. I wouldn’t eat pork.” “Why?”



09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 460 11/8/14 3:42 PM

Against Meat

4 6 1

“What do you mean why?” “What, because it wasn’t kosher?” “Of course.” “But not even to save your life?” “If nothing matters, there’s nothing to save.”

Joining the Conversation

1. Jonathan Safran Foer spends a lot of time talking about his relationship with his grandmother and the role that her cook- ing and her ideas about food had in the development of his own attitudes toward food. How do you think Foer’s grand- mother influenced his eventual embrace of vegetarianism? Cite passages in his text to support your answer.

2. In writing about his move to vegetarianism, a topic he takes very seriously, Foer injects humor at times. How do his humorous comments affect the way you read his essay?

3. So what? Foer explains why being vegetarian matters to him. Has he convinced you that you should care? If so, how has he done so? If not, help him out: how could he do better?

4. Compare Foer’s narrative of how and why he became a vegetarian to Mary Maxfield’s essay (pp. 442–47) arguing against treating food as a moral issue. What does each author say about the role of food in our lives?

5. Write an essay about how you have developed an ethical view you hold strongly. Make clear to your readers why the issue matters to you—and why it should matter to others.


09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 461 11/8/14 3:42 PM

4 6 2

Don’t Blame the Eater



If ever there were a newspaper headline custom-made for Jay Leno’s monologue, this was it. Kids taking on McDonald’s this week, suing the company for making them fat. Isn’t that like middle-aged men suing Porsche for making them get speed- ing tickets? Whatever happened to personal responsibility? I tend to sympathize with these portly fast-food patrons, though. Maybe that’s because I used to be one of them. I grew up as a typical mid-1980s latchkey kid. My parents were split up, my dad off trying to rebuild his life, my mom working long hours to make the monthly bills. Lunch and dinner, for me, was a daily choice between McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Kentucky Fried Chicken or Pizza Hut. Then as now, these were the only available options for an American kid to get an

David Zinczenko, who was for many years the editor-in-chief of the fitness magazine Men’s Health, is president of Galvanized Brands, a global health and wellness media company. Zinczenko is the author of numerous best-selling books, including the Eat This, Not That and the Abs Diet series. He has contributed op-ed essays to the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and USA Today and has appeared on Dr. Oz, Oprah, Ellen, and Good Morning America. This piece was first published on the op-ed page of the New York Times on November 23, 2002.

09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 462 11/8/14 3:42 PM

Don’t Blame the Eater

4 6 3

affordable meal. By age 15, I had packed 212 pounds of torpid teenage tallow on my once lanky 5-foot-10 frame. Then I got lucky. I went to college, joined the Navy Reserves and got involved with a health magazine. I learned how to manage my diet. But most of the teenagers who live, as I once did, on a fast-food diet won’t turn their lives around: They’ve crossed under the golden arches to a likely fate of lifetime obesity. And the problem isn’t just theirs— it’s all of ours. Before 1994, diabetes in children was generally caused by a genetic disorder—only about 5 percent of childhood cases were obesity-related, or Type 2, diabetes. Today, according to the National Institutes of Health, Type 2 diabetes accounts for at least 30 percent of all new childhood cases of diabetes in this country. Not surprisingly, money spent to treat diabetes has skyrock- eted, too. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention esti- mate that diabetes accounted for $2.6 billion in health care costs in 1969. Today’s number is an unbelievable $100 billion a year. Shouldn’t we know better than to eat two meals a day in fast-food restaurants? That’s one argument. But where, exactly, are consumers—particularly teenagers—supposed to find alter- natives? Drive down any thoroughfare in America, and I guarantee you’ll see one of our country’s more than 13,000 McDonald’s restaurants. Now, drive back up the block and try to find someplace to buy a grapefruit. Complicating the lack of alternatives is the lack of informa- tion about what, exactly, we’re consuming. There are no calorie information charts on fast-food packaging, the way there are on grocery items. Advertisements don’t carry warning labels the way tobacco ads do. Prepared foods aren’t covered under Food and Drug Administration labeling laws. Some fast-food

For tips on saying why it matters, see Chapter 7.


09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 463 11/8/14 3:42 PM


4 6 4

purveyors will provide calorie information on request, but even that can be hard to understand. For example, one company’s Web site lists its chicken salad as containing 150 calories; the almonds and noodles that come with it (an additional 190 calories) are listed separately. Add a serving of the 280-calorie dressing, and you’ve got a healthy lunch alternative that comes in at 620 calories. But that’s not all. Read the small print on the back of the dressing packet and you’ll realize it actually contains 2.5 servings. If you pour what you’ve been served, you’re suddenly up around 1,040 calories, which is half of the government’s recommended daily calorie intake. And that doesn’t take into account that 450-calorie super-size Coke. Make fun if you will of these kids launching lawsuits against the fast-food industry, but don’t be surprised if you’re the next plaintiff. As with the tobacco industry, it may be only a mat- ter of time before state governments begin to see a direct line between the $1 billion that McDonald’s and Burger King spend each year on advertising and their own swelling health care costs. And I’d say the industry is vulnerable. Fast-food compa- nies are marketing to children a product with proven health hazards and no warning labels. They would do well to protect themselves, and their customers, by providing the nutrition information people need to make informed choices about their products. Without such warnings, we’ll see more sick, obese children and more angry, litigious parents. I say, let the deep- fried chips fall where they may.


“Don’t Blame the Eater.” From The New York Times, November 23, 2002. Reprinted by permission of the author.

09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 464 11/8/14 3:42 PM

Don’t Blame the Eater

4 6 5

Joining the Conversation

1. Summarize Zinczenko’s arguments (his “I say”) against the practices of fast-food companies. How persuasive are these arguments?

2. One important move in all good argumentative writing is to introduce voices raising possible objections to the position being argued—what this book calls naysayers. What objections does Zinczenko introduce, and how does he respond? Can you think of other objections that he might have noted?

3. How does the story that Zinczenko tells about his own expe- rience in paragraphs 3 and 4 support or fail to support his argument? How could the same story be used to support an argument opposed to Zinczenko’s?

4. So what? Who cares? How does Zinczenko make clear to readers why his topic matters? Or, if he does not, how might he do so?

5. Write an essay responding to Zinczenko, using your own experience and knowledge as part of your argument. You may agree, disagree, or both, but be sure to represent Zinczenko’s views near the beginning of your text, both summarizing and quoting from his arguments.

09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 465 11/8/14 3:42 PM

4 6 6

What You Eat Is Your Business



This June, Time magazine and ABC News will host a three- day summit on obesity. ABC News anchor Peter Jennings, who last December anchored the prime-time special “How to Get Fat Without Really Trying,” will host. Judging by the scheduled program, the summit promises to be a pep rally for media, nutri- tion activists, and policy makers—all agitating for a panoply of government anti-obesity initiatives, including prohibiting junk food in school vending machines, federal funding for new bike trails and sidewalks, more demanding labels on foodstuffs, restrictive food marketing to children, and prodding the food industry into more “responsible” behavior. In other words, bringing government between you and your waistline.

Radley Balko writes a blog about civil liberties and the criminal justice system for the Washington Post. He was once an editor at the Huffington Post and Reason magazine and a columnist for A self-described libertarian, Balko is the author of the book Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces (2013). This essay was first published on May 23, 2004, on the website of the Cato Institute, which aims to promote the principles of “limited government, individual liberty, free markets, and peace.”

09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 466 11/8/14 3:42 PM

What You Eat Is Your Business

4 6 7

Politicians have already climbed aboard. President Bush earmarked $200 million in his budget for anti-obesity meas- ures. State legislatures and school boards across the country have begun banning snacks and soda from school campuses and vending machines. Senator Joe Lieberman and Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown, among others, have called for a “fat tax” on high-calorie foods. Congress is now considering menu-labeling legislation, which would force restaurants to send every menu item to the laboratory for nutritional testing. This is the wrong way to fight obesity. Instead of manipu- lating or intervening in the array of food options available to American consumers, our government ought to be working to foster a sense of responsibility in and ownership of our own health and well-being. But we’re doing just the opposite. For decades now, America’s health care system has been migrating toward socialism. Your well-being, shape, and condition have increasingly been deemed matters of “public health,” instead of matters of personal responsibility. Our lawmakers just enacted a huge entitlement that requires some people to pay for other people’s medicine. Senator Hillary Clinton just penned a lengthy article in the New York Times Magazine calling for yet more federal control of health care. All of the Democratic candidates for president boasted plans to push health care further into the public sector. More and more, states are preventing private health insurers from charging overweight and obese clients higher premiums, which effectively removes any financial incentive for maintaining a healthy lifestyle. We’re becoming less responsible for our own health, and more responsible for everyone else’s. Your heart attack drives up the cost of my premiums and office visits. And if the gov- ernment is paying for my anti-cholesterol medication, what incentive is there for me to put down the cheeseburger?


09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 467 11/8/14 3:42 PM


4 6 8

This collective ownership of private health then paves the way for even more federal restrictions on consumer choice and civil liberties. A society where everyone is responsible for every- one else’s well-being is a society more apt to accept government restrictions, for example—on what McDonald’s can put on its menu, what Safeway or Kroger can put on grocery shelves, or holding food companies responsible for the bad habits of unhealthy consumers. A growing army of nutritionist activists and food industry foes are egging the process on. Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest has said, “We’ve got to move beyond ‘personal responsibility.’” The largest organization of trial lawyers now encourages its members to weed jury pools of candidates who show “personal responsibility bias.” The title of

Jennings’s special from last December—“How to Get Fat Without Really Trying”—reveals his intent, which is to relieve viewers of responsibility for their own condition. Indeed, Jennings ended the program with an impassioned plea for government intervention to fight obesity.

The best way to alleviate the obesity “public health” cri- sis is to remove obesity from the realm of public health. It doesn’t belong there anyway. It’s difficult to think of anything more private and of less public concern than what we choose to put into our bodies. It only becomes a public matter when we force the public to pay for the consequences of those choices. If policymakers want to fight obesity, they’ll halt the creep- ing socialization of medicine, and move to return individual Americans’ ownership of their own health and well-being back to individual Americans. That means freeing insurance companies to reward healthy lifestyles, and penalize poor ones. It means halting plans to further socialize medicine and health care. Congress should

For tips on distinguishing what you say

from what others say, as

Balko does here, see Chapter 5.

09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 468 11/8/14 3:42 PM

What You Eat Is Your Business

4 6 9

also increase access to medical and health savings accounts, which give consumers the option of rolling money reserved for health care into a retirement account. These accounts intro- duce accountability into the health care system, and encourage caution with one’s health care dollar. When money we spend on health care doesn’t belong to our employer or the govern- ment, but is money we could devote to our own retirement, we’re less likely to run to the doctor at the first sign of a cold. We’ll all make better choices about diet, exercise, and personal health when someone else isn’t paying for the consequences of those choices.

Joining the Conversation

1. What does Radley Balko claim in this essay? How do you know? What position is he responding to? Cite examples from the text to support your answer.

2. Reread the last sentence of paragraph 1: “In other words, bringing government between you and your waistline.” This is actually a sentence fragment, but it functions as metacom- mentary, inserted by Balko to make sure that readers see his point. Imagine that this statement were not there, and reread the first three paragraphs. Does it make a difference in how you read this piece?

3. Notice the direct quotations in paragraph 7. How has Balko integrated these quotations into his text—how has he intro- duced them, and what, if anything, has he said to explain them and tie them to his own text? Are there any changes you might suggest? How do key terms in the quotations echo one another? (See Chapter 3 for advice on quoting, and pp. 114–16 for help on identifying key terms.)


09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 469 11/8/14 3:42 PM


4 7 0

4. Balko makes his own position about the so-called obesity crisis very clear, but does he consider any of the objections that might be offered to his position? If so, how does he deal with those objections? If not, what objections might he have raised?

5. Write an essay responding to Balko, agreeing, disagreeing, or both agreeing and disagreeing with his position. You might want to cite some of David Zinczenko’s arguments (see pp. 462–65)—depending on what stand you take, Zinczenko’s ideas could serve as support for what you believe or as the source of one possible objection.

09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 470 11/8/14 3:42 PM

4 7 1

The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food



On the evening of April 8, 1999, a long line of Town Cars and taxis pulled up to the Minneapolis headquarters of Pillsbury and discharged 11 men who controlled America’s largest food companies. Nestlé was in attendance, as were Kraft and Nabisco, General Mills and Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola and Mars. Rivals any other day, the C.E.O.’s and company presidents had come together for a rare, private meeting. On the agenda was one item: the emerging obesity epidemic and how to deal with it. While the atmosphere was cordial, the men assembled were hardly friends. Their stature was defined by their skill in fighting one another for what they called “stomach share”—the amount

Michael Moss is a New York Times investigative reporter who won a 2010 Pulitzer Prize for “The Burger That Shattered Her Life,” an article about a young dance instructor who was paralyzed after contracting an E. coli infection. Moss has reported for the Wall Street Journal, New York Newsday, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and taught at the Columbia University School of Journalism. This selection, adapted from his book, Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us (2013), first appeared in the New York Times Magazine on February 24, 2013.

09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 471 11/8/14 3:42 PM


4 7 2

of digestive space that any one company’s brand can grab from the competition. James Behnke, a 55-year-old executive at Pillsbury, greeted the men as they arrived. He was anxious but also hopeful about the plan that he and a few other food-company executives had devised to engage the C.E.O.’s on America’s growing weight problem. “We were very concerned, and rightfully so, that obesity was becoming a major issue,” Behnke recalled. “People were starting to talk about sugar taxes, and there was a lot of pressure on food companies.” Getting the company chiefs in the same room to talk about anything, much less a sensitive issue like this, was a tricky business, so Behnke and his fellow organizers had scripted the meeting carefully, honing the message to its barest essentials. “C.E.O.’s in the food industry are typically not technical guys, and they’re uncomfortable going to meetings where technical people talk in technical terms about technical things,” Behnke said. “They don’t want to be embarrassed. They don’t want to make commitments. They want to maintain their aloofness and autonomy.” A chemist by training with a doctoral degree in food science, Behnke became Pillsbury’s chief technical officer in 1979 and was instrumental in creating a long line of hit products, including microwaveable popcorn. He deeply admired Pillsbury but in recent years had grown troubled by pictures of obese children suffering from diabetes and the earliest signs of hypertension and heart disease. In the months leading up to the C.E.O. meeting, he was engaged in conversation with a group of food-science experts who were painting an increasingly grim picture of the public’s ability to cope with the industry’s formulations—from the body’s fragile controls on overeating to the hidden power of some processed foods to make people feel hungrier still. It was time, he and a handful of others felt,

09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 472 11/8/14 3:42 PM

The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food

4 7 3

to warn the C.E.O.’s that their companies may have gone too far in creating and marketing products that posed the greatest health concerns. The discussion took place in Pillsbury’s auditorium. The first speaker was a vice president of Kraft named Michael Mudd. “I very much appreciate this opportunity to talk to you about childhood obesity and the growing challenge it presents for us all,” Mudd began. “Let me say right at the start, this is not an easy subject. There are no easy answers—for what the public health community must do to bring this problem under control or for what the industry should do as others seek to hold it accountable for what has happened. But this much is clear: For those of us who’ve looked hard at this issue, whether they’re public health professionals or staff specialists in your own companies, we feel sure that the one thing we shouldn’t do is nothing.” As he spoke, Mudd clicked through a deck of slides—114 in all—projected on a large screen behind him. The figures were staggering. More than half of American adults were now considered overweight, with nearly one-quarter of the adult population—40 million people—clinically defined as obese. Among children, the rates had more than doubled since 1980, and the number of kids considered obese had shot past 12 million. (This was still only 1999; the nation’s obesity rates would climb much higher.) Food manufacturers were now being blamed for the problem from all sides—academia, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society. The secretary of agriculture, over whom the industry had long held sway, had recently called obesity a “national epidemic.” Mudd then did the unthinkable. He drew a connection to the last thing in the world the C.E.O.’s wanted linked to their


09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 473 11/8/14 3:42 PM


4 7 4

products: cigarettes. First came a quote from a Yale University professor of psychology and public health, Kelly Brownell, who was an especially vocal proponent of the view that the processed-food industry should be seen as a public health menace: “As a culture, we’ve become upset by the tobacco companies advertising to children, but we sit idly by while the food companies do the very same thing. And we could make a claim that the toll taken on the public health by a poor diet rivals that taken by tobacco.” “If anyone in the food industry ever doubted there was a slippery slope out there,” Mudd said, “I imagine they are beginning to experience a distinct sliding sensation right about now.” Mudd then presented the plan he and others had devised to address the obesity problem. Merely getting the executives to acknowledge some culpability was an important first step, he knew, so his plan would start off with a small but crucial move: the industry should use the expertise of scientists—its own and others—to gain a deeper understanding of what was driving Americans to overeat. Once this was achieved, the effort could unfold on several fronts. To be sure, there would be no getting around the role that packaged foods and drinks play in overconsumption. They would have to pull back on their use of salt, sugar and fat, perhaps by imposing industrywide limits. But it wasn’t just a matter of these three ingredients; the schemes they used to advertise and market their products were critical, too. Mudd proposed creating a “code to guide the nutritional aspects of food marketing, especially to children.” “We are saying that the industry should make a sincere effort to be part of the solution,” Mudd concluded. “And that by doing so, we can help to defuse the criticism that’s building against us.”

09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 474 11/8/14 3:42 PM

The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food

4 7 5

What happened next was not written down. But according to three participants, when Mudd stopped talking, the one C.E.O. whose recent exploits in the grocery store had awed the rest of the industry stood up to speak. His name was Stephen Sanger, and he was also the person—as head of General Mills—who had the most to lose when it came to dealing with obesity. Under his leadership, General Mills had overtaken not just the cereal aisle but other sections of the grocery store. The company’s Yoplait brand had transformed traditional unsweetened breakfast yogurt into a veritable dessert. It now had twice as much sugar per serving as General Mills’ marshmallow cereal Lucky Charms. And yet, because of yogurt’s well-tended image as a wholesome snack,


Traditional unsweetened breakfast yogurt transformed into a veritable dessert.

09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 475 11/8/14 3:42 PM


4 7 6

sales of Yoplait were soaring, with annual revenue topping $500 million. Emboldened by the success, the company’s development wing pushed even harder, inventing a Yoplait variation that came in a squeezable tube—perfect for kids. They called it Go-Gurt and rolled it out nationally in the weeks before the C.E.O. meeting. (By year’s end, it would hit $100 million in sales.) According to the sources I spoke with, Sanger began by reminding the group that consumers were “fickle.” (Sanger declined to be interviewed.) Sometimes they worried about sugar, other times fat. General Mills, he said, acted responsibly to both the public and shareholders by offering products to satisfy dieters and other concerned shoppers, from low sugar to added whole grains. But most often, he said, people bought what they liked, and they liked what tasted good. “Don’t talk to me about nutrition,” he reportedly said, taking on the voice of the typical consumer. “Talk to me about taste, and if this stuff tastes better, don’t run around trying to sell stuff that doesn’t taste good.” To react to the critics, Sanger said, would jeopardize the sanctity of the recipes that had made his products so successful. General Mills would not pull back. He would push his people onward, and he urged his peers to do the same. Sanger’s response effectively ended the meeting. “What can I say?” James Behnke told me years later. “It didn’t work. These guys weren’t as receptive as we thought they would be.” Behnke chose his words deliberately. He wanted to be fair. “Sanger was trying to say, ‘Look, we’re not going to screw around with the company jewels here and change the formulations because a bunch of guys in white coats are worried about obesity.’ ” The meeting was remarkable, first, for the insider admissions of guilt. But I was also struck by how prescient the organizers of the sit-down had been. Today, one in three adults is considered

09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 476 11/8/14 3:43 PM

The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food

4 7 7

clinically obese, along with one in five kids, and 24 million Americans are afflicted by type 2 diabetes, often caused by poor diet, with another 79 million people having pre-diabetes. Even gout, a painful form of arthritis once known as “the rich man’s disease” for its associations with gluttony, now afflicts eight million Americans. The public and the food companies have known for decades now—or at the very least since this meeting—that sugary, salty, fatty foods are not good for us in the quantities that we consume them. So why are the diabetes and obesity and hypertension numbers still spiraling out of control? It’s not just a matter of poor willpower on the part of the consumer and a give- the-people-what-they-want attitude on the part of the food manufacturers. What I found, over four years of research and reporting, was a conscious effort—taking place in labs and mar- keting meetings and grocery-store aisles—to get people hooked on foods that are convenient and inexpensive. I talked to more than 300 people in or formerly employed by the processed-food industry, from scientists to marketers to C.E.O.’s. Some were willing whistle-blowers, while others spoke reluctantly when presented with some of the thousands of pages of secret memos that I obtained from inside the food industry’s operations. What follows is a series of small case studies of a handful of characters whose work then, and perspective now, sheds light on how the foods are created and sold to people who, while not powerless, are extremely vulnerable to the intensity of these companies’ industrial formulations and selling campaigns.

“In This Field, I’m a Game Changer.”

John Lennon couldn’t find it in England, so he had cases of it shipped from New York to fuel the Imagine sessions. The Beach


09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 477 11/8/14 3:43 PM


4 7 8

Boys, ZZ Top and Cher all stipulated in their contract riders that it be put in their dressing rooms when they toured. Hillary Clinton asked for it when she traveled as first lady, and ever after her hotel suites were dutifully stocked. What they all wanted was Dr Pepper, which until 2001 occupied a comfortable third-place spot in the soda aisle behind Coca-Cola and Pepsi. But then a flood of spinoffs from the two soda giants showed up on the shelves—lemons and limes, vanillas and coffees, raspberries and oranges, whites and blues and clears—what in food-industry lingo are known as “line extensions,” and Dr Pepper started to lose its market share. Responding to this pressure, Cadbury Schweppes created its first spin off, other than a diet version, in the soda’s 115-year history, a bright red soda with a very un-Dr Pepper name: Red Fusion. “If we are to re-establish Dr Pepper back to its historic growth rates, we have to add more excitement,” the company’s president, Jack Kilduff, said. One particularly promising market, Kilduff pointed out, was the “rapidly growing Hispanic and African-American communities.” But consumers hated Red Fusion. “Dr Pepper is my all- time favorite drink, so I was curious about the Red Fusion,” a California mother of three wrote on a blog to warn other Peppers away. “It’s disgusting. Gagging. Never again.” Stung by the rejection, Cadbury Schweppes in 2004 turned to a food-industry legend named Howard Moskowitz. Moskowitz, who studied mathematics and holds a Ph.D. in experimental psychology from Harvard, runs a consulting firm in White Plains, where for more than three decades he has “optimized” a variety of products for Campbell Soup, General Foods, Kraft and PepsiCo. “I’ve optimized soups,” Moskowitz told me. “I’ve optimized pizzas. I’ve optimized salad dressings and pickles. In this field, I’m a game changer.”


09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 478 11/8/14 3:43 PM

The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food

4 7 9

In the process of product optimization, food engineers alter a litany of variables with the sole intent of finding the most perfect version (or versions) of a product. Ordinary consum- ers are paid to spend hours sitting in rooms where they touch, feel, sip, smell, swirl and taste whatever product is in question. Their opinions are dumped into a computer, and the data are sifted and sorted through a statistical method called conjoint analysis, which determines what features will be most attractive to consumers. Moskowitz likes to imagine that his computer is divided into silos, in which each of the attributes is stacked. But it’s not simply a matter of comparing Color 23 with Color 24. In the most complicated projects, Color 23 must be combined with Syrup 11 and Packaging 6, and on and on, in seemingly infinite combinations. Even for jobs in which the only concern is taste and the variables are limited to the ingredients, endless charts and graphs will come spewing out of Moskowitz’s com- puter. “The mathematical model maps out the ingredients to the sensory perceptions these ingredients create,” he told me, “so I can just dial a new product. This is the engineering approach.”

4 4 4 I first met Moskowitz on a crisp day in the spring of 2010 at the Harvard Club in Midtown Manhattan. As we talked, he made clear that while he has worked on numerous projects aimed at creating more healthful foods and insists the industry could be doing far more to curb obesity, he had no qualms about his own pioneering work on discovering what industry insiders now regularly refer to as “the bliss point” or any of the other systems that helped food companies create the greatest amount of crave. “There’s no moral issue for me,” he said. “I did the best science I could. I was struggling to survive and didn’t have the luxury of being a moral creature. As a researcher, I was ahead of my time.”

09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 479 11/8/14 3:43 PM


4 8 0

Moskowitz’s path to mastering the bliss point began in earnest not at Harvard but a few months after graduation, 16 miles from Cambridge, in the town of Natick, where the U.S. Army hired him to work in its research labs. The military has long been in a peculiar bind when it comes to food: how to get soldiers to eat more rations when they are in the field. They know that over time, soldiers would gradually find their meals-ready-to-eat so boring that they would toss them away, half-eaten, and not get all the calories they needed. But what was causing this M.R.E.-fatigue was a mystery. “So I started asking soldiers how frequently they would like to eat this or that, trying to figure out which products they would find boring,” Moskowitz said. The answers he got were inconsistent. “They liked flavorful foods like turkey tetrazzini, but only at first; they quickly grew tired of them. On the other hand, mundane foods like white bread would never get them too excited, but they could eat lots and lots of it without feeling they’d had enough.” This contradiction is known as “sensory-specific satiety.” In lay terms, it is the tendency for big, distinct flavors to over- whelm the brain, which responds by depressing your desire to have more. Sensory-specific satiety also became a guiding prin- ciple for the processed-food industry. The biggest hits—be they Coca-Cola or Doritos—owe their success to complex formulas that pique the taste buds enough to be alluring but don’t have a distinct, overriding single flavor that tells the brain to stop eating. Thirty-two years after he began experimenting with the bliss point, Moskowitz got the call from Cadbury Schweppes asking him to create a good line extension for Dr Pepper. I spent an afternoon in his White Plains offices as he and his vice president for research, Michele Reisner, walked me through the


09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 480 11/8/14 3:43 PM

The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food

4 8 1

Dr Pepper campaign. Cadbury wanted its new flavor to have cherry and vanilla on top of the basic Dr Pepper taste. Thus, there were three main components to play with. A sweet cherry flavoring, a sweet vanilla flavoring and a sweet syrup known as “Dr Pepper flavoring.” Finding the bliss point required the preparation of 61 subtly distinct formulas—31 for the regular version and 30 for diet. The formulas were then subjected to 3,904 tastings organized in Los Angeles, Dallas, Chicago and Philadelphia. The Dr Pepper tasters began working through their samples, resting five minutes between each sip to restore their taste buds. After each sample, they gave numerically ranked answers to a set of questions: How much did they like it overall? How strong is the taste? How do they feel about the taste? How would they describe the quality of this product? How likely would they be to purchase this product? Moskowitz’s data—compiled in a 135-page report for the soda maker—is tremendously fine-grained, showing how different people and groups of people feel about a strong vanilla taste versus weak, various aspects of aroma and the powerful sensory force that food scientists call “mouth feel.” This is the way a product interacts with the mouth, as defined more specifically by a host of related sensations, from dryness to gumminess to moisture release. These are terms more familiar to sommeliers, but the mouth feel of soda and many other food items, especially those high in fat, is second only to the bliss point in its ability to predict how much craving a product will induce. In addition to taste, the consumers were also tested on their response to color, which proved to be highly sensitive. “When we increased the level of the Dr Pepper flavoring, it gets darker and liking goes off,” Reisner said. These preferences can also be cross-referenced by age, sex and race.

09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 481 11/8/14 3:43 PM


4 8 2

On page 83 of the report, a thin blue line represents the amount of Dr Pepper flavoring needed to generate maximum appeal. The line is shaped like an upside-down U, just like the bliss-point curve that Moskowitz studied 30 years earlier in his Army lab. And at the top of the arc, there is not a single sweet spot but instead a sweet range, within which “bliss” was achievable. This meant that Cadbury could edge back on its key ingredient, the sugary Dr Pepper syrup, without falling out of the range and losing the bliss. Instead of using 2 milliliters of the flavoring, for instance, they could use 1.69 milliliters and achieve the same effect. The potential savings is merely a few percentage points, and it won’t mean much to individual consumers who are counting calories or grams of sugar. But for Dr Pepper, it adds up to colossal savings. “That looks like nothing,” Reisner said. “But it’s a lot of money. A lot of money. Millions.” The soda that emerged from all of Moskowitz’s variations became known as Cherry Vanilla Dr Pepper, and it proved successful beyond anything Cadbury imagined. In 2008, Cadbury split off its soft-drinks business, which included Snapple and 7-Up. The Dr Pepper Snapple Group has since been valued in excess of $11 billion.

4 4 4

“It’s Called Vanishing Caloric Density.”

At a symposium for nutrition scientists in Los Angeles on February 15, 1985, a professor of pharmacology from Helsinki named Heikki Karppanen told the remarkable story of Finland’s effort to address its salt habit. In the late 1970s, the Finns were consuming huge amounts of sodium, eating on average more than two teaspoons of salt a day. As a result, the country had developed significant issues with high


09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 482 11/8/14 3:43 PM

The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food

4 8 3

blood pressure, and men in the eastern part of Finland had the highest rate of fatal cardiovascular disease in the world. Research showed that this plague was not just a quirk of genetics or a result of a sedentary lifestyle—it was also owing to processed foods. So when Finnish authorities moved to address the problem, they went right after the manufacturers. (The Finnish response worked. Every grocery item that was heavy in salt would come to be marked prominently with the warning “High Salt Content.” By 2007, Finland’s per capita consumption of salt had dropped by a third, and this shift— along with improved medical care—was accompanied by a 75 percent to 80 percent decline in the number of deaths from strokes and heart disease.) Karppanen’s presentation was met with applause, but one man in the crowd seemed particularly intrigued by the presen- tation, and as Karppanen left the stage, the man intercepted him and asked if they could talk more over dinner. Their con- versation later that night was not at all what Karppanen was expecting. His host did indeed have an interest in salt, but from quite a different vantage point: the man’s name was Robert I-San Lin, and from 1974 to 1982, he worked as the chief sci- entist for Frito-Lay, the nearly $3-billion-a-year manufacturer of Lay’s, Doritos, Cheetos and Fritos. Lin’s time at Frito-Lay coincided with the first attacks by nutrition advocates on salty foods and the first calls for federal regulators to reclassify salt as a “risky” food additive, which could have subjected it to severe controls. No company took this threat more seriously—or more personally—than Frito- Lay, Lin explained to Karppanen over their dinner. Three years after he left Frito-Lay, he was still anguished over his inability to effectively change the company’s recipes and practices.

09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 483 11/8/14 3:43 PM


4 8 4

By chance, I ran across a letter that Lin sent to Karppanen three weeks after that dinner, buried in some files to which I had gained access. Attached to the letter was a memo written when Lin was at Frito-Lay, which detailed some of the company’s efforts in defending salt. I tracked Lin down in Irvine, California, where we spent several days going through the internal company memos, strategy papers and handwritten notes he had kept. The documents were evidence of the concern that Lin had for consumers and of the company’s intent on using science not to address the health concerns but to thwart them. While at Frito-Lay, Lin and other company scientists spoke openly about the country’s excessive consumption of sodium and the fact that, as Lin said to me on more than one occasion, “people get addicted to salt.” Not much had changed by 1986, except Frito-Lay found itself on a rare cold streak. The company had introduced a series of high-profile products that failed miserably. Toppels, a cracker with cheese topping; Stuffers, a shell with a variety of fillings; Rumbles, a bite-size granola snack—they all came and went in a blink, and the company took a $52 million hit. Around that time, the marketing team was joined by Dwight Riskey, an expert on cravings who had been a fellow at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, where he was part of a team of scientists that found that people could beat their salt habits simply by refraining from salty foods long enough for their taste buds to return to a normal level of sensitivity. He had also done work on the bliss point, showing how a product’s allure is contextual, shaped partly by the other foods a person is eating, and that it changes as people age. This seemed to help explain why Frito-Lay was having so much trouble selling new snacks. The largest


09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 484 11/8/14 3:43 PM

The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food

4 8 5

single block of customers, the baby boomers, had begun hit- ting middle age. According to the research, this suggested that their liking for salty snacks—both in the concentration of salt and how much they ate—would be tapering off. Along with the rest of the snack-food industry, Frito-Lay anticipated lower sales because of an aging population, and marketing plans were adjusted to focus even more intently on younger consumers. Except that snack sales didn’t decline as everyone had projected, Frito-Lay’s doomed product launches notwith- standing. Poring over data one day in his home office, trying to understand just who was consuming all the snack food, Riskey realized that he and his colleagues had been misreading things all along. They had been measuring the snacking habits of different age groups and were seeing what they expected to see, that older consumers ate less than those in their 20s. But what they weren’t measuring, Riskey realized, is how those snacking habits of the boomers compared to themselves when they were in their 20s. When he called up a new set of sales data and performed what’s called a cohort study, following a single group over time, a far more encouraging picture—for Frito-Lay, anyway—emerged. The baby boomers were not eating fewer salty snacks as they aged. “In fact, as those people aged, their consumption of all those segments—the cookies, the crackers, the candy, the chips—was going up,” Riskey said. “They were not only eating what they ate when they were younger, they were eating more of it.” In fact, everyone in the country, on average, was eating more salty snacks than they used to. The rate of consumption was edging up about one-third of a pound every year, with the average intake of snacks like chips and cheese crackers pushing past 12 pounds a year.

09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 485 11/8/14 3:43 PM


4 8 6

Riskey had a theory about what caused this surge: Eating real meals had become a thing of the past. Baby boomers, especially, seemed to have greatly cut down on regular meals. They were skipping breakfast when they had early-morning meetings. They skipped lunch when they then needed to catch up on work because of those meetings. They skipped dinner when their kids stayed out late or grew up and moved out of the house. And when they skipped these meals, they replaced them with snacks. “We looked at this behavior, and said, ‘Oh, my gosh, people were skipping meals right and left,’ ” Riskey told me. “It was amazing.” This led to the next realization, that baby boomers did not represent “a category that is mature, with no growth. This is a category that has huge growth potential.” The food technicians stopped worrying about inventing new products and instead embraced the industry’s most reliable method for getting consumers to buy more: the line extension. The classic Lay’s potato chips were joined by Salt & Vinegar, Salt & Pepper and Cheddar & Sour Cream. They put out Chili- Cheese-flavored Fritos, and Cheetos were transformed into 21 varieties. Frito-Lay had a formidable research complex near Dallas, where nearly 500 chemists, psychologists and techni- cians conducted research that cost up to $30 million a year, and the science corps focused intense amounts of resources on questions of crunch, mouth feel and aroma for each of these items. Their tools included a $40,000 device that simulated a chewing mouth to test and perfect the chips, discovering things like the perfect break point: people like a chip that snaps with about four pounds of pressure per square inch. To get a better feel for their work, I called on Steven Witherly, a food scientist who wrote a fascinating guide for industry insiders titled, “Why Humans Like Junk Food.” I brought him two shopping bags filled with a variety of chips

09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 486 11/8/14 3:43 PM

The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food

4 8 7

to taste. He zeroed right in on the Cheetos. “This,” Witherly said, “is one of the most marvelously constructed foods on the planet, in terms of pure pleasure.” He ticked off a dozen attributes of the Cheetos that make the brain say more. But the one he focused on most was the puff’s uncanny ability to melt in the mouth. “It’s called vanishing caloric density,” Witherly said. “If something melts down quickly, your brain thinks that there’s no calories in it . . . you can just keep eating it forever.” As for their marketing troubles, in a March 2010 meeting, Frito-Lay executives hastened to tell their Wall Street investors that the 1.4 billion boomers worldwide weren’t being neglected; they were redoubling their efforts to understand exactly what


The industry’s most reliable method for getting consumers to buy more: the line extension.

09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 487 11/8/14 3:43 PM


4 8 8

it was that boomers most wanted in a snack chip. Which was basically everything: great taste, maximum bliss but minimal guilt about health and more maturity than puffs. “They snack a lot,” Frito-Lay’s chief marketing officer, Ann Mukherjee, told the investors. “But what they’re looking for is very dif- ferent. They’re looking for new experiences, real food experi- ences.” Frito-Lay acquired Stacy’s Pita Chip Company, which was started by a Massachusetts couple who made food-cart sandwiches and started serving pita chips to their customers in the mid-1990s. In Frito-Lay’s hands, the pita chips aver- aged 270 milligrams of sodium—nearly one-fifth a whole day’s recommended maximum for most American adults—and were a huge hit among boomers. The Frito-Lay executives also spoke of the company’s ongo- ing pursuit of a “designer sodium,” which they hoped, in the near future, would take their sodium loads down by 40 percent. No need to worry about lost sales there, the company’s C.E.O., Al Carey, assured their investors. The boomers would see less salt as the green light to snack like never before. There’s a paradox at work here. On the one hand, reduction of sodium in snack foods is commendable. On the other, these changes may well result in consumers eating

more. “The big thing that will happen here is removing the barriers for boomers and giving them permission to snack,” Carey said. The prospects for lower-salt snacks were so amazing, he added,

that the company had set its sights on using the designer salt to conquer the toughest market of all for snacks: schools. He cited, for example, the school-food initiative championed by Bill Clinton and the American Heart Association, which is seeking to improve the nutrition of school food by limiting its load of salt, sugar and fat. “Imagine this,” Carey said.

See Chapter 4 for ways to agree and

disagree simultaneously.

09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 488 11/8/14 3:43 PM

The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food

4 8 9

“A potato chip that tastes great and qualifies for the Clinton-A.H.A. alliance for schools. . . . We think we have ways to do all of this on a potato chip, and imagine getting that product into schools, where children can have this product and grow up with it and feel good about eating it.” Carey’s quote reminded me of something I read in the early stages of my reporting, a 24-page report prepared for Frito-Lay in 1957 by a psychologist named Ernest Dichter. The company’s chips, he wrote, were not selling as well as they could for one simple reason: “While people like and enjoy potato chips, they feel guilty about liking them. . . . Unconsciously, people expect to be punished for ‘letting themselves go’ and enjoying them.” Dichter listed seven “fears and resistances” to the chips: “You can’t stop eating them; they’re fattening; they’re not good for you; they’re greasy and messy to eat; they’re too expensive; it’s hard to store the leftovers; and they’re bad for children.” He spent the rest of his memo laying out his prescriptions, which in time would become widely used not just by Frito-Lay but also by the entire industry. Dichter suggested that Frito-Lay avoid using the word “fried” in referring to its chips and adopt instead the more healthful-sounding term “toasted.” To coun- teract the “fear of letting oneself go,” he suggested repacking the chips into smaller bags. “The more-anxious consumers, the ones who have the deepest fears about their capacity to control their appetite, will tend to sense the function of the new pack and select it,” he said. Dichter advised Frito-Lay to move its chips out of the realm of between-meals snacking and turn them into an ever-present item in the American diet. “The increased use of potato chips and other Lay’s products as a part of the regular fare served by restaurants and sandwich bars should be encouraged in a concentrated way,” Dichter said, citing a string of examples:

09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 489 11/8/14 3:43 PM


4 9 0

“potato chips with soup, with fruit or vegetable juice appetiz- ers; potato chips served as a vegetable on the main dish; potato chips with salad; potato chips with egg dishes for breakfast; potato chips with sandwich orders.” In 2011, The New England Journal of Medicine published a study that shed new light on America’s weight gain. The subjects—120,877 women and men—were all professionals in the health field, and were likely to be more conscious about nutrition, so the findings might well understate the overall trend. Using data back to 1986, the researchers monitored everything the participants ate, as well as their physical activity and smoking. They found that every four years, the participants exercised less, watched TV more and gained an average of 3.35 pounds. The researchers parsed the data by the caloric content of the foods being eaten, and found the top contributors to weight gain included red meat and processed meats, sugar-sweetened beverages and potatoes, including mashed and French fries. But the largest weight-inducing food was the potato chip. The coating of salt, the fat content that rewards the brain with instant feelings of pleasure, the sugar that exists not as an additive but in the starch of the potato itself—all of this combines to make it the perfect addictive food. “The starch is readily absorbed,” Eric Rimm, an associate professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health and one of the study’s authors, told me. “More quickly even than a similar amount of sugar. The starch, in turn, causes the glucose levels in the blood to spike”—which can result in a craving for more. If Americans snacked only occasionally, and in small amounts, this would not present the enormous problem that it does. But because so much money and effort has been invested over decades in engineering and then relentlessly selling these products, the effects are seemingly impossible to unwind. More


09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 490 11/8/14 3:43 PM

The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food

4 9 1

than 30 years have passed since Robert Lin first tangled with Frito-Lay on the imperative of the company to deal with the formulation of its snacks, but as we sat at his dining-room table, sifting through his records, the feelings of regret still played on his face. In his view, three decades had been lost, time that he and a lot of other smart scientists could have spent searching for ways to ease the addiction to salt, sugar and fat. “I couldn’t do much about it,” he told me. “I feel so sorry for the public.”

“These People Need a Lot of Things, But They Don’t Need a Coke.”

The growing attention Americans are paying to what they put into their mouths has touched off a new scramble by the processed-food companies to address health concerns. Pressed by the Obama administration and consumers, Kraft, Nestlé, Pepsi, Campbell and General Mills, among others, have begun to trim the loads of salt, sugar and fat in many products. And with consumer advocates pushing for more government inter- vention, Coca-Cola made headlines in January by releasing ads that promoted its bottled water and low-calorie drinks as a way to counter obesity. Predictably, the ads drew a new volley of scorn from critics who pointed to the company’s continuing drive to sell sugary Coke. One of the other executives I spoke with at length was Jeffrey Dunn, who, in 2001, at age 44, was directing more than half of Coca-Cola’s $20 billion in annual sales as president and chief operating officer in both North and South America. In an effort to control as much market share as possible, Coke extended its aggressive marketing to especially poor or vulnerable areas of the U.S., like New Orleans—where people were drinking twice as much Coke as the national average—or Rome, Georgia, where

09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 491 11/8/14 3:43 PM


4 9 2

the per capita intake was nearly three Cokes a day. In Coke’s headquarters in Atlanta, the biggest consumers were referred to as “heavy users.” “The other model we use was called ‘drinks and drinkers,’ ” Dunn said. “How many drinkers do I have? And how many drinks do they drink? If you lost one of those heavy users, if somebody just decided to stop drinking Coke, how many drinkers would you have to get, at low velocity, to make up for that heavy user? The answer is a lot. It’s more efficient to get my existing users to drink more.” One of Dunn’s lieutenants, Todd Putman, who worked at Coca-Cola from 1997 to 2001, said the goal became much larger than merely beating the rival brands; Coca-Cola strove to out- sell every other thing people drank, including milk and water. The marketing division’s efforts boiled down to one question, Putman said: “How can we drive more ounces into more bod- ies more often?” (In response to Putman’s remarks, Coke said its goals have changed and that it now focuses on providing consumers with more low- or no-calorie products.) In his capacity, Dunn was making frequent trips to Brazil, where the company had recently begun a push to increase consumption of Coke among the many Brazilians living in [the slums known as] favelas. The company’s strategy was to repackage Coke into smaller, more affordable 6.7-ounce bottles, just 20 cents each. Coke was not alone in seeing Brazil as a potential boon; Nestlé began deploying battalions of women to travel poor neighborhoods, hawking American-style processed foods door to door. But Coke was Dunn’s concern, and on one trip, as he walked through one of the impoverished areas, he had an epiphany. “A voice in my head says, ‘These people need a lot of things, but they don’t need a Coke.’ I almost threw up.” Dunn returned to Atlanta, determined to make some changes. He didn’t want to abandon the soda business, but


09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 492 11/8/14 3:43 PM

The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food

4 9 3

he did want to try to steer the company into a more healthful mode, and one of the things he pushed for was to stop market- ing Coke in public schools. The independent companies that bottled Coke viewed his plans as reactionary. A director of one bottler wrote a letter to Coke’s chief executive and board asking for Dunn’s head. “He said what I had done was the worst thing he had seen in 50 years in the business,” Dunn said. “Just to placate these crazy leftist school districts who were trying to keep people from having their Coke. He said I was an embar- rassment to the company, and I should be fired.” In February 2004, he was. Dunn told me that talking about Coke’s business today was by no means easy and, because he continues to work in the food business, not without risk. “You really don’t want them mad at you,” he said. “And I don’t mean that, like, I’m going to end up at the bottom of the bay. But they don’t have a sense of humor when it comes to this stuff. They’re a very, very aggres- sive company.” When I met with Dunn, he told me not just about his years at Coke but also about his new marketing venture. In April 2010, he met with three executives from Madison Dearborn Partners, a private-equity firm based in Chicago with a wide-ranging portfolio of investments. They recently hired Dunn to run one of their newest acquisitions—a food producer in the San Joaquin Valley. As they sat in the hotel’s meeting room, the men listened to Dunn’s marketing pitch. He talked about giving the product a personality that was bold and irreverent, conveying the idea that this was the ultimate snack food. He went into detail on how he would target a special segment of the 146 million Americans who are regular snackers—mothers, children, young professionals— people, he said, who “keep their snacking ritual fresh by trying a new food product when it catches their attention.”

09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 493 11/8/14 3:43 PM


4 9 4

He explained how he would deploy strategic storytelling in the ad campaign for this snack, using a key phrase that had been developed with much calculation: “Eat ’Em Like Junk Food.” After 45 minutes, Dunn clicked off the last slide and thanked the men for coming. Madison’s portfolio contained the largest Burger King franchise in the world, the Ruth’s Chris Steak House chain and a processed-food maker called AdvancePierre whose lineup includes the Jamwich, a peanut-butter-and-jelly contrivance that comes frozen, crustless and embedded with four kinds of sugars. The snack that Dunn was proposing to sell: carrots. Plain, fresh carrots. No added sugar. No creamy sauce or dips. No salt. Just baby carrots, washed, bagged, then sold into the deadly dull produce aisle. “We act like a snack, not a vegetable,” he told the investors. “We exploit the rules of junk food to fuel the baby-carrot con- versation. We are pro-junk-food behavior but anti-junk-food establishment.” The investors were thinking only about sales. They had already bought one of the two biggest farm producers of baby carrots in the country, and they’d hired Dunn to run the whole operation. Now, after his pitch, they were relieved. Dunn had figured out that using the industry’s own marketing ploys would work better than anything else. He drew from the bag of tricks that he mastered in his 20 years at Coca-Cola, where he learned one of the most critical rules in processed food: The selling of food matters as much as the food itself. Later, describing his new line of work, Dunn told me he was doing penance for his Coca-Cola years. “I’m paying my karmic debt,” he said.


09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 494 11/8/14 3:43 PM

The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food

4 9 5

Joining the Conversation

1. Michael Moss provides three examples of scientific research on junk food and its effects. What common denominator links these examples? What makes the science of addictive junk food so extraordinary?

2. Moss opens this essay by describing a meeting that the lead- ers of several major food companies held to discuss the obe- sity epidemic and how to respond to it. Why do you think he begins with this story? How does it set the stage for the rest of the piece?

3. Moss is able to present complex technical information so that nonscientists can understand it. One way he does this is by using colloquial language to explain technical terms such as “product optimization,” “bliss point,” and “sensory- specific satiety.” This technique helps us understand his topic, but how also does it make his argument interesting— and persuasive?

4. Moss reports that the major food companies hire experts to make their products as appealing as possible. Similarly, on pp. 496–505, Marion Nestle discusses ways that psychologists and marketing specialists help supermarkets arrange items to increase their appeal and boost sales. Now that you know about these tactics, what are some specific actions you can take to guard against manipulation when you shop for food?

5. If Jeffrey Dunn could turn carrots into “the ultimate snack food” (paragraph 53) what other healthy foods could be simi- larly transformed? Beets? Kale? What else? Write an essay proposing such a product. Use the “they say/I say” format, perhaps quoting or summarizing something said in Moss’s essay as your “they say.”

09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 495 11/8/14 3:43 PM

4 9 6

The Supermarket: Prime Real Estate



A visit to a large supermarket can be a daunting experience: so many aisles, so many brands and varieties, so many prices to keep track of and labels to read, so many choices to make. No wonder. To repeat: An astonishing 320,000 edible products are for sale in the United States, and any large supermarket might display as many as 40,000 of them. You are supposed to feel daunted—bewildered by all the choices and forced to wander through the aisles in search of the items you came to buy. The big companies that own most supermarkets want you to do as much searching as you can tolerate. It is no coincidence that one supermarket is laid out much like another: breathtaking amounts of research have gone into designing these places.

Marion Nestle teaches in the department of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University. She writes a monthly column on food for the San Francisco Chronicle and blogs at Her many books include Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (2003) and What to Eat: An Aisle-by-Aisle Guide to Savvy Food Choices and Good Eating (2006), from which this essay is taken.

09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 496 11/8/14 3:43 PM

The Supermarket: Prime Real Estate

4 9 7

There are precise reasons why milk is at the back of the store and the center aisles are so long. You are forced to go past thousands of other products on your way to get what you need. Supermarkets say they are in the business of offering “choice.” Perhaps, but they do everything possible to make the choice theirs, not yours. Supermarkets are not social service agencies providing food for the hungry. Their job is to sell food, and more of it. From their perspective, it is your problem if what you buy makes you eat more food than you need, and more of the wrong kinds of foods in particular. And supermarket retailers know more than you could possibly imagine about how to push your “buy” buttons. Half a century ago, Vance Packard revealed their secrets in his book The Hidden Persuaders. His most shocking revelation? Corporations were hiring social scientists to study unconscious

09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 497 11/8/14 3:43 PM


4 9 8

human emotions, not for the good of humanity but to help companies manipulate people into buying products. Packard’s chapter on supermarket shopping, “Babes in Consumerland,” is as good a guide as anything that has been written since to methods for getting you—and your children—to “reach out, hypnotically . . . and grab boxes of cookies, candies, dog food, and everything else that delights or interests [you].” More recent research on consumer behavior not only confirms his observations but continues to be awe-inspiring in its meticulous attention to detail. Your local library has entire textbooks and academic journals devoted to investigations of consumer behavior and ways to use the results of that research to sell products. Researchers are constantly interviewing shoppers and listening carefully to what they are told. Because of scanners, supermarkets can now track your purchases and compare what you tell researchers to what you actually buy. If you belong to a supermarket discount “shoppers club,” the store gains your loyalty but gets to track your personal buying habits in exchange. This research tells food retailers how to lay out the stores, where to put specific products, how to position products on shelves, and how to set prices and advertise products. At the supermarket, you exercise freedom of choice and personal responsibility every time you put an item in your shopping cart, but massive efforts have gone into making it more convenient and desirable for you to choose some products rather than others. As basic marketing textbooks explain, the object of the game is to “maximize sales and profit consistent with customer convenience.” Translated, this means that supermarkets want to expose you to the largest possible number of items that you

can stand to see, without annoying you so much that you run screaming from the store. This strategy is based on research proving that “the rate of exposure is


See Chapter 3 for tips on

how to frame quotations.

09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 498 11/8/14 3:43 PM

The Supermarket: Prime Real Estate

4 9 9

directly related to the rate of sale of merchandise.” In other words, the more you see, the more you buy. Supermarkets dearly wish they could expose you to every single item they carry, every time you shop. Terrific as that might be for your walking regimen, you are unlikely to endure having to trek through interminable aisles to find the few items you came in for—and retailers know it. This conflict creates a serious dilemma for the stores. They have to figure out how to get you to walk up and down those aisles for as long as possible, but not so long that you get frustrated. To resolve the dilemma, the stores make some compromises—but as few as possible. Overall, supermarket design follows fundamental rules, all of them based firmly on extensive research.

• Place the highest-selling food departments in the parts of the store that get the greatest flow of traffic—the periphery. Perishables—meat, produce, dairy, and frozen foods—generate the most sales, so put them against the back and side walls.

• Use the aisle nearest the entrance for items that sell especially well on impulse or look or smell enticing—produce, flowers, or freshly baked bread, for example. These must be the first things customers see in front or immediately to the left or right (the direction, according to researchers, doesn’t matter).

• Use displays at the ends of aisles for high-profit, heavily advertised items likely to be bought on impulse.

• Place high-profit, center-aisle food items sixty inches above the floor where they are easily seen by adults, with or without eyeglasses.

• Devote as much shelf space as possible to brands that generate frequent sales; the more shelf space they occupy, the better they sell.

09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 499 11/8/14 3:43 PM


5 0 0

• Place store brands immediately to the right of those high- traffic items (people read from left to right), so that the name brands attract shoppers to the store brands too.

• Avoid using “islands.” These make people bump into each other and want to move on. Keep the traffic moving, but slowly.

• Do not create gaps in the aisles that allow customers to cross over to the next one unless the aisles are so long that shoppers complain. If shoppers can escape mid-aisle, they will miss seeing half the products along that route.

Additional principles, equally well researched, guide every other aspect of supermarket design: product selection, place- ment on shelves, and display. The guiding principle of super- market layout is the same: products seen most sell best. Think of the supermarket as a particularly intense real estate market in which every product competes fiercely against every other for precious space. Because you can see products most easily at eye level, at the ends of aisles, and at the checkout counters, these areas are prime real estate. Which products get the prime space? The obvious answer: the ones most profitable for the store. But store profitability is not simply a matter of the price charged for a product compared to its costs. Stores also col- lect revenue by “renting” real estate to the companies whose products they sell. Product placement depends on a system of “incentives” that sometimes sound suspiciously like bribes. Food companies pay supermarkets “slotting fees” for the shelf space they occupy. The rates are highest for premium, high-traffic space, such as the shelves near cash registers. Supermarkets demand and get additional sources of revenue from food compa- nies in “trade allowances,” guarantees that companies will buy local advertising for the products for which they pay slotting

09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 500 11/8/14 3:43 PM

The Supermarket: Prime Real Estate

5 0 1

fees. The local advertising, of course, helps to make sure that products in prime real estate sell quickly. This unsavory system puts retail food stores in firm control of the marketplace. They make the decisions about which products to sell and, therefore, which products you buy. This system goes beyond a simple matter of supply and demand. The stores create demand by putting some products where you cannot miss them. These are often “junk” foods full of cheap, shelf-stable ingredients like hydrogenated oils and corn sweeteners, made and promoted by giant food companies that can afford slotting fees, trade allowances, and advertising. This is why entire aisles of prime supermarket real estate are devoted to soft drinks, salty snacks, and sweetened breakfast cereals, and why you can always find candy next to cash registers. Any new product that comes into a store must come with guaranteed advertising, coupons, discounts, slotting fees, and other such incentives. Slotting fees emerged in the 1980s as a way for stores to cover the added costs of dealing with new products: shelving, tracking inventory, and removing products that do not sell. But the system is so corrupt and so secret that Congress held hearings about it in 1999. The industry people who testified at those hearings were so afraid of retribution that they wore hoods and used gadgets to prevent voice recognition. The General Accounting Office, the congressional watchdog agency (now called the Government Accountability Office), was asked to do its own investigation but got nowhere because the retail food industry refused to cooperate. The defense of the current system by both the retailers who demand the fees and the companies that agree to pay them comes at a high cost—out of your pocket. You pay for this system in at least three ways: higher prices at the supermarket;


09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 501 11/8/14 3:43 PM


5 0 2

taxes that in part compensate for business tax deductions that food companies are allowed to t ake for slotting fees and advertising; and the costs of treating illnesses that might result from consuming more profitable but less healthful food products. In 2005, supermarkets sold more than $350 billion worth of food in the United States, but this level of sales does not stop them from complaining about low after-tax profit margins— just 1 to 3 percent of sales. One percent of $350 billion is $3.5 billion, of course, but by some corporate standards that amount is too little to count. In any case, corporations have to grow to stay viable, so corporate pressures on supermarkets to increase sales are unrelenting. The best way to expand sales, say researchers, is to increase the size of the selling area and the number of items offered. Supermarkets do both. In the last de cade, mergers and acquisitions have turned the top- ranking supermarkets—Kroger, Albertsons, and Safeway— into companies with annual sales of $56, $40, and $36 billion, respectively. Small chains, like Whole Foods and Wegmans, have sales in the range of just $4 billion a year. But sales brought in by these small chains are peanuts compared to those of the store that now dominates the entire retail food marketplace: Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart sold $284 billion worth of goods in 2005. Groceries accounted for about one- quarter of that amount, but that meant $64 billion, and rising. Many food companies do a third of their business with this one retailer. Wal-Mart does not have to demand slotting fees. If a food company wants its products to be in Wal-Mart, it has to offer rock-bottom prices. Low prices sound good for people without much money, but nutritionally, there’s a catch. Low prices encourage everyone to buy more food in bigger packages. If you buy more, you are quite likely to eat more. And if you eat more, you are more likely to gain weight and become less healthy.

09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 502 11/8/14 3:43 PM

The Supermarket: Prime Real Estate

5 0 3

Food retailers argue that if you eat too much it is your prob- lem, not theirs. But they are in the business of encouraging you to buy more food, not less. Take the matter of package size and price. I often talk to business groups about such matters and at a program for food executives at Cornell University, I received a barrage of questions about where personal responsibility fits into this picture. One supermarket manager insisted that his store does not force customers to buy Pepsi in big bottles. He also offers Pepsi in 8-ounce cans. The sizes and prices are best shown in a Table.

Price of Pepsi-Cola, P&C Market, Ithaca, New York, July 2005

Container Size Total Ounces Price Price per Quart

2-liter bottle 67 $1.49 $0.71

24-ounce bottles (6-pack) 144 $3.00* $0.67

16-ounce bottles (6-pack) 96 $2.99 $1.00

12-ounce cans (12-pack) 144 $4.49 $1.00

8-ounce cans (6-pack) 48 $2.25 $1.50

*This is with a P&C store membership “Wild Card.”

In this store, the 2-liter container and the special-for- members 6-pack of 24-ounce bottles were less than half the cost of the equivalent volume in 8-ounce cans. Supermarket managers tell me that this kind of pricing is not the store’s problem. If you want smaller sizes, you should be willing to pay more for them. But if you care about how much you get for a price, you are likely to pick the larger sizes. And if you buy the larger sizes, you are likely to drink more Pepsi and take in more calories; the 8-ounce cans of Pepsi contain 100 calories each, but the 2-liter bottle holds 800 calories. Sodas of any size are cheap because they are mostly water and corn sweeteners—water is practically free, and your taxes


09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 503 11/8/14 3:43 PM


5 0 4

pay to subsidize corn production. This makes the cost of the ingredients trivial compared to labor and packaging, so the larger sizes are more profitable to the manufacturer and to the stores. The choice is yours, but anyone would have a hard time choosing a more expensive version of a product when a cheaper one is right there. Indeed, you have to be strong and courageous to hold out for healthier choices in the supermarket system as it currently exists. You could, of course, bring a shopping list, but good luck sticking to it. Research says that about 70 percent of shoppers bring lists into supermarkets, but only about 10 percent adhere to them. Even with a list, most shoppers pick up two additional items for every item on it. The additions are “in-store decisions,” or impulse buys. Stores directly appeal to your senses to distract you from worrying about lists. They hope you will:

• Listen to the background music. The slower the beat, the longer you will tarry.

• Search for the “loss leaders” (the items you always need, like meat, coffee, or bananas, that are offered at or below their actual cost). The longer you search, the more products you will see.

• Go to the bakery, prepared foods, and deli sections; the sights and good smells will keep you lingering and encourage sales.

• Taste the samples that companies are giving away. If you like what you taste, you are likely to buy it.

• Put your kids in the play areas; the longer they play there, the more time you have to walk those tempting aisles.

If you find yourself in a supermarket buying on impulse and not minding it a bit, you are behaving exactly the way store managers want you to. You will be buying the products they

09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 504 11/8/14 3:43 PM

The Supermarket: Prime Real Estate

5 0 5

have worked long and hard to make most attractive and con- venient for you—and most profitable for them.

Joining the Conversation

1. The title of this essay tells us the topic: supermarkets. The subtitle adds some metacommentary, telling us Nestle’s main point. What is the main point?

2. Why, according to Nestle, do supermarket chains invest so heavily in consumer research? What does she claim are the results of this research? Give two or three examples from her text.

3. Writers often use metacommentary to explain something they’ve said, to elaborate on an idea, or to offer other such guidance. Paragraph 5 includes two examples of metacom- mentary, in the second and fourth sentences. What purposes do these sentences serve? Find several other instances of metacommentary in this essay and explain their purposes. See Chapter 10 for more on metacommentary.

4. According to Nestle, food retailers say that if we eat too much, it’s our problem, “not theirs.” What do you think David Zinczenko would say to that (pp. 462−65)?

5. Reread Nestle’s article and then do some of your own field research. Visit a supermarket and see if Nestle’s observations hold true: what’s the first thing you see? What products are at the end of the aisles? Which ones are at eye level? Is there music with a slow beat—and if so, does it make you linger? Then write an essay agreeing, disagreeing, or both agreeing and disagreeing with Nestle. If you agree, you’ll still need to bring something new to the conversation, drawing from your own observations or insights.

09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 505 11/8/14 3:43 PM

5 0 6

How Junk Food Can End Obesity

D A V I D H . F R E E D M A N


Demonizing processed food may be dooming many to obesity and disease. Could embracing the drive-thru make us all healthier?

Late last year, in a small health-food eatery called Cafe Sprouts in Oberlin, Ohio, I had what may well have been the most wholesome beverage of my life. The friendly server patiently guided me to an apple-blueberry-kale-carrot smoothie-juice combination, which she spent the next several minutes preparing, mostly by shepherding farm-fresh produce into machinery. The result was tasty, but at 300 calories (by my rough calculation) in a 16-ounce cup, it was more than my diet could regularly absorb without consequences, nor was I about to make a habit of $9 shakes, healthy or not.

David H. Freedman is the author of Wrong: Why Experts Keep Failing Us—and How to Know When Not to Trust Them (2010) and the coauthor, with Eric Abrahamson, of A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder (2007). He is a contributing editor at the Atlantic and Inc. magazines and is widely published on issues relating to science, technology, and health care. He blogs at This essay first appeared in the July/August 2013 issue of the Atlantic.

09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 506 11/8/14 3:43 PM

How Junk Food Can End Obesity

5 0 7

Inspired by the experience nonetheless, I tried again two months later at L.A.’s Real Food Daily, a popular vegan res- taurant near Hollywood. I was initially wary of a low-calorie juice made almost entirely from green vegetables, but the server assured me it was a popular treat. I like to brag that I can eat anything, and I scarf down all sorts of raw vegetables like candy, but I could stomach only about a third of this oddly foamy, bitter concoction. It smelled like lawn clippings and tasted like liquid celery. It goes for $7.95, and I waited 10 minutes for it. I finally hit the sweet spot just a few weeks later, in Chicago, with a delicious blueberry-pomegranate smoothie that rang in at a relatively modest 220 calories. It cost $3 and took only seconds to make. Best of all, I’ll be able to get this concoction just about anywhere. Thanks, McDonald’s! If only the McDonald’s smoothie weren’t, unlike the first two, so fattening and unhealthy. Or at least that’s what the most-prom- inent voices in our food culture today would have you believe.

09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 507 11/8/14 3:43 PM

D A V I D H . F R E E D M A N

5 0 8

An enormous amount of media space has been dedicated to promoting the notion that all processed food, and only processed food, is making us sickly and overweight. In this narrative, the food-industrial complex—particularly the fast- food industry—has turned all the powers of food-processing science loose on engineering its offerings to addict us to fat, sugar, and salt, causing or at least heavily contributing to the obesity crisis. The wares of these pimps and pushers, we are told, are to be universally shunned. Consider the New York Times. Earlier this year, the Times Magazine gave its cover to a long piece based on Michael Moss’s about-to-be-best-selling book, Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us. Hitting bookshelves at about the same time was the former Times reporter Melanie Warner’s Pandora’s Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal, which addresses more or less the same theme. Two years ago the Times Magazine featured the journalist Gary Taubes’s “Is Sugar Toxic?,” a cover story on the evils of refined sugar and high-fructose corn syrup. And most significant of all has been the considerable space the magazine has devoted over the years to Michael Pollan, a journalism professor at the University of California at Berkeley, and his broad indictment of food pro- cessing as a source of society’s health problems. “The food they’re cooking is making people sick,” Pollan has said of big food companies. “It is one of the reasons that we have the obesity and diabetes epidemics that we do. . . . If you’re going to let industries decide how much salt, sugar and fat is in your food, they’re going to put [in] as much as they possibly can. . . . They will push those buttons until we scream or die.” The solution, in his view, is to replace Big Food’s engineered, edible evil—through public education and regulation—with fresh, unprocessed, local, seasonal, real food.


09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 508 11/8/14 3:43 PM

How Junk Food Can End Obesity

5 0 9

Pollan’s worldview saturates the public conversation on healthy eating. You hear much the same from many scientists, physicians, food activists, nutritionists, celebrity chefs, and pundits. Foodlike substances, the derisive term Pollan uses to describe processed foods, is now a solid part of the elite vernacular. Thousands of restaurants and grocery stores, most notably the Whole Foods chain, have thrived by answering the call to reject industrialized foods in favor of a return to natural, simple, nonindustrialized—let’s call them “wholesome”—foods.

Michael Pollan

09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 509 11/19/14 4:54 PM

D A V I D H . F R E E D M A N

5 1 0

The two newest restaurants in my smallish Massachusetts town both prominently tout wholesome ingredients; one of them is called the Farmhouse, and it’s usually packed. A new generation of business, social, and policy entrepre- neurs is rising to further cater to these tastes, and to challenge Big Food. Silicon Valley, where tomorrow’s entrepreneurial and social trends are forged, has spawned a small ecosystem of wholesome-friendly venture-capital firms (Physic Ventures, for example), business accelerators (Local Food Lab), and Web sites (Edible Startups) to fund, nurture, and keep tabs on young companies such as blissmo (a wholesome-food-of-the-month club), Mile High Organics (online wholesome-food shop- ping), and Wholeshare (group wholesome-food purchasing), all designed to help reacquaint Americans with the simpler eating habits of yesteryear. In virtually every realm of human existence, we turn to technology to help us solve our problems. But even in Silicon Valley, when it comes to food and obesity, technology—or at least food-processing technology—is widely treated as if it is the problem. The solution, from this viewpoint, necessarily involves turning our back on it. If the most-influential voices in our food culture today get their way, we will achieve a genuine food revolution. Too bad it would be one tailored to the dubious health fantasies of a small, elite minority. And too bad it would largely exclude the obese masses, who would continue to sicken and die early. Despite the best efforts of a small army of wholesome-food heroes, there is no reasonable scenario under which these foods could become cheap and plentiful enough to serve as the core diet for most of the obese population—even in the unlikely case that your typical junk-food eater would be willing and able to break life- long habits to embrace kale and yellow beets. And many of


09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 510 11/8/14 3:43 PM

How Junk Food Can End Obesity

5 1 1

the dishes glorified by the wholesome-food movement are, in any case, as caloric and obesogenic as anything served in a Burger King. Through its growing sway over health-conscious consumers and policy makers, the wholesome-food movement is imped- ing the progress of the one segment of the food world that is actually positioned to take effective, near-term steps to reverse the obesity trend: the processed-food industry. Popular food producers, fast-food chains among them, are already applying various tricks and technologies to create less caloric and more satiating versions of their junky fare that nonetheless retain much of the appeal of the originals, and could be induced to go much further. In fact, these roundly demonized companies could do far more for the public’s health in five years than the wholesome-food movement is likely to accomplish in the next 50. But will the wholesome-food advocates let them?

Michael Pollan Has No Clothes

Let’s go shopping. We can start at Whole Foods Market, a criti- cal link in the wholesome-eating food chain. There are three Whole Foods stores within 15 minutes of my house—we’re big on real food in the suburbs west of Boston. Here at the largest of the three, I can choose from more than 21 types of tofu, 62 bins of organic grains and legumes, and 42 different salad greens. Much of the food isn’t all that different from what I can get in any other supermarket, but sprinkled throughout are items that scream “wholesome.” One that catches my eye today, sitting prominently on an impulse-buy rack near the checkout counter, is Vegan Cheesy Salad Booster, from Living Intentions, whose package emphasizes the fact that the food is enhanced with spiru- lina, chlorella, and sea vegetables. The label also proudly lets me

09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 511 11/8/14 3:43 PM

D A V I D H . F R E E D M A N

5 1 2

know that the contents are raw—no processing!—and that they don’t contain any genetically modified ingredients. What the stuff does contain, though, is more than three times the fat content per ounce as the beef patty in a Big Mac (more than two-thirds of the calories come from fat), and four times the sodium. After my excursion to Whole Foods, I drive a few minutes to a Trader Joe’s, also known for an emphasis on wholesome foods. Here at the register I’m confronted with a large display of a snack food called “Inner Peas,” consisting of peas that are breaded in cornmeal and rice flour, fried in sunflower oil, and then sprinkled with salt. By weight, the snack has six times as much fat as it does protein, along with loads of carbohydrates. I can’t recall ever seeing anything at any fast-food restaurant that represents as big an obesogenic crime against the vegetable kingdom. (A spokesperson for Trader Joe’s said the company does not consider itself a “ ‘wholesome food’ grocery retailer.” Living Intentions did not respond to a request for comment.) This phenomenon is by no means limited to packaged food at upscale supermarkets. Back in February, when I was at Real Food Daily in Los Angeles, I ordered the “Sea Cake” along with my green-vegetable smoothie. It was intensely delicious in a way that set off alarm bells. RFD wouldn’t provide precise information about the ingredients, but I found a recipe online for “Tofu ‘Fish’ Cakes,” which seem very close to what I ate. Essentially, they consist of some tofu mixed with a lot of refined carbs (the RFD version contains at least some unrefined carbs) along with oil and soy milk, all fried in oil and served with a soy-and-oil-based tartar sauce. (Tofu and other forms of soy are high in protein, but per 100 calories, tofu is as fatty as many cuts of beef.) L.A. being to the wholesome-food movement what Hawaii is to Spam, I ate at two other mega-popular wholesome- food restaurants while I was in the area. At Café Gratitude


09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 512 11/8/14 3:43 PM

How Junk Food Can End Obesity

5 1 3

I enjoyed the kale chips and herb-cornmeal-crusted eggplant parmesan, and at Akasha I indulged in a spiced-lamb-sausage flatbread pizza. Both are pricey orgies of fat and carbs. I’m not picking out rare, less healthy examples from these establishments. Check out their menus online: fat, sugar, and other refined carbs abound. (Café Gratitude says it uses only “healthy” fats and natural sweeteners; Akasha says its focus is not on “health food” but on “farm to fork” fare.) In fact, because the products and dishes offered by these types of establishments tend to emphasize the healthy-sounding foods they contain, I find it much harder to navigate through them to foods that go easy on the oil, butter, refined grains, rice, potatoes, and sugar than I do at far less wholesome restaurants. (These dishes also tend to contain plenty of sea salt, which Pollanites hold up as the wholesome alternative to the addictive salt engineered by the food industry, though your body can’t tell the difference.) One occasional source of obesogenic travesties is the New York Times Magazine’s lead food writer, Mark Bittman, who now rivals Pollan as a shepherd to the anti-processed-food flock. (Salon, in an article titled “How to Live What Michael Pollan Preaches,” called Bittman’s 2009 book, Food Matters, “both a cookbook and a manifesto that shows us how to eat better—and save the planet.”) I happened to catch Bittman on the Today show last year demonstrating for millions of viewers four ways to prepare corn in summertime, including a lovely dish of corn sautéed in bacon fat and topped with bacon. Anyone who thinks that such a thing is much healthier than a Whopper just hasn’t been paying attention to obesity science for the past few decades. That science is, in fact, fairly straightforward. Fat carries more than twice as many calories as carbohydrates and proteins do per gram, which means just a little fat can turn a serving of food into a calorie bomb. Sugar and other refined carbohydrates,

09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 513 11/8/14 3:43 PM

D A V I D H . F R E E D M A N

5 1 4

like white flour and rice, and high-starch foods, like corn and potatoes, aren’t as calorie-dense. But all of these “problem carbs” charge into the bloodstream as glucose in minutes, providing an energy rush, commonly followed by an energy crash that can lead to a surge in appetite. Because they are energy-intense foods, fat and sugar and other problem carbs trip the pleasure and reward meters placed in our brains by evolution over the millions of years during which starvation was an ever-present threat. We’re born enjoy- ing the stimulating sensations these ingredients provide, and exposure strengthens the associations, ensuring that we come to crave them and, all too often, eat more of them than we should. Processed food is not an essential part of this story: recent examinations of ancient human remains in Egypt, Peru, and elsewhere have repeatedly revealed hardened arteries, sug- gesting that pre-industrial diets, at least of the affluent, may not have been the epitome of healthy eating that the Pollanites


Mark Bittman demonstrates cooking on the Today show.

09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 514 11/8/14 3:43 PM

How Junk Food Can End Obesity

5 1 5

make them out to be. People who want to lose weight and keep it off are almost always advised by those who run successful long-term weight-loss programs to transition to a diet high in lean protein, complex carbs such as whole grains and legumes, and the sort of fiber vegetables are loaded with. Because these ingredients provide us with the calories we need without the big, fast bursts of energy, they can be satiating without pushing the primitive reward buttons that nudge us to eat too much. (A few words on salt: Yes, it’s unhealthy in large amounts, raising blood pressure in many people; and yes, it makes food more appealing. But salt is not obesogenic—it has no calories, and doesn’t specifically increase the desire to consume high-calorie foods. It can just as easily be enlisted to add to the appeal of vegetables. Lumping it in with fat and sugar as an addictive junk-food ingredient is a confused proposition. But let’s agree we want to cut down on it.) To be sure, many of Big Food’s most popular products are loaded with appalling amounts of fat and sugar and other prob- lem carbs (as well as salt), and the plentitude of these ingre- dients, exacerbated by large portion sizes, has clearly helped foment the obesity crisis. It’s hard to find anyone anywhere who disagrees. Junk food is bad for you because it’s full of fat and problem carbs. But will switching to wholesome foods free us from this scourge? It could in theory, but in practice, it’s hard to see how. Even putting aside for a moment the serious ques- tions about whether wholesome foods could be made accessible to the obese public, and whether the obese would be willing to eat them, we have a more immediate stumbling block: many of the foods served up and even glorified by the wholesome-food movement are themselves chock full of fat and problem carbs. Some wholesome foodies openly celebrate fat and problem carbs, insisting that the lack of processing magically renders

See Chapter 6 for ways to anticipate objections.

09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 515 11/8/14 3:43 PM

D A V I D H . F R E E D M A N

5 1 6

them healthy. In singing the praises of clotted cream and lard- loaded cookies, for instance, a recent Wall Street Journal article by Ron Rosenbaum explained that “eating basic, earthy, fatty foods isn’t just a supreme experience of the senses—it can actu- ally be good for you,” and that it’s “too easy to conflate eating fatty food with eating industrial, oil-fried junk food.” That’s right, we wouldn’t want to make the same mistake that all the cells in our bodies make. Pollan himself makes it clear in his writing that he has little problem with fat—as long as it’s not in food “your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize.” Television food shows routinely feature revered chefs tossing around references to healthy eating, “wellness,” and farm-fresh ingredients, all the while spooning lard, cream, and sugar over everything in sight. (A study published last year in the British Medical Journal found that the recipes in the books of top TV chefs call for “significantly more” fat per portion than what’s contained in ready-to-eat supermarket meals.) Corporate well- ness programs, one of the most promising avenues for getting the population to adopt healthy behaviors, are falling prey to this way of thinking as well. Last November, I attended a stress-management seminar for employees of a giant consulting company, and listened to a high-powered professional wellness coach tell the crowded room that it’s okay to eat anything as long as its plant or animal origins aren’t obscured by processing. Thus, she explained, potato chips are perfectly healthy, because they plainly come from potatoes, but Cheetos will make you sick and fat, because what plant or animal is a Cheeto? (For the record, typical potato chips and Cheetos have about equally nightmarish amounts of fat calories per ounce; Cheetos have fewer carbs, though more salt.) The Pollanites seem confused about exactly what benefits their way of eating provides. All the railing about the fat, sugar,


09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 516 11/8/14 3:43 PM

How Junk Food Can End Obesity

5 1 7

and salt engineered into industrial junk food might lead one to infer that wholesome food, having not been engineered, contains substantially less of them. But clearly you can take in obscene quantities of fat and problem carbs while eating wholesomely, and to judge by what’s sold at wholesome stores and restaurants, many people do. Indeed, the more converts and customers the wholesome-food movement’s purveyors seek, the stronger their incentive to emphasize foods that light up precisely the same pleasure centers as a 3 Musketeers bar. That just makes wholesome food stealthily obesogenic. Hold on, you may be thinking. Leaving fat, sugar, and salt aside, what about all the nasty things that wholesome foods do not, by definition, contain and processed foods do? A central claim of the wholesome-food movement is that wholesome is healthier because it doesn’t have the artificial flavors, preserva- tives, other additives, or genetically modified ingredients found in industrialized food; because it isn’t subjected to the physical transformations that processed foods go through; and because it doesn’t sit around for days, weeks, or months, as industrial- ized food sometimes does. (This is the complaint against the McDonald’s smoothie, which contains artificial flavors and texture additives, and which is pre-mixed.) The health concerns raised about processing itself—rather than the amount of fat and problem carbs in any given dish— are not, by and large, related to weight gain or obesity. That’s important to keep in mind, because obesity is, by an enormous margin, the largest health problem created by what we eat. But even putting that aside, concerns about processed food have been magnified out of all proportion. Some studies have shown that people who eat wholesomely tend to be healthier than people who live on fast food and other processed food (particularly meat), but the problem with

09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 517 11/8/14 3:43 PM

D A V I D H . F R E E D M A N

5 1 8

such studies is obvious: substantial nondietary differences exist between these groups, such as propensity to exercise, smoking rates, air quality, access to health care, and much more. (Some researchers say they’ve tried to control for these factors, but that’s a claim most scientists don’t put much faith in.) What’s more, the people in these groups are sometimes eating entirely different foods, not the same sorts of foods subjected to differ- ent levels of processing. It’s comparing apples to Whoppers, instead of Whoppers to hand-ground, grass-fed-beef burgers with heirloom tomatoes, garlic aioli, and artisanal cheese. For all these reasons, such findings linking food type and health are considered highly unreliable, and constantly contradict one another, as is true of most epidemiological studies that try to tackle broad nutritional questions. The fact is, there is simply no clear, credible evidence that any aspect of food processing or storage makes a food uniquely unhealthy. The U.S. population does not suffer from a critical lack of any nutrient because we eat so much processed food. (Sure, health experts urge Americans to get more calcium, potassium, magnesium, fiber, and vitamins A, E, and C, and eating more produce and dairy is a great way to get them, but these ingredients are also available in processed foods, not to mention supplements.) Pollan’s “foodlike substances” are regu- lated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (with some exceptions, which are regulated by other agencies), and their effects on health are further raked over by countless scien- tists who would get a nice career boost from turning up the hidden dangers in some common food-industry ingredient or technique, in part because any number of advocacy groups and journalists are ready to pounce on the slightest hint of risk. The results of all the scrutiny of processed food are hardly scary, although some groups and writers try to make them


09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 518 11/8/14 3:43 PM

How Junk Food Can End Obesity

5 1 9

appear that way. The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Food Additives Project, for example, has bemoaned the fact that the FDA directly reviews only about 70 percent of the ingredients found in food, permitting the rest to pass as “generally recognized as safe” by panels of experts convened by manufacturers. But the only actual risk the project calls out on its Web site or in its publications is a quote from a Times article noting that bromine, which has been in U.S. foods for eight decades, is regarded as suspicious by many because flame retardants con- taining bromine have been linked to health risks. There is no conclusive evidence that bromine itself is a threat. In Pandora’s Lunchbox, Melanie Warner assiduously catalogs every concern that could possibly be raised about the health threats of food processing, leveling accusations so vague, weakly supported, tired, or insignificant that only someone already con- vinced of the guilt of processed food could find them troubling. While ripping the covers off the breakfast-cereal conspiracy, for example, Warner reveals that much of the nutritional value claimed by these products comes not from natural ingredients but from added vitamins that are chemically synthesized, which must be bad for us because, well, they’re chemically synthesized. It’s the tautology at the heart of the movement: processed foods are unhealthy because they aren’t natural, full stop. In many respects, the wholesome-food movement veers awfully close to religion. To repeat: there is no hard evidence to back any health-risk claims about processed food—evidence, say, of the caliber of several studies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that have traced food poisoning to raw milk, a product championed by some circles of the wholesome- food movement. “Until I hear evidence to the contrary, I think it’s reasonable to include processed food in your diet,” says Robert Kushner, a physician and nutritionist and a professor

09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 519 11/8/14 3:43 PM

D A V I D H . F R E E D M A N

5 2 0

at Northwestern University’s medical school, where he is the clinical director of the Comprehensive Center on Obesity. There may be other reasons to prefer wholesome food to the industrialized version. Often stirred into the vague stew of benefits attributed to wholesome food is the “sustainability” of its production—that is, its long-term impact on the planet. Small farms that don’t rely much on chemicals and heavy industrial equipment may be better for the environment than giant industrial farms—although that argument quickly becomes complicated by a variety of factors. For the purposes of this article, let’s simply stipulate that wholesome foods are environmentally superior. But let’s also agree that when it comes to prioritizing among food-related public-policy goals, we are likely to save and improve many more lives by focusing on cutting obesity—through any available means—than by trying to convert all of industrial agriculture into a vast constellation of small organic farms. The impact of obesity on the chances of our living long, pro- ductive, and enjoyable lives has been so well documented at this point that I hate to drag anyone through the grim statistics again. But let me just toss out one recent dispatch from the world of obesity-havoc science: a study published in February in the journal Obesity found that obese young adults and middle-agers in the U.S. are likely to lose almost a decade of life on average, as compared with their non-obese counterparts. Given our obesity rates, that means Americans who are alive today can collectively expect to sacrifice 1 billion years to obesity. The study adds to a river of evidence suggesting that for the first time in modern his- tory—and in spite of many health-related improvements in our environment, our health care, and our nondietary habits—our health prospects are worsening, mostly because of excess weight. By all means, let’s protect the environment. But let’s not rule out the possibility of technologically enabled improvements to


09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 520 11/8/14 3:43 PM

How Junk Food Can End Obesity

5 2 1

our diet—indeed, let’s not rule out any food—merely because we are pleased by images of pastoral family farms. Let’s first pick the foods that can most plausibly make us healthier, all things considered, and then figure out how to make them environ- mentally friendly.

4 4 4

The Food Revolution We Need

The one fast-food restaurant near a busy East L.A. intersection otherwise filled with bodegas was a Carl’s Jr. I went in and saw that the biggest and most prominent posters in the store were pushing a new grilled-cod sandwich. It actually looked pretty good, but it wasn’t quite lunchtime, and I just wanted a cup of coffee. I went to the counter to order it, but before I could say anything, the cashier greeted me and asked, “Would you like to try our new Charbroiled Atlantic Cod Fish Sandwich today?” Oh, well, sure, why not? (I asked her to hold the tartar sauce, which is mostly fat, but found out later that the sandwich is

09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 521 11/8/14 3:43 PM

D A V I D H . F R E E D M A N

5 2 2

normally served with about half as much tartar sauce as the notoriously fatty Filet-O-Fish sandwich at McDonald’s, where the fish is battered and fried.) The sandwich was delicious. It was less than half the cost of the Sea Cake appetizer at Real Food Daily. It took less than a minute to prepare. In some ways, it was the best meal I had in L.A., and it was probably the healthiest. We know perfectly well who within our society has developed an extraordinary facility for nudging the masses to eat certain foods, and for making those foods widely available in cheap and convenient forms. The Pollanites have led us to conflate the industrial processing of food with the adding of fat and sugar in order to hook customers, even while pushing many faux-healthy foods of their own. But why couldn’t Big Food’s processing and marketing genius be put to use on genuinely healthier foods, like grilled fish? Putting aside the standard objection that the industry has no interest in doing so—we’ll see later that in fact the industry has plenty of motivation for taking on this chal- lenge—wouldn’t that present a more plausible answer to Amer- ica’s junk-food problem than ordering up 50,000 new farmers’ markets featuring locally grown organic squash blossoms? According to Lenard Lesser, of the Palo Alto Medical Foun- dation, the food industry has mastered the art of using in-store and near-store promotions to shape what people eat. As Lesser and I drove down storied Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley and into far less affluent Oakland, leaving behind the Whole Foods Markets and sushi restaurants for gas-station markets and bar- becued-rib stands, he pointed out the changes in the billboards. Whereas the last one we saw in Berkeley was for fruit juice, many in Oakland tout fast-food joints and their wares, includ- ing several featuring the Hot Mess Burger at Jack in the Box. Though Lesser noted that this forest of advertising may simply reflect Oakland residents’ preexisting preference for this type of

09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 522 11/8/14 3:43 PM

How Junk Food Can End Obesity

5 2 3

food, he told me lab studies have indicated that the more signs you show people for a particular food product or dish, the more likely they are to choose it over others, all else being equal. We went into a KFC and found ourselves traversing a maze of signage that put us face-to-face with garish images of vari- ous fried foods that presumably had some chicken somewhere deep inside them. “The more they want you to buy something, the bigger they make the image on the menu board,” Lesser explained. Here, what loomed largest was the $19.98 fried- chicken-and-corn family meal, which included biscuits and cake. A few days later, I noticed that McDonald’s places large placards showcasing desserts on the trash bins, apparently cal- culating that the best time to entice diners with sweets is when they think they’ve finished their meals. Trying to get burger lovers to jump to grilled fish may already be a bit of a stretch—I didn’t see any of a dozen other cus- tomers buy the cod sandwich when I was at Carl’s Jr., though the cashier said it was selling reasonably well. Still, given the food industry’s power to tinker with and market food, we should not dismiss its ability to get unhealthy eaters—slowly, incrementally—to buy better food. That brings us to the crucial question: Just how much healthier could fast-food joints and processed-food companies make their best-selling products without turning off customers? I put that question to a team of McDonald’s executives, sci- entists, and chefs who are involved in shaping the company’s future menus, during a February visit to McDonald’s surprisingly bucolic campus west of Chicago. By way of a partial answer, the team served me up a preview tasting of two major new menu items that had been under development in their test kitchens and high-tech sensory-testing labs for the past year, and which were rolled out to the public in April. The first was the Egg


09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 523 11/8/14 3:43 PM

D A V I D H . F R E E D M A N

5 2 4

White Delight McMuffin ($2.65), a lower-calorie, less fatty version of the Egg McMuffin, with some of the refined flour in the original recipe replaced by whole-grain flour. The other was one of three new Premium McWraps ($3.99), crammed with grilled chicken and spring mix, and given a light coating of ranch dressing amped up with rice vinegar. Both items tasted pretty good (as do the versions in stores, I’ve since confirmed, though some outlets go too heavy on the dressing). And they were both lower in fat, sugar, and calories than not only many McDonald’s staples, but also much of the food served in whole- some restaurants or touted in wholesome cookbooks.

09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 524 11/8/14 3:43 PM

How Junk Food Can End Obesity

5 2 5

In fact, McDonald’s has quietly been making healthy changes for years, shrinking portion sizes, reducing some fats, trimming average salt content by more than 10 percent in the past couple of years alone, and adding fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy, and oatmeal to its menu. In May, the chain dropped its Angus third- pounders and announced a new line of quarter-pound burgers, to be served on buns containing whole grains. Outside the core fast-food customer base, Americans are becoming more health- conscious. Public backlash against fast food could lead to regulatory efforts, and in any case, the fast-food industry has every incentive to maintain broad appeal. “We think a lot about how we can bring nutritionally balanced meals that include enough protein, along with the tastes and satisfaction that have an appetite-tiding effect,” said Barbara Booth, the company’s director of sensory science. Such steps are enormously promising, says Jamy Ard, an epidemiology and preventive-medicine researcher at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and a co-director of the Weight Management Center there. “Processed food is a key part of our environment, and it needs to be part of the equation,” he explains. “If you can reduce fat and calories by only a small amount in a Big Mac, it still won’t be a health food, but it wouldn’t be as bad, and that could have a huge impact on us.” Ard, who has been working for more than a decade with the obese poor, has little patience with the wholesome-food movement’s call to eliminate fast food in favor of farm-fresh goods. “It’s really naive,” he says. “Fast food became popular because it’s tasty and convenient and cheap. It makes a lot more sense to look for small, beneficial changes in that food than it does to hold out for big changes in what people eat that have no realistic chance of happening.” According to a recent study, Americans get 11 percent of their calories, on average, from fast food—a number that’s

09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 525 11/8/14 3:43 PM

D A V I D H . F R E E D M A N

5 2 6

almost certainly much higher among the less affluent over- weight. As a result, the fast-food industry may be uniquely positioned to improve our diets. Research suggests that calorie counts in a meal can be trimmed by as much as 30 percent without eaters noticing—by, for example, reducing portion sizes and swapping in ingredients that contain more fiber and water. Over time, that could be much more than enough to literally tip the scales for many obese people. “The difference between losing weight and not losing weight,” says Robert Kushner, the obesity scientist and clinical director at Northwestern, “is a few hundred calories a day.” Which raises a question: If McDonald’s is taking these sorts of steps, albeit in a slow and limited way, why isn’t it more loudly saying so to deflect criticism? While the company has heavily plugged the debut of its new egg-white sandwich and chicken wraps, the ads have left out even a mention of health, the reduced calories and fat, or the inclusion of whole grains. McDonald’s has practically kept secret the fact that it has also begun substituting whole-grain flour for some of the less healthy refined flour in its best-selling Egg McMuffin. The explanation can be summed up in two words that surely strike fear into the hearts of all fast-food executives who hope to make their companies’ fare healthier: McLean Deluxe. Among those who gleefully rank such things, the McLean Deluxe reigns as McDonald’s worst product failure of all time, eclipsing McPasta, the McHotdog, and the McAfrica (don’t ask). When I brought up the McLean Deluxe to the innovation team at McDonald’s, I faced the first and only uncomfortable silence of the day. Finally, Greg Watson, a senior vice president, cleared his throat and told me that neither he nor anyone else in the room was at the company at the time, and he didn’t know that much about it. “It sounds to me like it was ahead


09_GRA_93584_Readings_416_537.indd 526 11/8/14 3:43 PM

How Junk Food Can End Obesity

5 2 7

of its time,” he added. “If we had something like that in the future, we would never launch