Publish or Perish: The Saga of an Assimilation Essay
My failure to motivate a student to publish a significant essay some 17 years ago continues to haunt me.
In October of 1983, I passed back the first set of freshman papers with my usual comments. In those days, I would face my students squarely and shout, “When you paid your tuition, one thing you bought was my honest judgment.”
This day, though, I had been less than completely honest. I had deliberately marked down a Black student’s paper. I gave a 2.5 score on a paper that deserved a full 3.0 in the hope that the student might be encouraged to rewrite it.
In this batch of 90 papers I found only one which had both drama and significant insight.
The author had described the experience of cleaning her room, and finding among her roommate’s things, an angry and hateful description of herself. Her roommate’s paragraph of vituperation had concluded, “I want to kill my roommate.”
The one contemplating homicide was convinced that my student was imperfectly Black, essentially and secretly White and in short, an “Oreo.”
In 20 years of teaching, I had never before had the honor of telling any student that a paper was potentially publishable.
My student, when I had handed back her paper, turned out to be an articulate and poised young Black woman from Detroit. At our first conference, I told her that her prose was too loose and conversational. But she had, by far, the best story; one that I was convinced bore national significance.
She was pleased that I liked her paper, even convinced that her problem was not unique. Yet she was reluctant to publish it.
In high school, she had gone to the junior prom with a White boy, she explained. She endured a lot of criticism, a lot of talk about her being “White on the inside.”
A published article would be a nice feather in the cap, I argued. The problem she faced was an old and increasingly common one among insecure young people of all colors.
I had heard her story before. Another Black student had told me that her interest in classical music rather than jazz had been ridiculed as “Oreo.” Another Black student studying Romance languages had been accused of trying to forget her own “Black language.”
These stories suggested what my student’s story had confirmed — that there is a Black identity on campus that has nothing to do with pride. This identity has its roots in fear rather than pride and its fruits are conformity, provincialism and a jivey new anti-intellectualism.
Provincialism and anti-intellectualism are no less oppressive because they have their origin in a Black student community afflicted with integration anxiety.
The White students, with their fraternities, sororities and Yuppie careerism, certainly contribute to the atmosphere. But only the Black students have the power to strike so deeply, so cruelly, at the identities of our best and brightest.
My Black student finally, reluctantly and only tentatively agreed that the article should be rewritten. She submitted the revision on the evening of our final examination. Preoccupied with students who were handing in papers and trying one last time to manipulate me for a higher grade, I had no chance to discuss it with her.
Upon reading it later, I discovered that the revision had been markedly improved. Yet much of the paper had been needlessly and irrelevantly expanded. There was a rambling sociological catalog of specifically Black characteristics. But worst of all, the anger and the outrage of the initial draft had somehow diminished and the conclusion trailed off into empty platitudes about the importance of individualism.
I had no hesitation, however, in giving the paper a 4.0 and mailed the revised version to the student’s Detroit address along with a letter urging her to revise it again over the winter holidays.
But I never saw another revision. The author was in my class again for the winter term and we had two or three brief, unproductive discussions. I sensed her reluctance to continue with it. There was new work to be done and rewriting papers, as another student once told me, was “like chewing last week’s gum.”
Finally, I felt like I was becoming a pest; there was something unsuitable about an elderly professor panting after student prose. I gave up. And yet, even now — 17 years later — I hate to let it go.
— Maurice Hungiville is a professor emeritus and consultant to the Michigan State University Press.
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