Synthesis Essay


Open the file (Synthesis Essay – assignment sheet and rubric – spring 2020 (1)) for instruction, to write 1450 more words to add it to what I wrote in the file (SE) 

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The SUBJECT IS What’s there to eat?  it is on page 621 in the book (TSIS)

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
“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
“My students are from diverse backgrounds and the topics in
this book help them to empathize with others who are differ-
ent from them.”
—Steven Bailey, Central Michigan University
“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 Vermont
“‘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

“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
“My students love this book. They tell me that the idea of
‘entering a conversation’ really makes sense to them in a way
that academic writing hasn’t before.”
—Karen Henderson, Helena College University of Montana
“A concise and practical text at a great price; students love it.”
—Jeff Pruchnic, Wayne State University
“ ‘They Say’ contains the best collection of articles I have found.
Students respond very well to the readings.”
—Julia Ruengert, Pensacola State College
“It’s the anti-composition text: Fun, creative, humorous, bril-
liant, effective.”
—Perry Cumbie, Durham Technical Community College
“A brilliant book. . . . It’s like a membership card in the aca-
demic club.” —Eileen Seifert, DePaul 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


T h e M o v e s T h a t M a t t e r
i n A c a d e m i c W r i t i n g
both of the University of Illinois at Chicago
University of Cincinnati
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

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 © 2018, 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 731.
ISBN 978-0-393-63168-5
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

To the great rhetorician Wayne Booth,
who cared deeply
about the democratic art
of listening closely to what others say.

v i i
preface to the fourth edition x i
preface: Demystifying Academic Conversation xvii
introduction: Entering the Conversation 1
PA R T 1 . “ T H E Y S AY ”
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 43
PA R T 2 . “ I S AY ”
4 “yes / no / okay, but”: Three Ways to Respond 53
5 “and yet”: Distinguishing What You Say
from What They Say 67
6 “skeptics may object”:
Planting a Naysayer in Your Text 77
7 “so what? who cares?”: Saying Why It Matters 91
PA R T 3 . T Y I N G IT A L L TO G E T H E R
8 “as a result”: Connecting the Parts 101
9 “you mean i can just say it that way?”:
Academic Writing Doesn’t Mean Setting Aside
Your Own Voice 117
10 “but don’t get me wrong”:
The Art of Metacommentary 131
11 “he says contends”: Using the Templates to Revise 141
PA R T 4 . I N S P E C I F I C AC A D E M I C CO N T E X T S
12 “i take your point”: Entering Class Discussions 162
13 don’t make them scroll up:
Entering Online Conversations 166

v i i i
14 what’s motivating this writer?:
Reading for the Conversation 176
15 “analyze this”: Writing in the Social Sciences 187
16 H OW C A N W E B R I D G E T H E D I F F E R E N C E S
T H AT D I V I D E U S ? 20 9
sean blanda, The “Other Side” Is Not Dumb 212
danah boyd, Why America Is Self-Segregating 219
michelle alexander, The New Jim Crow 230
j. d. vance, Hillbilly Elegy 251
gabriela moro, Minority Student Clubs: Segregation or
Integration? 269
robert leonard, Why Rural America Voted for Trump 279
joseph e. stiglitz, A Tax System Stacked against
the 99 Percent 286
barack obama, Howard University Commencement
Speech 296
17 I S CO L LE G E T H E B E S T O P T I O N ? 3 1 5
stephanie owen and isabel sawhill, Should Everyone
Go to College? 318
sanford j. ungar, The New Liberal Arts 336
charles murray, Are Too Many People
Going to College? 344
liz addison, Two Years Are Better Than Four 365
gerald graff, Hidden Intellectualism 369
mike rose, Blue-Collar Brilliance 377
ben casselman, Shut Up about Harvard 390
steve kolowich, On the Front Lines of a
New Culture War 398

i x
18 A R E W E I N A R AC E AG A I N S T T H E M AC H I N E ? 42 1
nicholas carr, Is Google Making Us Stupid? 424
clive thompson, Smarter Than You Think: How
Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better 441
michaela cullington, Does Texting Affect Writing? 462
jenna wortham, How I Learned to Love Snapchat 474
carole cadwalladr, Google, Democracy, and the Truth
about Internet Search 480
kenneth goldsmith, Go Ahead: Waste Time on
the Internet 500
sherry turkle, No Need to Call 505
zeynep tufekci, Does a Protest’s Size Matter? 525
19 W H AT ’ S G E N D E R G OT TO D O W IT H IT ? 5 3 1
anne-marie slaughter, Why Women Still Can’t
Have It All 534
richard dorment, Why Men Still Can’t Have It All 555
raynard kington, I’m Gay and African American. As a
Dad, I Still Have It Easier Than Working Moms. 576
laurie frankel, From He to She in First Grade 583
andrew reiner, Teaching Men to Be
Emotionally Honest 589
stephen mays, What about Gender Roles in
Same-Sex Relationships? 596
kate crawford, Artificial Intelligence’s White Guy
Problem 599
nicholas eberstadt, Men without Work 605
20 W H AT ’ S T H E R E TO E AT ? 62 1
michael pollan, Escape from the Western Diet 624
olga khazan, Why Don’t Convenience Stores Sell
Better Food? 632

mary maxfield, Food as Thought: Resisting the
Moralization of Eating 641
david zinczenko, Don’t Blame the Eater 647
radley balko, What You Eat Is Your Business 651
michael moss, The Extraordinary Science of Addictive
Junk Food 656
david h. freedman, How Junk Food Can End Obesity 681
sara goldrick-rab, katharine broton, emily brunjes colo,
Expanding the National School Lunch Program to
Higher Education 713
credits 731
acknowledgments 737
index of templates 751
index of authors and titles 767

x i
to the fourth 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.
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 effec-
tive writers enter conversations of other writers and speakers,
this book encourages students to engage with those around
them—including those who disagree with them—instead of
just expressing their ideas “logically.” We believe it’s a model
more necessary than ever in today’s increasingly diverse—and
some might say divided—society. In this spirit, we have added
a new chapter, “How Can We Bridge the Differences That
Divide Us?,” with readings that represent different perspectives
on those divides—and what we might do to overcome them.
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,
x i

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 academia and the
wider public sphere, the book provides templates 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.
The two versions of “They Say / I Say” are now being taught
at more than 1,500 schools, which 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 fourth edition of “They Say / I Say” with Readings
includes forty readings—half of them new—on five compel-
ling and controversial issues. The selections provide a glimpse
into some important conversations taking place today—and
will, we hope, provoke students to respond and thus to join in
those conversations.
Forty readings that will prompt students to think—and write.
Taken from a wide variety of sources, including the Chronicle
of Higher Education, the Washington Post, the New York Times,
the Wall Street Journal,, best-selling books, policy
reports, student-run journals, celebrated speeches, and more,
x i i

the readings represent a range of perspectives on five important
• How Can We Bridge the Differences That Divide Us?
• Is College the Best Option?
• Are We in a Race against the Machine?
• What’s Gender Got to Do with It?
• What’s There to Eat?
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
taught in the book. Additionally, one question invites students
to write, and often to respond with their own views.
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.
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 read-
ing the text.
Preface to the Fourth Edition
x i i i

x i v
what’s new
A new chapter, “How Can We Bridge the Differences That
Divide Us?,” brings together diverse perspectives on some of
the issues that have been a source of division in our country,
with readings that offer possible ways to overcome those divi-
sions—from Sean Blanda’s “The Other Side Is Not Dumb” to J. D.
Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy and Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow.
Half of the readings are new, with at least one documented
piece and one student essay in each chapter, added in response
to requests from many teachers who wanted more complex and
documented writing. In the technology and gender chapters,
half of the readings are new, with essays on fake news, wasting
time online (and why that’s a good thing), and men without
work, among others. The education chapter now includes an
essay on problematic elitism in some circles of higher education
and another on one college’s quest to foster tolerance among
its diverse student body. Finally, the food chapter now asks a
slightly different question: what (if anything) is there to eat?
An updated chapter on academic language (now called “You
Mean I Can Just Say It That Way?”) underscores the need to
bridge spheres that are too often kept separate: everyday lan-
guage and academic writing.
A new chapter on entering online conversations further
underscores the importance of including a “they say” when
responding to others on blogs, class discussion boards, and the
like, showing how the rhetorical moves taught in this book can
help students contribute clearly and respectfully to conversa-
tions in digital spaces.

x v
New examples—15 in total—appear throughout the rhetoric,
from Deborah Tannen and Charles Murray to Nicholas Carr
and Michelle Alexander.
An updated chapter on writing in the social sciences reflects
a broader range of writing assignments with examples from aca-
demic publications in sociology, psychology, and political science.
what’s online
Online tutorials give students hands-on practice recognizing
and using the rhetorical moves taught in this book both as
readers and writers. Each tutorial helps students read a full
essay with an eye on these moves and then respond to a writing
prompt using templates from the book.
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
Instructor’s Guide. Now available in print, the guide includes
expanded in-class activities, sample syllabi, summaries of
each chapter and reading, and a chapter on using the online
resources, including They Say / I Blog.
Ebook. Searchable, portable, and interactive. The complete
textbook for a fraction of the price. Students can interact with
the text—take notes, bookmark, search, and highlight. The
ebook can be viewed on—and synced between—all computers
and mobile devices.
Preface to the Fourth Edition

x v i
InQuizitive for Writers. Adaptive, game-like exercises help
students practice editing, focusing especially on the errors that
Coursepack. Norton resources you can add to your online,
hybrid, or lecture course—all at no cost. Norton Coursepacks
work within your existing learning management system; there’s
no new system to learn, and access is free and easy. Customizable
resources include assignable writing prompts from theysayiblog
.com, quizzes on grammar and documentation, documentation
guides, model student essays, and more.
Find it all at or contact
your Norton representative for more information.
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

x v 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

x v i i i
them clearly, and representing them in the form of templates.
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

Demystifying Academic Conversation
x i 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 .

x x
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
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
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.

Demystifying Academic Conversation
x x 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
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.

x x 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.

Demystifying Academic Conversation
x x i i i
“ok—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

x x i 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

Demystifying Academic Conversation
x x v
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

x x v 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 academic language, encouraging
students to draw on their everyday voice as a tool for writing;
and including chapters on the art of metacommentary and using
the templates to revise a text. Part 4 offers guidance for enter-
ing conversations in specific academic contexts, with chapters
on entering class discussions, writing online, and reading and
writing in the social sciences. Finally, we provide forty 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
a sense of what works to persuade different audiences and what
doesn’t. In our view, people learn more about arguing from

Demystifying Academic Conversation
x x v i i
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

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 writing.
Hence this book, which 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

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
will 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.

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

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.
“why are you telling me this?”
To make an impact as a writer, then, you need to do more than
make statements that are logical, well supported, and consis-
tent. You must also find a way of entering into conversation
with the views of others, with something “they say.” The easiest
and most common way writers do this is by summarizing what
others say and then using it to set up what they want to say.
“But why,” as a student of ours once asked, “do I always
need to summarize the views of others to set up my own view?
Why can’t I just state my own view and be done with it?”
Why indeed? After all, “they,” whoever they may be, will have
already had their say, so why do you have to repeat it? Further-
more, if they had their say in print, can’t readers just go and
read what was said themselves?
The answer is that if you don’t identify the “they say” you’re
responding to, your own argument probably won’t have a point.
Readers will wonder what prompted you to say what you’re say-
ing and therefore motivated you to write. As the figure on the
following page suggests, without a “they say,” what you are saying
may be clear to your audience, but why you are saying it won’t be.
Even if we don’t know what film he’s referring to, it’s easy
to grasp what the speaker means here when he says that its
characters are very complex. But it’s hard to see why the speaker
feels the need to say what he is saying. “Why,” as one member

Entering the Conversation
of his imagined audience wonders, “is he telling us this?” So
the characters are complex—so what?
Now look at what happens to the same proposition when it
is presented as a response to something “they say”:

We hope you agree that the same claim—“the characters
in the film are very complex”—becomes much stronger when
presented as a response to a contrary view: that the film’s char-
acters “are sexist stereotypes.” Unlike the speaker in the first
cartoon, the speaker in the second has a clear goal or mission:
to correct what he sees as a mistaken characterization.
the as-opposed-to-what factor
To put our point another way, framing your “I say” as a response
to something “they say” gives your writing an element of con-
trast without which it won’t make sense. It may be helpful to
think of this crucial element as an “as-opposed-to-what factor”
and, as you write, to continually ask yourself, “Who says oth-
erwise?” and “Does anyone dispute it?” Behind the audience’s
“Yeah, so?” and “Why is he telling us this?” in the first cartoon
above lie precisely these types of “As opposed to what?” ques-
tions. The speaker in the second cartoon, we think, is more
satisfying because he answers these questions, helping us see
his point that the film presents complex characters rather than
simple sexist stereotypes.
how it’s done
Many accomplished writers make explicit “they say” moves to
set up and motivate their own arguments. One famous example
is Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” which
consists almost entirely of King’s eloquent responses to a public
statement by eight clergymen deploring the civil rights protests

Entering the Conversation
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
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:
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 patriotic national
fervor after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
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”
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 readers 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 unquali-
fied 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
See Chapter
4 for more
on agreeing,
but with a

Entering the Conversation
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.
court controversy, but . . .
As you can see from these examples, many writers use the “they
say / I say” format to challenge 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 suc-
ceed 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.
But just because controversy is important doesn’t mean you
have to become an attack dog who automatically disagrees with

1 0
everything others say. We think this is an important point to
underscore because some who are not familiar with this book
have gotten the impression from the title that our goal is to
train writers simply to disparage whatever “they say.”
disagreeing without being disagreeable
There certainly are occasions when strong critique is needed.
It’s hard to live in a deeply polarized society like our current one
and not feel the need at times to criticize what others think.
But even the most justified critiques fall flat, we submit, unless
we really listen to and understand the views we are criticizing:
j While I understand the impulse to , my own view
is .
Even the most sympathetic audiences, after all, tend to feel
manipulated by arguments that scapegoat and caricature the
other side.
Furthermore, genuinely listening to views we disagree with
can have the salutary effect of helping us see that beliefs we’d
initially disdained may not be as thoroughly reprehensible as
we’d imagined. Thus the type of “they say / I say” argument
that we promote in this book can take the form of agreeing up
to a point or, as the Pollitt example above illustrates, of both
agreeing and disagreeing simultaneously, as in:
j While I agree with X that , I cannot accept her over-
all conclusion that .
j While X argues , and I argue , in a way
we’re both right.

Entering the Conversation
1 1
Agreement cannot be ruled out, however:
j I agree with that .
the template of templates
There are many ways, then, to enter a conversation and respond
to what “they say.” But our discussion of ways to do so would
be incomplete were we not to mention the most comprehensive
way that writers enter conversations, which incorporates all the
major moves discussed in this book:
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 .
This “template of templates,” as we like to call it, represents
the internal DNA of countless articles and even entire books.
Writers commonly use a version of it not only to stake out their
“they say” and “I say” at the start of their manuscript, but—just
as important—to form the overarching blueprint that structures
what they write over the entire length of their text.

1 2
Taking it line by line, this master template first helps
you open your text by identifying an issue in some ongoing
conversation or debate (“In recent discussions of ,
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
then 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 argu-
ment (“Though I concede 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
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

Entering the Conversation
1 3
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”
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.
“ok—but templates?”
Nevertheless, if you are like some of our students, your ini-
tial 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. “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

1 4
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 templates 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 need not
make you sound stiff and artificial, consider the following open-
ing to an essay on the fast-food industry that we’ve included at
the back of this book.

Entering the Conversation
1 5
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.”
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

1 6
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
What we like about this passage is its suggestion that stating an
argument (putting in your oar) can only be done in conversa-
tion with others; that entering the dynamic world of ideas must
be done not as isolated individuals but as social beings deeply
connected to others.
This ability to enter complex, many-sided conversations
has taken on a special urgency in today’s polarized, Red State /
Blue State America, 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 craft-
ing 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
even to change minds, our own included.
1. Write a short essay in which you first summarize our rationale
for the templates in this book and then articulate your own

Entering the Conversation
1 7
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 .
2. 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
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

1 8
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.

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
audience in
the figure on
p. 5 reacts

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 lon-
ger 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
encountered 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
college opens
by quoting its
critics, p. 365.

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

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

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
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.

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 .

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

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”
A student writer, Michaela Cullington, uses a version of this
template near the beginning of an essay to frame a debate over
online writing abbreviations like “LOL” (“laughing out loud”)
and to indicate her own position in this debate.
Some people believe that using these abbreviations is hindering
the writing abilities of students, and others argue that texting is

Starting with What Others Are Saying
2 7
actually having a positive effect on writing. In fact, it seems likely
that texting has no significant effect on student writing.
Michaela Cullington, “Does Texting Affect Writing?”
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,
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
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.

o n e “ T H E Y S A Y ”
2 8
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 motivated
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
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.”
Like the speaker in the cartoon on page 5 who declares
that the film presents complex characters, these one-sided

Starting with What Others Are Saying
2 9
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
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. 647). Use the tem-
plate 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 .

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

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
the mission of
Google on
p. 434, ¶ 24.

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 companies
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. 647–50), 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 telltale 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.

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 person, it does not mean

t w o “ H E R P O I N T I S ”
3 4
ignoring 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

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
agenda—may seem painfully obvious. But writers often summa-
rize 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
agenda fall prey to what might be called “list summaries,” sum-
maries 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 connected
only by words like “and then,” “also,” and “in addition,” you

t w o “ H E R P O I N T I S ”
3 6
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.
Not all lists are bad, however. A list can be an excellent
way to organize material—but only if, instead of being a mis-
cellaneous grab bag, it is organized around a larger argument
that informs each item listed. Many well-written summaries,
for instance, list various points made by an author, sometimes
itemizing those points (“First, she argues . . . ,” “Second, she

The Art of Summarizing
3 7
argues . . . ,” “Third . . .”), and sometimes even itemizing those
points in bullet form.
Many well-written arguments are organized in a list format as
well. In “The New Liberal Arts,” Sanford J. Ungar lists what he
sees as seven common misperceptions that discourage college
students from majoring in the liberal arts, the first of which
Misperception No. 1: A liberal-arts degree is a luxury that most
families can no longer afford. . . .
Misperception No. 2: College graduates are finding it harder to get
good jobs with liberal-arts degrees. . . .
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.
Sanford J. Ungar, “The New Liberal Arts”
What makes Ungar’s list so effective, and makes it stand out in
contrast to the type of disorganized lists our cartoon parodies, is
that it has a clear, overarching goal: to defend the liberal arts.
Had Ungar’s article lacked such a unifying agenda and instead
been a miscellaneous grab bag, it almost assuredly would have
lost its readers, who wouldn’t have known what to focus on or
what the final “message” or “takeaway” should be.
In conclusion, writing a good summary means not just
representing an author’s view accurately, but doing so in a
way that fits what you want to say, the larger point you want
to make. On the one hand, it means playing Peter Elbow’s
believing game and doing justice to the source; if the summary
ignores or misrepresents the source, its bias and unfairness will
show. On the other hand, even as it does justice to the source,

t w o “ H E R P O I N T I S ”
3 8
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 not just the
source you are summarizing, but your own perspective or take
on it.
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.
One such satiric summary can be found in Sanford J. Ungar’s
essay “The New Liberal Arts,” which we just mentioned. In his
discussion of the “misperception,” as he sees it, that a liberal
arts education is “particularly irrelevant for low-income and
first-generation college students,” who “must focus on some-
thing more practical and marketable,” Ungar restates this view
as “another way of saying, really, that the rich folks will do
the important thinking, and the lower classes will simply carry
out their ideas.” Few who would dissuade disadvantaged stu-
dents from the liberal arts would actually state their position

The Art of Summarizing
3 9
in this insulting way. But in taking their position to its logical
conclusion, Ungar’s satire suggests that this is precisely what
their position amounts to.
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 when sum-
marizing 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 obe-
sity; 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, we recommend that when summarizing—
or when introducing a quotation—you use vivid and precise

t w o “ H E R P O I N T I S ”
4 0
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

The Art of Summarizing
4 1
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.

t w o “ H E R P O I N T I S ”
4 2
2. Write two different summaries of David Zinczenko’s “Don’t
Blame the Eater” (pp. 647–50). 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.

4 3
“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

t h r e e “ A S H E H I M S E L F P U T S I T ”
4 4
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 mean-
ing 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
simply 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 explaining
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
demonstrating that you’ve read the author’s work; you need to
make sure they support your own argument.
See how
one author
connects what
“they say”
to what she
wants to say,
pp. 272–73,
¶ 6–8.

The Art of Quoting
4 5
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
argument, 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

t h r e e “ A S H E H I M S E L F P U T S I T ”
4 6
What follows is a typical hit-and-run quotation by a stu-
dent responding to an essay by Deborah Tannen, a linguistics
professor and prominent author, who complains that academ-
ics value opposition over agreement.
Deborah Tannen writes about academia. Academics believe “that
intellectual inquiry is a metaphorical battle. Following from that is
a second assumption that the best way to demonstrate intellectual
prowess is to criticize, find fault, and attack.”
I agree with Tannen. Another point Tannen makes is that . . .
Since this student fails to introduce the quotation ade-
quately or explain why he finds it worth quoting, read-
ers will have a hard time reconstructing what Tannen
argued. First, the student simply gives us the quotation
from Tannen without telling us who Tannen is or even
indicating that the quoted words are hers. In addition, the stu-
dent does not explain what he takes Tannen to be saying or how
her claims connect with his own. Instead, he simply abandons
the quotation in his haste to zoom on to another point.
See how
introduces a
long quotation
on pp. 539–40,
¶ 13.

The Art of Quoting
4 7
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

t h r e e “ A S H E H I M S E L F P U T S I T ”
4 8
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 often serviceable enough in introducing a quotation to write
“X states” or “X asserts,” but in most cases you can add preci-
sion to your writing by introducing the quotation in more vivid
terms. Since, in the example above, Tannen is clearly
alarmed by the culture of “attack” that she describes,
it would be more accurate to use language that reflects
that alarm: “Tannen is alarmed that,” “Tannen is dis-
turbed by,” “Tannen deplores,” or (in our own formulation
here) “Tannen complains.”
Consider, for example, how the earlier passage on Tannen
might be revised using some of these moves.
Deborah Tannen, a prominent linguistics professor, complains that
academia is too combative. Rather than really listening to others,
Tannen insists, academics habitually try to prove one another wrong.
As Tannen herself puts it, “We are all driven by our ideological
See pp. 40–41
for a list of
action verbs for
what other say.

The Art of Quoting
4 9
assumption that intellectual inquiry is a metaphorical battle,” that
“the best way to demonstrate intellectual prowess is to criticize, find
fault, and attack.” In short, Tannen objects that academic commu-
nication tends to be a competition for supremacy in which loftier
values like truth and consensus get lost.
Tannen’s observations ring true to me because I have often felt
that the academic pieces I read for class are negative and focus on
proving another theorist wrong rather than stating a truth . . .
This revision works, we think, because it frames or nests Tannen’s
words, integrating them and offering guidance about how they
should be read. Instead of launching directly into the quoted
words, as the previous draft had done, this revised version iden-
tifies Tannen (“a prominent linguistics professor”) and clearly
indicates that the quoted words are hers (“as Tannen herself puts
it”). And instead of being presented without explanation as it
was before, the quotation is now presented as an illustration of
Tannen’s point that, as the student helpfully puts it, “academics
habitually try to prove one another wrong” and compete “for
supremacy.” In this way, the student explains the quotation while
restating it in his own words, thereby making it clear that the
quotation is being used purposefully instead of having been stuck
in simply to pad the essay or the works-cited list.
blend the author’s words
with your own
This new framing material also works well because it accurately
represents Tannen’s words while giving those words the stu-
dent’s own spin. Instead of simply repeating Tannen word for
word, the follow-up sentences echo just enough of her language

t h r e e “ A S H E H I M S E L F P U T S I T ”
5 0
while still moving the discussion in the student’s own direc-
tion. Tannen’s “battle,” “criticize,” “find fault,” and “attack,”
for instance, get translated by the student into claims about
how “combative” Tannen thinks academics are and how she
thinks they “habitually try to prove one another wrong.” In
this way, the framing creates a kind of hybrid mix of Tannen’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 interpret the quotation, since words—especially those
of controversial figures—can be interpreted in various ways
and used to support different, sometimes opposing, agendas.

The Art of Quoting
5 1
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 are 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?

t h r e e “ A S H E H I M S E L F P U T S I T ”
5 2
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 intro-
duced 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. 47) and Explaining Quotations (pp. 47–48).
If you’ve not written anything with quotations, try revising
some academic text you’ve written to do so.

5 3
“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 come 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

f o u r “ Y E S / N O / O K A Y , B U T ”
5 4
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

Three Ways to Respond
5 5
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
on previewing
where you

f o u r “ Y E S / N O / O K A Y , B U T ”
5 6
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 particular 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,

Three Ways to Respond
5 7
I say women’s rights 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 argu-
ment fails to take relevant factors into account; because
it is based on faulty or incomplete evidence; because it
rests on questionable assumptions; 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. 236,
¶ 13 to see
how Michelle
disagrees and
explains why.

f o u r “ Y E S / N O / O K A Y , B U T ”
5 8
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
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.

Three Ways to Respond
5 9
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.

f o u r “ Y E S / N O / O K A Y , B U T ”
6 0
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

Three Ways to Respond
6 1
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
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”

f o u r “ Y E S / N O / O K A Y , B U T ”
6 2
In agreeing with some scientists that “the opposition between
selfish and selfless . . . makes no sense,” Gilligan implicitly dis-
agrees 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 simulta-
neously 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.
Sanford J. Ungar makes precisely this move in his essay
“The New Liberal Arts” when, in critiquing seven common
“misperceptions” of liberal arts education, he concedes that
several contain a grain of truth. For example, after summariz-
ing “Misperception No. 2,” that “college graduates are finding
it harder to get good jobs with liberal-arts degrees,” that few
employers want to hire those with an “irrelevant major like
philosophy or French,” Ungar writes: “Yes, recent graduates
have had difficulty in the job market. . . .” But then, after

Three Ways to Respond
6 3
making this concession, Ungar insists that this difficulty affects
graduates in all fields, not just those from the liberal arts. In
this way, we think, Ungar paradoxically strengthens his case.
By admitting that the opposing argument has a point, Ungar
bolsters his credibility, presenting himself as a writer willing to
acknowledge facts as they present themselves rather than one
determined only to cheerlead for his own side.
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, 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.
Charles Murray’s essay “Are Too Many People Going to
College?” contains a good example of the “yes and no” move
when, at the outset of his essay, Murray responds to what he
sees as the prevailing wisdom about the liberal arts and college:
We should not restrict the availability of a liberal education to a
rarefied intellectual elite. More people should be going to college,
not fewer.
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.
Charles Murray, “Are Too Many People Going to College?”
Clive Thompson
says “yes, but”
to an argument
that technology
harms our
brains, p. 456,
¶ 34.

f o u r “ Y E S / N O / O K A Y , B U T ”
6 4
In other words, Murray is saying yes to more liberal arts, but
not to more college.
Another aspect we like about this “yes and no,” “agree and
disagree” 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
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.

Three Ways to Respond
6 5
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.
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, how-
ever, acknowledging that a clear-cut resolution of an issue is

f o u r “ Y E S / N O / O K A Y , B U T ”
6 6
impossible 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, espe-
cially 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.

6 7
“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

f i v e “ A N D Y E T ”
6 8
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 middle­class,” 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 middle­class
life­style. 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
himself from the belief being summarized in the opening

Distinguishing What You Say from What They Say
6 9
paragraph 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
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 middle­class” is Mantsios’s own position rather than the
perspective he is opposing, failing to see that in writing these
words Mantsios acts as a kind of ventriloquist, mimicking what

f i v e “ A N D Y E T ”
7 0
others say rather than directly expressing what he himself is
To see how important such voice markers are, consider what
the Mantsios passage looks like if we remove them.
We are all middle­class. . . . We are a nation of prosperity and
opportunity with an ever expanding middle­class life­style. . . .
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 middle­class” 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” contra­
dicts the first paragraph’s claim that “We are all middle­class.”
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 voice­identifying devices many of the templates
presented in previous chapters.
See how Ben
begins with a
view in¶ 3 and
then challeages
it in ¶ 4 on
p. 391.

Distinguishing What You Say from What They Say
7 1
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 first­person
“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, self­indulgent
opinions rather than well­grounded arguments, we believe
that texts using “I” can be just as well supported—or just as
self­indulgent—as those that don’t. For us, well­supported 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.

f i v e “ A N D Y E T ”
7 2
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 first­person 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
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. 318–33
for an example
of the way two
writers use the
first person
with “we.”

Distinguishing What You Say from What They Say
7 3
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
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.

f i v e “ A N D Y E T ”
7 4
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 voice­marking 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.

Distinguishing What You Say from What They Say
7 5
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
twentieth­century America, it seems that society is splitting more
and more into a plethora of class factions—the working class,
the working poor, lower­middle class, upper­middle 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”

f i v e “ A N D Y E T ”
7 6
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 voice­signaling 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.

7 7
“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

s i x “ S K E P T I C S M A Y O B J E C T ”
7 8
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

Planting a Naysayer in Your Text
7 9
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

s i x “ S K E P T I C S M A Y O B J E C T ”
8 0

Planting a Naysayer in Your Text
8 1
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

s i x “ S K E P T I C S M A Y O B J E C T ”
8 2
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

Planting a Naysayer in Your Text
8 3
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
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 ?

s i x “ S K E P T I C S M A Y O B J E C T ”
8 4
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
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 nay-
sayer, more formally, as follows: “Of course anti-smok-
ers will object that since we smokers are in the minor-
ity, 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,
See the essay
on Family Guy
(p. 145) that

Planting a Naysayer in Your Text
8 5
that the smoking minority should submit to the nonsmoking
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 novel-
ists, 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 usu-
ally counterproductive. When writers make the best case they
can for their critics (playing Peter Elbow’s “believing 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

s i x “ S K E P T I C S M A Y O B J E C T ”
8 6
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 of unintentional reverse effect on

Planting a Naysayer in Your Text
8 7
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. 59–62
for more on
agreeing, with
a difference.

s i x “ S K E P T I C S M A Y O B J E C T ”
8 8
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,

Planting a Naysayer in Your Text
8 9
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

s i x “ S K E P T I C S M A Y O B J E C T ”
9 0
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?

9 1
“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

s e v e n “ S O W H A T ? W H O C A R E S ? ”
9 2
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

Saying Why It Matters
9 3
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?

s e v e n “ S O W H A T ? W H O C A R E S ? ”
9 4
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

Saying Why It Matters
9 5
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,

s e v e n “ S O W H A T ? W H O C A R E S ? ”
9 6
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,

Saying Why It Matters
9 7
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 cell phones 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 .
Writer danah
boyd explains
the “so
what” of her
argument on
p. 220, ¶ 2–3.

s e v e n “ S O W H A T ? W H O C A R E S ? ”
9 8
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

Saying Why It Matters
9 9
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 family?”—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
readers 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.
1. Find several texts (scholarly essays, newspaper articles,
emails, memos, blogs, etc.) and see whether they answer
One writer
explains the
seriousness of
among men—
and why it
matters for
everyone, p. 616,
¶ 26–27.

s e v e n “ S O W H A T ? W H O C A R E S ? ”
1 0 0
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

1 0 1
“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

e i g h t “ A S A R E S U L T ”
1 0 2
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

Connecting the Parts
1 0 3
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

e i g h t “ A S A R E S U L T ”
1 0 4
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

Connecting the Parts
1 0 5
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 in fact
and indeed
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

e i g h t “ A S A R E S U L T ”
1 0 6
cause and effect
accordingly so
as a result then
consequently therefore
hence thus
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

Connecting the Parts
1 0 7
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

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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. 642.

Connecting the Parts
1 0 9
“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

e i g h t “ A S A R E S U L T ”
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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”

Connecting the Parts
1 1 1
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

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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
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.

Connecting the Parts
1 1 3
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.

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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.

Connecting the Parts
1 1 5
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.

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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?

1 1 7
“you mean i can just
say it that way?”
Academic Writing Doesn’t Mean
Setting Aside Your Own Voice
We wish we had a dollar for each time a student has
asked us a version of the above question. It usually comes when
the student is visiting us during our office hours, seeking advice
about how to improve a draft of an essay he or she is working
on. When we ask the student to tell us in simple words the
point he or she is trying to make in the essay, the student will
almost invariably produce a statement that is far clearer and
more incisive than anything in the draft.
“Write that down,” we will urge. “What you just said is sooo
much better than anything you wrote in your draft. We suggest
going home and revising your paper in a way that makes that
claim the focal point of your essay.”
“Really?” our student will ask, looking surprised. “You mean
I can just say it that way?”
“Sure. Why not?”
“Well, saying it that way seems just so elementary—so obvi-
ous. I mean, I don’t want to sound stupid.”

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The goal of this chapter is to counteract this common
misconception: that relying in college on the straightforward,
down-to-earth language you use every day will make you sound
stupid; that to impress your teachers you need to set aside your
everyday voice and write in a way that nobody can understand.
It’s easy to see how this misconception took hold, since aca-
demic writing is notoriously obscure. Students can’t be blamed
for such obscurity when so much of the writing they’re assigned
to read is so hard to understand—as we can see in the follow-
ing sentence from a science paper that linguist Steven Pinker
quotes in his essay “Why Academics Stink at Writing”:
Participants read assertions whose veracity was either affirmed or
denied by the subsequent presentation of an assessment word.
After struggling to determine what the writer of this sentence
was trying to say, Pinker finally decided it was probably some-
thing as simple as this:
Participants read sentences, each followed by the word true or false.
Had the author revised the original statement by tapping into his
or her more relaxed, everyday language, as Pinker did in revising
it, much of this struggle could have been avoided. In our view,
then, mastering academic writing does not mean completely
abandoning your normal voice for one that’s stiff, convoluted,
or pompous, as students often assume. Instead, it means creating
a new voice that draws on the voice you already have.
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 your everyday voice as an excuse to
remain in your comfort zone and avoid learning the rigorous

Academic Writing Doesn’t Mean Setting Aside Your Own Voice
1 1 9
forms and habits that characterize academic culture. After all,
learning new words and forms—moves or templates, as we call
them in this book—is a major part of getting an education.
We do, however, wish to suggest that everyday language can
often enliven such moves and even enhance your precision in
using academic terminology. In our view, then, it is a mistake
to assume that the academic and everyday are completely sepa-
rate languages that can never be used together. Ultimately, we
suggest, academic writing is often at its best when it combines
what we call “everydayspeak” and “academicspeak.”
blend academic and
colloquial styles
In fact, we would argue that, despite their bad reputation, many
academics are highly successful writers who provide models of
how to blend everyday and academic styles. Note, for example,
how Judith Fetterley, a prominent scholar in the field of literary
studies, blends academic and everyday ways of talking in the
following passage on the novelist Willa Cather:
As Merrill Skaggs has put it, “[Cather] 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: An Unofficial Story”
In this passage, Fetterley makes use of what is probably
the most common technique for blending academic and
everyday language: she puts them side by side, juxtapos-
ing “neurotically controlling” and “self-conscious” from
See pp. 369 for
an essay that
mixes colloquial
and academic

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1 2 0
a quoted source with her own colloquial term, “control freak.”
In this way, Fetterley lightens a potentially dry subject and
makes it more accessible and even entertaining.
a translation recipe
But Fetterley does more than simply put academicspeak and
everydayspeak side by side. She takes a step further by trans-
lating the one into the other. By translating Skaggs’s poly-
syllabic description of Cather as “neurotically controlling and
self-conscious” into the succinct, if blunt, “control freak,” Fet-
terley shows how rarefied, academic ways of talking and more
familiar language can not only coexist but actually enhance
one another—her informal “control freak” serving to explain
the formal language that precedes it.
To be sure, slangy, colloquial expressions like “control freak”
may be far more common in the humanities than in the sci-
ences, and even in the humanities such casual usages are a
recent development. Fifty years ago academic writing in all
disciplines was the linguistic equivalent of a black-tie affair.
But as times have changed, so has the range of options open to
academic writers—so much so that it is not surprising to find
writers in all fields using colloquial expressions and referring
to movies, music, and other forms of popular culture.
Indeed, Fetterley’s passage offers a simple recipe for mixing
styles that we encourage you to try out in your own writing: first
state the point in academic language, then translate the point
into everyday language. Everyone knows that academic terms like
“neurotically controlling” and “self-conscious”—and others you
might encounter like “subject position” or “bifurcate”—can be
hard to understand. But this translation recipe, we think, eases

Academic Writing Doesn’t Mean Setting Aside Your Own Voice
1 2 1
such difficulties by making the academic familiar. Here is one
way you might translate academicspeak into everydayspeak:
j Scholar X argues, “ .” In other words, .
Instead of “In other words,” you might try variations like the
j Essentially, X argues .
j X’s point, succinctly put, is that .
j Plainly put, .
Following Fetterley’s lead and making moves like these can help
you not only demystify challenging academic material, but also
reinterpret it, showing you understand it (and helping readers
understand it) by putting it into your own terms.

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But this translation recipe need not be limited to clarifying the
ideas of others. It can also be used to clarify your own com-
plex ideas, as the following passage by the philosopher Rebecca
Goldstein illustrates:
We can hardly get through our lives—in fact, it’s hard to get
through a week—without considering what makes specific actions
right and others wrong and debating with ourselves whether that
is a difference that must compel the actions we choose. (Okay, it’s
wrong! I get it! But why should I care?)
Rebecca Goldstein, Plato at the Googleplex:
Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away
Though Goldstein’s first sentence may require several reread-
ings, it is one that most of us, with varying degrees of effort,
can come to understand: that we all wrestle regularly with the
challenging philosophical questions of what the ethics of a
given situation are and whether those ethics should alter our
behavior. But instead of leaving us entirely on our own to figure
out what she is saying, Goldstein helps us out in her closing
parenthenthetical remarks, which translate the abstractions of
her first sentence into the kind of concrete everydayspeak that
runs through our heads.
Yet another example of self-translation—one that actually
uses the word “translation”—can be found on the opening page
of a book by scholar Helen Sword:
There is a massive gap between what most readers consider to be
good writing and what academics typically produce and publish. I’m
not talking about the kinds of formal strictures necessarily imposed

Academic Writing Doesn’t Mean Setting Aside Your Own Voice
1 2 3
by journal editors—article length, citation style, and the like—but
about a deeper, duller kind of disciplinary monotony, a compul-
sive proclivity for discursive obscurantism and circumambulatory
diction (translation: an addiction to big words and soggy syntax).
Helen Sword, Stylish Academic Writing
In this passage, Sword gives her own unique twist to the
translation technique we’ve been discussing. After a stream
of difficult polysyllabic words—“a compulsive proclivity for
discursive obscurantism and circumambulatory diction”—she
then concludes by translating these words into everydayspeak:
“an addiction to big words and soggy syntax.” The effect is
to dramatize her larger point: the “massive gap between what
most readers consider to be good writing and what academics
typically produce and publish.”
famous examples
Even notoriously difficult thinkers could be said to use the
translation practice we have been advocating in this chapter,
as the following famous and widely quoted claims illustrate:
I think, therefore I am. The master’s tools will never
—René Descartes dismantle the master’s house.
—Audre Lorde
The medium is the message. Form follows function.
—Marshall McLuhan —Louis Sullivan
These sentences can be read almost as sound bites, short,
catchy statements that express a more complex idea. Though
the term “sound bite” is usually used to refer to mindless media

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simplifications, the succinct statements above show what valu-
able work they can do. These distillations are admittedly reduc-
tive in that they do not capture all the nuances of the more
complex ideas they represent. But consider their power to stick
in the minds of readers. Without these memorable translations,
we wonder if these authors’ ideas would have achieved such
widespread circulation.
Consider Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am,” for example,
which comes embedded in the following passage, in which
Descartes is struggling to find a philosophical foundation for
absolute truth in the face of skeptical doctrines that doubt that
anything can be known for certain. After putting himself in the
shoes of a radical skeptic and imagining what it would be like to
believe all apparent truths to be false, Descartes “immediately . . .
observed,” he writes,
whilst I thus wished to think that all was false, it was absolutely
necessary that I, who thus thought, should be somewhat; and as I
observed that this truth, I think, therefore I am (cogito ergo sum),
was so certain and of such evidence that no ground of doubt, how-
ever extravagant, could be alleged by the sceptics capable of shak-
ing it, I concluded that I might, without scruple, accept it as the
first principle of the philosophy of which I was in search.
René Descartes, “Discourse on the Method, Part IV”
Had Descartes been less probing and scrupulous, we speculate,
he would have stopped writing and ended the passage after
the statement “it was absolutely necessary that I, who thus
thought, should be somewhat.” After all, the passage up to
this point contains all the basic ingredients that the rest of it
goes on to explain, the simpler, more accessible formulation

Academic Writing Doesn’t Mean Setting Aside Your Own Voice
1 2 5
“I think, therefore I am” being merely a reformulation of this
earlier material. But just imagine if Descartes had decided that
his job as a writer was finished after his initial claim and had
failed to add the more accessible phrase “I think, therefore I
am.” We suspect this idea of his would not have become one
of the most famous touchstones of Western philosophy.
everyday language as a thinking tool
As the examples in this chapter suggest, then, translating aca-
demic language into everydayspeak can be an indispensable
tool for clarifying and underscoring ideas for readers. But at an
even more basic level, such translation can be an indispensable
means for you as a writer to clarify your ideas to yourself. In
other words, translating academicspeak into everydayspeak can
function as a thinking tool that enables you to discover what
you are trying to say to begin with.
For as writing theorists often note, writing is generally not
a process in which we start with a fully formed idea in our
heads that we then simply transcribe in an unchanged state
onto the page. On the contrary, writing is more often a means
of discovery in which we use the writing process to figure out
what our idea is. This is why writers are often surprised to find
that what they end up with on the page is quite different from
what they thought it would be when they started. What we
are trying to say here is that everydayspeak is often crucial for
this discovery process, that translating your ideas into more
common, simpler terms can help you figure out what your ideas
really are, as opposed to what you initially imagined they were.
Even Descartes, for example, may not have had the formulation
“I think, therefore I am” in mind before he wrote the passage

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above; instead, he may have arrived at it as he worked through
the writing process.
We ourselves have been reminded of this point when engaged
in our own writing. One major benefit of writing collaboratively,
as the two of us do, is that it repeatedly forces us to explain in
simpler terms our less-than-clear ideas when one of us doesn’t
already know what the other means. In the process of writing
and revising this book, for instance, we were always turning to
each other after reading something the other had written and
asking a version of the “Can-you-explain-that-more-simply?”
question that we described asking our students in our office in
this chapter’s opening anecdote: “What do you mean?” “I don’t
get it—can you explain?” “Huh!?” Sometimes, when the idea is
finally stated in plain, everyday terms, we realize that it doesn’t
make sense or that it amounts to nothing more than a cliché—or
that we have something worth pursuing. It’s as if using everyday
language to talk through a draft—as any writer can do by asking
others to critique his or her drafts—shines a bright light on our
writing to expose its strengths and weaknesses.
still not convinced?
To be sure, not everyone will be as enthusiastic as we are about
the benefits of everydayspeak. Many will insist that, while some
fields in the humanities may be open to everyday language,
colloquial expressions, and slang, most fields in the sciences
are not. And some people in both the humanities and the
sciences will argue that some ideas simply can’t be done justice
to in everyday language. “Theory X,” they will say, “is just too
complex to be explained in simple terms,” or “You have to
be in the field to understand it.” Perhaps so. But at least one

Academic Writing Doesn’t Mean Setting Aside Your Own Voice
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distinguished scientist, the celebrated atomic physicist Enrico
Fermi, thought otherwise. Fermi, it is said, believed that all
faculty in his field should teach basic physics to undergradu-
ates, because having to explain the science in relatively plain
English helped to clarify their thinking. This last point can be
stated as a rule of thumb: if you can’t explain it to your Aunt
Franny, chances are you don’t understand it yourself.
Furthermore, when writers tell themselves that their ideas
are just too complex to be explained to nonspecialists, they risk
fooling themselves into thinking that they are making more
sense than they actually are. Translating academicspeak into
everydayspeak functions as a kind of baloney detector, a way
of keeping us honest when we’re in danger of getting carried
away by our own verbosity.
“But come on,” some may say. “Get real! Academic writing
must, in many cases, mean setting aside our own voices.” Sure,
it may be fine to translate challenging academic ideas into
plain everyday language, as Goldstein, Sword, and Descartes
do above, when it’s a language that your audience will under-
stand and find acceptable. But what if your everyday language—
the one you use when you’re most relaxed, with family and
friends—is filled with slang and questionable grammar? And
what if your everyday language is an ethnic or regional dialect—
or a different language altogether? Is there really a place for such
language in academic, professional, or public writing?
Yes and no. On the one hand, there are many situations—
like when you’re applying for a job or submitting a proposal to
be read by an official screening body—in which it’s probably

n i n e “ Y O U M E A N I C A N J U S T S A Y I T T H A T W A Y ? ”
1 2 8
safest to write in “standard” English. On the other hand, the
line between language that might confuse audiences and lan-
guage that engages or challenges them is not always obvious.
Nor is the line between foreign words that readers don’t already
know and those that readers might happily learn. After all,
“standard” written English is more open and inclusive than it
may at first appear. And readers often appreciate writers who
take risks and mix things up.
Many prominent writers mix standard written English with
other dialects or languages, employing a practice that cultural
and linguistic theorists Vershawn Ashanti Young and Suresh
Canagarajah call “code-meshing.” 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 Smither-
man mixes African American vernacular phrases with more
scholarly language in order to suggest, as she explicitly argues
in these books, that black vernacular English 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 fundamental
vehicle for gittin ovah. 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

Academic Writing Doesn’t Mean Setting Aside Your Own Voice
1 2 9
In these examples, Smitherman blends the types of terms we
expect in scholarly writing like “oral tradition” and “fundamen-
tal vehicle” with black vernacular phrases like “gittin ovah.”
She even blends the standard English spelling of words with
African American English variants like “dem” and “ovah” in
a way that evokes how some speakers of African American
English sound. Some might object to these unconventional
practices, but 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 conversation needs to
be expanded.
Along similar lines, the writer and activist Gloria Anzaldúa
mixes standard English with what she calls Chicano Spanish
to make a political point about the suppression of the Spanish
language in the United States. In one typical passage, she writes:
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
Anzaldúa gets her point across not only through what she says
but through the way she says it, showing that the new hybrid,
or “mestiza consciousness,” that she celebrates is, as she puts
it, “presently in the making.” Ultimately, such code-meshing
suggests that languages, like the people who speak them, are
not distinct, separate islands.
Because there are so many options in writing, then, there is
no need to ever feel limited in your choice of words. You can
always experiment with your language and improve it. Depend-
ing on your audience and purpose, and how much risk you’re

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1 3 0
willing to take, you can dress up your language, dress it down,
or some combination of both. You could even recast the title of
this book, “They Say / I Say,” as a teenager might say it: “She
Goes / I’m Like.”
We hope you agree with us, then, that to succeed as a college
writer, you need not always set aside your everyday voice, even
when that voice may initially seem unwelcome in the academic
world. It is by blending everyday language with standard written
English that what counts as “standard” changes 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.

1 3 1
“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

t e n “ B U T D O N ’ T G E T M E W R O N G ”
1 3 2
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

The Art of Metacommentary
1 3 3
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 understand 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 matter 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
misinterpretations 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
Freedman uses
when he writes
“to repeat”
to further
emphasize his
point, ¶ 32,
p. 694.

t e n “ B U T D O N ’ T G E T M E W R O N G ”
1 3 4
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 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, drawing 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
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
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

The Art of Metacommentary
1 3 5
press, discourse in America was different from what it is now—
generally coherent, serious and rational; and then how, under the
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 the chapters ahead 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

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1 3 6
metacommentary since, like all titles, it stands apart from the text
itself and tells readers the book’s main point: that the very plea-
sure 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.

The Art of Metacommentary
1 3 7
templates for introducing
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 road map 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 .

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1 3 8
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 .

The Art of Metacommentary
1 3 9
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 received. 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 pages 137–39 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

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1 4 0
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.

1 4 1
“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?

1 4 2
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 pages 23–28 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
pages 45–47 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 pages 40–41 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?

1 4 3
Using the Templates to Revise
Do you remind readers of what others say at various points
throughout your text? If not, see pages 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.

1 4 4
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 pages 105–06 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

1 4 5
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 pages 108–10 for help working with pointing words.
Have you used what we call “repetition with a difference” to help
connect parts of your argument? See pages 112–14 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.

1 4 6
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

Using the Templates to Revise
1 4 7
Family Guy and Freud: Jokes and
Their Relation to the Unconscious
a n t o n i a p e a c o c k e
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)
tary wards
off potential
(Chapter 10)
Starts with
what others
are saying
(Chapter 1)

e l e v e n “ H E S A Y S C O N T E N D S ”
1 4 8
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
what others
say (Chapters
2 and 3)
Fig 1. Peter and Stewie Griffin. (Everett Collection)

Using the Templates to Revise
1 4 9
you could name.” Likewise Stephen Dubner, coauthor 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

e l e v e n “ H E S A Y S C O N T E N D S ”
1 5 0
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.]
a naysayer’s
(Chapter 6)

Using the Templates to Revise
1 5 1
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
but with a
(Chapter 4)
a naysayer’s
(Chapter 6)

e l e v e n “ H E S A Y S C O N T E N D S ”
1 5 2
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
[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.
between what
others say and
what she says
(Chapter 5)
academic and
(Chapter 9)
Uses a
to explicate
this excerpt
(Chapter 3)

Using the Templates to Revise
1 5 3
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
what others
say from what
she says
(Chapter 5)

e l e v e n “ H E S A Y S C O N T E N D S ”
1 5 4
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
to connect
the parts
(Chapter 8)

Using the Templates to Revise
1 5 5
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
bald-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

e l e v e n “ H E S A Y S C O N T E N D S ”
1 5 6
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)

Using the Templates to Revise
1 5 7
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

e l e v e n “ H E S A Y S C O N T E N D S ”
1 5 8
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
to connect
the parts
(Chapter 8)
Agrees and
while standing
her ground
(Chapters 4
and 6)

Using the Templates to Revise
1 5 9
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
(Chapter 7)

e l e v e n “ H E S A Y S C O N T E N D S ”
1 6 0
Works Cited
“Carole Burnett Sues over Family Guy Parody.” CBC, 16 Mar.
-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.” The 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, 1999–2016,
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.



Using the Templates to Revise
1 6 1
“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,
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.” The New York Times, 7 July 2004, 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.” The
Washington Post, 21 June 2001, p. A25.

1 6 2
“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 anyone 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.

Entering Class Discussions
1 6 3
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

t w e l v e “ I T A K E Y O U R P O I N T ”
1 6 4
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.

Entering Class Discussions
1 6 5
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 .

1 6 6
don’t make them scroll up
Entering Online Conversations
The internet has transformed communication in more
ways than we can count. With just a few taps on a keyboard, we
can be connected with what others have said not only through-
out history, but right now, in the most remote places. Almost
instantaneously, communities can be created that are powerful
enough to change the world. In addition, virtually the moment
we voice an opinion online, we can get responses from sup-
porters and critics alike, while any links we provide to sources
can connect readers to voices they might otherwise never have
known about, and to conversations they might never have been
able to join.
Because of this connectivity, the internet lends itself per-
fectly to the type of conversational writing at the core of this
book. Just the other day, we were on a discussion board in which
one of the participants wrote to another, let’s call him X, in
a form that could have provided a template for this textbook:
“Fascinating point about , X. I’d never thought of it
that way before. I’d always thought that , but if you’re
right, then that would explain why .”

Entering Online Conversations
1 6 7
identify what you’re responding to
Unfortunately, not all online writers make clear who or what
prompted them to write. As a result, too many online exchanges
end up being not true conversations but a series of statements
without clear relationships to one another. All too often, it’s
hard to tell if the writer is building on what someone else has
said, challenging it, or trying to change the discussion topic
altogether. So although the digital world may connect us far
more rapidly and with far more people than ever, it doesn’t
always encourage a genuine meeting of minds.
We’ve seen this type of confusion in the writing our own
students submit to online discussions. Even students who use
the “they say / I say” framework routinely and effectively in
the essays they write often neglect to make those same moves
online. While our students engage enthusiastically in online
discussions, their posts are often all “I say” with little or no
“they say.” As a result, they end up talking past rather than to
one another.
What is happening here, we suspect, is that the easy acces-
sibility made possible by the internet makes slowing down and
summarizing or even identifying what others say seem unneces-
sary. Why repeat the views you are responding to, writers seem
to assume, when readers can easily find them by simply scrolling
up or clicking on a link?
The problem with this way of thinking is that readers won’t
always take the time to track down the comments you’re
responding to, assuming they can figure out what those com-
ments are to begin with. And even when readers do make the
effort to find the comments you’re responding to, they may not
be sure what aspect or part of those comments you’re referring to,

t h i r t e e n D O N ’ T M A K E T H E M S C R O L L U P
1 6 8
or how you interpret them. Ultimately, when you fail to iden-
tify your “they say,” you leave readers guessing, like someone
listening to one side of a phone conversation trying to piece
together what’s being said at the other end.
It is true, of course, that there are some situations online
where summarizing what you’re responding to would indeed
be redundant. When, for instance, you’re replying to a friend’s
text asking, “Meet in front of the theater at 7?” a mere “OK”
suffices, whereas a more elaborate response—“With regard to
your suggestion that we meet in front of the theater at 7, my
answer is yes”—would be not only redundant but downright
bizarre. But in more complex academic conversations where
the ideas are challenging, many people are involved, and there
is therefore a greater chance of misunderstanding, you do need
to clarify whom or what you’re responding to.
To see how hard it can be to make sense of a post that
fails to identify the “they say” it is responding to, consider the
following example from an online class discussion devoted to
Nicholas Carr’s article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”

Entering Online Conversations
1 6 9
Blogs and social media allow us to reach many people all at
once. The internet makes us more efficient.
When we first read this post, we could see that this writer was
making a claim about the efficiency of the internet, but we
weren’t sure what the claim had to do with Carr or with any of
the other comments in the discussion. After all, the writer never
names Carr or anyone else in the conversation. Nor does she
use templates such as “Like Carr, I believe ” or “What
X overlooks is ” to indicate whether she’s agreeing or
disagreeing with Carr or with one of her classmates. Indeed, we
couldn’t tell if the writer had even read Carr or any of the other
posts, or if she was just expressing her own views on the topic.
We suspect, however, that in arguing that the internet is
making us more efficient, this writer was probably trying to
refute Carr’s argument that the internet is, as Carr puts it in his
title, “making us stupid.” Then again, she could also have been
criticizing someone who agreed with Carr—or, conversely, sid-
ing with someone else who disagreed with Carr.
It would have been better if she had used the “they say / I
say” framework taught in this book, opening not with her own
“I say,” as she did, but with the “they say” that’s motivated her
to respond, perhaps using one of the following templates:
j X argues that .
j Like X, Y would have us believe that .
j In challenging X’s argument that , Y asserts
that .

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It would also have helped if, in her “I say,” she had identified the
“they say” she is addressing, using a template like one of these:
j But what X overlooks is that .
j What both X and Y fail to see is that .
j Z’s point is well taken. Like him, I contend that is not,
as X insists, but .
Here’s one way this writer might have responded:
Carr argues that Google is undermining our ability to think and
read deeply. But far from making people “stupid,” as Carr puts
it in his title, the internet, in my view, is making people more
efficient. What Carr ignores is how blogs and social media allow
us to reach many people at once.
This version makes clear that the writer is not just making a
claim out of the blue, but that she had a reason for making her
claim: to take a position in a conversation or debate.
technology won’t do all the work
But still, you might wonder, doesn’t the internet enable
writers to connect so directly with others that summariz-
ing their claims is unnecessary? Granted, the internet does
provide several unique ways of referring to what others are
saying, like linking and embedding, that help us connect to
what others are saying. But as the following examples show,
these techniques don’t mean that technology will do all the
work for you.

Entering Online Conversations
1 7 1
linking to what “they say”
One way the internet makes it especially easy to connect
directly with others is by allowing us to insert a link to what
others have said into our own text. Anything with a URL can
be linked to—blog posts, magazine articles, Facebook posts, and
so forth. Readers can then click on the words to which you’ve
attached the link and be taken directly to that page, as we can
see in the following comment in another online class discussion
about how the internet affects our brains.
In his essay “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” Nicholas Carr
argues that the kind of skimming we do when we read online
destroys deep reading and thinking. But I would argue the
opposite: that all the complex information we’re exposed to
online actually makes us read and think more deeply.
By including a link to Carr’s essay, this writer gives her readers
direct access to Carr’s arguments, allowing them to assess how
well she has summarized and responded to what he wrote. But
the reason the writer’s post succeeds is that she introduces the
link to Carr’s essay, summarizes what she takes Carr to be say-
ing, and gives her response to it.
Here are a few templates for framing a link:
j As X mentions in this article, “ .”
j In making this comment, X warns that .
j Economists often assume ; however, new research by
X suggests .

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juxtaposing your “they say”
with your “i say”
Another way that online forums enhance our ability to connect
with others is by allowing readers to respond—not only to the
original article or post but also to one another through what
we might call juxtaposition. On many online forums, when
you reply to someone else’s comment, your response appears
below the original comment and indented slightly, so that it
is visually clear whom you’re responding to. This means that,
in many cases, your “they say” and “I say” are presented almost
as a single conversational unit, as the following example from
the online discussion of Carr’s article illustrates:
Lee, 4/12/17, 3:02 PM
Carr argues that the internet has harmed us by making it hard
for us to read without breaks to look at other things. That
might be true, but overall I think it has improved our lives by
giving us access to so many different viewpoints.
Cody, 4/12/17, 5:15 PM
Like Lee, I think the internet has improved our
lives more than it’s hurt them. I would add that
it’s enabled us to form and participate in political
communities online that make people way more
politically engaged.

Entering Online Conversations
1 7 3
Twitter also allows for this type of close proximity, by enabling
you to embed someone else’s tweet inside your own. For
instance, consider the following tweet:
Jade T. Moore @JadeTMoore
@willwst I agree—access to books is a social justice issue.
William West @willwst
Every child has the right to access to a school library.
Cody’s response in the discussion board and Jade’s on Twitter
are effective not only because the platforms connect Cody
and Jade to their “they say” but also because they take the
time to make those connections clear. Cody connects his com-
ment to his “they say” by including the words “Like Lee” and
restating Lee’s view, while Jade does so by including West’s
Twitter handle, @willwst, and the words “I agree.” Sure, the
technology does some of the work, by making the comments
being answered directly available for readers to see—no scroll-
ing or searching involved. But it can’t do it all. Imagine if
Cody, for instance, had merely written, “We’re able to form and
participate in political communities online that make people
way more politically engaged.” Or if Jade hadn’t included an
“I agree” with her comment. As readers, we’d have been left
scratching our heads, unable to tell what Cody’s claim had to do
with Lee’s claim, or what Jade’s claim had to do with William’s,
despite how close together these claims are on the screen.
Digital communication, then, does shrink the world, as
is often said, allowing us to connect with others in ways we

t h i r t e e n D O N ’ T M A K E T H E M S C R O L L U P
1 7 4
couldn’t before. But technology doesn’t relieve writers of the
need to use the “they say / I say” framework. A central prem-
ise of this book is that this framework is a rhetorical move
that transcends the differences between all types of writing.
Whether you’re writing online or off, if you want others to listen
to what you say, you’d better pay attention to what they think,
and start with what they say. However limited your space, what-
ever your format, and whatever the technology, you can always
find a way to identify and summarize your “they say.”
1. Look back on some of your old posts on a social media site,
a class discussion board, or some other website. How well
did you let other readers know whom and what you were
responding to and what your own position was? What kinds
of moves did you make? Does that site have any conventions
or special features that you used? Are there any features not
available on that site that might have helped you connect
your comment to other people’s comments? Having read this
chapter, try revising one of your posts to reflect the advice
covered here.
2. Choose an online forum (Facebook,, etc.)
and describe how you might apply the advice given here to
that site. Are there any features or norms specific to that
forum (e.g., embedding, linking, etc.) that would influ-
ence how you formulate your “they say”? Go to that site
and evaluate how well people use these specific features
to communicate their “they say.” Is it easy to tell whom
and what people are responding to? Why or why not? Can

Entering Online Conversations
1 7 5
you make your own contribution to the forum using the
“they say / I say” format?
3. 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? How
well do people listen to each other? 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.

1 7 6
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
on to the idea of leading with some different questions: “What
other argument(s) is the writer responding to?” “Is the writer

Reading for the Conversation
1 7 7
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

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
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. One of the challenges in reading for the “they say” and

Reading for the Conversation
1 7 9
“I say” can be figuring out which is which, since it may not
be obvious when writers are summarizing others and when
they are speaking 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 page 647.
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 ridiculous.
When their reading is challenged by their classmates,
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 students are mak-
ing is that if something appears on the page, the author must
endorse it. In fact, however, we ventriloquize views that we
don’t believe in, and may in fact passionately disagree with, all
the time. The central clues that Zinczenko disagrees with the
view expressed in his opening paragraph come in the second
See Chapter 6
for more
discussion of

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
paragraph, when he finally offers a first-person declaration and
uses a contrastive transition, “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”

Reading for the Conversation
1 8 1
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

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1 8 2
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

Reading for the Conversation
1 8 3
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, challenging words
that many readers may need to look up, like “contemporary”
(occurring in the present), “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

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 4
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 say-
ing—and will then help you move from reading to writing,
providing you with some of the language you will need to sum-
marize 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 writ-
ers 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
see Chapter 2.
For more on
see Chapter 9.

Reading for the Conversation
1 8 5
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

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 6
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.

1 8 7
“analyze this”
Writing in the Social Sciences
e r i n a c k e r m a n
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, what causes
aggressive behavior, employment 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
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 American law and politics, women and law, and information
literacy in the social sciences.

F I F T E E N “ A N A L Y Z E T H I S ”
1 8 8
than just your opinions. Good writing in the social sciences, as
in other academic disciplines, requires that you demonstrate that
you have examined what you think and why. 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 evidence. 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 an op-ed in the New
York Times by two psychology professors:
Is video game addiction a real thing?
It’s certainly common to hear parents complain that their chil-
dren are “addicted” to video games. Some researchers even claim that
these games are comparable to illegal drugs in terms of their influence
on the brain—that they are “digital heroin” (the neuroscientist Peter
C. Whybrow) or “digital pharmakeia” (the neuroscientist Andrew
Doan). The American Psychiatric Association has identified inter-
net gaming disorder as a possible psychiatric illness, and the World
Health Organization has proposed including “gaming disorder” in its
catalog of mental diseases, along with drug and alcohol addiction.
This is all terribly misguided. Playing video games is not addic-
tive in any meaningful sense. It is normal behavior that, while
perhaps in many cases a waste of time, is not damaging or disruptive
of lives in the way drug or alcohol use can be.
Christopher J. Ferguson and Patrick Markey,
“Video Games Aren’t Addictive”
In other words, “they” (parents, other researchers, health
organizations) say that the video games are addictive, whereas
Ferguson and Markey disagree. In the rest of the op-ed, they
argue that video game critics have misinterpreted the evidence
and are not being very precise with what counts as “addiction.”

Writing in the Social Sciences
1 8 9
This chapter explores some of the basic moves social science
writers make. Writing in the social sciences often takes the form
of a research paper that generally includes several core compo-
nents: a strong introduction and thesis, a literature review, and the
writer’s own analysis, including presentation of evidence / data and
consideration of implications. The introduction sets out the thesis,
or point, of the paper, briefly explaining the topic or question you
are investigating and, previewing what you will say in your paper
and how it fits into the preexisting conversation. The literature
review summarizes what has already been said on your topic. Your
analysis allows you to present evidence (the information, or data,
about human behavior that you are measuring or testing against
what other people have said), to explain the conclusions you have
drawn based on your investigation, and to discuss the implications
of your research. 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?
You may get other types of writing assignments in the social
sciences, such as preparing a policy memo, writing a legal brief,
or designing a grant or research proposal. While there may be
differences from the research papers in terms of the format and
audience for these assignments, the purposes of sections of the
research paper and the moves discussed here will help you with
those assignments as well.
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 certain widely

F I F T E E N “ A N A L Y Z E T H I S ”
1 9 0
held assumptions and find them incorrect when measured
against new events or 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
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 Friedman
wrote, and utility theory was still comparatively primitive, so his
statement of the “permanent income hypothesis” never actually
specified a formal mathematical model of behavior derived explicitly
from utility maximization . . . [W]hen other economists subsequently

Writing in the Social Sciences
1 9 1
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 rigorous versions of the
permanent income hypothesis in favor of an 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

F I F T E E N “ A N A L Y Z E T H I S ”
1 9 2
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 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 refining 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.
For more on
different ways
of responding,
see Chapter 4.

Writing in the Social Sciences
1 9 3
Although I agree with Rose that an increasing emphasis on
governing the soul is characteristic of modern society, I see the
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.
j While noting , I contend .
In the process of examining people from different angles, social
scientists sometimes identify gaps—areas that have not been
explored in previous research.
In the following example, several sociologists identify such
a gap.
Family scholars have long argued that the study of dating deserves
more attention (Klemer, 1971), as dating is an important part of the
life course at any age and often a precursor to marriage (Levesque
& Caron, 2004). . . .

F I F T E E N “ A N A L Y Z E T H I S ”
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The central research questions we seek to answer with this study
are whether and how the significance of particular dating rituals
are patterned by gender and race simultaneously. We use a racially
diverse data set of traditional-aged college students from a variety
of college contexts. Understanding gender and racial differences
in the assessment of dating rituals helps us explore the extent to
which relationship activities are given similar importance across
institutional and cultural lines. Most of the studies that inform our
knowledge of dating and relationships are unable to draw conclu-
sions regarding racial differences because the sample is Caucasian
(e.g., Bogle, 2008), or primarily so (e.g., Manning & Smock, 2005).
Race has been recently argued to be an often-overlooked variable
in studies examining social psychological processes because of the
prevalence of sample limitations as well as habitual oversight in the
literature (Hunt, Jackson, Powell, & Steelman, 2000). Addition-
ally, a failure to examine both gender and race prevents assessment
of whether gendered beliefs are shared across groups. Gauging the
extent of differences in beliefs among different population sub-
groups is critical to advancing the study of relationship dynamics
(see Weaver & Ganong, 2004).
Pamela Braboy Jackson, Sibyl Kleiner,
Claudia Geist, and Kara Cebulko, “Conventions of Courtship:
Gender and Race Differences in the Significance of Dating Rituals,”
Journal of Family Issues
Jackson and her coauthors note that, while other scholars have
said that studying dating is important and have examined some
aspects of dating, we have little information about whether
attitudes about dating activities (such as sexual intimacy, gift
exchange, and meeting the family) vary across groups by gender
and race. Their study aims to fill this gap in our understanding
of relationships.

Writing in the Social Sciences
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Here are some templates for introducing gaps in the existing
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 ?
j Our understanding of remains incomplete because
previous work has not examined .
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.
the literature review:
“prior research indicates . . .”
The point of a literature review is to establish the state of
knowledge on your topic. Before you (and your reader) can
properly consider an issue, you need to understand the con-
versation about your topic that has already taken place (and
is likely still in progress). 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

F I F T E E N “ A N A L Y Z E T H I S ”
1 9 6
but set up the points you yourself want to make by select-
ing the details that are relevant to your own perspective and
It is common in the social sciences to summarize several
arguments in a single paragraph or even a single sentence,
grouping several sources together by their important ideas or
other attributes. The example below cites some key findings
and conclusions of psychological research that should be of
interest to motivated college students looking to improve their
academic performance.
Some people may associate sacrificing hours of sleep with being
studious, but the reality is that sleep deprivation can hurt your
cognitive functioning without your being aware of it (e.g., becom-
ing worse at paying attention and remembering things; Goel, Rao,
Durmer, & Dinges, 2009; Pilcher & Walters, 1997). . . . Sleep affects
learning and memory by organizing and consolidating memories
from the day (Diekelmann & Born, 2010; Rasch & Born, 2013),
which can lead to better problem-solving ability and creativity
(Verleger, Rose, Wagner, Yordanova, & Kolev, 2013).
Adam L. Putnam, Victor W. Sungkhasettee, and
Henry L. Roediger, III, “Optimizing Learning in College:
Tips from Cognitive Psychology,” Perspectives on
Psychological Science
A template for this paragraph might look like this: Students
believe , but researchers disagree because .
According to researchers, negative consequences of sleep depri-
vation include . The research shows that a positive
effect of sleep is , which improves .
Such summaries are brief, bringing together relevant
arguments by several scholars to provide an overview of

Writing in the Social Sciences
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scholarly work on a particular topic. In writing such a sum-
mary, 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 , researchers 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 .
j Scholars point to the role of in .
j Existing research on presents convincing evidence of
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 particular
work. And in some disciplines of the social sciences, longer,
more detailed literature reviews are the standard. Your instruc-
tor and the articles he or she has assigned are your best 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 political sci-
entists Hahrie Han and Lisa Argyle, in a report for the Ford

F I F T E E N “ A N A L Y Z E T H I S ”
1 9 8
Foundation, summarize an argument that is central to their
investigation of improving democratic participation.
[A]t the root of declining rates of participation is the sense that
people do not feel like their participation matters. People do not
feel like they have any real reason or opportunity to exercise voice
in the political process. People’s sense of agency is in decline,
especially given negative or incomplete experiences of govern-
ment in their lives.
This lack of caring comes as no surprise when we examine
research showing that most people have negative or, at best,
incomplete experiences of the role of government in their lives.
Suzanne Mettler, for instance, finds that many middle-class people
who benefit from different government programs—ranging from
education savings accounts to welfare to tax credits—believe that
they “have not used a government social program.” In addition,
other scholars find a trend towards increasing privatization of pub-
lic goods and political processes in the twenty-first century. As a
result, government is what Mettler calls a “submerged state,” since
the role of government in people’s lives is effectively submerged
from view.
Hahrie Han and Lisa Argyle, “A Program Review of the
Promoting Electoral Reform and Democratic
Participation (PERDP) Initiative,” Ford Foundation
Note that Han and Argyle start by identifying the broad prob-
lem of lack of participation and then explain how Mettler’s
work describes how middle-class people may be unaware of the
role of government in their lives, leading Mettler to argue for
the idea of the “submerged state.”
You may want to include direct quotations of what others
have said, as Han and Argyle do. Using an author’s exact words

Writing in the Social Sciences
1 9 9
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
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.

F I F T E E N “ A N A L Y Z E T H I S ”
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“The Data Indicate . . .”
The social sciences use evidence to develop and test explana-
tions. This evidence is often referred to as data. Data can be
quantitative or qualitative and can come from a number of
sources. You might use statistics related to GDP growth, unem-
ployment, voting rates, or demographics. You might report
results from an experiment or simulation. Or you could use
surveys, interviews, or other first-person accounts.
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. For a chapter
in their book assessing media coverage of female candidates,
political scientists Danny Hayes and Jennifer Lawless explain
how they assembled a data set.
From the perspective of campaign professionals and voters, local
newspaper coverage remains the most important news source dur-
ing House campaigns . . . .
We began by selecting the appropriate newspaper for each
House race in 2010 and 2014 . . . . [W]e identified every news story
during the thirty days leading up to the election that mentioned
at least one of the two major-party candidates . . . .
Our data collection efforts produced 10,375 stories about 1,550
candidates who received at least some local news coverage in either
the 2010 or 2014 midterms . . . .
Coders read the full text of each article and recorded several
pieces of information. First, they tracked the number of times a
candidate’s sex or gender was mentioned . . . . Second, we recorded
the number of explicit references to candidate traits, both positive
and negative (e.g., “capable” and “ineffective”) . . . .
Third, we tracked every time an issue was mentioned in con-
nection with a candidate . . . . We then classified issues in two ways:

Writing in the Social Sciences
2 0 1
(1) We assigned each issue to one of the eight broad categories . . .
and (2) we classified a subset of the topics as “women’s” or “men’s”
Danny Hayes and Jennifer L. Lawless, Women on the Run:
Gender, Media, and Political Campaigns in a Polarized Era
Hayes and Lawless explain how they collected their data—local
newspaper coverage of congressional candidates—and explain
how they coded and classified the coverage to allow them to
perform statistical analysis of the news pieces. While you prob-
ably won’t collect 10,000+ news items for a class project, you
could collect information (such as media coverage, interview
responses, or legal briefs) and analyze and sort them to identify
patterns such as repeated words and ideas.
If your data are quantitative, you also need to explain
them. Sociologist Jonathan Horowitz’s research concludes
that job quality influences personal assessments of well-being
by “improving social life, altering class identification, affecting
physical health, and increasing amounts of leisure time.” See
how he introduces the data he analyzes:
In this study, I use data from the General Social Survey (GSS) and
structural equation modeling to test relationships between job qual-
ity and subjective wellbeing. The GSS is a nationally representative
sample of adults in the United States that asks a large number of
questions about experiences at work (Smith et al. 2010). In particu-
lar, the GSS introduced a new battery of questions titled “Quality
of Working Life” in 2002 (and repeated in 2006 and 2010) which
includes multiple questions about several job quality dimensions.
Jonathan Horowitz, “Dimensions of Job Quality,
Mechanisms, and Subjective Well-Being in the United States,”
Sociological Forum

F I F T E E N “ A N A L Y Z E T H I S ”
2 0 2
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 law professor Michelle Alexander acknowledges
that there may be objections to her argument describing trends
in mass incarceration as “the new Jim Crow.”
Some might argue that as disturbing as this system appears to be,
there is nothing particularly new about mass incarceration; it is
merely a continuation of past drug wars and biased law enforcement
practices. Racial bias in our criminal justice system is simply an old
problem that has gotten worse, and the social excommunication of
“criminals” has a long history; it is not a recent invention. There
is some merit to this argument.
Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow:
Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
Alexander imagines a conversation with people who might be
skeptical about her argument, particularly her claim that this
represents a “new” development. And she responds that they

Writing in the Social Sciences
2 0 3
are correct, to a point. After acknowledging her agreement with
the assessment of historical racial bias in the criminal justice
system, she goes on in the rest of her chapter to explain that
the expanded scope and consequences of contemporary mass
incarceration have caused dramatic differences in society.
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 assumptions we make
about human behavior. In addition, you might offer recom-
mendations 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”

F I F T E E N “ A N A L Y Z E T H I S ”
2 0 4
policies may in fact exacerbate the very conditions that lead to
crime in the first place. Research consistently shows that finding
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
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

Writing in the Social Sciences
2 0 5
at writing in the social sciences as an ongoing conversation.
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.


2 0 9
how can we bridge
the differences that divide us?
“Can we talk?” The late, great comedian Joan Rivers often
began her TV shows by asking the audience that question, and
it became her trademark line. Audiences knew to expect funny,
snarky, sometimes outrageous jokes and stories from her, and
it helped her to establish a close, almost intimate connection
with viewers. But today in the United States, the question “Can
we talk?” has taken on a far less humorous meaning, because
increasingly the answer is “No.”
We have always been divided by such factors as geogra-
phy, political orientation, socioeconomic class, race, gender,
and age, but in recent years it seems like we have become a
nation of people estranged from one another. Social media
and niche viewing have exacerbated these divisions as more
and more we hear from and interact with only those who
share our views.
Across the dividing lines, Americans are increasingly bit-
ter, angry, and suspicious toward one another. In an article
entitled “‘Go to Hell!’ A Divided America Struggles to Heal
after Ugly Election,” Jason Szep, a reporter for Reuters, an inter-
national news agency, wrote that “the 2016 US election was
unprecedented in the way it turned Americans against each

2 1 0
H O W C A N W E B R I D G E T H E D I F F E R E N C E S T H A T D I V I D E U S ?
other, according to dozens of interviews in rural United States
and across some of the most politically charged battleground
states.” According to Szep, some family members no longer
speak with one another, and longtime friendships have dis-
solved due to differing views. And in January 2017, the Pew
Research Center, a nonpartisan think tank, surveyed over 1,000
people throughout the United States and found that 86 percent
described the country as “more politically divided today than
in the past.”
Many people living in the United States believe that, as
a nation, we need to work to improve communication and
understanding across communities, but where exactly do we
start? Possible first steps involve venturing out of our comfort
zones to listen and pay attention to viewpoints that might chal-
lenge our own, and finding ways of responding respectfully.
The readings in this chapter offer a genuine and much-needed
attempt to break down those differences—probably not to the
point where we can all agree on the burning issues of the day,
but at least to where we can once again live and work together
comfortably and productively.
Several of the writers in this chapter identify divisions that
have arisen, and go further to pose possible ways to bridge the
differences that divide us. Sean Blanda, writer and technology
entrepreneur, suggests that we show compassion and respect for
“the other side,” his term for how we label people who don’t
think exactly the way we do. And danah boyd, a researcher who
examines the intersection of technology and society, reveals
how Americans have self-segregated in recent decades—online,
in college, in the military, and at work—arguing that “we
must find a healthy way to diversify our social connections.”
College student Gabriela Moro explores the role of minority
student clubs on college campuses. She finds that, while such

2 1 1
How Can We Bridge The Differences That Divide us?
organizations offer a positive environment for their members,
such clubs should be supplemented with initiatives that offer
students opportunities to meet and interact across groups.
Other writers in this chapter analyze the attitudes and back-
grounds of particular groups that many see as having been left
behind. Robert Leonard, a news reporter from Iowa, writes
about the economic hardships and political frustrations that
he believes have led many Americans living in rural parts of
the country to a conservative ideology and a deep distrust of
people they see as liberals. In telling his own story, author
J. D. Vance writes about growing up in Ohio and Kentucky
and the sense of hopelessness that he believes is pervading his
community. Legal scholar Michelle Alexander then takes us
to prisons across America to describe the discrimination faced
by incarcerated members of our society, who, as she argues, are
overwhelmingly African American. This prison system is at the
root of what she calls “the new Jim Crow.” Joseph E. Stiglitz,
a Nobel Prize–winning economist, uses tax and income data
to demonstrate that the US tax system continues to favor the
wealthiest 1 percent of our population, to the serious detriment
of the rest of us. Finally, former President Barack Obama, in
a commencement speech at Howard University, urges young
people to get involved in politics—to cast votes and not just
write hashtags—and, above all, to work with people from across
the political spectrum.
As you read this chapter, and its companion blog, you will have the opportunity to listen to a
multitude of perspectives, think about and perhaps reconsider
your own opinions, and make your own contribution to this
vital, ongoing conversation.

2 1 2
The “Other Side” Is Not Dumb
s e a n b l a n d a
There’s a fun game I like to play in a group of trusted
friends called “Controversial Opinion.” The rules are simple:
Don’t talk about what was shared during Controversial Opinion
afterward and you aren’t allowed to “argue” — only to ask ques-
tions about why that person feels that way. Opinions can range
from “I think James Bond movies are overrated” to “I think
Donald Trump would make an excellent president.”
Usually, someone responds to an opinion with, “Oh my god!
I had no idea you were one of those people!” Which is really
another way of saying “I thought you were on my team!”
In psychology, the idea that everyone is like us is called the
“false-consensus bias.” This bias often manifests itself when we
see TV ratings (“Who the hell are all these people that watch
NCIS?”) or in politics (“Everyone I know is for stricter gun
Sean Blanda is the author of Hacking PR: A Guide for Boot-Strapped
Startups (2013) and the editor-in-chief of the websites GrowthLab and I
Will Teach You to Be Rich, both of which advise entrepreneurs on business
innovations. Blanda is also the cofounder of Technically, a startup based
in Philadelphia that “grows local technology communities by connecting
organizations and people through news, events, and services.” This essay
first appeared in Medium, a website for news and commentary.

2 1 3
The “Other Side” Is Not Dumb
control! Who are these backwards rubes that disagree?!”) or
polls (“Who are these people voting for Ben Carson?”).
Online it means we can be blindsided by the opinions of
our friends or, more broadly, America. Over time, this morphs
into a subconscious belief that we and our friends are the sane
ones and that there’s a crazy “Other Side” that must be laughed
at — an Other Side that just doesn’t “get it,” and is clearly not
as intelligent as “us.” But this holier-than-thou social media
behavior is counterproductive; it’s self-aggrandizement at the
cost of actual nuanced discourse, and if we want to consider
online discourse productive, we need to move past this.
What is emerging is the worst kind of echo chamber, one
where those inside are increasingly convinced that everyone
shares their world view, that their ranks are growing when they
aren’t. It’s like clockwork: an event happens and then your social
media circle is shocked when a non–social media peer group
public reacts to news in an unexpected way. They then mock
the Other Side for being “out of touch” or “dumb.”

S E A N B l A N D A
2 1 4
Fredrik deBoer, one of my favorite writers around, touched
on this in his essay “Getting Past the Coalition of the Cool.”
He writes:
[The Internet] encourages people to collapse any distinction
between their work life, their social life, and their political life.
“Hey, that person who tweets about the TV shows I like also dis-
likes injustice,” which over time becomes “I can identify an ally by
the TV shows they like.” The fact that you can mine a Rihanna
video for political content becomes, in that vague internety way,
the sense that people who don’t see political content in Rihanna’s
music aren’t on your side.
When someone communicates that they are not “on our side”
our first reaction is to run away or dismiss them as stupid. To
be sure, there are hateful, racist people not worthy of the small
amount of electricity it takes [for] just one of your synapses to
fire. I’m instead referencing those who actually believe in an
opposing viewpoint of a complicated issue, and do so for genuine,
considered reasons. Or at least, for reasons just as good as yours.
This is not a “political correctness” issue. It’s a fundamental
rejection of the possibility to consider that the people who don’t
feel the same way you do might be right. It’s a preference to see

The “Other Side” Is Not Dumb
2 1 5
the Other Side as a cardboard cutout, and not the complicated
individual human beings that they actually are.
What happens instead of genuine intellectual curiosity is
the sharing of Slate or Daily Kos or Fox News or Red State links.
Sites that exist almost solely to produce content to be shared
so friends can pat each other on the back and mock the Other
Side. Look at the Other Side! So dumb and unable to see this
the way I do!
Sharing links that mock a caricature of the Other Side isn’t
signaling that we’re somehow more informed. It signals that
we’d rather be smug assholes than consider alternative views. It
signals that we’d much rather show our friends that we’re like
them, than try to understand those who are not.
It’s impossible to consider yourself a curious person and
participate in social media in this way. We cannot consider
ourselves “empathetic” only to turn around and belittle those
who don’t agree with us.
On Twitter and Facebook this means we prioritize by shar-
ing stuff that will garner approval of our peers over stuff that’s
actually, you know, true. We share stuff that ignores wider
realities, selectively shares information, or is just an outright
falsehood. The misinformation is so rampant that the Washington
Post stopped publishing its Internet fact-checking column because
people didn’t seem to care if stuff was true.
Where debunking an Internet fake once involved some research,
it’s now often as simple as clicking around for an “about” or “dis-
claimer” page. And where a willingness to believe hoaxes once
seemed to come from a place of honest ignorance or misunderstand-
ing, that’s frequently no longer the case. Headlines like “Casey
Anthony found dismembered in truck” go viral via old-fashioned
schadenfreude — even hate.

S E A N B l A N D A
2 1 6

Institutional distrust is so high right now, and cognitive bias so
strong always, that the people who fall for hoax news stories are
frequently only interested in consuming information that conforms
with their views — even when it’s demonstrably fake.
The solution, as deBoer says: “You have to be willing to sac-
rifice your carefully curated social performance and be willing
to work with people who are not like you.” In other words you
have to recognize that the Other Side is made of actual people.
But I’d like to go a step further. We should all enter every
issue with the very real possibility that we might be wrong
this time.
Isn’t it possible that you, reader of Medium and Twitter
power user, like me, suffer from this from time to time? Isn’t it
possible that we’re not right about everything? That those who
live in places not where you live, watch shows that you don’t
watch, and read books that you don’t read, have opinions and
belief systems just as valid as yours? That maybe you don’t see
the entire picture?
Think political correctness has gotten out of control? Fol-
low the many great social activists on Twitter. Think Amer-
ica’s stance on guns is puzzling? Read the stories of the 31%
of Americans that own a firearm. This is not to say
the Other Side is “right” but that they likely have real
reasons to feel that way. And only after understanding
those reasons can a real discussion take place.
As any debate club veteran knows, if you can’t make your
opponent’s point for them, you don’t truly grasp the issue. We
can bemoan political gridlock and a divisive media all we want.
But we won’t truly progress as individuals until we make an
See pp. 133–34
for ways to
clarify and
elaborate on
your point.

The “Other Side” Is Not Dumb
2 1 7
honest effort to understand those that are not like us. And
you won’t convince anyone to feel the way you do if you don’t
respect their position and opinions.
A dare for the next time you’re in a discussion with
someone you disagree with: Don’t try to “win.” Don’t try
to “convince” anyone of your viewpoint. Don’t score points
by mocking them to your peers. Instead try to “lose.” Hear
them out. Ask them to convince you and mean it. No one
is going to tell your environmentalist friends that you merely
asked follow-up questions after your brother made his pro-
fracking case.
Or, the next time you feel compelled to share a link on
social media about current events, ask yourself why you are
doing it. Is it because that link brings to light information
you hadn’t considered? Or does it confirm your world view,
reminding your circle of intellectual teammates that you’re not
on the Other Side?
I implore you to seek out your opposite. When you hear
someone cite “facts” that don’t support your viewpoint don’t
think “that can’t be true!” Instead consider, “Hm, maybe that
person is right? I should look into this.” Because refusing to
truly understand those who disagree with you is intellectual
laziness and worse, is usually worse than what you’re accusing
the Other Side of doing.
Joining the Conversation
1. Sean Blanda begins his essay by defining “false-consensus
bias.” Explain what this concept is, and give an example
from your own experience or observation that you think
demonstrates this bias.

S E A N B l A N D A
2 1 8
2. In paragraph 6, Blanda introduces a quotation by Fredrik
deBoer, but he doesn’t follow it with an explanation. How
would you recommend that Blanda do so? (See pp. 45–47
for ways to create a quotation sandwich.)
3. So what? Who cares? Where in this piece does Blanda
explain why his argument matters? Has he persuaded you,
and if not, why not?
4. Robert Leonard (pp. 279–85) examines why some Americans
living in rural areas view liberals with disdain. What concrete
suggestions do you think Blanda would make to encourage
them to move beyond the stereotypes they might have of
5. Choose an issue of importance to you and write a tweet
(140 characters or less) or a Facebook post that demonstrates
respect for “the Other Side.”
6. Go to and search for “(Alt) right and
wrong” by Brendan Novak. How do Novak’s views com-
pare with Blanda’s—how are they similar, and how are they

2 1 9
Why America Is Self-Segregating
d a n a h b o y d
The United States has always been a diverse but segre-
gated country. This has shaped American politics profoundly.
Yet, throughout history, Americans have had to grapple with
divergent views and opinions, political ideologies, and experi-
ences in order to function as a country. Many of the institu-
tions that underpin American democracy force people in the
United States to encounter difference. This does not inherently
produce tolerance or result in healthy resolution. Hell, the his-
tory of the United States is fraught with countless examples of
people enslaving and oppressing other people on the basis of
difference. This isn’t about our past; this is about our present.
And today’s battles over laws and culture are nothing new.
danah boyd is a principal researcher at Microsoft Research and a vis-
iting professor in New York University’s interactive telecommunica-
tions program. She is the author of It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of
Networked Teens (2014) and the founder of Data & Society, a research
institute “focused on the social and cultural issues arising from data-
centric technological development.” This essay first appeared in 2017
on Points, a blog of Data & Society.

D A N A H B O y D
2 2 0
Ironically, in a world in which we have countless tools to con-
nect, we are also watching fragmentation, polarization, and
de-diversification happen en masse. The American public is self-
segregating, and this is tearing at the social fabric of the country.
Many in the tech world imagined that the Internet would
connect people in unprecedented ways, allow for divisions to be
bridged and wounds to heal. It was the kumbaya dream. Today,
those same dreamers find it quite unsettling to watch as the
tools that were designed to bring people together are used by
people to magnify divisions and undermine social solidarity.
These tools were built in a bubble, and that bubble has burst.
Nowhere is this more acute than with Facebook. Naive as
hell, Mark Zuckerberg dreamed he could build the tools that
would connect people at unprecedented scale, both domesti-
cally and internationally. I actually feel bad for him as he clings
to that hope while facing increasing attacks from people around
the world about the role that Facebook is playing in magnify-
ing social divisions. Although critics love to paint him as only
motivated by money, he genuinely wants to make the world
a better place and sees Facebook as a tool to connect people,
not empower them to self-segregate.
The problem is not simply the “filter bubble,” Eli Pariser’s
notion that personalization-driven algorithmic systems help
silo people into segregated content streams. Facebook’s claim
that content personalization plays a small role in shaping what
people see compared to their own choices is accurate. And they
have every right to be annoyed. I couldn’t imagine TimeWarner
being blamed for who watches Duck Dynasty vs. Modern Family.
And yet, what Facebook does do is mirror and magnify a trend
that’s been unfolding in the United States for the last twenty
years, a trend of self-segregation that is enabled by technology
in all sorts of complicated ways.

Why America Is Self-Segregating
2 2 1
The United States can only function as a healthy democracy
if we find a healthy way to diversify our social connections,
if we find a way to weave together a strong social fabric that
bridges ties across difference.
Yet, we are moving in the opposite direction with
serious consequences. To understand this, let’s talk
about two contemporary trend lines and then think
about the implications going forward.
Privatizing the Military
The voluntary US military is, in many ways, a social engineer-
ing project. The public understands the military as a service
organization, dedicated to protecting the country’s interests.
Yet, when recruits sign up, they are promised training and job
opportunities. Individual motivations vary tremendously, but
many are enticed by the opportunity to travel the world, partici-
pate in a cause with a purpose, and get the heck out of Dodge.
Everyone expects basic training to be physically hard, but few
recognize that some of the most grueling aspects of signing up
have to do with the diversification project that is central to
the formation of the American military.
When a soldier is in combat, she must trust her fellow sol-
diers with her life. And she must be willing to do what it takes
to protect the rest of her unit. In order to make that possible,
the military must wage war on prejudice. This is not an easy
task. Plenty of generals fought hard to fight racial desegregation
and to limit the role of women in combat. Yet, the US military
was desegregated in 1948, six years before Brown v. Board forced
desegregation of schools. And the Supreme Court ruled that
LGB individuals could openly serve in the military before they
could legally marry.
See p. 137 for
ways to provide
a roadmap for
your readers.

D A N A H B O y D
2 2 2
Morale is often raised as the main reason that soldiers should
not be forced to entrust their lives to people who are different
than them. Yet, time and again, this justification collapses under
broader interests to grow the military. As a result, commanders are
forced to find ways to build up morale across difference, to actively
and intentionally seek to break down barriers to teamwork, and to
find a way to gel a group of people whose demographics, values,
politics, and ideologies are as varied as the country’s.
In the process, they build one of the most crucial social
infrastructures of the country. They build the diverse social
fabric that underpins democracy.
Tons of money was poured into defense after 9/11, but the
number of people serving in the US military today is far lower
than it was throughout the 1980s. Why? Starting in the 1990s
and accelerating after 9/11, the US privatized huge chunks of the
military. This means that private contractors and their employees
play critical roles in everything from providing food services to
equipment maintenance to military housing. The impact of this

Why America Is Self-Segregating
2 2 3
on the role of the military in society is significant. For example,
this undermines recruits’ ability to get training to develop critical
skills that will be essential for them in civilian life. Instead, while
serving on active duty, they spend a much higher amount of time
on the front lines and in high-risk battle, increasing the likeli-
hood that they will be physically or psychologically harmed. The
impact on skills development and job opportunities is tremen-
dous, but so is the impact on the diversification of the social fabric.
Private vendors are not engaged in the same social engi-
neering project as the military and, as a result, tend to hire
and fire people based on their ability to work effectively as a
team. Like many companies, they have little incentive to invest
in helping diverse teams learn to work together as effectively
as possible. Building diverse teams — especially ones in which
members depend on each other for their survival — is extremely
hard, time-consuming, and emotionally exhausting. As a result,
private companies focus on “culture fit,” emphasize teams that
get along, and look for people who already have the necessary
skills, all of which helps reinforce existing segregation patterns.
The end result is that, in the last 20 years, we’ve watched
one of our major structures for diversification collapse without
anyone taking notice. And because of how it’s happened, it’s
also connected to job opportunities and economic opportunity
for many working- and middle-class individuals, seeding resent-
ment and hatred.
A Self-Segregated College Life
If you ask a college admissions officer at an elite institution
to describe how they build a class of incoming freshman, you
will quickly realize that the American college system is a
diversification project. Unlike colleges in most parts of the

D A N A H B O y D
2 2 4
world, the vast majority of freshman at top tier universities
in the United States live on campus with roommates who are
assigned to them. Colleges approach housing assignments as
an opportunity to pair diverse strangers with one another to
build social ties. This makes sense given how many friendships
emerge out of freshman dorms. By pairing middle class kids
with students from wealthier families, elite institutions help
diversify the elites of the future.
This diversification project produces a tremendous amount
of conflict. Although plenty of people adore their college room-
mates and relish the opportunity to get to know people from
different walks of life as part of their college experience, there
is an amazing amount of angst about dorm assignments and
the troubles that brew once folks try to live together in close
quarters. At many universities, residential life is often in the
business of student therapy as students complain about their
roommates and dormmates. Yet, just like in the military, learn-
ing how to negotiate conflict and diversity in close quarters can
be tremendously effective in sewing the social fabric.
In the spring of 2006, I was doing fieldwork with teenagers
at a time when they had just received acceptances to college. I
giggled at how many of them immediately wrote to the college
in which they intended to enroll, begging for a campus email
address so that they could join that school’s Facebook (before
Facebook was broadly available). In the previous year, I had
watched the previous class look up roommate assignments on
MySpace so I was prepared for the fact that they’d use Facebook
to do the same. What I wasn’t prepared for was how quickly
they would all get on Facebook, map the incoming freshman
class, and use this information to ask for a roommate switch.
Before they even arrived on campus in August/September of
2006, they had self-segregated as much as possible.

Why America Is Self-Segregating
2 2 5
A few years later, I watched another trend hit: cell phones.
While these were touted as tools that allowed students to stay
connected to parents (which prompted many faculty to com-
plain about “helicopter parents” arriving on campus), they
really ended up serving as a crutch to address homesickness, as
incoming students focused on maintaining ties to high school
friends rather than building new relationships.
Students go to elite universities to “get an education.” Few
realize that the true quality product that elite colleges in the
US have historically offered is social network diversification.
Even when it comes to job acquisition, sociologists have long
known that diverse social networks (“weak ties”) are what
increase job prospects. By self-segregating on campus, students
undermine their own potential while also helping fragment the
diversity of the broader social fabric.
Diversity Is Hard
Diversity is often touted as highly desirable. Indeed, in profes-
sional contexts, we know that more diverse teams often out-
perform homogeneous teams. Diversity also increases cognitive
development, both intellectually and socially. And yet, actually
encountering and working through diverse viewpoints, experi-
ences, and perspectives is hard work. It’s uncomfortable. It’s
emotionally exhausting. It can be downright frustrating.
Thus, given the opportunity, people typically revert to situ-
ations where they can be in homogeneous environments. They
look for “safe spaces” and “culture fit.” And systems that are
“personalized” are highly desirable. Most people aren’t looking
to self-segregate, but they do it anyway. And, increasingly, the
technologies and tools around us allow us to self-segregate with
ease. Is your uncle annoying you with his political rants? Mute

D A N A H B O y D
2 2 6
him. Tired of getting ads for irrelevant products? Reveal your
preferences. Want your search engine to remember the things
that matter to you? Let it capture data. Want to watch a TV show
that appeals to your senses? Here are some recommendations.
Any company whose business model is based on advertising
revenue and attention is incentivized to engage you by giving
you what you want. And what you want in theory is different
than what you want in practice.
Consider, for example, what Netflix encountered when it
started its streaming offer. Users didn’t watch the movies that
they had placed into their queue. Those movies were the movies
they thought they wanted, movies that reflected their ideal self —
12 Years a Slave, for example. What they watched when they
could stream whatever they were in the mood for at that
moment was the equivalent of junk food — reruns of Friends,
for example. (This completely undid Netflix’s recommendation
Netflix recommends shows to its users based on what they have already

Why America Is Self-Segregating
2 2 7
infrastructure, which had been trained on people’s idealistic
The divisions are not just happening through commercial-
ism though. School choice has led people to self-segregate from
childhood on up. The structures of American work life mean
that fewer people work alongside others from different socioeco-
nomic backgrounds. Our contemporary culture of retail and ser-
vice labor means that there’s a huge cultural gap between workers
and customers with little opportunity to truly get to know one
another. Even many religious institutions are increasingly frag-
mented such that people have fewer interactions across diverse
lines. (Just think about how there are now “family services” and
“traditional services” which age-segregate.) In so many parts of
public, civic, and professional life, we are self-segregating and
the opportunities for doing so are increasing every day.
By and large, the American public wants to have strong
connections across divisions. They see the value politically and
socially. But they’re not going to work for it. And given the
option, they’re going to renew their license remotely, try to
get out of jury duty, and use available data to seek out housing
and schools that are filled with people like them. This is the
conundrum we now face.
Many pundits remarked that, during the 2016 election sea-
son, very few Americans were regularly exposed to people whose
political ideology conflicted with their own. This is true. But it
cannot be fixed by Facebook or news media. Exposing people
to content that challenges their perspective doesn’t actually
make them more empathetic to those values and perspectives.
To the contrary, it polarizes them. What makes people will-
ing to hear difference is knowing and trusting people whose
worldview differs from their own. Exposure to content cannot
make up for self-segregation.

D A N A H B O y D
2 2 8
If we want to develop a healthy democracy, we need a diverse
and highly connected social fabric. This requires creating
contexts in which the American public voluntarily struggles
with the challenges of diversity to build bonds that will last a
lifetime. We have been systematically undoing this, and the
public has used new technological advances to make their lives
easier by self-segregating. This has increased polarization, and
we’re going to pay a heavy price for this going forward. Rather
than focusing on what media enterprises can and should do,
we need to focus instead on building new infrastructures for
connection where people have a purpose for coming together
across divisions. We need that social infrastructure just as much
as we need bridges and roads.
Joining the Conversation
1. Writer danah boyd argues that, rather than becoming a more
diverse nation, the United States is becoming a nation of
self-contained identity groups. What evidence does she pro-
vide to support her argument? In what ways does your own
experience support or challenge boyd’s view?
2. In paragraph 4, boyd writes that Mark Zuckerberg is “naive
as hell,” using language that is informal, especially in con-
trast to her discussion of “fragmentation, polarization, and
de-diversification,” which is happening “en masse” (para-
graph 2). How does this blend of styles affect your response
to the essay?
3. According to boyd, we like the idea of diversity, but we’re
not willing to work for it (paragraph 25). How do you think
Sean Blanda (pp. 212–18) or Barack Obama (pp. 296–313)
might respond?

Why America Is Self-Segregating
2 2 9
4. Write an essay responding to boyd, drawing on your own
experiences in college, online, in the military, or with some-
thing else. Frame your argument as a response to boyd.
5. Self-segregation in college life is a topic on the minds of
other writers, too. Go to and search for
Conor Friedersdorf. Read his essay on elitism in college
dorms. What does he say about them?

2 3 0
The New Jim Crow
m i c h e l l e a l e x a n d e r
Jarvious Cotton cannot vote. Like his father, grandfather,
great-grandfather, and great-great-grandfather, he has been
denied the right to participate in our electoral democracy. Cot-
ton’s family tree tells the story of several generations of black
men who were born in the United States but who were denied
the most basic freedom that democracy promises—the freedom
to vote for those who will make the rules and laws that govern
one’s life. Cotton’s great-great-grandfather could not vote as a
slave. His great-grandfather was beaten to death by the Ku Klux
Klan for attempting to vote. His grandfather was prevented
from voting by Klan intimidation. His father was barred from
voting by poll taxes and literacy tests. Today, Jarvious Cotton
Michelle Alexander is a lawyer and scholar known for her work to
protect civil rights. She has taught at Stanford Law School and has a
joint appointment at Ohio State University’s law school and its insti-
tute for the study of race and ethnicity. She has written opinion pieces
for the New York Times, Huffington Post, The Nation, Washington Post,
and Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She is the author
of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
(2010); this selection is from the book’s introduction.

The New Jim Crow
2 3 1
cannot vote because he, like many black men in the United
States, has been labeled a felon and is currently on parole.1
Cotton’s story illustrates, in many respects, the old adage
“The more things change, the more they remain the same.”
In each generation, new tactics have been used for achieving
the same goals—goals shared by the Founding Fathers. Denying
African Americans citizenship was deemed essential to the
formation of the original union. Hundreds of years later, Amer-
ica is still not an egalitarian democracy. The arguments and
rationalizations that have been trotted out in support of racial
exclusion and discrimination in its various forms have changed
and evolved, but the outcome has remained largely the same.
An extraordinary percentage of black men in the United States
are legally barred from voting today, just as they have been
throughout most of American history. They are also subject to
legalized discrimination in employment, housing, education,
public benefits, and jury service, just as their parents, grand-
parents, and great-grandparents once were.
What has changed since the collapse of Jim Crow has less to do
with the basic structure of our society than with the language we
use to justify it. In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer socially
permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimina-
tion, exclusion, and social contempt. So we don’t. Rather than rely
on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color
“criminals” and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left
behind. Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals
in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against
African Americans. Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of
discrimination— employment discrimination, housing discrimina-
tion, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity,
denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from
jury service—are suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarcely

m I C H E l l E A l E x A N D E R
2 3 2
more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in
Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial
caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.
I have reached these conclusions reluctantly. Ten years ago, I
would have argued strenuously against the central claim made
here—namely, that something akin to a racial caste system
currently exists in the United States. Indeed, if Barack Obama
had been elected president back then, I would have argued that
his election marked the nation’s triumph over racial caste—the
final nail in the coffin of Jim Crow. My elation would have
been tempered by the distance yet to be traveled to reach the
promised land of racial justice in America, but my conviction
that nothing remotely similar to Jim Crow exists in this country
would have been steadfast.
Today my elation over Obama’s election is tempered by a
far more sobering awareness. As an African American woman,
with three young children who will never know a world in
which a black man could not be president of the United States,
I was beyond thrilled on election night. Yet when I walked
out of the election night party, full of hope and enthusiasm,
I was immediately reminded of the harsh realities of the New
Jim Crow. A black man was on his knees in the gutter, hands
cuffed behind his back, as several police officers stood around
him talking, joking, and ignoring his human existence. People
poured out of the building; many stared for a moment at the
black man cowering in the street, and then averted their gaze.
What did the election of Barack Obama mean for him?
Like many civil rights lawyers, I was inspired to attend law
school by the civil rights victories of the 1950s and 1960s. Even
in the face of growing social and political opposition to remedial
policies such as affirmative action, I clung to the notion that

The New Jim Crow
2 3 3
the evils of Jim Crow are behind us and that, while we have a
long way to go to fulfill the dream of an egalitarian, multiracial
democracy, we have made real progress and are now struggling
to hold on to the gains of the past. I thought my job as a civil
rights lawyer was to join with the allies of racial progress to resist
attacks on affirmative action and to eliminate the vestiges of
Jim Crow segregation, including our still separate and unequal
system of education. I understood the problems plaguing poor
communities of color, including problems associated with crime
and rising incarceration rates, to be a function of poverty and
lack of access to quality education—the continuing legacy of
slavery and Jim Crow. Never did I seriously consider the pos-
sibility that a new racial caste system was operating in this
country. The new system had been developed and implemented
swiftly, and it was largely invisible, even to people, like me, who
spent most of their waking hours fighting for justice.
I first encountered the idea of a new racial caste system more
than a decade ago, when a bright orange poster caught my eye. I
was rushing to catch the bus, and I noticed a sign stapled to a tele-
phone pole that screamed in large bold print: The Drug War Is
the New Jim Crow. I paused for a moment and skimmed the text
of the flyer. Some radical group was holding a community meeting
about police brutality, the new three-strikes law in California,
and the expansion of America’s prison system. The meeting was
being held at a small community church a few blocks away; it
had seating capacity for no more than fifty people. I sighed, and
muttered to myself something like, “Yeah, the criminal justice
system is racist in many ways, but it really doesn’t help to make
such an absurd comparison. People will just think you’re crazy.”
I then crossed the street and hopped on the bus. I was headed to
my new job, director of the Racial Justice Project of the American
Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in Northern California.

m I C H E l l E A l E x A N D E R
2 3 4
When I began my work at the ACLU, I assumed that the
criminal justice system had problems of racial bias, much in the
same way that all major institutions in our society are plagued
with problems associated with conscious and unconscious bias.
As a lawyer who had litigated numerous class-action employ-
ment-discrimination cases, I understood well the many ways
in which racial stereotyping can permeate subjective decision-
making processes at all levels of an organization, with devastating
consequences. I was familiar with the challenges associated with
reforming institutions in which racial stratification is thought to
be normal—the natural consequence of differences in education,
culture, motivation, and, some still believe, innate ability. While
at the ACLU, I shifted my focus from employment discrimi-
nation to criminal justice reform and dedicated myself to the
task of working with others to identify and eliminate racial bias
whenever and wherever it reared its ugly head.
Michelle Alexander speaks about her book The New Jim Crow.

The New Jim Crow
2 3 5
By the time I left the ACLU, I had come to suspect that I was
wrong about the criminal justice system. It was not just another
institution infected with racial bias but rather a different beast
entirely. The activists who posted the sign on the telephone pole
were not crazy; nor were the smattering of lawyers and advocates
around the country who were beginning to connect the dots
between our current system of mass incarceration and earlier forms
of social control. Quite belatedly, I came to see that mass incar-
ceration in the United States had, in fact, emerged as a stunningly
comprehensive and well-disguised system of racialized social con-
trol that functions in a manner strikingly similar to Jim Crow.
In my experience, people who have been incarcerated rarely
have difficulty identifying the parallels between these systems of
social control. Once they are released, they are often denied the
right to vote, excluded from juries, and relegated to a racially seg-
regated and subordinated existence. Through a web of laws, regu-
lations, and informal rules, all of which are powerfully reinforced
by social stigma, they are confined to the margins of mainstream
society and denied access to the mainstream economy. They are
legally denied the ability to obtain employment, housing, and
public benefits—much as African Americans were once forced
into a segregated, second-class citizenship in the Jim Crow era.
Those of us who have viewed that world from a comfort-
able distance—yet sympathize with the plight of the so-called
underclass—tend to interpret the experience of those caught
up in the criminal justice system primarily through the lens of
popularized social science, attributing the staggering increase in
incarceration rates in communities of color to the predictable,
though unfortunate, consequences of poverty, racial segrega-
tion, unequal educational opportunities, and the presumed real-
ities of the drug market, including the mistaken belief that most
drug dealers are black or brown. Occasionally, in the course

m I C H E l l E A l E x A N D E R
2 3 6
of my work, someone would make a remark suggesting that
perhaps the War on Drugs is a racist conspiracy to put blacks
back in their place. This type of remark was invariably accom-
panied by nervous laughter, intended to convey the impression
that although the idea had crossed their minds, it was not an
idea a reasonable person would take seriously.
Most people assume the War on Drugs was launched in
response to the crisis caused by crack cocaine in inner-city
neighborhoods. This view holds that the racial disparities
in drug convictions and sentences, as well as the rapid
explosion of the prison population, reflect nothing more
than the government’s zealous—but benign—efforts to
address rampant drug crime in poor, minority neighborhoods.
This view, while understandable, given the sensational media
coverage of crack in the 1980s and 1990s, is simply wrong.
While it is true that the publicity surrounding crack cocaine
led to a dramatic increase in funding for the drug war (as well
as to sentencing policies that greatly exacerbated racial dis-
parities in incarceration rates), there is no truth to the notion
that the War on Drugs was launched in response to crack
cocaine. President Ronald Reagan officially announced the
current drug war in 1982, before crack became an issue in the
media or a crisis in poor black neighborhoods. A few years
after the drug war was declared, crack began to spread rapidly
in the poor black neighborhoods of Los Angeles and later
emerged in cities across the country.2 The Reagan administra-
tion hired staff to publicize the emergence of crack cocaine in
1985 as part of a strategic effort to build public and legislative
support for the war. The media campaign was an extraordi-
nary success. Almost overnight, the media was saturated with
images of black “crack whores,” “crack dealers,” and “crack
babies”— images that seemed to confirm the worst negative
See p. 25 for
more ways
to introduce
implied or

The New Jim Crow
2 3 7
racial stereotypes about impoverished inner-city residents. The
media bonanza surrounding the “new demon drug” helped to
catapult the War on Drugs from an ambitious federal policy
to an actual war.
The timing of the crack crisis helped to fuel conspiracy theo-
ries and general speculation in poor black communities that the
War on Drugs was part of a genocidal plan by the government
to destroy black people in the United States. From the outset,
stories circulated on the street that crack and other drugs were
Then-President Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy Reagan prepare for their
joint address, calling for a national campaign against drug abuse.

m I C H E l l E A l E x A N D E R
2 3 8
being brought into black neighborhoods by the CIA. Eventually,
even the Urban League came to take the claims of genocide seri-
ously. In its 1990 report “The State of Black America,” it stated:
“There is at least one concept that must be recognized if one is to
see the pervasive and insidious nature of the drug problem for the
African American community. Though difficult to accept, that
is the concept of genocide.”3 While the conspiracy theories were
initially dismissed as far-fetched, if not downright loony, the word
on the street turned out to be right, at least to a point. The CIA
admitted in 1998 that guerrilla armies it actively supported in
Nicaragua were smuggling illegal drugs into the United States—
drugs that were making their way onto the streets of inner-city
black neighborhoods in the form of crack cocaine. The CIA also
admitted that, in the midst of the War on Drugs, it blocked law
enforcement efforts to investigate illegal drug networks that were
helping to fund its covert war in Nicaragua.4*
It bears emphasis that the CIA never admitted (nor has any
evidence been revealed to support the claim) that it intention-
ally sought the destruction of the black community by allowing
illegal drugs to be smuggled into the United States. Nonethe-
less, conspiracy theorists surely must be forgiven for their bold
accusation of genocide, in light of the devastation wrought by
crack cocaine and the drug war, and the odd coincidence that
an illegal drug crisis suddenly appeared in the black community
after—not before—a drug war had been declared. In fact, the
War on Drugs began at a time when illegal drug use was on
the decline.5 During this same time period, however, a war was
*Covert war in Nicaragua In December 1981, then-President Ronald
Reagan authorized the CIA to support the Contras, an opposition group that
fought the Sandanistas, a revolutionary socialist group that the United States
opposed in its fight against communism during the Cold War.

The New Jim Crow
2 3 9
declared, causing arrests and convictions for drug offenses to
skyrocket, especially among people of color.
The impact of the drug war has been astounding. In less
than thirty years, the U.S penal population exploded from
around 300,000 to more than 2 million, with drug convictions
accounting for the majority of the increase.6 The United States
now has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, dwarfing
the rates of nearly every developed country, even surpassing
those in highly repressive regimes like Russia, China, and Iran.
In Germany, 93 people are in prison for every 100,000 adults
and children. In the United States, the rate is roughly eight
times that, or 750 per 100,000.7
The racial dimension of mass incarceration is its most strik-
ing feature. No other country in the world imprisons so many
of its racial or ethnic minorities. The United States imprisons a
larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did
at the height of apartheid. In Washington, D.C., our nation’s
capitol, it is estimated that three out of four young black men
(and nearly all those in the poorest neighborhoods) can expect
to serve time in prison.8 Similar rates of incarceration can be
found in black communities across America.
These stark racial disparities cannot be explained by rates of
drug crime. Studies show that people of all colors use and sell
illegal drugs at remarkably similar rates.9 If there are significant
differences in the surveys to be found, they frequently suggest
that whites, particularly white youth, are more likely to engage
in drug crime than people of color.10 That is not what one
would guess, however, when entering our nation’s prisons and
jails, which are overflowing with black and brown drug offend-
ers. In some states, black men have been admitted to prison on
drug charges at rates twenty to fifty times greater than those of
white men.11 And in major cities wracked by the drug war, as

m I C H E l l E A l E x A N D E R
2 4 0
many as 80 percent of young African American men now have
criminal records and are thus subject to legalized discrimina-
tion for the rest of their lives.12 These young men are part of
a growing undercaste, permanently locked up and locked out
of mainstream society.
It may be surprising to some that drug crime was declining, not
rising, when a drug war was declared. From a historical perspec-
tive, however, the lack of correlation between crime and pun-
ishment is nothing new. Sociologists have frequently observed
that governments use punishment primarily as a tool of social
control, and thus the extent or severity of punishment is often
unrelated to actual crime patterns. Michael Tonry explains in
Thinking About Crime: “Governments decide how much pun-
ishment they want, and these decisions are in no simple way
related to crime rates.”13 This fact, he points out, can be seen
most clearly by putting crime and punishment in comparative
perspective. Although crime rates in the United States have
not been markedly higher than those of other Western coun-
tries, the rate of incarceration has soared in the United States
while it has remained stable or declined in other countries.
Between 1960 and 1990, for example, official crime rates in
Finland, Germany, and the United States were close to iden-
tical. Yet the U.S. incarceration rate quadrupled, the Finnish
rate fell by 60 percent, and the German rate was stable in that
period.14 Despite similar crime rates, each government chose
to impose different levels of punishment.
Today, due to recent declines, U.S. crime rates have dipped
below the international norm. Nevertheless, the United States
now boasts an incarceration rate that is six to ten times greater
than that of other industrialized nations15—a development
directly traceable to the drug war. The only country in the

The New Jim Crow
2 4 1
world that even comes close to the American rate of incarcera-
tion is Russia, and no other country in the world incarcerates
such an astonishing percentage of its racial or ethnic minorities.
The stark and sobering reality is that, for reasons largely
unrelated to actual crime trends, the American penal system
has emerged as a system of social control unparalleled in world
history. And while the size of the system alone might suggest
that it would touch the lives of most Americans, the primary
targets of its control can be defined largely by race. This is an
astonishing development, especially given that as recently as
the mid-1970s, the most well-respected criminologists were pre-
dicting that the prison system would soon fade away. Prison did
not deter crime significantly, many experts concluded. Those who
had meaningful economic and social opportunities were unlikely
to commit crimes regardless of the penalty, while those who
went to prison were far more likely to commit crimes again in the
future. The growing consensus among experts was perhaps best
reflected by the National Advisory Commission on Criminal
Justice Standards and Goals, which issued a recommendation
in 1973 that “no new institutions for adults should be built
and existing institutions for juveniles should be closed.”16 This
recommendation was based on their finding that “the prison, the
reformatory and the jail have achieved only a shocking record of
failure. There is overwhelming evidence that these institutions
create crime rather than prevent it.”17
These days, activists who advocate “a world without prisons” are
often dismissed as quacks, but only a few decades ago, the notion
that our society would be much better off without prisons—
and that the end of prisons was more or less inevitable—not
only dominated mainstream academic discourse in the field of
criminology but also inspired a national campaign by reformers
demanding a moratorium on prison construction. Marc Mauer,

m I C H E l l E A l E x A N D E R
2 4 2
the executive director of the Sentencing Project, notes that what
is most remarkable about the moratorium campaign in retrospect
is the context of imprisonment at the time. In 1972, fewer than
350,000 people were being held in prisons and jails nationwide,
compared with more than 2 million people today. The rate of
incarceration in 1972 was at a level so low that it no longer seems
in the realm of possibility, but for moratorium supporters, that
magnitude of imprisonment was egregiously high. “Supporters of
the moratorium effort can be forgiven for being so naïve,” Mauer
suggests, “since the prison expansion that was about to take place
was unprecedented in human history.”18 No one imagined that
the prison population would more than quintuple in their life-
time. It seemed far more likely that prisons would fade away.
Far from fading away, it appears that prisons are here to stay. And
despite the unprecedented levels of incarceration in the African
American community, the civil rights community is oddly quiet.
One in three young African American men will serve time in
prison if current trends continue, and in some cities more than
half of all young adult black men are currently under correctional
control—in prison or jail, on probation or parole.19 Yet mass
incarceration tends to be categorized as a criminal justice issue
as opposed to a racial justice or civil rights issue (or crisis).
The attention of civil rights advocates has been largely
devoted to other issues, such as affirmative action. During the
past twenty years, virtually every progressive, national civil
rights organization in the country has mobilized and rallied in
defense of affirmative action. The struggle to preserve affirma-
tive action in higher education, and thus maintain diversity in
the nation’s most elite colleges and universities, has consumed
much of the attention and resources of the civil rights commu-
nity and dominated racial justice discourse in the mainstream

The New Jim Crow
2 4 3
media, leading the general public to believe that affirmative
action is the main battlefront in U.S. race relations—even as
our prisons fill with black and brown men. . . .
This is not to say that important criminal justice reform work
has not been done. Civil rights advocates have organized vigor-
ous challenges to specific aspects of the new caste system. One
notable example is the successful challenge led by the NAACP
Legal Defense Fund to a racist drug sting operation in Tulia,
Texas. The 1999 drug bust incarcerated almost 15 percent of
the black population of the town, based on the uncorroborated
false testimony of a single informant hired by the sheriff of Tulia.
More recently, civil rights groups around the country have helped
to launch legal attacks and vibrant grassroots campaigns against
felon disenfranchisement laws and have strenuously opposed
discriminatory crack sentencing laws and guidelines, as well as
“zero tolerance” policies that effectively funnel youth of color
from schools to jails. The national ACLU recently developed a
racial justice program that includes criminal justice issues among
its core priorities and has created a promising Drug Law Reform
Project. And thanks to the aggressive advocacy of the ACLU,
NAACP, and other civil rights organizations around the country,
racial profiling is widely condemned, even by members of law
enforcement who once openly embraced the practice.
Still, despite these significant developments, there seems to
be a lack of appreciation for the enormity of the crisis at hand.
There is no broad-based movement brewing to end mass incar-
ceration and no advocacy effort that approaches in scale the
fight to preserve affirmative action. There also remains a persis-
tent tendency in the civil rights community to treat the criminal
justice system as just another institution infected with lingering
racial bias. The NAACP’s Web site offers one example. As
recently as May 2008, one could find a brief introduction to

m I C H E l l E A l E x A N D E R
2 4 4
the organization’s criminal justice work in the section entitled
Legal Department. The introduction explained that “despite the
civil rights victories of our past, racial prejudice still pervades
the criminal justice system.” Visitors to the Web site were urged
to join the NAACP in order to “protect the hard-earned civil
rights gains of the past three decades.” No one visiting the
Web site would learn that the mass incarceration of African
Americans had already eviscerated many of the hard-earned
gains it urged its members to protect.
Imagine if civil rights organizations and African American
leaders in the 1940s had not placed Jim Crow segregation at the
forefront of their racial justice agenda. It would have seemed
absurd, given that racial segregation was the primary vehicle of
racialized social control in the United States during that period.
Mass incarceration is, metaphorically, the New Jim Crow and
all those who care about social justice should fully commit
themselves to dismantling this new racial caste system. Mass
incarceration—not attacks on affirmative action or lax civil
rights enforcement—is the most damaging manifestation of the
backlash against the Civil Rights Movement. The popular nar-
rative that emphasizes the death of slavery and Jim Crow and
celebrates the nation’s “triumph over race” with the election of
Barack Obama, is dangerously misguided. The colorblind public
consensus that prevails in America today—i.e., the widespread
belief that race no longer matters—has blinded us to the reali-
ties of race in our society and facilitated the emergence of a
new caste system.
. . .
The language of caste may well seem foreign or unfamiliar to
some. Public discussions about racial caste in America are rela-
tively rare. We avoid talking about caste in our society because
we are ashamed of our racial history. We also avoid talking

The New Jim Crow
2 4 5
about race. We even avoid talking about class. Conversations
about class are resisted in part because there is a tendency
to imagine that one’s class reflects upon one’s character.
What is key to America’s understanding of class is the persistent
belief—despite all evidence to the contrary—that anyone, with
the proper discipline and drive, can move from a lower class
to a higher class. We recognize that mobility may be difficult,
but the key to our collective self-image is the assumption that
mobility is always possible, so failure to move up reflects on
one’s character. By extension, the failure of a race or ethnic
group to move up reflects very poorly on the group as a whole.
What is completely missed in the rare public debates today
about the plight of African Americans is that a huge percent-
age of them are not free to move up at all. It is not just that
they lack opportunity, attend poor schools, or are plagued by
poverty. They are barred by law from doing so. And the major
institutions with which they come into contact are designed to
prevent their mobility. To put the matter starkly: The current
system of control permanently locks a huge percentage of the
African American community out of the mainstream society
and economy. The system operates through our criminal justice
institutions, but it functions more like a caste system than a
system of crime control. Viewed from this perspective, the so-
called underclass is better understood as an undercaste—a lower
caste of individuals who are permanently barred by law and
custom from mainstream society. Although this new system of
racialized social control purports to be colorblind, it creates and
maintains racial hierarchy much as earlier systems of control
did. Like Jim Crow (and slavery), mass incarceration operates
as a tightly networked system of laws, policies, customs, and
institutions that operate collectively to ensure the subordinate
status of a group defined largely by race. . . .

m I C H E l l E A l E x A N D E R
2 4 6
Skepticism about the claims made here is warranted. There are
important differences, to be sure, among mass incarceration, Jim
Crow, and slavery—the three major racialized systems of control
adopted in the United States to date. Failure to acknowledge the
relevant differences, as well as their implications, would
be a disservice to racial justice discourse. Many of the
differences are not as dramatic as they initially appear,
however; others serve to illustrate the ways in which sys-
tems of racialized social control have managed to morph, evolve,
and adapt to changes in the political, social, and legal context
over time. Ultimately, I believe that the similarities between
these systems of control overwhelm the differences and that mass
incarceration, like its predecessors, has been largely immunized
from legal challenge. If this claim is substantially correct, the
implications for racial justice advocacy are profound.
With the benefit of hindsight, surely we can see that piece-
meal policy reform or litigation alone would have been a futile
approach to dismantling Jim Crow segregation. While those
strategies certainly had their place, the Civil Rights Act of 1964
and the concomitant cultural shift would never have occurred
without the cultivation of a critical political consciousness in
the African American community and the widespread, strategic
activism that flowed from it. Likewise, the notion that the New
Jim Crow can ever be dismantled through traditional litigation
and policy-reform strategies that are wholly disconnected from
a major social movement seems fundamentally misguided.
Such a movement is impossible, though, if those most com-
mitted to abolishing racial hierarchy continue to talk and behave
as if a state-sponsored racial caste system no longer exists. If we
continue to tell ourselves the popular myths about racial progress
or, worse yet, if we say to ourselves that the problem of mass
incarceration is just too big, too daunting for us to do anything
For more on
ways to address
a skeptical
reader, see
Chapter 6.

The New Jim Crow
2 4 7
about and that we should instead direct our energies to battles
that might be more easily won, history will judge us harshly. A
human rights nightmare is occurring on our watch.
A new social consensus must be forged about race and the
role of race in defining the basic structure of our society, if we
hope ever to abolish the New Jim Crow. This new consensus
must begin with dialogue, a conversation that fosters a critical
consciousness, a key prerequisite to effective social action. My
writing is an attempt to ensure that the conversation does not
end with nervous laughter.
1. Jarvious Cotton was a plaintiff in Cotton v. Fordice, 157 F.3d 388 (5th
Cir. 1998), which held that Mississippi’s felon disenfranchisement provision
had lost its racially discriminatory taint. The information regarding Cotton’s
family tree was obtained by Emily Bolton on March 29, 1999, when she inter-
viewed Cotton at Mississippi State Prison. Jarvious Cotton was released on
parole in Mississippi, a state that denies voting rights to parolees.
2. The New York Times made the national media’s first specific reference
to crack in a story published in late 1985. Crack became known in a few
impoverished neighborhoods in Los Angeles, New York, and Miami in early
1986. See Craig Reinarman and Harry Levine, “The Crack Attack: America’s
Latest Drug Scare, 1986–1992,” in Images of Issues: Typifying Contemporary
Social Problems (New York: Aldine De Gruyter, 1995), 152.
3. Clarence Page, “‘The Plan’: A Paranoid View of Black Problems,” Dover
(Delaware) Herald, Feb. 23, 1990. See also Manning Marable, Race, Reform,
and Rebellion: The Second Reconstruction in Black America, 1945–1990 (Jackson:
University Press of Mississippi, 1991), 212–13.
4. See Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair, Whiteout: The CIA,
Drugs, and the Press (New York: Verso, 1999). See also Nick Shou, “The Truth
in ‘Dark Alliance,’” Los Angeles Times, Aug. 18, 2006; Peter Kornbluh, “CIA’s
Challenge in South Central.” Los Angeles Times (Washington edition), Nov.
15, 1996; and Alexander Cockburn, “Why They Hated Gary Webb,’’ The
Nation, Dec. 16, 2004.

m I C H E l l E A l E x A N D E R
2 4 8
5. Katherine Beckett and Theodore Sasson, The Politics oj Injustice: Crime
and Punishment in America (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2004), 163.
6. Marc Mauer, Race to Incarcerate, rev. ed. (New York: The New Press,
2006), 33.
7. PEW Center on the States, One in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008
(Washington, DC: PEW Charitable Trusts, 2008), 5.
8. Donald Braman, Doing Time on the Outside: Incarceration and Family Life
in Urban America (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004), 3, citing
D.C. Department of Corrections data for 2000.
9. See, e.g., U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Substance
Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Summary of Findings from
the 2000 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, NHSDA series H-13, DHHS
pub. no. SMA 01-3549 (Rockville, MD: 2001), reporting that 6.4 percent of
whites, 6.4 percent of blacks, and 5.3 percent of Hispanics were current users
of illegal drugs in 2000; Results from the 2002 National Survey on Drug Use and
Health: National Findings, NHSDA series H-22, DHHS pub. no. SMA 03-3836
(2003), revealing nearly identical rates of illegal drug use among whites and
blacks, only a single percentage point between them; and Results from the 2007
National Survey on Drug Use and Health: National Findings, NSDUH series H-34,
DHHS pub. no. SMA 08-4343 (2007), showing essentially the same finding.
See also Marc Mauer and Ryan S. King, A 25-Year Quagmire: The “War on
Drugs” and Its Impact on American Society (Washington, DC: Sentencing Proj-
ect, 2007), 19, citing a study suggesting that African Americans have slightly
higher rates of illegal drug use than whites.
10. See, e.g., Howard N. Snyder and Melissa Sickman, Juvenile Offenders
and Victims: 2006 National Report, U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice
Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (Washing-
ton, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, 2006), reporting that white youth are
more likely than black youth to engage in illegal drug sales. See also Lloyd D.
Johnson, Patrick M. O’Malley, Jerald G. Bachman, and John E. Schulunberg,
Monitoring the Future, National Survey Results on Drug Use, 1975–2006, vol. 1,
Secondary School Students, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services,
National Institute on Drug Abuse, NIH pub. no. 07-6205 (Bethesda, MD:
2007), 32, “African American 12th graders have consistently shown lower
usage rates than White 12th graders for most drugs, both licit and illicit”; and
Lloyd D. Johnston, Patrick M. O’Malley, and Jerald G. Bachman, Monitoring
the Future: National Results on Adolescent Drug Use: Overview of Key Findings
2002, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institute on

The New Jim Crow
2 4 9
Drug Abuse, NIH pub. no. 03-5374 (Bethesda, MD: 2003), presenting data
showing that African American adolescents have slightly lower rates of illicit
drug use than their white counterparts.
11. Human Rights Watch, Punishment and Prejudice: Racial Disparities in the
War on Drugs, HRW Reports, vol. 12, no. 2 (New York, 2000).
12. See, e.g., Paul Street, The Vicious Circle: Race, Prison, Jobs, and Com-
munity in Chicago, Illinois, and the Nation (Chicago: Chicago Urban League,
Department of Research and Planning, 2002).
13. Michael Tonry, Thinking About Crime: Sense and Sensibility in American
Penal Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 14.
14. Ibid.
15. Ibid., 20.
16. National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and
Goals, Task Force Report on Corrections (Washington, DC: Government Print-
ing Office, 1973), 358.
17. Ibid., 597.
18. Mauer, Race to Incarcerate, 17–18.
19. The estimate that one in three black men will go to prison during their
lifetime is drawn from Thomas P. Boncszar, “Prevalence of Imprisonment in
the U.S. Population, 1974–2001,” U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice
Statistics, August 2003. In Baltimore, like many large urban areas, the majority
of young African American men are currently under correctional supervision.
See Eric Lotke and Jason Ziedenberg, “Tipping Point: Maryland’s Overuse of
Incarceration and the Impact on Community Safety,” Justice Policy Institute,
March 2005, 3.
Joining the Conversation
1. Michelle Alexander argues that in the United States mass
incarceration is a “well-disguised system of racialized social
control” (paragraph 9). Why, as she acknowledges in
paragraph 4, did it take her so long to reach this conclusion?
2. Throughout the essay, Alexander presents and then responds
to the views of others. Find two examples where Alexander
introduces the views of others. In each case, how does she
make clear to readers that the view in question is not hers?

m I C H E l l E A l E x A N D E R
2 5 0
3. The author states that “the racial dimension of mass incarcera-
tion is its most striking feature” (paragraph 17). What does she
mean, and what evidence does she provide to support her claim?
4. According to Alexander, African Americans “are not free to
move up at all” (paragraph 29) and “the more things change
the more they stay the same.” What do you think Barack
Obama (pp. 296–313) would say to that?
5. Write an essay responding to the reading in which you agree,
disagree, or both with the author’s argument that mass incar-
ceration allows for continued discrimination against African

2 5 1
Hillbilly Elegy
j . d . v a n c e
I arrived for orientation at Ohio State in early September
2007, and I couldn’t have been more excited. I remember every
little detail about that day: lunch at Chipotle, the first time
Lindsay* had ever eaten there; the walk from the orientation
building to the south campus house that would soon be my
Columbus home; the beautiful weather. I met with a guidance
counselor who talked me through my first college schedule,
which put me in class only four days per week, never before
nine thirty in the morning. After the Marine Corps and its
five thirty a.m. wake-ups, I couldn’t believe my good fortune.
Ohio State’s main campus in Columbus is about a hundred miles
away from Middletown, meaning it was close enough for weekend
visits to my family. For the first time in a few years, I could drop
J. D. Vance works at an investment firm in Silicon Valley and has
written articles for the National Review and the New York Times. He
is the author of Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in
Crisis (2016), which describes his experiences growing up in Jackson,
Kentucky and Middletown, Ohio. The selection reprinted here is a
chapter from that book.
*Lindsay Vance’s sister.

j . D . V A N C E
2 5 2
in on Middletown whenever I felt like it. And while Havelock
(the North Carolina city closest to my Marine Corps base) was
not too different from Middletown, Columbus felt like an urban
paradise. It was (and remains) one of the fastest-growing cities in
the country, powered in large part by the bustling university that
was now my home. OSU grads were starting businesses, historic
buildings were being converted into new restaurants and bars, and
even the worst neighborhoods seemed to be undergoing significant
revitalization. Not long after I moved to Columbus, one of my best
friends began working as the promotions director for a local radio
station, so I always knew what was happening around town and
always had an in to the city’s best events, from local festivals to
VIP seating for the annual fireworks show.
In many ways, college was very familiar. I made a lot of new
friends, but virtually all of them were from southwest Ohio.
My six roommates included five graduates of Middletown High
School and one graduate of Edgewood High School in nearby
Trenton. They were a little younger (the Marine Corps had
aged me past the age of the typical freshman), but I knew most
of them from back home. My closest friends had already gradu-
ated or were about to, but many stayed in Columbus after gradu-
ation. Though I didn’t know it, I was witnessing a phenomenon
that social scientists call “brain drain”—people who are able
to leave struggling cities often do, and when they find a new
home with educational and work opportunities, they stay there.
Years later, I looked at my wedding party of six groomsmen and
realized that every single one of them had, like me, grown up
in a small Ohio town before leaving for Ohio State. To a man,
all of them had found careers outside of their hometowns, and
none of them had any interest in ever going back.
By the time I started at Ohio State, the Marine Corps had
instilled in me an incredible sense of invincibility. I’d go to

Hillbilly Elegy
2 5 3
classes, do my homework, study at the library, and make it home
in time to drink well past midnight with my buddies, then wake
up early to go running. My schedule was intense, but every-
thing that had made me fear the independent college life when I
was eighteen felt like a piece of cake now. I had puzzled through
those financial aid forms with Mamaw* a few years earlier, argu-
ing about whether to list her or Mom as my “parent/guardian.”
We had worried that unless I somehow obtained and submitted
the financial information of Bob Hamel (my legal father), I’d be
guilty of fraud. The whole experience had made both of us pain-
fully aware of how unfamiliar we were with the outside world. I
had nearly failed out of high school, earning Ds and Fs in English
I. Now I paid my own bills and earned As in every class I took
at my state’s flagship university. I felt completely in control of
my destiny in a way that I never had before.
I knew that Ohio State was put-up-or-shut-up time. I had left
the Marine Corps not just with a sense that I could do what I
wanted but also with the capacity to plan. I wanted to go to law
school, and I knew that to go to the best law school, I’d need
good grades and to ace the infamous Law School Admissions
Test, or LSAT. There was much I didn’t know, of course. I
couldn’t really explain why I wanted to go to law school besides
the fact that in Middletown the “rich kids” were born to either
doctors or lawyers, and I didn’t want to work with blood. I didn’t
know how much else was out there, but the little knowledge
I had at least gave me direction, and that was all I needed.
I loathed debt and the sense of limitation it imposed. Though
the GI Bill paid for a significant chunk of my education, and
Ohio State charged relatively little to an in-state resident, I
still needed to cover about twenty thousand dollars of expenses
*Mamaw Vance’s grandmother.

j . D . V A N C E
2 5 4
on my own. I took a job at the Ohio Statehouse, working for
a remarkably kind senator from the Cincinnati area named
Bob Schuler. He was a good man, and I liked his politics, so
when constituents called and complained, I tried to explain his
positions. I watched lobbyists come and go and overheard the
senator and his staff debate whether a particular bill was good
for his constituents, good for his state, or good for both. Observ-
ing the political process from the inside made me appreciate
it in a way that watching cable news never had. Mamaw had
thought all politicians were crooks, but I learned that, no matter
their politics, that was largely untrue at the Ohio Statehouse.
After a few months at the Ohio Senate, as my bills piled up
and I found fewer and fewer ways to make up the difference
between my spending and my income (one can donate plasma
only twice per week, I learned), I decided to get another job.
One nonprofit advertised a part-time job that paid ten dollars
an hour, but when I showed up for the interview in khakis, an
ugly lime-green shirt, and Marine Corps combat boots (my only
non-sneakers at the time) and saw the interviewer’s reaction, I
knew that I was out of luck. I barely noticed the rejection email
a week later. A local nonprofit did work for abused and neglected
children, and they also paid ten dollars an hour, so I went to
Target, bought a nicer shirt and a pair of black shoes, and came
away with a job offer to be a “consultant.” I cared about their
mission, and they were great people. I began work immediately.
With two jobs and a full-time class load, my schedule inten-
sified, but I didn’t mind. I didn’t realize there was anything
unusual about my commitments until a professor emailed me
about meeting after class to discuss a writing assignment. When
I sent him my schedule, he was aghast. He sternly told me that
I should focus on my education and not let work distractions
stand in my way. I smiled, shook his hand, and said thanks,

Hillbilly Elegy
2 5 5
but I did not heed his advice. I liked staying up late to work
on assignments, waking up early after only three or four hours
of sleep, and patting myself on the back for being able to do it.
After so many years of fearing my own future, of worrying that
I’d end up like many of my neighbors or family—addicted to
drugs or alcohol, in prison, or with kids I couldn’t or wouldn’t
take care of—I felt an incredible momentum. I knew the sta-
tistics. I had read the brochures in the social worker’s office
when I was a kid. I had recognized the look of pity from the
hygienist at the low-income dental clinic. I wasn’t supposed to
make it, but I was doing just fine on my own.
Did I take it too far? Absolutely. I didn’t sleep enough. I
drank too much and ate Taco Bell at nearly every meal. A
week into what I thought was just a really awful cold, a doctor
told me that I had mono. I ignored him and kept on living
as though NyQuil and DayQuil were magical elixirs. After a
week of this, my urine turned a disgusting brown shade, and
my temperature registered 103. I realized I might need to take
care of myself, so I downed some Tylenol, drank a couple of
beers, and went to sleep.
When Mom found out what was happening, she drove to
Columbus and took me to the emergency room. She wasn’t
perfect, she wasn’t even a practicing nurse, but she took it as
a point of pride to supervise every interaction we had with the
health care system. She asked the right questions, got annoyed
with doctors when they didn’t answer directly, and made sure
I had what I needed. I spent two full days in the hospital as
doctors emptied five bags of saline to rehydrate me and dis-
covered that I had contracted a staph infection in addition to
the mono, which explained why I grew so sick. The doctors
released me to Mom, who wheeled me out of the hospital and
took me home to recover.

j . D . V A N C E
2 5 6
My illness lasted another few weeks, which, happily, coin-
cided with the break between Ohio State’s spring and summer
terms. When I was in Middletown, I split time between Aunt
Wee’s and Mom’s; both of them cared for me and treated me like
a son. It was my first real introduction to the competing emo-
tional demands of Middletown in a post-Mamaw world: I didn’t
want to hurt Mom’s feelings, but the past had created rifts that
would likely never go away. I never confronted these demands
head-on. I never explained to Mom that no matter how nice and
caring she was at any given time—and while I had mono, she
couldn’t have been a better mother—I just felt uncomfortable
around her. To sleep in her house meant talking to husband
number five, a kind man but a stranger who would never be
anything to me but the future ex–Mr. Mom. It meant looking at
her furniture and remembering the time I hid behind it during
one of her fights with Bob. It meant trying to understand how
Mom could be such a contradiction—a woman who sat patiently
with me at the hospital for days and an addict who would lie to
her family to extract money from them a month later.
I knew that my increasingly close relationship with Aunt
Wee hurt Mom’s feelings. She talked about it all the time.
“I’m your mother, not her,” she’d repeat. To this day, I often
wonder whether, if I’d had the courage as an adult that I’d had
as a child, Mom might have gotten better. Addicts are at their
weakest during emotionally trying times, and I knew that I had
the power to save her from at least some bouts of sadness. But
I couldn’t do it any longer. I didn’t know what had changed,
but I wasn’t that person anymore. Perhaps it was nothing more
than self-preservation. Regardless, I couldn’t pretend to feel at
home with her.
After a few weeks of mono, I felt well enough to return
to Columbus and my classes. I’d lost a lot of weight—twenty

Hillbilly Elegy
2 5 7
pounds over four weeks—but otherwise felt pretty good. With
the hospital bills piling up, I got a third job (as an SAT tutor
at the Princeton Review), which paid an incredible eighteen
dollars an hour. Three jobs were too much, so I dropped the job
I loved the most—my work at the Ohio senate—because it paid
the least. I needed money and the financial freedom it provided,
not rewarding work. That, I told myself, would come later.
Shortly before I left, the Ohio senate debated a measure that
would significantly curb payday-lending practices. My senator
opposed the bill (one of the few senators to do so), and though
he never explained why, I liked to think that maybe he and
I had something in common. The senators and policy staff
debating the bill had little appreciation for the role of payday
lenders in the shadow economy that people like me occupied.
To them, payday lenders were predatory sharks, charging high
interest rates on loans and exorbitant fees for cashed checks.
The sooner they were snuffed out, the better.
To me, payday lenders could solve important financial prob-
lems. My credit was awful, thanks to a host of terrible finan-
cial decisions (some of which weren’t my fault, many of which
were), so credit cards weren’t a possibility. If I wanted to take a
girl out to dinner or needed a book for school and didn’t have
money in the bank, I didn’t have many options. (I probably
could have asked my aunt or uncle, but I desperately wanted
to do things on my own.) One Friday morning I dropped off
my rent check, knowing that if I waited another day, the fifty-
dollar late fee would kick in. I didn’t have enough money to
cover the check, but I’d get paid that day and would be able to
deposit the money after work. However, after a long day at the
senate, I forgot to grab my paycheck before I left. By the time
I realized the mistake, I was already home, and the Statehouse
staff had left for the weekend. On that day, a three-day payday

j . D . V A N C E
2 5 8
loan, with a few dollars of interest, enabled me to avoid a
significant overdraft fee. The legislators debating the merits of
payday lending didn’t mention situations like that. The lesson?
Powerful people sometimes do things to help people like me
without really understanding people like me.
My second year of college started pretty much as my first year
had, with a beautiful day and a lot of excitement. With a new
job, I was a bit busier, but I didn’t mind the work. What I did
mind was the gnawing feeling that, at twenty-four, I was a little
too old to be a second-year college student. But with four years
in the Marine Corps behind me, more separated me from the
other students than age. During an undergraduate seminar in
foreign policy, I listened as a nineteen-year-old classmate with
a hideous beard spouted off about the Iraq war. He explained
that those fighting the war were typically less intelligent than
those (like him) who immediately went to college. It showed, he
argued, in the wanton way soldiers butchered and disrespected
Iraqi civilians. It was an objectively terrible opinion—my friends
from the Marine Corps spanned the political spectrum and held
nearly every conceivable opinion about the war. Many of my
Marine Corps friends were staunch liberals who had no love for
our commander in chief—then George W. Bush—and felt that
we had sacrificed too much for too little gain. But none of them
had ever uttered such unreflective tripe.
As the student prattled on, I thought about the never-ending
training on how to respect Iraqi culture—never show anyone the
bottom of your foot, never address a woman in traditional Muslim
garb without first speaking to a male relative. I thought
about the security we provided for Iraqi poll workers,
and how we studiously explained the importance of their
mission without ever pushing our own political views on
them. I thought about listening to a young Iraqi (who couldn’t
See pp. 110–12
for ways to
repeat key
terms and

Hillbilly Elegy
2 5 9
speak a word of English) flawlessly rap every single word of 50
Cent’s “In Da Club” and laughing along with him and his friends.
I thought about my friends who were covered in third-degree
burns, “lucky” to have survived an IED attack in the Al-Qaim
region of Iraq. And here was this dipshit in a spotty beard telling
our class that we murdered people for sport.
I felt an immediate drive to finish college as quickly as pos-
sible. I met with a guidance counselor and plotted my exit—I’d
need to take classes during the summer and more than double
the full-time course load during some terms. It was, even by
my heightened standards, an intense year. During a particularly
terrible February, I sat down with my calendar and counted
the number of days since I’d slept more than four hours in a
day. The tally was thirty-nine. But I continued, and in August
2009, after one year and eleven months at Ohio State, I gradu-
ated with a double major, summa cum laude. I tried to skip my
graduation ceremony, but my family wouldn’t let me. So I sat in
an uncomfortable chair for three hours before I walked across
the podium and received my college diploma. When Gordon
Gee, then president of the Ohio State University, paused for
an unusually long photograph with the girl who stood in front
of me in line, I extended my hand to his assistant, nonverbally
asking for the diploma. She handed it to me, and I stepped
behind Dr. Gee and down off the podium. I may have been the
only graduating student that day to not shake his hand. On to
the next one, I thought.
I knew I’d go to law school later the next year (my August
graduation precluded a 2009 start to law school), so I moved
home to save money. Aunt Wee had taken Mamaw’s place
as the family matriarch: She put out the fires, hosted family
gatherings, and kept us all from breaking apart. She had always
provided me with a home base after Mamaw’s death, but ten

j . D . V A N C E
2 6 0
months seemed like an imposition; I didn’t like the idea of
disrupting her family’s routine. But she insisted, “J.D., this is
your home now. It’s the only place for you to stay.”
Those last months living in Middletown were among the
happiest of my life. I was finally a college graduate, and I knew
that I’d soon accomplish another dream—going to law school.
I worked odd jobs to save money and grew closer to my aunt’s
two daughters. Every day I’d get home from work, dusty and
sweaty from manual labor, and sit at the dinner table to hear
my teenage cousins talk about their days at school and trials
with friends. Sometimes I’d help with homework. On Fridays
during Lent, I helped with the fish fries at the local Catho-
lic church. That feeling I had in college—that I had survived
decades of chaos and heartbreak and finally come out on the
other side—deepened.
The incredible optimism I felt about my own life contrasted
starkly with the pessimism of so many of my neighbors. Years
of decline in the blue-collar economy manifested themselves
in the material prospects of Middletown’s residents. The Great
Recession, and the not-great recovery that followed, had has-
tened Middletown’s downward trajectory. But there was some-
thing almost spiritual about the cynicism of the community
at large, something that went much deeper than a short-term
As a culture, we had no heroes. Certainly not any politician—
Barack Obama was then the most admired man in America
(and likely still is), but even when the country was enrap-
tured by his rise, most Middletonians viewed him suspiciously.
George W. Bush had few fans in 2008. Many loved Bill Clinton,
but many more saw him as the symbol of American moral decay,
and Ronald Reagan was long dead. We loved the military but
had no George S. Patton figure in the modern army. I doubt

Hillbilly Elegy
2 6 1
my neighbors could even name a high-ranking military officer.
The space program, long a source of pride, had gone the way of
the dodo, and with it the celebrity astronauts. Nothing united
us with the core fabric of American society. We felt trapped in
two seemingly unwinnable wars, in which a disproportionate
share of the fighters came from our neighborhood, and in an
economy that failed to deliver the most basic promise of the
American Dream—a steady wage.
To understand the significance of this cultural detachment,
you must appreciate that much of my family’s, my neighborhood’s,
and my community’s identity derives from our love of country. I
couldn’t tell you a single thing about Breathitt County’s mayor,
its health care services, or its famous residents. But I do know this:
“Bloody Breathitt” allegedly earned its name because the county
filled its World War I draft quota entirely with volunteers—the
only county in the entire United States to do so. Nearly a century
later, and that’s the factoid about Breathitt that I remember best:
It’s the truth that everyone around me ensured I knew. I once
interviewed Mamaw for a class project about World War II. After
seventy years filled with marriage, children, grandchildren, death,
poverty, and triumph, the thing about which Mamaw was unques-
tionably the proudest and most excited was that she and her
family did their part during World War II. We spoke for minutes
about everything else; we spoke for hours about war rations, Rosie
the Riveter, her dad’s wartime love letters to her mother from
the Pacific, and the day “we dropped the bomb.” Mamaw always
had two gods: Jesus Christ and the United States of America. I
was no different, and neither was anyone else I knew.
I’m the kind of patriot whom people on the Acela corri-
dor laugh at. I choke up when I hear Lee Greenwood’s cheesy
anthem “Proud to Be an American.” When I was sixteen, I
vowed that every time I met a veteran, I would go out of my way

j . D . V A N C E
2 6 2
to shake his or her hand, even if I had to awkwardly interject to
do so. To this day, I refuse to watch Saving Private Ryan around
anyone but my closest friends, because I can’t stop from crying
during the final scene.
Mamaw and Papaw taught me that we live in the best and
greatest country on earth. This fact gave meaning to my child-
hood. Whenever times were tough—when I felt overwhelmed
by the drama and the tumult of my youth—I knew that better
days were ahead because I lived in a country that allowed me to
make the good choices that others hadn’t. When I think today
about my life and how genuinely incredible it is—a gorgeous,
kind, brilliant life partner; the financial security that I dreamed
about as a child; great friends and exciting new experiences—I
feel overwhelming appreciation for these United States. I know
it’s corny, but it’s the way I feel.
J. D. Vance

Hillbilly Elegy
2 6 3
If Mamaw’s second God was the United States of America,
then many people in my community were losing something
akin to a religion. The tie that bound them to their neighbors,
that inspired them in the way my patriotism had always inspired
me, had seemingly vanished.
The symptoms are all around us. Significant percentages
of white conservative voters—about one-third—believe that
Barack Obama is a Muslim. In one poll, 32 percent of conser-
vatives said that they believed Obama was foreign-born and
another 19 percent said they were unsure—which means that
a majority of white conservatives aren’t certain that Obama is
even an American. I regularly hear from acquaintances or dis-
tant family members that Obama has ties to Islamic extremists,
or is a traitor, or was born in some far-flung corner of the world.
Many of my new friends blame racism for this perception
of the president. But the president feels like an alien to many
Middletonians for reasons that have nothing to do with skin
color. Recall that not a single one of my high school classmates
attended an Ivy League school. Barack Obama attended two of
them and excelled at both. He is brilliant, wealthy, and speaks
like a constitutional law professor—which, of course, he is.
Nothing about him bears any resemblance to the people I
admired growing up: His accent—clean, perfect, neutral—is
foreign; his credentials are so impressive that they’re frightening;
he made his life in Chicago, a dense metropolis; and he conducts
himself with a confidence that comes from knowing that the
modern American meritocracy was built for him. Of course,
Obama overcame adversity in his own right—adversity familiar
to many of us—but that was long before any of us knew him.
President Obama came on the scene right as so many people
in my community began to believe that the modern American
meritocracy was not built for them. We know we’re not doing

j . D . V A N C E
2 6 4
well. We see it every day: in the obituaries for teenage kids
that conspicuously omit the cause of death (reading between
the lines: overdose), in the deadbeats we watch our daughters
waste their time with. Barack Obama strikes at the heart of our
deepest insecurities. He is a good father while many of us aren’t.
He wears suits to his job while we wear overalls, if we’re lucky
enough to have a job at all. His wife tells us that we shouldn’t be
feeding our children certain foods, and we hate her for it—not
because we think she’s wrong but because we know she’s right.
Many try to blame the anger and cynicism of working-class
whites on misinformation. Admittedly, there is an industry of
conspiracy-mongers and fringe lunatics writing about all manner
of idiocy, from Obama’s alleged religious leanings to his ances-
try. But every major news organization, even the oft-maligned
Fox News, has always told the truth about Obama’s citizenship
status and religious views. The people I know are well aware of
what the major news organizations have to say about the issue;
they simply don’t believe them. Only 6 percent of American
voters believe that the media is “very trustworthy.”1 To many
of us, the free press—that bulwark of American democracy—is
simply full of shit.
With little trust in the press, there’s no check on the Internet
conspiracy theories that rule the digital world. Barack Obama is
a foreign alien actively trying to destroy our country. Everything
the media tells us is a lie. Many in the white working class
believe the worst about their society. Here’s a small sample of
emails or messages I’ve seen from friends or family:
• From right-wing radio talker Alex Jones on the ten-year
anniversary of 9/11, a documentary about the “unanswered
question” of the terrorist attacks, suggesting that the U.S.
government played a role in the massacre of its own people.

Hillbilly Elegy
2 6 5
• From an email chain, a story that the Obamacare legislation
requires microchip implantation in new health care patients.
This story carries extra bite because of the religious implica-
tions: Many believe that the End Times “mark of the beast”
foretold in biblical prophecy will be an electronic device. Mul-
tiple friends warned others about this threat via social media.
• From the popular website WorldNetDaily, an editorial sug-
gesting that the Newtown gun massacre was engineered by
the federal government to turn public opinion on gun con-
trol measures.
• From multiple Internet sources, suggestions that Obama will
soon implement martial law in order to secure power for a
third presidential term.
The list goes on. It’s impossible to know how many people
believe one or many of these stories. But if a third of our com-
munity questions the president’s origin—despite all evidence to
the contrary—it’s a good bet that the other conspiracies have
broader currency than we’d like. This isn’t some libertarian
mistrust of government policy, which is healthy in any democ-
racy. This is deep skepticism of the very institutions of our
society. And it’s becoming more and more mainstream.
We can’t trust the evening news. We can’t trust our politi-
cians. Our universities, the gateway to a better life, are rigged
against us. We can’t get jobs. You can’t believe these things
and participate meaningfully in society. Social psychologists
have shown that group belief is a powerful motivator in per-
formance. When groups perceive that it’s in their interest to
work hard and achieve things, members of that group outper-
form other similarly situated individuals. It’s obvious why: If
you believe that hard work pays off, then you work hard; if

j . D . V A N C E
2 6 6
you think it’s hard to get ahead even when you try, then why
try at all?
Similarly, when people do fail, this mind-set allows them to
look outward. I once ran into an old acquaintance at a Middletown
bar who told me that he had recently quit his job because he was
sick of waking up early. I later saw him complaining on Facebook
about the “Obama economy” and how it had affected his life. I
don’t doubt that the Obama economy has affected many, but this
man is assuredly not among them. His status in life is directly
attributable to the choices he’s made, and his life will improve
only through better decisions. But for him to make better choices,
he needs to live in an environment that forces him to ask tough
questions about himself. There is a cultural movement in the
white working class to blame problems on society or the govern-
ment, and that movement gains adherents by the day.
Here is where the rhetoric of modern conservatives (and
I say this as one of them) fails to meet the real challenges of
their biggest constituents. Instead of encouraging engagement,
conservatives increasingly foment the kind of detachment that
has sapped the ambition of so many of my peers. I have watched
some friends blossom into successful adults and others fall
victim to the worst of Middletown’s temptations—premature
parenthood, drugs, incarceration. What separates the successful
from the unsuccessful are the expectations that they had for
their own lives. Yet the message of the right is increasingly: It’s
not your fault that you’re a loser; it’s the government’s fault.
My dad, for example, has never disparaged hard work, but
he mistrusts some of the most obvious paths to upward mobil-
ity. When he found out that I had decided to go to Yale Law,
he asked whether, on my applications, I had “pretended to be
black or liberal.” This is how low the cultural expectations of
working-class white Americans have fallen. We should hardly

Hillbilly Elegy
2 6 7
be surprised that as attitudes like this one spread, the number
of people willing to work for a better life diminishes.
The Pew Economic Mobility Project studied how Americans
evaluated their chances at economic betterment, and what
they found was shocking. There is no group of Americans
more pessimistic than working-class whites. Well over half of
blacks, Latinos, and college-educated whites expect that their
children will fare better economically than they have. Among
working-class whites, only 44 percent share that expectation.
Even more surprising, 42 percent of working-class whites—by
far the highest number in the survey—report that their lives
are less economically successful than those of their parents’.
In 2010, that just wasn’t my mind-set. I was happy about
where I was and overwhelmingly hopeful about the future. For
the first time in my life, I felt like an outsider in Middletown.
And what turned me into an alien was my optimism.
1. “Only 6% Rate News Media as Very Trustworthy,” Rasmussen Report.
February 28, 2013,
(accessed November 17, 2015). [Vance’s note]
Joining the Conversation
1. J. D. Vance tells his own story, in part, to illustrate how the
optimism he felt about his future “contrasted starkly with
the pessimism of so many of [his] neighbors.” What other
arguments does Vance make throughout his narrative? In
addition to citing personal experience, what kinds of evi-
dence does he offer to support his views?

j . D . V A N C E
2 6 8
2. Vance uses metacommentary to explain to readers how to
interpret something he has just said. Find two examples in
the reading where Vance uses this technique.
3. An elegy is a sad, mournful lament. Why do you think Vance
called his book Hillbilly Elegy? How does his own story relate
to the title?
4. Nicholas Eberstadt (pp. 605–19) writes about the dramatic
increase in unemployment and underemployment among
men with a high school education or less. How might Vance
use the statistics Eberstadt cites to support his argument
about the challenges facing many working-class Americans?
5. Vance tells his own story and also makes observations about
his greater community. Think of a challenge or experience
you have had. Write an essay about what happened, making
an argument about how your personal experience reflects a
greater trend taking place in your community or hometown.

2 6 9
Minority Student Clubs:
Segregation or Integration?
g a b r i e l a m o r o
Minority representation on US college campuses has
increased significantly in recent years, and many schools have
made it a priority to increase diversity on their campuses in
order to prepare students for a culturally diverse US demo-
cratic society (Hurtado and Ruiz 3–4). To complement this
increase, many schools have implemented minority student
clubs to provide safe and comfortable environments where
minority students can thrive academically and socially with
peers from similar backgrounds. However, do these minority
groups amplify students’ tendency to interact only with those
who are similar to themselves? Put another way, do these groups
inhibit students from engaging in diverse relationships?
Many view such programs to be positive and integral to
minority students’ college experience; some, however, feel that
Gabriela Moro wrote this essay in her first-year composition class at
the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. It was published
in 2015 in the university’s journal Fresh Writing, “an interactive archive
of exemplary first-year writing projects.” A neuroscience and behavior
pre-health major, Moro plans to pursue a career in medicine.

G A B R I E l A m O R O
2 7 0
these clubs are not productive for promoting cross-cultural
interaction. While minority clubs have proven to be beneficial
to minority students in some cases, particularly on campuses
that are not very diverse, my research suggests that colleges
would enrich the educational experience for all students by
introducing multicultural clubs as well.
To frame my discussion, I will use an article from College
Student Journal that distinguishes between two types of students:
one who believes minority clubs are essential for helping minor-
ity students stay connected with their cultures, and another
who believes these clubs isolate minorities and work against
diverse interaction among students. To pursue the question of
whether or not such groups segregate minorities from the rest
of the student body and even discourage cultural awareness,
I will use perspectives from minority students to show that
these programs are especially helpful for first-year students. I
will also use other student testimonials to show that when taken
too far, minority groups can lead to self-segregation and defy
what most universities claim to be their diversity goals. Find-
ings from research will contribute to a better understanding
of the role minority clubs play on college campuses and offer
a complete answer to my question about the importance of
minority programs.
Before I go further, I would like to differentiate among three
kinds of diversity that Gurin et al. identify in their article
“Diversity and Higher Education: Theory and Impact on Edu-
cational Outcomes.” The first type is structural diversity, “the
numerical representation of diverse [racial and ethnic] groups.”
The existence of structural diversity alone does not assure that
students will develop valuable intergroup relationships. Class-
room diversity, the second type, involves gaining “content
knowledge” or a better understanding about diverse peers and

Minority Student Clubs: Segregation or Integration?
2 7 1
their backgrounds by doing so in the classroom. The third type
of diversity, informal interactional diversity, refers to “both the
frequency and the quality of intergroup interaction as keys
to meaningful diversity experiences during college.” Students
often encounter this kind of diversity in social settings outside
the classroom (Gurin 332–33). Informal interactional diversity
is the focus of my research, since it is the concept that leads
colleges to establish social events and organizations that allow
all students to experience and appreciate the variety of cultures
present in a student body.
In a study published in College Student Journal, three admin-
istrators at Pennsylvania State University explored how biracial
students interact with others on a college campus. The authors
concluded that views of minority clubs and related programs,
which the authors call race-oriented student services (ROSS),
tend to fall into two groups: “Although some argue that these
race-oriented student services (ROSS) are divisive and damage
white-minority relations (Stern & Gaiter, 1994), others support
these services as providing a safe place and meeting the needs of
minority students to develop a sense of racial pride, community
and importance (Patton, 2006)” (Ingram 298). I will start by
examining the point of view of those who associate minority
clubs with positive outcomes.
A study by Samuel D. Museus in the Journal of College Stu-
dent Development found that minority student programs help
students to stay connected with their culture in college and
help ease first-year minority students’ transition into the college
environment. The study also shows that ethnic student organi-
zations help students adjust and find their place at universities
that have a predominantly white student body (584). Museus
concluded that universities should stress the importance of
racial and ethnic groups and develop more opportunities for

G A B R I E l A m O R O
2 7 2
minority students to make connections with them. This way,
students can find support from their minority peers as they
work together to face academic and social challenges. Museus’s
findings suggest that minority student groups are essential for
allowing these students to preserve and foster connections to
their own cultures.
In another study, Hall et al. evaluated how minority and
non-minority students differed in their inclinations to take part
in diversity activities and to communicate with racially and
ethnically diverse peers at a predominantly white university.
These scholars concluded that “engagement [with diverse peers]
is learned” (434). Students who engaged with diverse students
before going to college were more likely to interact with diverse
peers by the end of their sophomore year. Minority students
were more predisposed than their white peers to interact with
diverse peers during their freshman year (435). These findings
indicate that minority student clubs can be helpful for first-year
minority students who have not previously engaged with other
minority students, especially if the university has a predomi-
nantly white student body.
Professors and scholars are not the only ones who strongly
support minority clubs. For example, three students at Harvard
College—Andrea Delgado, Denzel (no last name given), and
Kimi Fafowora—give their perspective on student life and
multicultural identity on campus to incoming students via
YouTube. The students explain how minority programs on
campus have helped them adjust to a new college environ-
ment as first-year students. As Delgado put it, “I thought [cul-
tural clubs were] something I maybe didn’t need, but come
November, I missed speaking Spanish and I missed having
tacos, and other things like that. That’s the reason why I
started attending meetings more regularly. Latinas Unidas

Minority Student Clubs: Segregation or Integration?
2 7 3
has been a great intersection of my cultural background and
my political views.” The experiences these minority students
shared support the scholarly evidence that minority clubs help
incoming students transition into a new and often intimidat-
ing environment.
While the benefits of these clubs are quite evident, several
problems can also arise from them. The most widely recognized
is self-segregation. Self-segregating tendencies are not exclusive
to minority students: college students in general tend to self-
segregate as they enter an unfamiliar environment. As a study
by Martin et al. finds, “Today, the student bodies of our leading
colleges and universities are more diverse than ever. However,
college students are increasingly self-segregating by race or eth-
nicity” (720). Several studies as well as interviews with students
suggest that minority clubs exacerbate students’ inclination to
self-segregate. And as students become comfortable with their
minority peers, they may no longer desire or feel the need to
branch out of their comfort zone.
In another study, Julie J. Park, a professor at the University
of Maryland, examined the relationship between participation
in college student organizations and the development of inter-
racial friendships. Park suggests, “if students spend the majority
of time in such groups [Greek, ethnic, and religious student
organizations], participation may affect student involvement in
the broader diversity of the institution” (642). In other words,
if minority students form all of their social and academic ties
within their minority group, the desired cultural exchange
among the study body could suffer.
So what can be done? In the Penn State study mentioned
earlier, in which data were collected by an online survey, partic-
ipants were asked to respond to an open-ended question about
what they think universities should do to create a more inviting

G A B R I E l A m O R O
2 7 4
environment for biracial students (Ingram et al. 303). On one
hand, multiple students responded with opinions opposing the
formation of both biracial and multiracial clubs: “I feel instead
of having biracial and multiracial clubs the colleges should have
diversity clubs and just allow everyone to get together. All
these ‘separate’ categorizing of clubs, isn’t that just separation
of groups?” “Having a ton of clubs that are for specific races
is counter-productive. It creates segregation and lack of com-
munication across cultures” (304–305).
On the other hand, students offered suggestions for the
formation of multicultural activities: “Encourage more racial
integration to show students races aren’t so different from each
other and to lessen stereotypes.” “Hold cultural events that
allow students of different races to express/share their heritage.”
Ingram et al. concluded that, while biracial and multiracial
student organizations are helpful in establishing an inviting
college environment for minority students,
creating a truly inclusive environment . . . requires additional efforts:
these include multicultural awareness training for faculty, staff, and
students, and incorporation of multicultural issues into the cur-
riculum (White, 2006; Gasser, 2002). In addition to the creation
of biracial/multiracial clubs and organization, the students in this
study want to increase awareness of the mixed heritage population
among others on college campuses. (308)
The two very different opinions reported in this study point
to the challenges minority student programs can create, but
also suggest ways to resolve these challenges. Now that evi-
dence from both research studies and student perspectives
confirm that these clubs, while beneficial to minority students’
experiences, can inhibit cultural immersion, I will continue

Minority Student Clubs: Segregation or Integration?
2 7 5
with my original argument that the entire student body
would benefit if campuses also implemented multicul-
tural advocacy clubs, rather than just selective minor-
ity clubs. Gurin et al., the researchers who identified
the three types of diversity in higher education, con-
tend that even with the presence of diverse racial and ethnic
groups and regular communication among students formally
and informally, a greater push from educators is needed:
In order to foster citizenship for a diverse democracy, educators
must intentionally structure opportunities for students to leave the
comfort of their homogenous peer group and build relationships
across racially/ethnically diverse student communities on campus.
This suggestion implies that participation from students
and faculty is needed to foster cultural immersion in higher
Another way to improve cross-cultural exchange is by
developing a diverse curriculum. An article on multicultural-
ism in higher education by Alma Clayton-Pedersen and Caryn
McTighe Musil in the Encyclopedia of Education reviewed the
ways in which universities have incorporated diversity studies
into their core curriculum over the last several decades. They
found that the numbers of courses that seek to prepare students
for a democratic society rich in diversity have increased (1711,
1714). However, they recommend that institutions need to
take a more holistic approach to their academic curricula
in order to pursue higher education programs that prepare
students to face “complex and demanding questions” and to
“use their new knowledge and civic, intercultural capacities
to address real-world problems” (1714). My research supports
For tips on
where you
have been
and where you
are going, see
p. 137.

G A B R I E l A m O R O
2 7 6
that a more holistic approach to the importance of diversity
studies in the college curriculum, as well as multicultural advo-
cacy clubs, are necessary in order to prepare all students, not
just minority students, for the diverse world and society ahead
of them.
Thus, even though minority student clubs can lead to self-
segregation among students and result in less cross-cultural
interaction, their benefits to minority students suggest that
a balance needs to be found between providing support for
minorities and avoiding segregation of these groups from the
rest of the student body. Besides sponsoring minority student
programs, colleges and universities can implement multicul-
tural events and activities for all students to participate in,
especially during the freshman year. An initiative like this
would enhance the diverse interactions that occur on campuses,
promote cultural immersion, and garner support for minority
student clubs.
Beyond the reach of this evaluation, further research should
be conducted, specifically on the types of cultural events that
are most effective in promoting cultural awareness and mean-
ingful diverse interactions among the student body. By exam-
ining different multicultural organizations from both public
and private institutions, and comparing student experiences
and participation in those programs, researchers can suggest
an ideal multicultural program to provide an optimal student
Works Cited
Clayton-Pedersen, Alma R., and Caryn McTighe Musil. “Multiculturalism
in Higher Education.” Encyclopedia of Education, edited by James W.
Guthrie, 2nd ed., vol. 5, Macmillan, 2002, pp. 1709–1716. Gale Virtual
Reference Library. Accessed 26 Feb. 2015.

Minority Student Clubs: Segregation or Integration?
2 7 7
Gurin, Patricia, Eric L. Dey, Sylvia Hurtado, and Gerald Gurin. “Diversity
and Higher Education: Theory and Impact on Educational
Outcomes.” Harvard Educational Review, vol. 72, no. 3, 2002, pp. 330–36.
ResearchGate, doi:10.17763/haer.72.3.01151786u134n051. Accessed
28 Mar. 2015.
Hall, Wendell, Alberto Cabrera, and Jeffrey Milem. “A Tale of Two Groups:
Differences Between Minority Students and Non-Minority Students
in Their Predispositions to and Engagement with Diverse Peers at a
Predominantly White Institution.” Research in Higher Education, vol. 52,
no. 4, 2011, pp. 420–439. Academic Search Premier, doi: 10.1007/s11162
-010-9201-4. Accessed 10 Mar. 2015.
Harvard College Admissions & Financial Aid. “Student Voices: Multicultural
Perspectives.” YouTube, 7 Aug. 2014,
watch?v=djIWQgDx-Jc. Accessed 12 Mar. 2015.
Hurtado, Sylvia, and Adriana Ruiz. “The Climate for Underrepresented
Groups and Diversity on Campus.” Higher Education Research Institute
at UCLA (HERI) and Cooperative Institutional Research Program
(CIRP), 2012, Accessed 26 Feb. 2015.
Ingram, Patreese, Anil Kumar Chaudhary, and Walter Terrell Jones. “How Do
Biracial Students Interact with Others on the College Campus?” College
Student Journal, vol. 48, no. 2, 2014, pp. 297–311. Questia, www.questia
-with-others-on-the. Accessed 28 July 2017.
Martin, Nathan D., William Tobin, and Kenneth I. Spenner. “Interracial
Friendships Across the College Years: Evidence from a Longitudinal
Case Study.” Journal of College Student Development, vol. 55, no. 7, 2014,
pp. 720–725. Academic Search Premier, doi: 10.1353/csd.2014.0075.
Accessed 16 Mar. 2015.
Museus, Samuel D. “The Role of Ethnic Student Organizations in Fostering
African American and Asian American Students’ Cultural Adjustment
and Membership at Predominantly White Institutions.” Journal of College
Student Development, vol. 49, no. 6, 2008, pp. 568–86. Project MUSE,
doi:10.1353/csd.0.0039. Accessed 26 Feb. 2015.
Park, Julie J. “Clubs and the Campus Racial Climate: Student Organizations
and Interracial Friendship in College.” Journal of College Student
Development, vol. 55, no. 7, 2014, pp. 641–660. Academic Search Premier,
doi:10.1353/csd.2014.0076. Accessed 16 March. 2015.

G A B R I E l A m O R O
2 7 8
Joining the Conversation
1. What larger conservation is Gabriela Moro responding to in
this essay?
2. What are some of the connecting words, phrases, and sen-
tences Moro uses to transition from one paragraph to another?
(See pp. 105–06 for a list of commonly used transitions.)
3. Notice how many direct quotations Moro includes. Why do
you think she includes so many? What do the quotations
contribute that a summary or paraphrase would not?
4. Writer danah boyd (pp. 219–29) criticizes the many ways
in which Americans are now self-segregating. How might
she respond to Moro’s description of Notre Dame’s cam-
pus and to Moro’s proposal to support minority clubs and
5. Develop an argument of your own that responds to Moro’s
proposal, agreeing, disagreeing, or both. However you choose
to argue, be sure to consider other positions in addition to
your own, including other authors in this chapter.

2 7 9
Why Rural America Voted for Trump
r o b e r t l e o n a r d
Knoxville, Iowa—One recent morning, I sat near two
young men at a coffee shop here whom I’ve known since they
were little boys. Now about 18, they pushed away from the
table, and one said: “Let’s go to work. Let the liberals sleep
in.” The other nodded.
They’re hard workers. As a kid, one washed dishes, took
orders and swept the floor at a restaurant. Every summer, the
other picked sweet corn by hand at dawn for a farm stand
and for grocery stores, and then went to work all day on his
parents’ farm. Now one is a welder, and the other is in his first
year at a state university on an academic scholarship. They are
conservative, believe in hard work, family, the military and
cops, and they know that abortion and socialism are evil, that
Jesus Christ is our savior, and that Donald J. Trump will be
good for America.
Robert Leonard is the news director for the radio station KNIA
KRLS in Marion County, Iowa. He has contributed essays to The Hill
and Salon, online news publications focused on politics, and his book
Yellow Cab (2006) describes his experiences working as a cabdriver
while he was an anthropology professor. This essay first appeared in
the New York Times on January 5, 2017.

R O B E R T l E O N A R D
2 8 0
They are part of a growing movement in rural America that
immerses many young people in a culture—not just conserva-
tive news outlets but also home and church environments—
that emphasizes contemporary conservative values. It views
liberals as loathsome, misinformed and weak, even dangerous.
Who are these rural, red-county people who brought
Mr. Trump into power? I’m a native Iowan and reporter in rural
Marion County, Iowa. I consider myself fairly liberal. My fam-
ily has mostly voted Democratic since long before I was born.
To be honest, for years, even I have struggled to understand
how these conservative friends and neighbors I respect—and at
times admire—can think so differently from me, not to men-
tion how over 60 percent of voters in my county could have
chosen Mr. Trump.
Political analysts have talked about how ignorance, racism,
sexism, nationalism, Islamophobia, economic disenfranchise-
ment and the decline of the middle class contributed
to the popularity of Mr. Trump in rural America. But
this misses the deeper cultural factors that shape the
thinking of the conservatives who live here.
For me, it took a 2015 pre-caucus stop in Pella by J. C.
Watts, a Baptist minister raised in the small town of Eufaula,
Oklahoma, who was a Republican congressman from 1995 to
2003, to begin to understand my neighbors—and most likely
other rural Americans as well.
“The difference between Republicans and Democrats is
that Republicans believe people are fundamentally bad, while
Democrats see people as fundamentally good,” said Mr. Watts,
who was in the area to campaign for Senator Rand Paul. “We
are born bad,” he said and added that children did not need
to be taught to behave badly—they are born knowing how
to do that.
See Chapter 5
for ways to signal
who is saying

Why Rural America Voted for Trump
2 8 1
“We teach them how to be good,” he said. “We become
good by being reborn—born again.”
He continued: “Democrats believe that we are born good,
that we create God, not that he created us. If we are our own
God, as the Democrats say, then we need to look at something
else to blame when things go wrong—not us.”
Mr. Watts talked about the 2015 movie theater shoot-
ing in Lafayette, Louisiana, in which two people were killed.
Mr. Watts said that Republicans knew that the gunman was a
bad man, doing a bad thing. Democrats, he added, “would look
for other causes—that the man was basically good, but that
it was the guns, society or some other place where the blame
lies and then they will want to control the guns, or something
else—not the man.” Republicans, he said, don’t need to look
anywhere else for the blame.
Hearing Mr. Watts was an epiphany for me. For the first
time I had a glimpse of where many of my conservative friends
and neighbors were coming from. I thought, no wonder Repub-
licans and Democrats can’t agree on things like gun control,
regulations or the value of social programs. We live in different
philosophical worlds, with different foundational principles.
Overlay this philosophical perspective on the American
rural-urban divides of history, economy and geography, and
the conservative individual responsibility narrative becomes
even more powerful. In my experience, the urban-rural divide
isn’t really so much a red state versus blue state issue, it’s red
county versus blue county. Rural Iowans have more in com-
mon with the rural residents of Washington State and New
Mexico—places I’ve also lived—than with the residents of Des
Moines, Seattle and Albuquerque.
Look at a national map of which counties went for Democrats
and which for Republicans: Overwhelmingly the blue counties

R O B E R T l E O N A R D
2 8 2
are along waterways, where early river transportation encouraged
the formation of cities, and surround state capitals. This is also
where most investment in infrastructure and services is made.
Rural Americans recognize that this is how it must be, as the
cities are where most of the people are, yet it’s a sore spot.
In state capitols across America, lawmakers spend billions
of dollars to take a few seconds off a city dweller’s commute to
his office, while rural counties’ farm-to-market roads fall into
disrepair. Some of the paved roads in my region are no longer
maintained and are reverting to gravel. For a couple of genera-
tions now, services that were once scattered across rural areas
have increasingly been consolidated in urban areas, and rural
towns die. It’s all done in the name of efficiency.
In cities, firefighters and E.M.T.s are professionals whose
departments are funded by local, state and federal tax dollars.
Rural America relies on volunteers. If I have a serious heart
Trump supporters at a rally in lowa, January 2016.

Why Rural America Voted for Trump
2 8 3
attack at home, I’ll be cold to the touch by the time the vol-
unteer ambulance crew from a town 22 miles away gets here.
Urban police officers have the latest in computer equipment
and vehicles, while small-town cops go begging.
In this view, blue counties are where most of our tax dollars
are spent, and that’s where all of our laws are written and passed.
To rural Americans, sometimes it seems our taxes mostly go to
making city residents live better. We recognize that the truth is
more complex, particularly when it comes to social programs,
but it’s the perception that matters—certainly to the way most
people vote.
To make matters worse, jobs are continuing to move to met-
ropolitan areas. Small-town chamber of commerce directors
and mayors still have big dreams, and use their perkiest grins
and tax abatements to try to lure new businesses, only to see
their hopes dashed, time and again. Many towns with a rich
history and strong community pride are already dead; their citi-
zens just don’t know it yet.
Many moderate rural Republicans became supporters of
Mr. Trump when he released his list of potential Supreme
Court nominees who would allow the possibility of overturn-
ing Roe v. Wade. They also think the liberal worldview creates
unnecessary rules and regulations that cripple the economy
and take away good jobs that may belong to them or their
neighbor. Public school systems and colleges are liberal tools
of indoctrination that go after what we love and value most—
our children.
Some of what liberals worry about they see as pure nonsense.
When you are the son or daughter of a carpenter or mechanic
and a housewife or secretary who lives paycheck to paycheck,
who can’t afford to send kids to college, as many rural residents
are, white privilege is meaningless and abstract.

R O B E R T l E O N A R D
2 8 4
It’s not just older people. The two young men at breakfast
exemplify a younger generation with this view. When Ted Cruz
campaigned in a neighboring town in 2015, I watched as a
couple of dozen grade-school pupils sat at his feet, as if they
were at a children’s service at church. His campaign speech was
nearly a sermon, and the children listened wide-eyed when he
told them the world is a scary place, and it’s godly men like him
who are going to save them from the evils of President Obama,
Hillary Clinton and their fellow Democrats.
While many blame poor decisions by Mrs. Clinton for her
loss, in an environment like this, the Democratic candidate
probably didn’t matter. And the Democratic Party may not
for generations to come. The Republican brand is strong in
rural America—perhaps even strong enough to withstand a
disastrous Trump presidency.
Rural conservatives feel that their world is under siege,
and that Democrats are an enemy to be feared and loathed.
Given the philosophical premises Mr. Watts presented as the
difference between Democrats and Republicans, reconciliation
seems a long way off.
Joining the Conversation
1. Robert Leonard, a reporter from Iowa, describes the con-
servative values as well as the social and economic con-
ditions that he believes led a majority of people living in
rural America to vote for Donald Trump. Summarize his
description in two or three sentences.
2. This piece was originally published in the New York Times,
a newspaper with a predominantly liberal, college-educated
readership. Why do you think Leonard chose to write his
piece for this newspaper?

Why Rural America Voted for Trump
2 8 5
3. Leonard includes quotations from several people whose
views differ from his own, such as J. C. Watts, a conserva-
tive Baptist minister. Find three examples where Leonard
presents conservative views, and show how he is able to
clearly distinguish those views from his own.
4. Michelle Alexander (pp. 230–50) argues that African
Americans are at the bottom of what she calls “a new
racial caste system.” How might the people who believe that
“white privilege is meaningless and abstract” (paragraph 20)
respond to Alexander’s argument?
5. Leonard argues that Republicans and Democrats “live in
different philosophical worlds, with different foundational
principles” (paragraph 11) and concludes that reconciliation
seems unlikely, at least for now. Write an essay in which
you agree, disagree, or both with this argument, citing ideas
from readings in this chapter.

2 8 6
A Tax System Stacked
against the 99 Percent
j o s e p h e . s t i g l i t z
Leona Helmsley, the hotel chain executive who was con-
victed of federal tax evasion in 1989, was notorious for, among
other things, reportedly having said that “only the little people
pay taxes.”
As a statement of principle, the quotation may well have
earned Mrs. Helmsley, who died in 2007, the title Queen of
Mean. But as a prediction about the fairness of American
tax policy, Mrs. Helmsley’s remark might actually have been
Today [April 15], the deadline for filing individual income-tax
returns, is a day when Americans would do well to pause and
Joseph E. Stiglitz, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics in
2001, teaches at Columbia University. Formerly, Stiglitz was a senior
vice president and chief economist at the World Bank, and served as
chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers. His books include The
Euro: How a Common Currency Threatens the Future of Europe (2016)
and The Great Divide: Unequal Societies and What We Can Do About
Them (2015). This essay first appeared in the New York Times series
about inequality, “The Great Divide,” on April 14, 2013.

A Tax System Stacked against the 99 Percent
2 8 7
reflect on our tax system and the society it creates. No one enjoys
paying taxes, and yet all but the extreme libertarians agree, as
Oliver Wendell Holmes said, that taxes are the price we pay for
civilized society. But in recent decades, the burden for paying
that price has been distributed in increasingly unfair ways.
About 6 in 10 of us believe that the tax system is unfair—and
they’re right: put simply, the very rich don’t pay their fair share.
The richest 400 individual taxpayers, with an average income
of more than $200 million, pay less than 20 percent of their
income in taxes—far lower than mere millionaires, who pay
about 25 percent of their income in taxes, and about the same
as those earning a mere $200,000 to $500,000. And in 2009,
116 of the top 400 earners—almost a third—paid less than
15 percent of their income in taxes.
Conservatives like to point out that the richest Americans’
tax payments make up a large portion of total receipts. This
is true, as well it should be in any tax system that is
progressive—that is, a system that taxes the affluent at
higher rates than those of modest means. It’s also true
that as the wealthiest Americans’ incomes have sky-
rocketed in recent years, their total tax payments have grown.
This would be so even if we had a single flat income-tax rate
across the board.
What should shock and outrage us is that as the top 1 percent
has grown extremely rich, the effective tax rates they pay have
markedly decreased. Our tax system is much less progressive
than it was for much of the 20th century. The top marginal
income tax rate peaked at 94 percent during World War II
and remained at 70 percent through the 1960s and 1970s; it is
now 39.6 percent. Tax fairness has gotten much worse in the
30 years since the Reagan “revolution” of the 1980s.
See p. 88 for
tips on making
concessions while
still standing your

j O S E p H E . S T I G l I T z
2 8 8
Citizens for Tax Justice, an organization that advocates for a
more progressive tax system, has estimated that, when federal,
state and local taxes are taken into account, the top 1 percent
paid only slightly more than 20 percent of all American taxes
in 2010—about the same as the share of income they took
home, an outcome that is not progressive at all.
With such low effective tax rates—and, importantly, the
low tax rate of 20 percent on income from capital gains—it’s
not a huge surprise that the share of income going to the top
1 percent has doubled since 1979, and that the share going to
the top 0.1 percent has almost tripled, according to the econo-
mists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez. Recall that the
wealthiest 1 percent of Americans own about 40 percent of the
nation’s wealth, and the picture becomes even more disturbing.
As the author argues, the wealth that belongs to the 1 percent continues to
increase, while the incomes of the 99 percent have stagnated or fallen.

A Tax System Stacked against the 99 Percent
2 8 9
If these numbers still don’t impress you as being unfair,
consider them in comparison with other wealthy countries.
The United States stands out among the countries of the
Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the
world’s club of rich nations, for its low top marginal income
tax rate. These low rates are not essential for growth—consider
Germany, for instance, which has managed to maintain its
status as a center of advanced manufacturing, even though
its top income-tax rate exceeds America’s by a considerable
margin. And in general, our top tax rate kicks in at much
higher incomes. Denmark, for example, has a top tax rate of
more than 60 percent, but that applies to anyone making more
than $54,900. The top rate in the United States, 39.6 percent,
doesn’t kick in until individual income reaches $400,000 (or
$450,000 for a couple). Only three O.E.C.D. countries—South
Korea, Canada and Spain—have higher thresholds.
Most of the Western world has experienced an increase in
inequality in recent decades, though not as much as the United
States has. But among most economists there is a general under-
standing that a country with excessive inequality can’t function
well; many countries have used their tax codes to help “correct”
the market’s distribution of wealth and income. The United
States hasn’t—or at least not very much. Indeed, the low rates
at the top serve to exacerbate and perpetuate the inequality—
so much so that among the advanced industrial countries,
America now has the highest income inequality and the least
equality of opportunity. This is a gross inversion of America’s
traditional meritocratic ideals—ideals that our leaders, across
the spectrum, continue to profess.
Over the years, some of the wealthy have been enor-
mously successful in getting special treatment, shifting an
ever greater share of the burden of financing the country’s

j O S E p H E . S T I G l I T z
2 9 0
expenditures—defense, education, social programs—onto oth-
ers. Ironically, this is especially true of some of our multinational
corporations, which call on the federal government to negotiate
favorable trade treaties that allow them easy entry into foreign
markets and to defend their commercial interests around the
world, but then use these foreign bases to avoid paying taxes.
General Electric has become the symbol for multinational
corporations that have their headquarters in the United States
but pay almost no taxes—its effective corporate-tax rate averaged
less than 2 percent from 2002 to 2012—just as Mitt Romney,
the [former] Republican presidential nominee, became the
symbol for the wealthy who don’t pay their fair share when
he admitted that he paid only 14 percent of his income in
taxes in 2011, even as he notoriously complained that 47 percent
of Americans were freeloaders. Neither G.E. nor Mr. Romney
has, to my knowledge, broken any tax laws, but the sparse taxes
they’ve paid violate most Americans’ basic sense of fairness.
In looking at such statistics, one has to be careful: they typi-
cally reflect taxes as a percentage of reported income. And the
tax laws don’t require the reporting of all kinds of income. For
the rich, hiding such assets has become an elite sport. Many avail
themselves of the Cayman Islands or other offshore tax shelters to
avoid taxes (and not, you can safely assume, because of the sunny
weather). They don’t have to report income until it is brought
back (“repatriated”) to the United States. So, too, capital gains
have to be reported as income only when they are realized.
And if the assets are passed on to one’s children or grand-
children at death, no taxes are ever paid, in a peculiar loophole
called the “step-up in cost basis at death.” Yes, the tax privileges
of being rich in America extend into the afterlife.
As Americans look at some of the special provisions in the
tax code—for vacation homes, racetracks, beer breweries, oil

A Tax System Stacked against the 99 Percent
2 9 1
refineries, hedge funds and movie studios, among many other
favored assets or industries—it is no wonder that they feel
disillusioned with a tax system that is so riddled with special
rewards. Most of these tax-code loopholes and giveaways did
not materialize from thin air, of course—usually, they were
enacted in pursuit of, or at least in response to, campaign con-
tributions from influential donors. It is estimated that these
kinds of special tax provisions amount to some $123 billion a
year, and that the price tag for offshore tax loopholes is not
far behind. Eliminating these provisions alone would go a long
way toward meeting deficit-reduction targets called for by fis-
cal conservatives who worry about the size of the public debt.
Yet another source of unfairness is the tax treatment on
so-called carried interest. Some Wall Street financiers are able
to pay taxes at lower capital gains tax rates on income that
comes from managing assets for private equity funds or hedge
funds. But why should managing financial assets be treated any
differently from managing people, or making discoveries? Of
course, those in finance say they are essential. But so are doc-
tors, lawyers, teachers and everyone else who contributes to
making our complex society work. They say they are necessary
for job creation. But in fact, many of the private equity firms
that have excelled in exploiting the carried interest loophole
are actually job destroyers; they excel in restructuring firms to
“save” on labor costs, often by moving jobs abroad.
Economists often eschew the word “fair”—fairness, like
beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. But the unfairness of the
American tax system has gotten so great that it’s dishonest to
apply any other label to it.
Traditionally, economists have focused less on issues of
equality than on the more mundane issues of growth and effi-
ciency. But here again, our tax system comes in with low marks.

j O S E p H E . S T I G l I T z
2 9 2
Our growth was higher in the era of high top marginal tax rates
than it has been since 1980. Economists—even at traditional,
conservative international institutions like the International
Monetary Fund—have come to realize that excessive inequal-
ity is bad for growth and stability. The tax system can play an
important role in moderating the degree of inequality. Ours,
however, does remarkably little about it.
One of the reasons for our poor economic performance is the
large distortion in our economy caused by the tax system. The
one thing economists agree on is that incentives matter—if you
lower taxes on speculation, say, you will get more speculation.
We’ve drawn our most talented young people into financial
shenanigans, rather than into creating real businesses, making
real discoveries, providing real services to others. More efforts
go into “rent-seeking”—getting a larger slice of the country’s
economic pie—than into enlarging the size of the pie.
Research in recent years has linked the tax rates, sluggish
growth and rising inequality. Remember, the low tax rates
at the top were supposed to spur savings and hard work, and
thus economic growth. They didn’t. Indeed, the household
savings rate fell to a record level of near zero after President
George W. Bush’s two rounds of cuts, in 2001 and 2003, on
taxes on dividends and capital gains. What low tax rates at
the top did do was increase the return on rent-seeking. It
flourished, which meant that growth slowed and inequality
grew. This is a pattern that has now been observed across
countries. Contrary to the warnings of those who want to
preserve their privileges, countries that have increased their
top tax bracket have not grown more slowly. Another piece
of evidence is here at home: if the efforts at the top were
resulting in our entire economic engine’s doing better, we
would expect everyone to benefit. If they were engaged

A Tax System Stacked against the 99 Percent
2 9 3
in rent-seeking, as their incomes increased, we’d expect
that of others to decrease. And that’s exactly what’s been
happening. Incomes in the middle, and even the bottom,
have been stagnating or falling.
Aside from the evidence, there is a strong intuitive case to be
made for the idea that tax rates have encouraged rent-seeking at
the expense of wealth creation. There is an intrinsic satisfaction
in creating a new business, in expanding the horizons of our
knowledge, and in helping others. By contrast, it is unpleas-
ant to spend one’s days fine-tuning dishonest and deceptive
practices that siphon money off the poor, as was common in
the financial sector before the 2007–8 financial crisis. I believe
that a vast majority of Americans would, all things being equal,
choose the former over the latter. But our tax system tilts the
field. It increases the net returns from engaging in some of these
intrinsically distasteful activities, and it has helped us become
a rent-seeking society.
It doesn’t have to be this way. We could have a much simpler
tax system without all the distortions—a society where those
who clip coupons for a living pay the same taxes as someone with
the same income who works in a factory; where someone who
earns his income from saving companies pays the same tax as a
doctor who makes the income by saving lives; where someone
who earns his income from financial innovations pays the same
taxes as someone who does research to create real innovations
that transform our economy and society. We could have a tax
system that encourages good things like hard work and thrift and
discourages bad things, like rent-seeking, gambling, financial
speculation and pollution. Such a tax system could raise far more
money than the current one—we wouldn’t have to go through
all the wrangling we’ve been going through with sequestration,
fiscal cliffs and threats to end Medicare and Social Security as

j O S E p H E . S T I G l I T z
2 9 4
we know it. We would be in a sound fiscal position, for at least
the next quarter-century.
The consequences of our broken tax system are not just
economic. Our tax system relies heavily on voluntary compli-
ance. But if citizens believe that the tax system is unfair, this
voluntary compliance will not be forthcoming. More broadly,
government plays an important role not just in social protec-
tion, but in making investments in infrastructure, technology,
education and health. Without such investments, our economy
will be weaker, and our economic growth slower.
Society can’t function well without a minimal sense of
national solidarity and cohesion, and that sense of shared
purpose also rests on a fair tax system. If Americans believe
that government is unfair—that ours is a government of the
1 percent, for the 1 percent, and by the 1 percent—then faith
in our democracy will surely perish.
Joining the Conversation
1. Joseph E. Stiglitz begins this essay with a “they say” state-
ment uttered by a wealthy hotel owner, that “only the lit-
tle people pay taxes.” How would you summarize Stiglitz’s
corresponding “I say” statement?
2. What evidence does Stiglitz provide for his assertion that
the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans pay far less in taxes
than they should? How convincing is this evidence to you?
3. In paragraph 17, Stiglitz begins, “Yet another source of unfair-
ness is the tax treatment on so-called carried interest.” Stiglitz
states a view he does not agree with, and then counters this
view with his own argument in the rest of paragraph. How
does he let you know that he is beginning with an assertion
he will then disagrees with?

A Tax System Stacked against the 99 Percent
2 9 5
4. Imagine that Stiglitz wrote his article for an audience in
favor of the tax policies he argues against. How might Stiglitz
have developed his argument differently to appeal to such
readers? Consider his title, for instance, and suggest another
title that would be more likely to interest such an audience.
5. The final paragraph of this essay offers a “so what” statement
explaining why the author believes his argument matters.
In a paragraph, respond to this point by either agreeing,
disagreeing, or both.

2 9 6
Howard University
Commencement Speech
b a r a c k o b a m a
To President Frederick, the Board of Trustees, faculty
and staff, fellow recipients of honorary degrees, thank you for
the honor of spending this day with you. And congratulations
to the Class of 2016! (Applause.) Four years ago, back when
you were just freshmen, I understand many of you came by my
house the night I was reelected. (Laughter.) So I decided to
return the favor and come by yours.
To the parents, the grandparents, aunts, uncles, brothers,
sisters, all the family and friends who stood by this class, cheered
them on, helped them get here today—this is your day, as well.
Let’s give them a big round of applause, as well. (Applause.) . . .
Barack Obama, 44th President of the United States from 2009–
2017, worked as a community organizer and civil rights attorney—and
taught at the University of Chicago—before entering politics. He is
the author of several books, including a memoir of his youth titled
Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (1995) and
a personal commentary on US politics titled The Audacity of Hope:
Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream (2006). Obama delivered
this speech at Howard University’s commencement ceremony in
Washington, DC, on May 7, 2016.

Howard University Commencement Speech
2 9 7
I know you’re all excited today. You might be a little tired,
as well. Some of you were up all night making sure your credits
were in order. (Laughter.) Some of you stayed up too late, ended
up at HoChi* at 2:00 a.m. (Laughter.) Got some mambo sauce
on your fingers. (Laughter.)
But you got here. And you’ve all worked hard to reach this
day. You’ve shuttled between challenging classes and Greek
life. You’ve led clubs, played an instrument or a sport. You
volunteered, you interned. You held down one, two, maybe
three jobs. You’ve made lifelong friends and discovered exactly
what you’re made of. The “Howard Hustle” has strengthened
your sense of purpose and ambition.
Which means you’re part of a long line of Howard graduates.
Some are on this stage today. Some are in the audience. That
*HoChi Howard China, late-night counter-service restaurant near
the college campus.

B A R A C k O B A m A
2 9 8
spirit of achievement and special responsibility has defined this
campus ever since the Freedman’s Bureau established Howard
just four years after the Emancipation Proclamation; just two
years after the Civil War came to an end. They created this
university with a vision—a vision of uplift; a vision for an
America where our fates would be determined not by our race,
gender, religion or creed, but where we would be free—in every
sense—to pursue our individual and collective dreams.
It is that spirit that’s made Howard a centerpiece of African-
American intellectual life and a central part of our larger
American story. This institution has been the home of many
firsts: The first black Nobel Peace Prize winner. The first black
Supreme Court justice. But its mission has been to ensure those
firsts were not the last. Countless scholars, professionals, art-
ists, and leaders from every field received their training here.
The generations of men and women who walked through this
yard helped reform our government, cure disease, grow a black
middle class, advance civil rights, shape our culture. The seeds
of change—for all Americans—were sown here. And that’s
what I want to talk about today.
As I was preparing these remarks, I realized that when I was
first elected President, most of you—the Class of 2016—were
just starting high school. Today, you’re graduating college. I
used to joke about being old. Now I realize I’m old. (Laughter.)
It’s not a joke anymore. (Laughter.)
But seeing all of you here gives me some perspective. It
makes me reflect on the changes that I’ve seen over my own
lifetime. So let me begin with what may sound like a contro-
versial statement—a hot take.
Given the current state of our political rhetoric and debate,
let me say something that may be controversial, and that is this:
America is a better place today than it was when I graduated

Howard University Commencement Speech
2 9 9
from college. (Applause.) Let me repeat: America is by almost
every measure better than it was when I graduated from col-
lege. It also happens to be better off than when I took office—
(laughter)—but that’s a longer story. (Applause.) That’s a
different discussion for another speech.
But think about it. I graduated in 1983. New York City,
America’s largest city, where I lived at the time, had endured
a decade marked by crime and deterioration and near bank-
ruptcy. And many cities were in similar shape. Our nation had
gone through years of economic stagnation, the stranglehold
of foreign oil, a recession where unemployment nearly scraped
11 percent. The auto industry was getting its clock cleaned by for-
eign competition. And don’t even get me started on the clothes
and the hairstyles. I’ve tried to eliminate all photos of me from
this period. I thought I looked good. (Laughter.) I was wrong.
Since that year—since the year I graduated—the poverty
rate is down. Americans with college degrees, that rate is up.
Crime rates are down. America’s cities have undergone a renais-
sance. There are more women in the workforce. They’re earning
more money. We’ve cut teen pregnancy in half. We’ve slashed
the African American dropout rate by almost 60 percent, and
all of you have a computer in your pocket that gives you the
world at the touch of a button. In 1983, I was part of fewer than
10 percent of African Americans who graduated with a bach-
elor’s degree. Today, you’re part of the more than 20 percent
who will. And more than half of blacks say we’re better off
than our parents were at our age—and that our kids will be
better off, too.
So America is better. And the world is better, too. A wall
came down in Berlin. An Iron Curtain was torn asunder. The
obscenity of apartheid came to an end. A young generation
in Belfast and London have grown up without ever having to

B A R A C k O B A m A
3 0 0
think about IRA bombings. In just the past 16 years, we’ve
come from a world without marriage equality to one where it’s
a reality in nearly two dozen countries. Around the world, more
people live in democracies. We’ve lifted more than 1 billion
people from extreme poverty. We’ve cut the child mortality
rate worldwide by more than half.
America is better. The world is better. And stay with
me now—race relations are better since I graduated.
That’s the truth. No, my election did not create a post-
racial society. I don’t know who was propagating that notion.
That was not mine. But the election itself—and the subsequent
one—because the first one, folks might have made a mistake.
(Laughter.) The second one, they knew what they were get-
ting. The election itself was just one indicator of how attitudes
had changed.
In my inaugural address, I remarked that just 60 years earlier,
my father might not have been served in a D.C. restaurant—at
least not certain of them. There were no black CEOs of Fortune
500 companies. Very few black judges. Shoot, as Larry Wilmore*
pointed out last week, a lot of folks didn’t even think blacks had
the tools to be a quarterback. Today, former Bull Michael Jordan
isn’t just the greatest basketball player of all time—he owns the
team. (Laughter.) When I was graduating, the main black hero
on TV was Mr. T. (Laughter.) Rap and hip hop were coun-
terculture, underground. Now, Shonda Rhimes owns Thursday
night, and Beyoncé runs the world. (Laughter.) We’re no longer
only entertainers, we’re producers, studio executives. No longer
small business owners—we’re CEOs, we’re mayors, representa-
tives, Presidents of the United States. (Applause.)
See Chapter 6
for tips on
*Larry Wilmore Comedian who spoke at the White House Correspon-
dents’ Dinner, an annual event for journalists covering news about the
White House and president, a week before Obama’s address.

Howard University Commencement Speech
3 0 1
I am not saying gaps do not persist. Obviously, they do. Racism
persists. Inequality persists. Don’t worry—I’m going to get to
that. But I wanted to start, Class of 2016, by opening your eyes to
the moment that you are in. If you had to choose one moment in
history in which you could be born, and you didn’t know ahead of
time who you were going to be—what nationality, what gender,
what race, whether you’d be rich or poor, gay or straight, what
faith you’d be born into—you wouldn’t choose 100 years ago.
You wouldn’t choose the fifties, or the sixties, or the seventies.
You’d choose right now. If you had to choose a time to be, in
the words of Lorraine Hansberry, “young, gifted, and black” in
America, you would choose right now. (Applause.)
I tell you all this because it’s important to note progress.
Because to deny how far we’ve come would do a disservice to
the cause of justice, to the legions of foot soldiers; to not only
the incredibly accomplished individuals who have already been
mentioned, but your mothers and your dads, and grandparents
and great grandparents, who marched and toiled and suffered
and overcame to make this day possible. I tell you this not to
lull you into complacency, but to spur you into action—because
there’s still so much more work to do, so many more miles to
travel. And America needs you to gladly, happily take up that
work. You all have some work to do. So enjoy the party, because
you’re going to be busy. (Laughter.)
Yes, our economy has recovered from crisis stronger than
almost any other in the world. But there are folks of all races
who are still hurting—who still can’t find work that pays enough
to keep the lights on, who still can’t save for retirement. We’ve
still got a big racial gap in economic opportunity. The overall
unemployment rate is 5 percent, but the black unemployment
rate is almost nine. We’ve still got an achievement gap when
black boys and girls graduate high school and college at lower

B A R A C k O B A m A
3 0 2
rates than white boys and white girls. Harriet Tubman may be
going on the twenty, but we’ve still got a gender gap when a
black woman working full-time still earns just 66 percent of
what a white man gets paid. (Applause.)
We’ve got a justice gap when too many black boys and
girls pass through a pipeline from underfunded schools to
overcrowded jails. This is one area where things have gotten
worse. When I was in college, about half a million people in
America were behind bars. Today, there are about 2.2 million.
Black men are about six times likelier to be in prison right now
than white men.
Around the world, we’ve still got challenges to solve that
threaten everybody in the 21st century—old scourges like dis-
ease and conflict, but also new challenges, from terrorism and
climate change.
So make no mistake, Class of 2016—you’ve got plenty of
work to do. But as complicated and sometimes intractable as
these challenges may seem, the truth is that your generation is
better positioned than any before you to meet those challenges,
to flip the script.
Now, how you do that, how you meet these challenges, how
you bring about change will ultimately be up to you. My genera-
tion, like all generations, is too confined by our own experi-
ence, too invested in our own biases, too stuck in our ways to
provide much of the new thinking that will be required. But
us old-heads have learned a few things that might be useful
in your journey. So with the rest of my time, I’d like to offer
some suggestions for how young leaders like you can fulfill your
destiny and shape our collective future—bend it in the direc-
tion of justice and equality and freedom.
First of all—and this should not be a problem for this group—
be confident in your heritage. (Applause.) Be confident in your

Howard University Commencement Speech
3 0 3
blackness. One of the great changes that’s occurred in our coun-
try since I was your age is the realization there’s no one way to be
black. Take it from somebody who’s seen both sides of the debate
about whether I’m black enough. (Laughter.) In the past couple
months, I’ve had lunch with the Queen of England and hosted
Kendrick Lamar in the Oval Office. There’s no straitjacket,
there’s no constraints, there’s no litmus test for authenticity.
Look at Howard. One thing most folks don’t know about
Howard is how diverse it is. When you arrived here, some of you
were like, oh, they’ve got black people in Iowa? (Laughter.) But
it’s true—this class comes from big cities and rural communities,
and some of you crossed oceans to study here. You shatter stereo-
types. Some of you come from a long line of Bison. Some of you
are the first in your family to graduate from college. (Applause.)
You all talk different, you all dress different. You’re Lakers fans,
Celtics fans, maybe even some hockey fans. (Laughter.)
And because of those who’ve come before you, you have
models to follow. You can work for a company, or start your
own. You can go into politics, or run an organization that holds
politicians accountable. You can write a book that wins the
National Book Award, or you can write the new run of “Black
Panther.” Or, like one of your alumni, Ta-Nehisi Coates, you
can go ahead and just do both. You can create your own style,
set your own standard of beauty, embrace your own sexuality.
Think about an icon we just lost—Prince. He blew up catego-
ries. People didn’t know what Prince was doing. (Laughter.)
And folks loved him for it.
You need to have the same confidence. Or as my daughters
tell me all the time, “You be you, Daddy.” (Laughter.) Sometimes
Sasha puts a variation on it—“You do you, Daddy.” (Laughter.)
And because you’re a black person doing whatever it is that
you’re doing, that makes it a black thing. Feel confident.

B A R A C k O B A m A
3 0 4
Second, even as we each embrace our own beautiful, unique,
and valid versions of our blackness, remember the tie that does
bind us as African Americans—and that is our particular aware-
ness of injustice and unfairness and struggle. That means we
cannot sleepwalk through life. We cannot be ignorant of his-
tory. (Applause.) We can’t meet the world with a sense of
entitlement. We can’t walk by a homeless man without asking
why a society as wealthy as ours allows that state of affairs to
occur. We can’t just lock up a low-level dealer without asking
why this boy, barely out of childhood, felt he had no other
options. We have cousins and uncles and brothers and sisters
who we remember were just as smart and just as talented as
we were, but somehow got ground down by structures that are
unfair and unjust.
And that means we have to not only question the world as it
is, and stand up for those African Americans who haven’t been
so lucky—because, yes, you’ve worked hard, but you’ve also
been lucky. That’s a pet peeve of mine: People who have been
successful and don’t realize they’ve been lucky. That God may
have blessed them; it wasn’t nothing you did. So don’t have an
attitude. But we must expand our moral imaginations to under-
stand and empathize with all people who are struggling, not just
black folks who are struggling—the refugee, the immigrant, the
rural poor, the transgender person, and yes, the middle-aged
white guy who you may think has all the advantages, but over
the last several decades has seen his world upended by economic
and cultural and technological change, and feels powerless to
stop it. You got to get in his head, too.
Number three: You have to go through life with more than
just passion for change; you need a strategy. I’ll repeat that. I
want you to have passion, but you have to have a strategy. Not
just awareness, but action. Not just hashtags, but votes.

Howard University Commencement Speech
3 0 5
You see, change requires more than righteous anger. It requires
a program, and it requires organizing. At the 1964 Democratic
Convention, Fannie Lou Hamer—all five-feet-four-inches tall—
gave a fiery speech on the national stage. But then she went back
home to Mississippi and organized cotton pickers. And she didn’t
have the tools and technology where you can whip up a movement
in minutes. She had to go door to door. And I’m so proud of the
new guard of black civil rights leaders who understand this. It’s
thanks in large part to the activism of young people like many of
you, from Black Twitter to Black Lives Matter, that America’s eyes
have been opened—white, black, Democrat, Republican—to the
real problems, for example, in our criminal justice system.
But to bring about structural change, lasting change, aware-
ness is not enough. It requires changes in law, changes in
custom. If you care about mass incarceration, let me ask you:
How are you pressuring members of Congress to pass the crimi-
nal justice reform bill now pending before them? (Applause.) If
you care about better policing, do you know who your district
attorney is? Do you know who your state’s attorney general is?
Do you know the difference? Do you know who appoints the
police chief and who writes the police training manual? Find
out who they are, what their responsibilities are. Mobilize the
community, present them with a plan, work with them to bring
about change, hold them accountable if they do not deliver.
Passion is vital, but you’ve got to have a strategy.
And your plan better include voting—not just some of the
time, but all the time. (Applause.) It is absolutely true that
50 years after the Voting Rights Act, there are still too many bar-
riers in this country to vote. There are too many people trying to
erect new barriers to voting. This is the only advanced democracy
on Earth that goes out of its way to make it difficult for people
to vote. And there’s a reason for that. There’s a legacy to that.

B A R A C k O B A m A
3 0 6
But let me say this: Even if we dismantled every barrier to
voting, that alone would not change the fact that America has
some of the lowest voting rates in the free world. In 2014, only
36 percent of Americans turned out to vote in the midterms—
the second lowest participation rate on record. Youth turnout—
that would be you—was less than 20 percent. Less than
20 percent. Four out of five did not vote. In 2012, nearly two in
three African Americans turned out. And then, in 2014, only
two in five turned out. You don’t think that made a difference
in terms of the Congress I’ve got to deal with? And then people
are wondering, well, how come Obama hasn’t gotten this done?
How come he didn’t get that done? You don’t think that made
a difference? What would have happened if you had turned
out at 50, 60, 70 percent, all across this country? People try to
make this political thing really complicated. Like, what kind
of reforms do we need? And how do we need to do that? You
know what, just vote. It’s math. If you have more votes than
the other guy, you get to do what you want. (Laughter.) It’s
not that complicated.
And you don’t have excuses. You don’t have to guess the
number of jellybeans in a jar or bubbles on a bar of soap to register
to vote. You don’t have to risk your life to cast a ballot. Other
people already did that for you. (Applause.) Your grandparents,
your great-grandparents might be here today if they were work-
ing on it. What’s your excuse? When we don’t vote, we give
away our power, disenfranchise ourselves—right when we need
to use the power that we have; right when we need your power
to stop others from taking away the vote and rights of those more
vulnerable than you are—the elderly and the poor, the formerly
incarcerated trying to earn their second chance.
So you got to vote all the time, not just when it’s cool, not
just when it’s time to elect a President, not just when you’re

Howard University Commencement Speech
3 0 7
inspired. It’s your duty. When it’s time to elect a member of
Congress or a city councilman, or a school board member, or a
sheriff. That’s how we change our politics—by electing people
at every level who are representative of and accountable to us.
It is not that complicated. Don’t make it complicated.
And finally, change requires more than just speaking out—it
requires listening, as well. In particular, it requires listening to
those with whom you disagree, and being prepared to compro-
mise. When I was a state senator, I helped pass Illinois’s first
racial profiling law, and one of the first laws in the nation
requiring the videotaping of confessions in capital cases. And
we were successful because, early on, I engaged law enforcement.
I didn’t say to them, oh, you guys are so racist, you need to
do something. I understood, as many of you do, that the over-
whelming majority of police officers are good, and honest, and
courageous, and fair, and love the communities they serve.
And we knew there were some bad apples, and that even the
good cops with the best of intentions—including, by the way,
African American police officers—might have unconscious
biases, as we all do. So we engaged and we listened, and we
kept working until we built consensus. And because we took
the time to listen, we crafted legislation that was good for the
police—because it improved the trust and cooperation of the
community—and it was good for the communities, who were
less likely to be treated unfairly. And I can say this unequivo-
cally: Without at least the acceptance of the police organiza-
tions in Illinois, I could never have gotten those bills passed.
Very simple. They would have blocked them.
The point is, you need allies in a democracy. That’s just the
way it is. It can be frustrating and it can be slow. But history
teaches us that the alternative to democracy is always worse.
That’s not just true in this country. It’s not a black or white

B A R A C k O B A m A
3 0 8
thing. Go to any country where the give and take of democ-
racy has been repealed by one-party rule, and I will show you
a country that does not work.
And democracy requires compromise, even when you are
100 percent right. This is hard to explain sometimes. You can
be completely right, and you still are going to have to engage
folks who disagree with you. If you think that the only way for-
ward is to be as uncompromising as possible, you will feel good
about yourself, you will enjoy a certain moral purity, but you’re
not going to get what you want. And if you don’t get what
you want long enough, you will eventually think the whole
system is rigged. And that will lead to more cynicism, and less
participation, and a downward spiral of more injustice and more
anger and more despair. And that’s never been the source of
our progress. That’s how we cheat ourselves of progress.
We remember Dr. King’s soaring oratory, the power of his
letter from a Birmingham jail, the marches he led. But he also
sat down with President Johnson in the Oval Office to try and
get a Civil Rights Act and a Voting Rights Act passed. And
those two seminal bills were not perfect—just like the Eman-
cipation Proclamation was a war document as much as it was
some clarion call for freedom. Those mileposts of our progress
were not perfect. They did not make up for centuries of slavery
or Jim Crow or eliminate racism or provide for 40 acres and a
mule. But they made things better. And you know what, I will
take better every time. I always tell my staff—better is good,
because you consolidate your gains and then you move on to
the next fight from a stronger position.
Brittany Packnett, a member of the Black Lives Matter
movement and Campaign Zero, one of the Ferguson protest
organizers, she joined our Task Force on 21st Century Policing.
Some of her fellow activists questioned whether she should

Howard University Commencement Speech
3 0 9
participate. She rolled up her sleeves and sat at the same table
with big city police chiefs and prosecutors. And because she
did, she ended up shaping many of the recommendations of that
task force. And those recommendations are now being adopted
across the country—changes that many of the protesters called
for. If young activists like Brittany had refused to participate
out of some sense of ideological purity, then those great ideas
would have just remained ideas. But she did participate. And
that’s how change happens.
America is big and it is boisterous and it is more diverse
than ever. The president told me that we’ve got a signifi-
cant Nepalese contingent here at Howard. I would not have
guessed that. Right on. But it just tells you how intercon-
nected we’re becoming. And with so many folks from so many
places, converging, we are not always going to agree with
each other.
Another Howard alum, Zora Neale Hurston, once said—this
is a good quote here: “Nothing that God ever made is the same
thing to more than one person.” Think about that. That’s why
our democracy gives us a process designed for us to settle our
disputes with argument and ideas and votes instead of violence
and simple majority rule.
So don’t try to shut folks out, don’t try to shut them down, no
matter how much you might disagree with them. There’s been
a trend around the country of trying to get colleges to disinvite
speakers with a different point of view, or disrupt a politician’s
rally. Don’t do that—no matter how ridiculous or offensive you
might find the things that come out of their mouths. Because
as my grandmother used to tell me, every time a fool speaks,
they are just advertising their own ignorance. Let them talk.
Let them talk. If you don’t, you just make them a victim, and
then they can avoid accountability.

B A R A C k O B A m A
3 1 0
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t challenge them. Have the
confidence to challenge them, the confidence in the rightness
of your position. There will be times when you shouldn’t com-
promise your core values, your integrity, and you will have the
responsibility to speak up in the face of injustice. But listen.
Engage. If the other side has a point, learn from them. If they’re
wrong, rebut them. Teach them. Beat them on the battlefield
of ideas. And you might as well start practicing now, because
one thing I can guarantee you—you will have to deal with
ignorance, hatred, racism, foolishness, trifling folks. (Laughter.)
I promise you, you will have to deal with all that at every stage
of your life. That may not seem fair, but life has never been
completely fair. Nobody promised you a crystal stair. And if
you want to make life fair, then you’ve got to start with the
world as it is.
So that’s my advice. That’s how you change things. Change
isn’t something that happens every four years or eight years;
change is not placing your faith in any particular politician and
then just putting your feet up and saying, okay, go. Change is the
effort of committed citizens who hitch their wagons to something
bigger than themselves and fight for it every single day.
That’s what Thurgood Marshall understood—a man who
once walked this yard, graduated from Howard Law; went
home to Baltimore, started his own law practice. He and his
mentor, Charles Hamilton Houston, rolled up their sleeves and
they set out to overturn segregation. They worked through the
NAACP. Filed dozens of lawsuits, fought dozens of cases. And
after nearly 20 years of effort—20 years—Thurgood Marshall
ultimately succeeded in bringing his righteous cause before
the Supreme Court, and securing the ruling in Brown v. Board
of Education that separate could never be equal. (Applause.)
Twenty years.

Howard University Commencement Speech
3 1 1
Marshall, Houston—they knew it would not be easy. They
knew it would not be quick. They knew all sorts of obstacles
would stand in their way. They knew that even if they won, that
would just be the beginning of a longer march to equality. But
they had discipline. They had persistence. They had faith—and
a sense of humor. And they made life better for all Americans.
And I know you graduates share those qualities. I know it
because I’ve learned about some of the young people graduating
here today. There’s a young woman named Ciearra Jefferson,
who’s graduating with you. And I’m just going to use her as
an example. I hope you don’t mind, Ciearra. Ciearra grew up
in Detroit and was raised by a poor single mom who worked
seven days a week in an auto plant. And for a time, her family
found themselves without a place to call home. They bounced
around between friends and family who might take them in. By
her senior year, Ciearra was up at 5:00 a.m. every day, juggling
homework, extracurricular activities, volunteering, all while
taking care of her little sister. But she knew that education
was her ticket to a better life. So she never gave up. Pushed
herself to excel. This daughter of a single mom who works on
the assembly line turned down a full scholarship to Harvard to
come to Howard. (Applause.)
And today, like many of you, Ciearra is the first in her fam-
ily to graduate from college. And then, she says, she’s going to
go back to her hometown, just like Thurgood Marshall did, to
make sure all the working folks she grew up with have access
to the health care they need and deserve. As she puts it, she’s
going to be a “change agent.” She’s going to reach back and
help folks like her succeed.
And people like Ciearra are why I remain optimistic about
America. (Applause.) Young people like you are why I never
give in to despair.

B A R A C k O B A m A
3 1 2
James Baldwin once wrote, “Not everything that is faced
can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
Graduates, each of us is only here because someone else
faced down challenges for us. We are only who we are because
someone else struggled and sacrificed for us. That’s not just
Thurgood Marshall’s story, or Ciearra’s story, or my story, or
your story—that is the story of America. A story whispered
by slaves in the cotton fields, the song of marchers in Selma,
the dream of a King in the shadow of Lincoln. The prayer of
immigrants who set out for a new world. The roar of women
demanding the vote. The rallying cry of workers who built
America. And the GIs who bled overseas for our freedom.
Now it’s your turn. And the good news is, you’re ready.
And when your journey seems too hard, and when you run
into a chorus of cynics who tell you that you’re being foolish
Ciearra Jefferson celebrates with her classmates at Howard’s commencement

Howard University Commencement Speech
3 1 3
to keep believing or that you can’t do something, or that you
should just give up, or you should just settle—you might say
to yourself a little phrase that I’ve found handy these last eight
years: Yes, we can.
Congratulations, Class of 2016! (Applause.) Good luck!
God bless you. God bless the United States of America. I’m
proud of you.
Joining the Conversation
1. One purpose of this speech was to celebrate the achieve-
ments of the graduates. But at the same time, Barack Obama
is making an argument about how the graduates should think
and act as they make their way in the world. What are his
main points, and how does he support them?
2. Obama says that we’ve got plenty of work to do, but things
are better than they used to be. What evidence does he
provide to support his claim?
3. Obama addresses much of his speech to the graduates. Find
some examples of how he tries to make a connection with
this audience. What other audiences, not at the ceremony,
might he also be appealing to?
4. Obama emphasizes that we must listen to and, whenever
possible, work with those with whom we disagree, because
democracy requires compromise. How might danah boyd
(pp. 219–29) respond to this view?
5. Imagine you were in the audience that day at Howard Uni-
versity. Write a tweet summarizing something Obama said
and then responding in some way. You may need to write
two tweets.

3 1 5
is college the best option?
American culture may be more divided than ever,
but not when it comes to college—or so it seems. The readings
in this chapter focus on the present state of higher education
in the United States and examine the potential benefits and
pitfalls of going to college—not only for people who were born
here or who enjoy the benefits of citizenship, but for immigrants
and refugees, too.
From a very early age, we get the message that going to col-
lege is a crucial step in life. We hear this message regularly from
our families, our schools, our communities. We see this message
constantly in the media: movies, television shows, sports broad-
casts, newspapers, magazines, and websites all show the allure
and advantages of college. Even on the highways, billboards
portray attractive, smiling, confident, intelligent-looking stu-
dents on a tree-lined campus promoting the virtues of particu-
lar colleges: strong academics, excellent career opportunities,
a friendly atmosphere, affordable tuition. Indeed, young people
in the United States grow up to see college as inevitable, and
many others living outside the country hope to have the chance
of studying at one of America’s many colleges or universities.
But not everyone sees this rosy picture. As college student
blogger Hannah Fouks recently wrote for the website Odyssey,

3 1 6
“It frustrates me to no end that instead of educating students
on all of their options, teachers make students focus on plans
to attend college. This sends the message that to be success-
ful they need to go to college, but this is not the case.” If we
look closely, we can glimpse another side to the college story:
graduates unable to find good jobs, or, in some cases, any job
at all; students with large amounts of college debt from loans
that can take years, even decades, to pay off; stories of uncaring
professors, huge classes, mazelike bureaucracies, distracted advi-
sors; students who for a variety of reasons wake up one day to
find themselves in academic trouble. As with all paths in life,
it’s possible to take a wrong turn in college. If students choose
to attend, it’s advisable for them to go in with their eyes open,
with specific reasons for pursuing a so-called higher education,
and with a plan for how best to succeed.
The chapter begins with Stephanie Owen and Isabel
Sawhill’s study showing that while college graduates on aver-
age make significantly more money in their lifetimes than high
school graduates do, there is wide variation in the return on
investment, based on such factors as college attended, major,
whether or not the student graduates, and occupation. Politi-
cal scientist Charles Murray advances the view that far too
many American students currently go on to college and would
be better off attending a vocational program or going right to
work after high school.
Other authors in the chapter argue, in different ways, that
faculty and institutions as a whole can support student success.
Former college president Sanford J. Ungar, for instance, writes
about the value of a college education steeped in the liberal arts,
as opposed to the preprofessional training that many students
now prefer. Liz Addison, drawing upon her own experiences,
articulates the often underappreciated value of a community
I S C O L L E G E T H E B E S T O P T I O N ?

3 1 7
Is College the Best Option?
college education. Ben Casselman argues that mainstream news
organizations focus far too much on the tiny percentage of stu-
dents who attend elite institutions even though the major-
ity of college students attend community colleges or four-year
regional schools. Focusing on students at one such school in
rural Minnesota, Steve Kolowich writes about one university’s
attempts to become a place of tolerance and acceptance for its
Muslim students from Somalia.
Finally, two pieces argue that education can take place in set-
tings other than college and about topics other than “academic”
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, intel-
lectual 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,

3 1 8
Should Everyone Go to College?
s t e p h a n i e o w e n a n d i s a b e l s a w h i l l
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 is currently a PhD
student in public policy and economics at the University of Michigan.
Sawhill is a senior fellow in economic studies at Brookings and the
author of Generation Unbound: Drifting into Sex and Parenthood with-
out Marriage (2014).
See pp. 25–27
on introducing
an ongoing

Should Everyone Go to College?
3 1 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

S T E P H a N I E O w E N a N d I S a B E L S a w H I L L
3 2 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

Should Everyone Go to College?
3 2 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,
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.

S T E P H a N I E O w E N a N d I S a B E L S a w H I L L
3 2 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

Should Everyone Go to College?
3 2 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

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3 2 4
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

Should Everyone Go to College?
3 2 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
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, bachelor’s degree holders, and bachelor’s degree holders by major.

S T E P H a N I E O w E N a N d I S a B E L S a w H I L L
3 2 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.
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, bachelor’s degree holders, and bachelor’s degree holders by occupation.

Should Everyone Go to College?
3 2 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.

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3 2 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

Should Everyone Go to College?
3 2 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
Figure 5. Average Six-Year Graduation Rates
by School Selectivity
Source: Hess et al. (2009).

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3 3 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)

Should Everyone Go to College?
3 3 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

S T E P H a N I E O w E N a N d I S a B E L S a w H I L L
3 3 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

Should Everyone Go to College?
3 3 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).

S T E P H a N I E O w E N a N d I S a B E L S a w H I L L
3 3 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
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 pages 265–68, 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

Should Everyone Go to College?
3 3 5
which school to attend? How might additional knowledge
have helped you make a more informed choice?
5. 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.

3 3 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.

The New Liberal Arts
3 3 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.

S a N f O r d j . u N G a r
3 3 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.

The New Liberal Arts
3 3 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 struggling single mother who confronts impos-
sible odds can grow up to be president. It is precisely a liberal
education 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

S a N f O r d j . u N G a r
3 4 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

The New Liberal Arts
3 4 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

S a N f O r d j . u N G a r
3 4 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
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.

The New Liberal Arts
3 4 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
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. 344–64)? 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.

3 4 4
Are Too Many People Going to College?
c h a r l e s m u r r a y
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 “public policy think tank dedicated to defending
human dignity, expanding human potential, and building a freer and
safer world.” He is the author, most recently, of By the People: Rebuilding
Liberty without Permission (2015). This essay, adapted from his book
Real Education: 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.

Are Too Many People Going to College?
3 4 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.

C H a r L E S m u r r a y
3 4 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
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.

Are Too Many People Going to College?
3 4 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:

C H a r L E S m u r r a y
3 4 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

Are Too Many People Going to College?
3 4 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.

C H a r L E S m u r r a y
3 5 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

Are Too Many People Going to College?
3 5 1
hours learning how to chop carrots into a perfect eighth-inch
dice are lazy. A liberal education just doesn’t make sense for
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,

C H a r L E S m u r r a y
3 5 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

Are Too Many People Going to College?
3 5 3
way that an attractive student union is an amenity. Colleges
and universities will not need to exist because they provide
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

C H a r L E S m u r r a y
3 5 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.

Are Too Many People Going to College?
3 5 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

C H a r L E S m u r r a y
3 5 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

Are Too Many People Going to College?
3 5 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

C H a r L E S m u r r a y
3 5 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

Are Too Many People Going to College?
3 5 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.

C H a r L E S m u r r a y
3 6 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

Are Too Many People Going to College?
3 6 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

C H a r L E S m u r r a y
3 6 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
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

Are Too Many People Going to College?
3 6 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.

C H a r L E S m u r r a y
3 6 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. 336–43)
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?

3 6 5
Two Years Are Better Than Four
l i z a d d i s o n
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.

L I z a d d I S O N
3 6 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

Two Years Are Better Than Four
3 6 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 col-
lege 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

L I z a d d I S O N
3 6 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 important—
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.

3 6 9
Hidden Intellectualism
g e r a l d g r a f f
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 it’s possible to wax intellectual about Plato, Shakespeare,
Gerald Graff, a coauthor 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.

G E r a L d G r a f f
3 7 0
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 con-
nection 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, however
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 globaliza-
tion (104–16).
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 magazines, 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 preference for sports over schoolwork was not
anti-intellectualism so much as intellectualism by other means.
In the Chicago neighborhood I grew up in, which had become
a melting pot after World War II, our block was solidly middle
See pp. 58–59
for tips on
with reasons.

Hidden Intellectualism
3 7 1
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 neces-
sary 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
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

3 7 2
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” (327).
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 betraying 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 maga-
zines, that I began to learn the rudiments of the intellectual
life: how to make an argument, weigh different kinds of evi-
dence, move between particulars and generalizations, summa-
rize the views of others, and enter a conversation about ideas.
It was in reading and arguing about sports and toughness that
I experienced what it felt like to propose a generalization,
restate and respond to a counterargument, and perform other
intellectualizing 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 intellectual
than school, not less. Sports after all was full of challenging argu-
ments, debates, problems for analysis, and intricate statistics
that you could care about, as school conspicuously was not. I
believe that street smarts beat out book smarts in our culture

Hidden Intellectualism
3 7 3
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 some-
thing you could talk about with people you had never met.
Sports introduced you not only to a culture steeped in argu-
ment, but to a public argument culture that transcended the
personal. I can’t blame my schools for failing to make intel-
lectual 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 arresting
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
testing). In this competition, points were scored not by mak-
ing arguments, but by a show of information or vast reading,
by grade-grubbing, or other forms of one-upmanship. School

3 7 4
competition, in short, reproduced the less attractive features
of sports culture without those that create close bonds and
And in distancing themselves from anything as enjoyable
and absorbing as sports, my schools missed the opportunity to
capitalize on an element of drama and conflict that the intel-
lectual 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
academic eyes” is to say that street smarts are not enough. Mak-
ing 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
necessarily move them closer to an academically rigorous treat-
ment of those interests. On the other hand, inviting students to

Hidden Intellectualism
3 7 5
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, 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.

3 7 6
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. 277–89) 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.”

3 7 7
Blue-Collar Brilliance
m i k e r o s e
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
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). He also
coedited a collection of essays, Public Education Under Siege (2014).
This article originally appeared in 2009 in the American Scholar, a
magazine published by the Phi Beta Kappa Society.

m I k E r O S E
3 7 8
impassive but urgent voices. Standing at the service window
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.

Blue-Collar Brilliance
3 7 9
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,

m I k E r O S E
3 8 0
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.

Blue-Collar Brilliance
3 8 1
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
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
implied or

m I k E r O S E
3 8 2
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

Blue-Collar Brilliance
3 8 3
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.

m I k E r O S E
3 8 4
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.

Blue-Collar Brilliance
3 8 5
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
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

m I k E r O S E
3 8 6
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
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

Blue-Collar Brilliance
3 8 7
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

m I k E r O S E
3 8 8
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
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?

Blue-Collar Brilliance
3 8 9
4. How do you think Rose would respond to Charles Murray’s
argument (pp. 344–64) 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.

3 9 0
Shut Up about Harvard
b e n c a s s e l m a n
A focus on elite schools ignores the issues most college students face.
It’s college admissions season, which means it’s time
once again for the annual flood of stories that badly misrep-
resent what higher education looks like for most American
students—and skew the public debate over everything from
student debt to the purpose of college in the process.
“How college admissions has turned into something akin
to ‘The Hunger Games,’ ” screamed a Washington Post head-
line Monday. “What you need to remember about fate dur-
ing college admission season,” wrote Elite Daily earlier this
month. “Use rejection to prepare teens for college,” advised
The Huffington Post.
Ben Casselman is an economics writer and senior editor for FiveThirty-
Eight, a website that “uses statistical analysis—hard numbers—to tell
compelling stories about elections, politics, sports, science, economics,
and culture.” Previously, Casselman worked for Salem News and the
Wall Street Journal, where he was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for a
story about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. This essay first appeared on
FiveThirtyEight on March 30, 2016.

Shut Up about Harvard
3 9 1
Here’s how the national media usually depicts the admis-
sions process: High school seniors spend months visiting col-
leges; writing essays; wrangling letters of recommendation; and
practicing, taking and retaking an alphabet soup of ACTs,
SATs and AP exams. Then the really hard part: months of
nervously waiting to find out if they are among the lucky few
(fewer every year, we’re told!) with the right blend of academic
achievement, extracurricular involvement and an odds-defying
personal story to gain admission to their favored university.
Here’s the reality: Most students never have to write a
college entrance essay, pad a résumé or sweet-talk a poten-
tial letter-writer. Nor are most, as the Atlantic put it Monday,
“obsessively checking their mailboxes” awaiting acceptance
decisions. (Never mind that for most schools, those decisions
now arrive online.) According to data from the Department of
Education,1 more than three-quarters of U.S. undergraduates2
attend colleges that accept at least half their applicants; just 4
percent attend schools that accept 25 percent or less, and hardly
any—well under 1 percent—attend schools like Harvard and
Yale that accept less than 10 percent.
Media misconceptions don’t end with admission. “College,”
in the mainstream media, seems to mean people in their late
teens and early 20s living in dorms, going to parties, study-
ing English (or maybe pre-med) and emerging four years later
with a degree and an unpaid internship. But that image, never
truly representative, is increasingly disconnected from reality.
Nearly half of all college students attend community colleges3;
among those at four-year schools, nearly a quarter attend part
time and about the same share are 25 or older. In total, less
than a third of U.S. undergraduates are “traditional” students
in the sense that they are full-time, degree-seeking students at
primarily residential four-year colleges.4

B E N C a S S E L m a N
3 9 2
Source: Department of Education.
Note: Data are the most recent available.
College Doesn’t Always Mean Leafy Campuses

Shut Up about Harvard
3 9 3
Of course, the readerships of the Atlantic and Washington Post
probably don’t mirror the U.S. as a whole. Many readers
probably did attend selective institutions or have children
they are hoping will. It’s understandable that media outlets
would want to cater to their readers, particularly in stories
that aim to give advice to students or their parents.
But it’s hard not to suspect that there is also another reason for
reporters’ focus on elite colleges: At least in major national media
outlets, that’s where most of them went. There’s no definitive
data on where reporters went to school, but the newsrooms of
influential media outlets in New York and Washington, D.C., are
full of graduates from Ivy League or similarly selective colleges.
Those who attended public colleges often went to a handful of
top research universities such as the University of Michigan or
the University of California, Berkeley. FiveThirtyEight is just as
bad: The vast majority of our editorial staff, including me, went
to elite, selective colleges. (I went to Columbia.)
“Ninety-five percent of the newsroom probably went to
private institutions, they went to four-year institutions, and
they went to elite institutions,” said Jeff Selingo, a longtime
higher-education journalist who has a new book focused on
giving advice to a broader group of students. “It is exactly the
opposite of the experience for the bulk of American students.”
It isn’t just newsrooms. Hollywood is guilty of this too—think
of a movie about college, and it probably took place on a leafy
suburban campus. That’s true even of movies that aren’t set in the
real world; when the writers of the Pixar film Monsters University
wanted a model for their animated campus, they visited Harvard,
MIT and Berkeley, according to The Wall Street Journal.5 One
result, Selingo said: “We tend to view higher education through
the eyes of private higher education,” even though nearly two-
thirds of U.S. undergraduates6 attend public institutions.
See pp. 88–89
for other ways
to make
while still
standing your

B E N C a S S E L m a N
3 9 4
10 That myopia has real consequences for education policy.
Based on media accounts, it would be easy to think that the
biggest issues on U.S. campuses today are the spread of “trigger
warnings,” the rise of “hookup culture” and the spiraling cost
of amenity-filled dorms and rec centers. Meanwhile, issues that
matter to a far larger share of students get short shrift.
The media’s focus on elite schools draws attention away from
state cuts to higher-education funding, for example. Private
colleges, which feature disproportionately in media accounts,
aren’t affected by state budget cuts; top-tier public universi-
ties, which have outside resources such as alumni donations,
research grants and patent revenue, are much less dependent
on public dollars than less selective schools.
Or consider the breathless coverage of the college applica-
tion game that few students ever play: For most students, or
at least most high school graduates, getting into college isn’t
nearly as big a challenge as getting out. Barely half of first-time,
full-time bachelor’s degree students graduate within six years;
for part-time or community college students, that share is even
lower. But it took years for what is known in education jargon
as “college completion” to break into mainstream education
coverage, perhaps because at selective schools, the vast majority
of students graduate on time or close to it.
Even issues that do get attention, such as student debt, are
often covered through the lens of elite institutions. Reporters
can’t resist stories of students with eye-popping debt loads in
the six figures. But many of those stories involve people who
went to graduate school, most (though not all) of whom will
end up making good salaries in the long run. Meanwhile,
those who are struggling most to pay off loans are often those
with smaller balances who either have degrees that don’t help
them find jobs (often from for-profit colleges) or who never

Shut Up about Harvard
3 9 5
got a degree in the first place. Nearly one in five Americans
age 25 to 34 has some college credits but no degree,7 and a
growing share of them have student debt.
“The biggest issue is that people can’t afford to spend enough
time in college to actually finish their darn degrees,” said Sara
Goldrick-Rab, a sociology professor and education-policy expert
at the University of Wisconsin.8
What few journalists seem to understand, Goldrick-Rab said,
is how tenuous a grasp many students have on college. They
are working while in school, often juggling multiple jobs that
don’t readily align with class schedules. They are attending part
time, which makes it take longer to graduate and reduces the
chances of finishing at all. They are raising children, supporting
parents and racking up debt trying to pay for it all.
One little thing goes awry and it just falls apart,” Goldrick-
Rab said. “And the consequences of it falling apart when they’re
taking on all this debt are just so severe.”
Students keep taking that risk for a reason: A college degree
remains the most likely path to a decent-paying job. They aren’t
studying literary theory or philosophy; the most popular under-
graduate majors in recent years have been business and health-
related fields such as nursing.
Yet the public debate over whether college is “worth it,” and
the related conversation over how to make higher education
more affordable, too often focuses on issues that are far removed
from the lives of most students: administrative salaries, runaway
construction costs, the value of the humanities. Lost in those
discussions are the challenges that affect far more students: How
to design college schedules to accommodate students who work,
as more than half of students do;9 how to make sure students keep
their credits when they transfer, as more than a third of students
do at least once; and, of course, how to make college affordable

B E N C a S S E L m a N
3 9 6
not just for the few who attend Harvard but for the many who
attend regional public universities and community colleges.
1. Unless otherwise noted, all data in this article is from the Department
of Education’s College Scorecard database. Data is the most recent available.
2. Degree-seeking undergraduates at four-year schools.
3. Defined as schools offering primarily associate degrees or certificates.
4. “Primarily residential” colleges are those where at least 25 percent of
students live on campus.
5. Thanks to Selingo for pointing out this anecdote.
6. At four-year colleges.
7. According to the Current Population Survey, via IPUMS.
8. Goldrick-Rab is leaving Wisconsin for Temple University at the end
of the academic year.
9. CPS, via IPUMS.
Joining the Conversation
1. Why does Ben Casselman believe the media focuses too
much on students at Harvard and other elite colleges? In his
view, what effect does this bias have on higher education?
2. Examine the table on page x listing data from the US Depart-
ment of Education. How do the data support Casselman’s
argument? What other sorts of information relating to the
essay’s argument might you like to see displayed, and what
would you hope to learn from it?
3. In presenting his “they say,” Casselman gives numerous
examples of mainstream media’s emphasis on elite colleges.
What words and phrases does he use to distinguish his views
from those of other newspapers and magazines?

Shut Up about Harvard
3 9 7
4. Read Liz Addison’s essay (pp. 365–68), and compare what
she says with what Casselman says.
5. Go to and read Devoney Looser’s article
“Why I Teach Online.” How do you think Casselman would
respond to her argument?

3 9 8
On the Front Lines
of a New Culture War
s t e v e k o l o w i c h
St. Cloud State University spent 15 years trying to become a
beacon of diversity and tolerance while its city fought over the
arrival of Muslim refugees. Then Donald Trump came along.
St. Cloud, Minnesota. The Somali students watched the
news with a sense of dread: Someone had hit six people with
a car and then stabbed five more at Ohio State University.
Just don’t let him be Somali, some of the students thought to
themselves as details of the attack started percolating on social
media. Don’t let him be Muslim.
It had happened on a different campus in a different state,
but the Somali refugees at St. Cloud State University had lived
in the United States for long enough to know how this worked:
Steve Kolowich is a staff reporter for The Chronicle of Higher Educa-
tion, “the No. 1 source of news, information, and jobs for college and
university faculty members and administrators.” He has also written
for Inside Higher Education, Slate, and the Washington City Paper. This
essay appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education on January 1, 2017.

On the Front Lines of a New Culture War
3 9 9
Any act of violence by a foreign-born Muslim could reignite
fears of immigration and terrorism, and there was no place more
flammable than St. Cloud, Minn.
The bad news had arrived in short order: The Ohio State
attacker, Abdul Artan, was Somali, Muslim, and a student.
The next day, the Somali Muslim students at St. Cloud State
gathered for their weekly meeting in the student union to talk
about what, if anything, Mr. Artan had to do with them.
They had beaten long odds to get here. Their families fled
a civil war that left hundreds of thousands of Somalis starved,
brutalized, and stranded. Some of the students had been raised
in refugee camps. They came to the United States at the invi-
tation of the federal government and put down roots in Min-
nesota. They now stood to earn college degrees and the chance
to climb the social ladder in their adoptive country.
Mohamed Warsame, president of the Somali Student Association at
St. Cloud State University.

S T E v E k O L O w I C H
4 0 0
But it was not clear that their country wanted them.
Earlier that month, U.S. voters had elected Donald J. Trump
as their next president. During his campaign, he had spoken of
Somali refugees as a “disaster” for Minnesota and called for a ban
on Muslims entering the country. He had specifically mentioned
St. Cloud, a city that sits at the axis of three counties in central
Minnesota. On Election Day, more than 60 percent of voters
in those counties cast ballots for Mr. Trump—the most support
here for any presidential candidate in more than half a century.
The election dealt a moral blow to the Somali students.
Now news of the Ohio State attack threatened to validate the
suspicions stirred by Mr. Trump’s message.
The details of the attack were sadly familiar. They echoed
a September incident here, in St. Cloud, where a Muslim man
with Somali roots had hit a cyclist with his car and then stabbed
10 people at a local shopping mall. The attacker was a former
student at St. Cloud State.
After the mall attack, Somali students at the university led
a rally on campus to show solidarity with the city. Now, in the
student union, they talked about whether they should make a
statement addressing what happened in Ohio.
White people, they had noticed, always seemed to expect
Muslims everywhere to condemn violence committed by Mus-
lims anywhere. But why should they have to take responsibility
for the actions of a stranger 800 miles away?
It felt unfair. The majority of the Somali students at St.
Cloud State had spent most of their lives in America. They
watch football on Sundays. They laugh at impersonations of
Homer Simpson and Arnold Schwarzenegger. They aspire to
be social workers, police officers, and beauty queens.
They are part of a generation of refugees who are trying to
do what immigrants in the United States have done for years:

On the Front Lines of a New Culture War
4 0 1
get educated, expand their horizons, and build better lives for
themselves while also staying connected to the culture that
sustained their elders through the traumas of war and disloca-
tion. For the younger Somalis, a college degree repre-
sents a chance to avoid the powerlessness of life in the
nonwhite working class.
What it might not offer them is a privilege afforded to many
Americans regardless of education: the freedom to speak for
themselves, and no one else.
St. Cloud sits along the chilliest stretch of the Mississippi River,
about 65 miles northwest of Minneapolis. German was spo-
ken in its downtown business district, and in many homes and
schools, until a wave of nativism swept the state during World
War I. Many German immigrants suppressed their heritage for
fear of being seen as disloyal.
A few blocks south, the city opens up on a series of Brutalist
buildings. Here, in the middle of a deep red gash in the Demo-
cratic Party’s crumbling upper-Midwest firewall, sits a public
university that, over the past decade and a half, has tried to
embody diversity, tolerance, and globalist optimism.
St. Cloud State, whose 15,000 students include 300 Somalis, now
faces the task of making a case for those values in hostile territory.
For two decades, the city has been a destination for refugees
fleeing the Horn of Africa. Some residents of the Minnesota
city once known as “White Cloud” have been jarred by the
influx of African Muslims.
In recent years, relationships have become tense. Somalis
have reported being harassed on the street and in the hallways
of a local high school. Somali-owned businesses have been tagged
with graffiti. Last winter a Minneapolis-based newspaper declared
St. Cloud to be “the worst place in Minnesota to be Somali.”
See pp. 94–95
for ways to
indicate who

S T E v E k O L O w I C H
4 0 2
The university wants to be an exception to that rule. St.
Cloud State prides itself on being safe and welcoming to stu-
dents of color and to religious minorities, although this has not
always been the case. At the time St. Cloud State hired its first
nonwhite president, Roy H. Saigo, in 2000, it had been named
in dozens of discrimination lawsuits.
Mr. Saigo, a Japanese-American who spent three years of
his childhood in an Arizona internment camp during World
War II, started working on making the campus more inclusive.
The first step was to force the university to look in the mirror.
Mr. Saigo asked the Equal Employment Opportunity Commis-
sion to investigate how St. Cloud State was failing its minority
students and staff members, and how it could do better.
Investigators found a “perception of ignorance and an acute
lack of sensitivity among faculty, students, and administrators
in regard to religious and cultural differences,” both on the
campus and in the city.
“The university,” they wrote in a report, “suffers from a
severe lack of credibility with regard to diversity issues.”
Mr. Saigo set about trying to fix that. He visited urban
high schools in the Twin Cities, where St. Cloud State had
never recruited. He faced some resistance. Three black faculty
members, apparently worried that the new recruits might not
know what they were getting themselves into, sent letters to
guidance counselors in Twin Cities high schools warning that
“residency in St. Cloud can be hazardous for black people.” At
around the same time, a “cultural audit” by a consulting firm
noted that the special attention given to minorities on campus
had irked some white employees. “The white culture is feeling
oppressed and left out,” wrote the auditors in 2002, “and wants
to be recognized.” In 2007 and 2008, swastikas were scrawled
on campus.

On the Front Lines of a New Culture War
4 0 3
Since then the numbers of international students and stu-
dents of color have ticked upward.
In the student union on an afternoon in late November,
the progress is evident: The air is alive with the sound of
a half-dozen languages and accents. Indian students in saris
offer temporary henna tattoos. Muslim women in head scarves
gossip around laptops. A grinning white guy with a patchy
beard lumbers through in a Green Bay Packers jersey and a
cheese head.
The student population at St. Cloud State is now more
diverse than those of Minnesota and the country as a whole.
But diversity alone does not erase boundaries. Seventy per-
cent of students at the university are white Americans, many
of them drawn from the mostly white counties around the
city. And here, just as on many campuses, those white stu-
dents can still sail through four years without spending sig-
nificant time with people whose backgrounds differ greatly
from their own.
Ashish Vaidya, St. Cloud State’s interim president, wants to
do what he can to change that.
For Mr. Vaidya, diversity does not mean just better serv-
ing students of color. It also means preparing white kids from
Minnesota to navigate a diverse world with grace and empathy.
St. Cloud State requires students to take courses that focus on
“multicultural, gender, and minority studies,” and Mr. Vaidya
wants it to develop tools than can measure whether students
have absorbed those lessons.
“If, at the end of their educational experience at St. Cloud
State, they emerge without knowing very well how to engage
in a diverse and multicultural environment,” says the president,
“we have failed.”

S T E v E k O L O w I C H
4 0 4
Mr. Vaidya, an Indian-born economist, became president
unexpectedly last year, when the man who had hired him as
provost, Earl H. Potter III, died in a car crash. His father was a
telecommunications engineer for the Indian government, a job
that uprooted his family every few years. Mr. Vaidya was raised
in an ever-changing backdrop of locales, including two years on
the African island of Mauritius, where the children at his school
spoke French and Creole. At the University of California at
Davis, where he got his doctorate, he studied alongside students
“Diversity is not just a nice social norm,” says Ashish Vaidya, interim
president of St. Cloud State. “I’m convinced that it is a primary driving
force for creativity and innovation.”

On the Front Lines of a New Culture War
4 0 5
from Spain, China, and Iran. “My wife thinks I have no roots,”
he says, “which is probably accurate.”
The interim president, who came to St. Cloud State from
Los Angeles in 2015, is enthusiastic about the “internation-
alization” that he sees as part of the university’s identity.
He is bullish on study-abroad programs, and the university
is pushing more students to incorporate international travel
into their education. If he could afford to send all 15,000
students at the university to study in foreign countries, he
says, he would. His realistic goal is more modest: to increase
study-abroad enrollment from 450 to 700 over the next
three years.
As for central Minnesota, Mr. Vaidya believes his best pitch
for diversity is an economic one. “Diversity is not just a nice
social norm,” he says. “I’m convinced that it is a primary driv-
ing force for creativity and innovation that’s going to lead to
economic success.”
Minnesota businesses have global ambitions, he says, and
a state university that promotes multiculturalism will better
serve both its students and the companies that might want to
hire them, “It’s a globally interconnected world. There is no
‘other.’ There is no ‘the other side.’ ”
That is, of course, exactly the kind of optimism that typified
Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and failed to inspire so
many voters here in central Minnesota. On the morning after
Election Day, college leaders woke up to the realization that
they were the “other.”
Mr. Trump’s victory was a reminder that big swaths of the
population don’t cherish “safe spaces,” political correctness, or
multiculturalism—to say nothing of fact-checking or the sci-
entific method.

S T E v E k O L O w I C H
4 0 6
This might not have come as a shock to state universities,
many of which have been gradually starved by state legisla-
tors as they have become more diverse. In the wake of the
Trump victory, St. Cloud State has reason to feel especially
disconnected from the regional political mood. If the voting
results are any indication, most people around here seem to
think that cultural and economic boundaries exist for good
reasons, and would rather see them reinforced than blurred
beyond recognition.
Two days before the election, Mr. Trump held a rally in an
airplane hangar at the Minneapolis–St. Paul airport. He did
not talk about the college graduates Minnesota was sending
out into the world. He talked about people invading the state
from the other side of civilization.
“Everybody’s reading about the disaster taking place in Min-
nesota,” Mr. Trump had told the crowd, referring to the Somali
refugees. “Everybody’s reading about it. You don’t even have
the right to talk about it. … You don’t even know who’s com-
ing in—you have no idea. You’ll find out.”
He was not talking to Minnesota business leaders eager to
leverage the “globally interconnected world,” or to college
presidents who could help them do it. He was talking to white
people who feel less connected than ever to the world right
outside their doorsteps.
Two days before Election Day, Mohamed Warsame was at a
friend’s apartment, watching a football game. His Minnesota
Vikings were in the process of letting one slip away at home.
Mr. Warsame, a 24-year-old business major at St. Cloud State
who is president of the Somali Student Association, checked
Facebook and saw that Mr. Trump was trying to pull off a similar
upset, decrying the presence of Somalis in places like St. Cloud.

On the Front Lines of a New Culture War
4 0 7
“You’ve suffered enough,” Mr. Trump told the hangar full
of white Minnesotans.
Mr. Warsame was not impressed. “We’ve dealt with civil
war, we’ve dealt with some family members dying because of
tribal issues that didn’t even make sense,” he says. “What else
can you do to us? We’ve been survivalists all our lives. So, say-
ing we’re bad people, that doesn’t really do anything to us.”
His family fled Somalia in 2001. Mr. Warsame doesn’t
remember those days vividly, and doesn’t care to. There were
guns, there were “travel issues,” there were people who died. He
doesn’t see any point in dwelling on the past. “It’s very hard,
and it’s a very divided issue,” he says. “If you bring it up, you’re
just bringing problems.”
The family arrived in Minnesota the way a lot of Somalis
did: by traveling from wherever else the U.S. government had
placed them. They were in Tennessee but headed north after
getting a call from a relative in Minnesota. The Somalis there
had a community and a foothold in the working class. Mr.
Warsame’s mother got a job at a turkey-processing plant in a
small city called Faribault, and after a few years she moved the
family to the Twin Cities.
Mr. Warsame has a soccer player’s build, but since moving
to Minnesota as a teenager he has become a fan of American
football. He and Mr. Trump share a favorite player, the New
England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, whom the president-
elect has called a “great champion.” Mr. Warsame likes Mr.
Brady because nobody else wanted him on their team, and he
proved them all wrong.
He believes in underdog stories, including his own. In
junior high school, he remembers spending a long time work-
ing through the English sentences in his homework under the
guidance of a Somali neighbor who had been in the country

S T E v E k O L O w I C H
4 0 8
for a longer time. It was hard work, but Mr. Warsame didn’t
give up, and made the honor roll.
When it came time to go to college, he almost slipped
through the cracks. He applied to Minnesota State University
at Mankato at the suggestion of a friend, but had to scramble
to get his financial-aid forms in order. This time he had no one
to guide him. “I didn’t have anyone to lead the way for me, to
say, ‘This is how you do stuff.’ ”
At Mankato he was stressed out. He made some friends but
couldn’t afford a car, and as the days grew colder and shorter
he felt more and more isolated. He left after a year and enrolled
in community college. He took a job at a computer-chip manu-
facturer for $12 per hour.
It was hard manual work, and it wore him down. Mr.
Warsame noticed that a lot of the other immigrants there were
hired on a temporary basis and did not get benefits. “I figured
out, I can’t do this for the rest of my life,” he says.
Finally he enrolled at St. Cloud State, where he found a
home among the Somali students and student-government
types. After the Somali student group elected him president,
Mr. Warsame had the idea to pair up new Somali students with
older mentors who could help them find their way.
As a campaign message, optimism might seem corny, but as
a personal philosophy, Mr. Warsame sees it a key for survival.
Experience has shown him how some people start out with dis-
advantages—but, like bad memories, he doesn’t see any upside
in focusing on them.
“There’s two ways of being an underdog,” he says. One
way is to say the system is rigged and you’ll be shut out. But
“there’s another way: I’ll find my way in, and I’ll do whatever
it takes.”

On the Front Lines of a New Culture War
4 0 9
Patrick Nelson was at the airport for Mr. Trump’s speech. The
Republican candidate, wearing his trademark red hat, gripped
the sides of the podium and recounted the knife attack in St.
Cloud. Then, pinching thumb to forefinger and gesturing deci-
sively, he promised he would not allow any refugees to be placed
in any town that didn’t want them there.
The crowd cheered, and so did Mr. Nelson.
The stereotype of a Trump supporter is an alpha male of a
certain age who longs for a time in American history when he
felt less bitter about his place in the country and the country’s
place in the world. Mr. Nelson does not fit that mold. He is
19 years old, fresh-faced and polite, too young to be nostalgic
about anything. Like a lot of college kids, he professes to be
antiwar, pro–gender equality, and pro–gay rights.
Patrick Nelson, a St. Cloud student, says he might feel more positive about
Islam if he had Muslim friends: “Most of the problems I have with Islam is
the belief system, not the individuals.”

S T E v E k O L O w I C H
4 1 0
Mr. Nelson grew up in St. Cloud just as the Somali popula-
tion was becoming more visible. The Somalis in his neighbor-
hood lived up the road in an apartment complex overseen by
Catholic Charities, which Mr. Nelson knew as “the projects.”
He kept his distance from the Somali boys at his school, who
always seemed to be involved in fights. They spoke their own
language with one another and didn’t seem interested in him.
That was fine with Mr. Nelson, who was a shy, anxious kid and
wasn’t interested in them, either.
As he approached voting age, Mr. Nelson became curious
about Islam, the dominant religion among the new immigrants.
He says he read the Quran and did some research online—on
his own, not for a class—on Shariah law and the differences
between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. He concluded that Islam
was an intolerant religion, and that Muslims arriving from con-
servative cultures posed a threat to the gay-rights movement at a
moment when homophobia in the United States was finally on
the wane.
He says he used to worry about Christian extremists, like
the Westboro Baptist Church. Now he worries about Muslims.
Mr. Nelson grew up around Somalis—in school and at the
warehouse where he once worked as a janitor—but has not been
close with any of them. “I think some of that was my choice,”
he says, “just because I probably had some internal racism or
He’s open to the possibility that he might feel differently
about Islam if he had Muslim friends, but says his critique is
ideological, not personal. “Most of the problems I have with
Islam is the belief system,” he says, “not the individuals.”
Mr. Nelson, who transferred to St. Cloud State this year
and lives at his childhood home, south of campus, describes his
parents as center-left Democrats who like President Obama. He

On the Front Lines of a New Culture War
4 1 1
remembers learning concepts like racism from them and from
his teachers in school. It was on YouTube and on 8chan, an
anything-goes online hub popular among gamers and hackers,
that he learned the term “race realism”: the idea that race,
rather than being a social construct, marks actual biological
differences among people.
As the election approached, the first presidential contest in
which he would be eligible to vote, Mr. Nelson started con-
structing his own political identity.
He believes in “race realism” but not white supremacy.
He supports stemming the arrival of new refugees but not kick-
ing out the ones who already live here. He doesn’t think Muslim
immigrants are more violent than other groups, but he worries
that Islam might attract people who are inherently violent.
He does not believe everything that Donald Trump says, but
he doesn’t think Mr. Trump believes everything he says, either.
The guys on 8chan saw Mr. Trump as a cult hero: a trash-
talking boss who broke the rules of politics and got away with
it. “A lot of my peers online were into him,” says Mr. Nelson,
“so I thought, ‘Jump on the bandwagon.”
After Mr. Trump won the Republican nomination, Mr.
Nelson started taking his positions seriously. The candidate
started looking like a guy capable of ushering his party to the
left on gay-rights issues. (His running mate, Mike Pence, who
has a record of supporting policies that would enable discrimi-
nation against gay people, is another matter. Mr. Nelson says,
half-seriously, that he thinks Mr. Trump picked the Indiana
governor to discourage would-be assassins on the left who would
not want to be stuck with a President Pence.)
After Mr. Trump gave a foreign-policy speech railing against
the country’s attempts at nation-building in the Middle East,
he started looking like the antiwar candidate, too.

S T E v E k O L O w I C H
4 1 2
Mr. Nelson was sold, and he wasn’t alone. At an election-night
watch party on campus, he was pleased to find that some of his
fellow St. Cloud State students were also pulling for Mr. Trump.
He knows that some people think education should neces-
sarily immunize voters to Mr. Trump’s charms, but he finds that
view demeaning. Mr. Nelson sees his reasons for supporting
the president-elect as legitimate, evidence-based, and moderate
compared with some of the chatter he reads online.
“I’ve done my homework,” he says. “I’m not coming in com-
pletely stupid.”
On September 17, with the presidential race heating up, Mr.
Nelson checked Facebook and saw a friend’s message with a link
to a local news story. Something had happened at a shopping
mall three miles west of campus.
A 20-year-old man with Somali roots had grabbed two long
knives and driven to the mall, hitting a cyclist on the way. In
the parking lot he slashed a pregnant woman and her boyfriend.
Inside the mall, the man stabbed eight more people before being
shot and killed by an off-duty police officer.
“The suspect made some references to Allah,” noted the
story, “and asked at least one person in the mall if they were
Muslim before attacking them.”
Details of the attacker’s life soon emerged. His name was
Dahir Adan. He was born in Kenya to Somali parents and came
to the United States when he was 2 years old. Other Somalis
in St. Cloud knew him as a “normal American kid” who liked
basketball, soccer, and video games. He was a good student, and
after high school he had enrolled at St. Cloud State, where he
studied information systems.
Earlier last year, something had changed. According to the
FBI, Mr. Adan “flunked out” of college, lost weight, seemed

On the Front Lines of a New Culture War
4 1 3
unusually agitated, and took an intense interest in the Quran.
The agency looked into whether Mr. Adan had ties to any ter-
ror groups. They did not immediately find any links, although
the investigation remains open.
Faisa Salah, a student studying social work at the university,
wonders if Mr. Adan might have been suffering from psycholog-
ical problems—a possibility that, she notes with dismay, never
seems to come up when an attacker is Muslim and foreign-born.
(Mr. Adan’s family and his soccer coach have said they do not
believe he was mentally ill.)
Ms. Salah, too, was born in Kenya to Somali parents. They
came to the United States when she was 6, days after the ter-
rorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The refugee-resettlement
office placed them in San Diego, but before long they, too, beat
a path to Minnesota.
Growing up in St. Cloud, Ms. Salah did not learn much
about mental health. Like many Americans, Somali immigrants
see psychological disorders as shameful, she says, and usually
they are swept under the rug. “With us, it’s more of a stigma,”
she says. “If a family member is disabled, the whole family is
frowned upon.”
When a cousin began acting out, Ms. Salah says, her aunt
insisted that he needed the Quran, not psychiatric treatment.
The cousin later jumped off a third-floor balcony. (He survived,
she says, and eventually got medical help.) That experience
made her want to study psychology at St. Cloud State. Now she
plans to stay for a master’s degree and become a clinical social
She knows how stressful it can be to try to build a life on a
cultural fault line. In the early 2010s, she felt the plates start
to slip. The ethnic tensions at her high school started to reflect
those of St. Cloud generally. Ms. Salah has felt pulled between

S T E v E k O L O w I C H
4 1 4
the culture she had inherited from her Somali relatives and the
one she had adopted in Minnesota.
“I felt like it was ‘them’ and ‘us,’ and I didn’t know who to
pick,” she says.
Ms. Salah considered herself an American. She had white
friends, and all of her memories are of St. Cloud. But the arrival
of newer Somalis, who don’t identify with the kids who grew
up in central Minnesota, complicated the question of where
she fit in socially.
“They thought we were too Americanized, or like we wanted
to be like the white kids,” says Ms. Salah. But she and the other
“Americanized” Somalis didn’t fully fit in with the white kids,
either. “So, we were kind of stuck in the middle.”
Ms. Salah is Muslim—she wears a head scarf and does not
shake hands with men who are not family—but she’s also a
modern woman, who, despite her mother’s reservations, is
planning on a career despite having two young children her-
self. She says her sense of identity has been shaped by her
education and professional aspirations as much as by her faith
and heritage.
“I can relate more to a white person who has the same ideas
as me,” she says. “I can relate more to the social workers who
are white than someone who is in my culture.”
The older generation of Somali refugees witnessed murder
and the rape of family members during the conflict that turned
their home country into what some have described as hell on
earth. Ms. Salah believes there are cases of post-traumatic
stress disorder among them that have never been diagnosed.
She hopes a degree in social work will help her teach her elders
about mental health.
But it’s complicated. Among Somalis, she says, credibility
is conferred by age, not education. She sometimes tries to tell

On the Front Lines of a New Culture War
4 1 5
her mother what she’s learned about symptoms and treatments.
“She goes, ‘No, you just need prayers,’” says Ms. Salah. “Prayers
do help, but it’s not the only factor. You need medicine, too.”
Ms. Salah hopes that fewer Somalis in her generation will
see a family member showing signs of psychological distress and
point to the Quran as the only solution.
She also hopes that fewer Americans in her generation will
see a Somali Muslim commit an act of violence and point to
the Quran as the problem.
St. Cloud State provides its Somali students with a relatively
safe place in a world that they know, better than most, is any-
thing but safe.
Whatever refuge the campus offers is temporary, of course.
The students will continue their journeys in a country where
many other people see them as a threat.
Abdi H. Daisane’s journey has been improbable. His father, a
military man, took the family from one Somali city to the next
during the civil war, trying desperately to avoid the purgatory
of a refugee camp. They ended up in one anyway, in Kenya,
where Mr. Daisane spent the next 18 years, until he was finally
delivered, courtesy of the U.S. government and a Lutheran
charity, to an apartment in Omaha.
His journey then took him to a couple of Nebraska towns
and finally to Minnesota, where he earned a degree in interna-
tional relations and planning and community development at
St. Cloud State. Last winter, after he graduated, Mr. Daisane’s
journey took him a few miles west of campus, to a small office
with green walls, a space heater, and a window looking out on
the parking lot of a Buffalo Wild Wings.
Mr. Daisane is a lanky 29-year-old with an easy smile. His
desk is covered in printed forms and schedules, alongside a

S T E v E k O L O w I C H
4 1 6
Abdi Daisane, a Somali native, works with a nonprofit group that helps
Somali refugees find jobs in Minnesota. He calls himself a “career planner”
but teaches basic cultural competencies as well.
motivational book called Get Up Off Your Butt & Do It Now!
His prayer mat is folded on a chair against the wall.
The office belongs to Resource Inc., a nonprofit group
that works with counties to place people in jobs so they can
receive government benefits under Minnesota’s welfare-to-
work program. Mr. Daisane works primarily with new Somali
He calls himself a “career planner,” but he also teaches basic
cultural competencies: the importance of showing up on time,
respecting other people’s personal space, refraining from homo-
phobic remarks, not answering their cellphones at inappropri-
ate times. Most of his clients don’t speak English, he says, and
many have never been to school.
Last year Mr. Daisane decided he wanted to give the local
Somalis a voice where it counted: the city government. He filed

On the Front Lines of a New Culture War
4 1 7
to run for a seat on the St. Cloud City Council against three
incumbents and one other challenger, all of them white.
He pitched himself as a “bridge builder.” At a public forum,
Mr. Daisane challenged the council president on how attentive
the council had been to racial divisions in St. Cloud. He showed
up at the shopping mall after the stabbing attack and talked about
how much Somalis in town feared being targeted for retaliation.
He won an endorsement from the St. Cloud Times.
He hit the streets to canvass for votes. One day, he knocked
on the door of a small white house with an American flag in
the front yard. The man who answered the door seemed wary
of the Somalis who had moved into the neighborhood, says
Mr. Daisane, but the candidate made his case anyway and asked
if he could count on the man’s vote. The man said he would
do some research.
On November 8, Mr. Trump won, and Mr. Daisane lost.
A homeowner in St. Cloud, where Somali refugees have settled, used his
front lawn to express his point of view after Election Day.

S T E v E k O L O w I C H
4 1 8
The three incumbents won handily. The other challenger, who
had skipped the public forum and had not responded to inquiries
from the newspaper, came in fourth. Mr. Daisane came in last.
Two days after the election, a series of signs appeared next
to the American flag on the lawn of the small white house
near the mall. They spelled out a message: “Take your Muslim
Somailian diaspora and put it where the sun doesn’t shine!!!”
The owner of the house, who didn’t want his name used,
told The Chronicle he doesn’t remember a conversation with
Mr. Daisane but wouldn’t trust any Muslim, no matter how
well-educated, to serve at any level of government. “I believe,”
he says, “that down the line they will go back to their strong
Muslim, Shariah beliefs.”
Mr. Daisane didn’t sleep much the night after the election.
The next morning, while his wife slept, he sat in his paja-
mas watching TV and wondering where the country might be
headed. He thought about the kids in the refugee camp where
he had woken up every morning for 18 years, unsure whether
water would flow from the tap his family shared with 200 others.
He remembers sitting down in his mostly bare Nebraska apart-
ment the week he arrived in the country and writing down his
goals: Get a driver’s license. Get a GED. Get a college degree.
The process had thrilled him. It was the first time he had
lived anywhere with a functioning government, and America’s
mythos as a land of freedom and opportunity felt very real to him.
“This is the only country where you’re actually writing goals for
yourself,” he says, “because there is stability, there is a system.”
After awhile, he thought about his own campaign. He knows
some people here are prejudiced. They might have seen his
skin tone or his name and been reminded of the knife-wielding
attacker on the evening news. Those same people might tense up
at the sound of his footsteps behind them in a dark parking lot.

On the Front Lines of a New Culture War
4 1 9
Just don’t let him be Somali, they might think to themselves.
Don’t let him be Muslim.
Mr. Daisane has faith that if he came to their homes, and
if they listened to his story and heard what he really believed,
they would give him a chance.
“I probably should have knocked on more doors and had
more conversations with people,” he says.
“If I had done that, probably I would have won.”
Joining the Conversation
1. Steve Kolowich tells the stories of people living in and
around St. Cloud, Minnesota: Somali immigrants (mainly
college students), the president of the local university (him-
self an immigrant from India), a white college student from
the area, and a Somali community organizer. Taken together,
what picture emerges of the Somali community of St. Cloud?
Of the white population there?
2. Does the essay leave you feeling optimistic, pessimistic, or
both about the possibilities for the Somali community to fit
in to life in small-town Minnesota? Why?
3. Notice how many direct quotations Kolowich includes. Why
do you think he includes so many? What, if anything, do the
quotations contribute that a summary or paraphrase would not?
4. How might and danah boyd (pp. 219–29) Sean Blanda
(pp. 212–18) respond to the situation of Somali students in
St. Cloud, Minnesota?
5. Write a letter to Patrick Nelson, the college student discussed
in the essay, agreeing, disagreeing, or both with his views.
You might incorporate the views of Abdi Daisane, Faisa
Salah, or Mohamed Warsame as support for your argument.

4 2 1
are we in a race
against the machine?
Are we in a race against the machine? Many people seem
to think so and are frightened by the prospect. Researchers at
Chapman University in California recently conducted a survey
of Americans’ fears, asking around 1,500 adults what scares
them most. Somewhat surprisingly, technology came in second
place, right behind natural disasters. As Adrienne LaFrance
writes in a piece for the Atlantic, “In the early days of the
telephone, people wondered if the machines might be used
to communicate with the dead. Today, it is the smartphone
that has people jittery.” No doubt, smartphones connect us to
friends, family, and colleagues, but they can also be a source of
anxiety and unease as they bring us continuous streams of news
stories, social media posts, and text messages.
Smartphone aside, others continue to worry about technol-
ogy in all its forms, and how it can negatively impact our brains
and bodies. Susan Greenfield, a neuroscientist, argues that our
“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 before
declining in old age. Now, however, there is strong evidence

4 2 2
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.
But not everyone accepts these doomsday scenarios. A
number of experts argue that such alarmist views are seriously
overstated. In their view, new technologies make us smarter,
happier, and more productive. Clive Thompson, for example,
focuses on the growing role of computers in chess playing to
argue that technology is changing our minds—and our lives—
for the better. Similarly, Kenneth Goldsmith writes that far from
wasting time, much of what we do on the internet helps us to
develop new skills, learn about the world, and interact with oth-
ers. Responding to concerns that digital communication leads
to a decline in face-to-face interaction, Jenna Wortham offers
a positive assessment of the social media platform Snapchat,
writing that it is an easy, fun, language-free technology for
connecting with others and simply being oneself.
Along these same lines, college student Michaela Cullington
discusses her own research study, which found that, contrary to
public belief, text messaging is a practical form of communica-
tion and does not weaken students’ academic writing skills.
And, countering the view that political involvement online,
does not translate to genuine activism Zeynep Tufekci argues
that, used judiciously, social media can be a driving force for
initiating and maintaining political and social movements.
Still, some are concerned and think others should be too.
Nicholas Carr believes that extensive use of the internet is hurt-
ing our capacity for deep thinking and contemplation. Previ-
ously 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. And Carole Cadwalladr shows
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 ?

4 2 3
how Google and Facebook use algorithms that make it easy to
spread fake news and discriminatory speech. 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 an optimistic picture of technol-
ogy and others contemplate more pessimistic scenarios, there’s
a little bit of optimism and pessimism in each reading, factors
that make this conversation worth joining.
Are We In a Race Against The Machine?� �

4 2 4
Is Google Making Us Stupid?� �
n i c h o l a s c a r r
“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 The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to
Google (2008), The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains
(2010), The Glass Cage: How Our Computers Are Changing Us (2014)
and Utopia Is Creepy (2016). Carr also has written for periodicals includ-
ing 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.

Is Google Making Us Stupid?� �
4 2 5
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.

N I C H o l A S C A R R
4 2 6
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

Is Google Making Us Stupid?� �
4 2 7
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:

N I C H o l A S C A R R
4 2 8
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

Is Google Making Us Stupid?� �
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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.

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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

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“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,

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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

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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.

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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

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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.

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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

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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 human-
ist 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 author-
ity, demean the work of scholars and scribes, and spread sedition
and debauchery. As New York University professor Clay Shirky

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notes, “Most of the arguments made against the print-
ing press were correct, even prescient.” But, again, the
doomsayers were unable to imagine the myriad 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 pp. 31–33
for tips on
putting yourself
in their shoes.

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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 net-
work 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 reversion to what can
only be called a state of innocence. HAL’s outpouring of feel-
ing 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?
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

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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 pages 441−61, Clive Thompson reaches a
different 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.

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Smarter Than You Think:
How Technology Is Changing
Our Minds for the Better
c l i v e t h o m p s o n
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 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 This
essay is adapted from his book, Smarter Than You Think: How Technology
Is Changing Our Minds for the Better (2013).

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The Thinker, by French sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840–1917).

4 4 3
Smarter Than You Think
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
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,

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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

4 4 5
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.
Smarter Than You Think

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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.

4 4 7
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
Smarter Than You Think

C l I v E T H o M p S o N
4 4 8
brings us back to our original question here: Which is smarter
at chess—humans or computers?
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

4 4 9
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 to 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
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under the 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 interesting intellectual midwife of Marshall McLuhan—
called this the bias of a new tool. Living with new technologies
means understanding 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

4 5 1
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.
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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

4 5 3
I could see nothing but the page, giving me temporary mental
[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. 65 for
ways to make
the “I’m of two
minds” move.
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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.

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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,
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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

4 5 7
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 trade-off. 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
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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
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

4 5 9
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
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.
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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.

4 6 1
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.
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Does Texting Affect Writing?� �
m i c h a e l a c u l l i n g t o n
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 Penn-
sylvania when she wrote this essay, which originally appeared in Young
Scholars in Writing, an undergraduate journal of writing published by the
University of Missouri–Kansas City. She received a masters degree in
speech and language pathology from Marywood in 2014 and is a speech
language pathologist in Delaware.

Does Texting Affect Writing?� �
4 6 3
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.

M I C H A E l A C u l l I N G T o N
4 6 4
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.

Does Texting Affect Writing?� �
4 6 5
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

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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

Does Texting Affect Writing?� �
4 6 7
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 stu-
dents 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
opinions on what they believed should be done to prevent
teens from using text abbreviations and other textspeak in
their writing.

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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,

Does Texting Affect Writing?� �
4 6 9
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

M I C H A E l A C u l l I N G T o N
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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
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

Does Texting Affect Writing?� �
4 7 1
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.
. Txtng: The Gr8 Db8. Oxford UP, 2008.

M I C H A E l A C u l l I N G T o N
4 7 2
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.
-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?

Does Texting Affect Writing?� �
4 7 3
3. What kinds of sources does Cullington cite, and how does she
incorporate their ideas in her essay? Look at paragraph 18, for
instance: how well does she introduce and explain Dennis
Baron’s ideas? (See pp. 45−49 on framing quotations.)
4. Cullington focuses on how texting affects writing, whereas
Sherry Turkle is concerned with the way it affects com-
munication more broadly (pp. 505−24). 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?

4 7 4
How I Learned to Love Snapchat
j e n n a w o r t h a m
In the mid-’80s, a German engineer named Friedhelm
Hillebrand helped devise a way for cellphones to send and
receive text messages. Back then, mobile bandwidth was
extremely limited, which meant that the messages needed to
be as lightweight as possible. The story goes that Hillebrand
experimented with a variety of greetings and phrases and con-
cluded, in very German fashion, that most things that needed
saying could be done so in an economical 160 characters or
fewer. “This is perfectly sufficient,” he said of his findings. Even-
tually the infrastructure improved so that there were no limits
to how much text we could transmit at once. And by 2007,
texting had surpassed voice calls as the preferred, if not default,
mode of communication.
As most rapid advances in technology tend to do, this transi-
tion inspired a low-grade, intergenerational moral panic. Many
Jenna Wortham writes for the New York Times, where she also con-
tributes to Still Processing, a podcast on culture. Her work has appeared
in Bust magazine, Jezebel, the Village Voice, Vogue, and Wired. Her
Twitter handle is @jennydeluxe. This essay first appeared in the New
York Times Magazine on May 22, 2016.

How I Learned to Love Snapchat
4 7 5
feared that we would become asocial creatures, misanthropes
who would rather hide behind the safety of a screen than face
the intimacy of a spoken conversation. And maybe there’s
some truth in that, but there’s another way of looking at it.
Maybe we didn’t hate talking—just the way older phone tech-
nologies forced us to talk. Texting freed a generation from the
strictures and inconvenience (and awkwardness) of phone calls,
while allowing people to be more loosely and constantly con-
I thought about this shift recently when trying to make sense
of the rise of Snapchat, the latest wellspring of technosocial hand-
wringing. Like texting, Snapchat flourished amid scarcity, though
of an entirely different kind. We no longer live in Hillebrand’s
era, when there were hard limits on how much we could say over
text; but words alone can be an imperfect technology. So much
of what we mean lies not just in what we say, or in the exact
words we choose, but also in the light that animates our eyes
(or doesn’t) when we deliver them and the sharpness (or soft-
ness) of the tone we use. Text barely captures even a fraction
of that emotional depth and texture, even when we can type
as much as we want. Snapchat is just the latest and most well
realized example of the various ways we are regaining the layers
of meaning we lost when we began digitizing so many important
Most efforts to approximate normal human behavior in soft-
ware tend to be creepy or annoying. The oblong gray bubble
that pops up when your conversation partner is typing (offi-
cially called the “typing awareness indicator”) is no doubt
intended to be helpful, the virtual version of watching someone
inhale and then part their lips to speak. But it becomes panic-
inducing if it appears and then disappears—an indication that
someone wrote something, then, for any number of reasons,

j E N N A W o R T H A M
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deleted it. Similarly, “read” receipts, designed to let you know
that someone opened and read your message, are perhaps best at
letting you know when you’re being ignored. In a strange turn
of events, texting has evolved to become almost as awkward
as the phone calls it made obsolete.
In 2012, I calculated that I sent about 7,000 texts a month;
now, thanks to the creeping unwieldiness of phones and the
misfirings of autocorrect, I can barely manage to peck out half a
sentence before I become aggravated by the effort and give up.
To combat that fatigue, I’ve turned to newer ways to talk and
interact with friends, primarily voice memos. These function
like a highly evolved version of voice mail—there’s no expecta-
tion of a return call, or even a simultaneous conversation. Freed
from that pressure, my friends and I leave one another memos
about episodes of RuPaul’s Drag Race and Empire, the themes
of Lemonade or even just a detailed account of a date or run-
in with an ex. The trend is catching on elsewhere: According
to an article on Vice’s website Motherboard, voice notes have
become so popular in Argentina that they’ve virtually replaced
text messages altogether.
This is not to say that text is irredeemable. A significant
humanization of our text interactions happened quietly in
2011, when emoji were introduced as part of an Apple iOS
software update. They offered a palette of punctuation that
clarified intent. Tacking on emoji like hearts, skulls, grins and
bugged-out eyes to a short message made it infinitely
easier to confidently project sarcasm, humor, grief and
love across a medium that had been, until then, emo-
tionally arid. If you want proof that we see ourselves
in the emoji we use, consider the ever-present disputes over
emoji inclusivity: Initially, the characters all had the same skin
tone, and even now, the only “professional” emoji are male.
See Chapter 6
for more ways
to address a
skeptical reader.

How I Learned to Love Snapchat
4 7 7
And though the catalog of emoji has expanded in response to
user demand, it still struggles to keep up with the multiplic-
ity of human experiences. As a result, a new bespoke-emoji
economy has begun to emerge, in apps like Bitmoji, which let
people create personalized avatars to adorn their text messages.
If our emoji couldn’t become us, we would become our emoji.
But messages that include little actual messaging seem to be
the wave of the future, and Snapchat is leading the way. The
app, which allows users to send short videos and images that
disappear after a short period of time, is intimate by design,
something that sets it apart from its social-media peers. Most
of the “snaps” I send and receive are tightly framed, with angles
that could be considered unflattering. They’re low resolution
too, the images speckled with grain. Snapchat does have filters,
but the dumb ones are the most fun, especially the ones that
add a comically hideous effect—bloating your face into a red
tomato, or distorting it into an animal mask.
If we are to believe the theories about how people want to
communicate nowadays—largely through anesthetized, hyper-
mediated and impersonal exchanges—Snapchat’s recent surge
in popularity makes little sense. During the first few years of
Snapchat’s existence, the only people I knew using the service
(beyond journalists like me who were trying to understand it)
were my youngest relatives, still in high school and college.
And of course there was the attendant moral panic: When it
first blew up around 2012, the press seemed to assume it would
primarily be used by horny teenagers swapping nudes.
If that was ever the case, it has since expanded. Each time I
check the app, I’m surprised to see who else in my network has
started using the service. My circle includes every demographic,
age and locale: co-workers who send snaps of their dogs, friends
on strange adventures in the desert, people I talk to mostly

j E N N A W o R T H A M
4 7 8
online sending videos from their travels. The videos are rarely
elaborate: just a few seconds of my favorite people’s faces on
a large screen, smiling, or singing, or showing off their view,
before they fade and disappear.
Its entire aesthetic flies in the face of how most people
behave on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter—as if we’re wait-
ing to be plucked from obscurity by a talent agent or model
scout. But Snapchat isn’t the place where you go to be pretty.
It’s the place where you go to be yourself, and that is made
easy thanks to the app’s inbuilt ephemerality. Away from the
fave-based economies of mainstream social media, there’s less
pressure to be dolled up, or funny. For all the advances in tech
that let us try on various guises to play around with who we are,
it seems that we just want new ways to be ourselves. As it turns
out, the mundanity of our regular lives is the most captivating
thing we could share with one another.
Joining the Conversation
1. How would you summarize Jenna Wortham’s argument
about the appeal of Snapchat? How does she place its appeal
in the ongoing history of online communication?
2. Wortham begins her piece with a short narrative about a
German engineer’s invention of text messaging more than
thirty years ago. Why do you think she chooses to start her
essay this way? How else might the piece have begun?
3. Wortham uses connecting words, phrases, and sentences to
link different parts of her argument. For example, at the
beginning of paragraph 6, after explaining what she dislikes
about text messaging, she writes, “This is not to say that text
is irredeemable” and discusses some recent improvements.

How I Learned to Love Snapchat
4 7 9
Find another place where she makes a similar transition, and
explain how you think it develops her argument.
4. Sherry Turkle (pp. 505–24) writes 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.” Given what Wortham seems to value
most about Snapchat, how might she respond to Turkle?
5. In your own view, what are the benefits and limitations of
Snapchat as a form of communication? More broadly, write
an essay developing your own argument about the larger
effects of digital media, citing your experiences as well as
ideas from the readings in this chapter.

4 8 0
Google, Democracy, and
the Truth about Internet Search
c a r o l e c a d w a l l a d r
Tech-savvy right-wingers have been able to “game” the algorithms of
internet giants and create a new reality where Hitler is a good guy,
Jews are evil and . . . Donald Trump becomes president.
Here’s what you don’t want to do late on a Sunday
night. You do not want to type seven letters into Google.
That’s all I did. I typed: “a-r-e.” And then “j-e-w-s.” Since
2008, Google has attempted to predict what question you might
be asking and offers you a choice. And this is what it did. It
offered me a choice of potential questions it thought I might
want to ask: “are jews a race?,” “are jews white?,” “are jews
christians?,” and finally, “are jews evil?”
Are Jews evil? It’s not a question I’ve ever thought of ask-
ing. I hadn’t gone looking for it. But there it was. I press enter.
Carole Cadwalladr is a journalist who writes features articles for
the Guardian and the Observer, two British newspapers. She is also the
author of the novel The Family Tree (2006). This piece first appeared
on the Observer website on December 4, 2016.

Google, Democracy, and the Truth about Internet Search
4 8 1
A page of results appears. This was Google’s question. And this
was Google’s answer: Jews are evil. Because there, on my screen,
was the proof: an entire page of results, nine out of 10 of which
“confirm” this. The top result, from a site called Listovative, has
the headline: “Top 10 Major Reasons Why People Hate Jews.”
I click on it: “Jews today have taken over marketing, militia,
medicinal, technological, media, industrial, cinema challenges
etc and continue to face the worlds [sic] envy through unex-
plained success stories given their inglorious past and vermin
like repression all over Europe.”
Google is search. It’s the verb, to Google. It’s what we all
do, all the time, whenever we want to know anything. We
Google it. The site handles at least 63,000 searches a second,
5.5 billion a day. Its mission as a company, the one-line over-
view that has informed the company since its foundation and
is still the banner headline on its corporate website today, is
to “organize the world’s information and make it universally
accessible and useful.” It strives to give you the best, most
relevant results. And in this instance the third-best, most
relevant result to the search query “are Jews . . .” is a link to
an article from, a neo-Nazi website. The fifth
is a YouTube video: “Why the Jews are Evil. Why we are
against them.”
The sixth is from Yahoo Answers: “Why are Jews so evil?”
The seventh result is: “Jews are demonic souls from a different
world.” And the 10th is from “Judaism is
There’s one result in the 10 that offers a different point of
view. It’s a link to a rather dense, scholarly book review from, a Jewish magazine, with the unfortunately
misleading headline: “Why Literally Everybody In the World
Hates Jews.”

C A R o l E C A d W A l l A d R
4 8 2
I feel like I’ve fallen down a wormhole, entered some parallel
universe where black is white, and good is bad. Though later, I
think that perhaps what I’ve actually done is scraped the topsoil
off the surface of 2016 and found one of the underground springs
that has been quietly nurturing it. It’s been there all the time,
of course. Just a few keystrokes away . . . on our laptops, our
tablets, our phones. This isn’t a secret Nazi cell lurking in the
shadows. It’s hiding in plain sight.
Stories about fake news on Facebook have dominated certain
sections of the press for weeks following the American presi-
dential election, but arguably this is even more powerful, more
insidious. Frank Pasquale, professor of law at the University of

Google, Democracy, and the Truth about Internet Search
4 8 3
Maryland, and one of the leading academic figures calling for
tech companies to be more open and transparent, calls the
results “very profound, very troubling.”
He came across a similar instance in 2006 when, “If you
typed ‘Jew’ in Google, the first result was It was
‘look out for these awful Jews who are ruining your life.’ And
the Anti-Defamation League went after them and so they put
an asterisk next to it which said: ‘These search results may be
disturbing but this is an automated process.’ But what you’re
showing—and I’m very glad you are documenting it and screen-
shotting it—is that despite the fact they have vastly researched
this problem, it has gotten vastly worse.”
And ordering of search results does influence people, says
Martin Moore, director of the Centre for the Study of Media,
Communication and Power at King’s College, London, who has
written at length on the impact of the big tech companies on
our civic and political spheres. “There’s large-scale, statistically
significant research into the impact of search results on politi-
cal views. And the way in which you see the results and the
types of results you see on the page necessarily has an impact
on your perspective.” Fake news, he says, has simply “revealed
a much bigger problem. These companies are so powerful and
so committed to disruption. They thought they were disrupt-
ing politics but in a positive way. They hadn’t thought about
the downsides. These tools offer remarkable empowerment, but
there’s a dark side to it. It enables people to do very cynical,
damaging things.”
Google is knowledge. It’s where you go to find things out.
And evil Jews are just the start of it. There are also evil women.
I didn’t go looking for them either. This is what I type: “a-r-e
w-o-m-e-n.” And Google offers me just two choices, the first
of which is: “Are women evil?” I press return. Yes, they are.

C A R o l E C A d W A l l A d R
4 8 4
Every one of the 10 results “confirms” that they are, including
the top one, from a site called, which
is boxed out and highlighted: “Every woman has some degree
of prostitute in her. Every woman has a little evil in her . . .
Women don’t love men, they love what they can do for them.
It is within reason to say women feel attraction, but they can-
not love men.”
Next I type: “a-r-e m-u-s-l-i-m-s.” And Google suggests I
should ask: “Are Muslims bad?” And here’s what I find out: yes,
they are. That’s what the top result says and six of the others.
Without typing anything else, simply putting the cursor in the
search box, Google offers me two new searches and I go for the
first, “Islam is bad for society.” In the next list of suggestions,
I’m offered: “Islam must be destroyed.”
Jews are evil. Muslims need to be eradicated. And Hitler? Do
you want to know about Hitler? Let’s Google it. “Was Hitler
bad?” I type. And here’s Google’s top result: “10 Reasons Why
Hitler Was One Of The Good Guys.” I click on the link: “He
never wanted to kill any Jews”; “he cared about conditions for
Jews in the work camps”; “he implemented social and cultural
reform.” Eight out of the other 10 search results agree: Hitler
really wasn’t that bad.
A few days later, I talk to Danny Sullivan, the founding
editor of He’s been recommended
to me by several academics as one of the most knowledge-
able experts on search. Am I just being naive, I ask him?
Should I have known this was out there? “No, you’re not
being naive,” he says. “This is awful. It’s horrible. It’s the
equivalent of going into a library and asking a librarian about
Judaism and being handed 10 books of hate. Google is doing
a horrible, horrible job of delivering answers here. It can and
should do better.”

Google, Democracy, and the Truth about Internet Search
4 8 5
He’s surprised too. “I thought they stopped offering autocom-
plete suggestions for religions in 2011.” And then he types “are
women” into his own computer. “Good lord! That answer at
the top. It’s a featured result. It’s called a ‘direct answer.’ This
is supposed to be indisputable. It’s Google’s highest endorse-
ment.” That every woman has some degree of prostitute in her?
“Yes. This is Google’s algorithm going terribly wrong.”
I contacted Google about its seemingly malfunctioning auto-
complete suggestions and received the following response: “Our
search results are a reflection of the content across the web.
This means that sometimes unpleasant portrayals of sensitive
subject matter online can affect what search results appear for
a given query. These results don’t reflect Google’s own opin-
ions or beliefs—as a company, we strongly value a diversity of
perspectives, ideas and cultures.”
Google isn’t just a search engine, of course. Search was the
foundation of the company but that was just the beginning.
Alphabet, Google’s parent company, now has the great-
est concentration of artificial intelligence experts in the
world. It is expanding into healthcare, transportation,
energy. It’s able to attract the world’s top computer scientists,
physicists and engineers. It’s bought hundreds of start-ups,
including Calico, whose stated mission is to “cure death” and
DeepMind, which aims to “solve intelligence.”
And 20 years ago it didn’t even exist. When Tony Blair
became prime minister, it wasn’t possible to Google him:
the search engine had yet to be invented. The company was
only founded in 1998 and Facebook didn’t appear until 2004.
Google’s founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page are still only
43. Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook is 32. Everything they’ve
done, the world they’ve remade, has been done in the blink
of an eye.
To elaborate on
a previous idea,
see p. 137.

C A R o l E C A d W A l l A d R
4 8 6
But it seems the implications about the power and reach
of these companies are only now seeping into the public
consciousness. I ask Rebecca MacKinnon, director of the
Ranking Digital Rights project at the New America Founda-
tion, whether it was the recent furor over fake news that woke
people up to the danger of ceding our rights as citizens to
corporations. “It’s kind of weird right now,” she says, “because
people are finally saying, ‘Gee, Facebook and Google really
have a lot of power’ like it’s this big revelation. And it’s like,
MacKinnon has a particular expertise in how authoritarian
governments adapt to the internet and bend it to their purposes.
“China and Russia are a cautionary tale for us. I think what
happens is that it goes back and forth. So during the Arab
spring, it seemed like the good guys were further ahead. And
now it seems like the bad guys are. Pro-democracy activists are
Google cofounders Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

Google, Democracy, and the Truth about Internet Search
4 8 7
using the internet more than ever but at the same time, the
adversary has gotten so much more skilled.”
Last week Jonathan Albright, an assistant professor of com-
munications at Elon University in North Carolina, published
the first detailed research on how right-wing websites had
spread their message. “I took a list of these fake news sites that
was circulating, I had an initial list of 306 of them and I used a
tool—like the one Google uses—to scrape them for links and
then I mapped them. So I looked at where the links went—into
YouTube and Facebook, and between each other, millions of
them . . . and I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing.
“They have created a web that is bleeding through onto
our web. This isn’t a conspiracy. There isn’t one person who’s
created this. It’s a vast system of hundreds of different sites
that are using all the same tricks that all websites use. They’re
sending out thousands of links to other sites and together
this has created a vast satellite system of right-wing news and
propaganda that has completely surrounded the mainstream
media system.”
He found 23,000 pages and 1.3 million hyperlinks. “And
Facebook is just the amplification device. When you look at it
in 3D, it actually looks like a virus. And Facebook was just one
of the hosts for the virus that helps it spread faster. You can
see the New York Times in there and the Washington Post and
then you can see how there’s a vast, vast network surrounding
them. The best way of describing it is as an ecosystem. This
really goes way beyond individual sites or individual stories.
What this map shows is the distribution network and you can
see that it’s surrounding and actually choking the mainstream
news ecosystem.”
Like a cancer? “Like an organism that is growing and getting
stronger all the time.”

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4 8 8
Charlie Beckett, a professor in the school of media and com-
munications at LSE,* tells me: “We’ve been arguing for some
time now that plurality of news media is good. Diversity is good.
Critiquing the mainstream media is good. But now . . . it’s gone
wildly out of control. What Jonathan Albright’s research has
shown is that this isn’t a byproduct of the internet. And it’s
not even being done for commercial reasons. It’s motivated by
ideology, by people who are quite deliberately trying to desta-
bilize the internet.”
Albright’s map also provides a clue to understanding the
Google search results I found. What these right-wing news
*LSE The London School of Economics
Jonathan Albright’s map of the fake-news ecosystem.

Google, Democracy, and the Truth about Internet Search
4 8 9
sites have done, he explains, is what most commercial web-
sites try to do. They try to find the tricks that will move
them up Google’s PageRank system. They try and “game”
the algorithm. And what his map shows is how well they’re
doing that.
That’s what my searches are showing too. That the right
has colonized the digital space around these subjects—Muslims,
women, Jews, the Holocaust, black people—far more effectively
than the liberal left.
“It’s an information war,” says Albright. “That’s what I keep
coming back to.”
But it’s where it goes from here that’s truly frightening. I ask
him how it can be stopped. “I don’t know. I’m not sure it can
be. It’s a network. It’s far more powerful than any one actor.”
So, it’s almost got a life of its own? “Yes, and it’s learning.
Every day, it’s getting stronger.”
The more people who search for information about Jews,
the more people will see links to hate sites, and the more they
click on those links (very few people click on to the second
page of results) the more traffic the sites will get, the more links
they will accrue and the more authoritative they will appear.
This is an entirely circular knowledge economy that has only
one outcome: an amplification of the message. Jews are evil.
Women are evil. Islam must be destroyed. Hitler was one of
the good guys.
And the constellation of websites that Albright found—a
sort of shadow internet—has another function. More than just
spreading right-wing ideology, they are being used to track
and monitor and influence anyone who comes across their
content. “I scraped the trackers on these sites and I was abso-
lutely dumbfounded. Every time someone likes one of these
posts on Facebook or visits one of these websites, the scripts

C A R o l E C A d W A l l A d R
4 9 0
are then following you around the web. And this enables data-
mining and influencing companies like Cambridge Analytica
to precisely target individuals, to follow them around the web,
and to send them highly personalized political messages. This
is a propaganda machine. It’s targeting people individually
to recruit them to an idea. It’s a level of social engineering
that I’ve never seen before. They’re capturing people and then
keeping them on an emotional leash and never letting
them go.”
Cambridge Analytica, an American-owned company based
in London, was employed by both the Vote Leave* campaign
and the Trump campaign. Dominic Cummings, the campaign
director of Vote Leave, has made few public announcements
since the Brexit referendum but he did say this: “If you want to
make big improvements in communication, my advice is—hire
Steve Bannon, founder of Breitbart News and the newly
appointed chief strategist to Trump, is on Cambridge Analytica’s
board and it has emerged that the company is in talks to undertake
political messaging work for the Trump administration. It claims
to have built psychological profiles using 5,000 separate pieces
of data on 220 million American voters. It knows their quirks
and nuances and daily habits and can target them individually.
“They were using 40–50,000 different variants of ad every day
that were continuously measuring responses and then adapting
and evolving based on that response,” says Martin Moore of
Kings College. Because they have so much data on individuals
and they use such phenomenally powerful distribution networks,
they allow campaigns to bypass a lot of existing laws.
*Vote Leave An organization that campaigned for the United Kingdom to
leave the European Union.

Google, Democracy, and the Truth about Internet Search
4 9 1
“It’s all done completely opaquely and they can spend as
much money as they like on particular locations because you
can focus on a five-mile radius or even a single demographic.
Fake news is important but it’s only one part of it. These com-
panies have found a way of transgressing 150 years of legislation
that we’ve developed to make elections fair and open.”
Did such micro-targeted propaganda—currently legal—
swing the Brexit vote? We have no way of knowing. Did the
same methods used by Cambridge Analytica help Trump to
victory? Again, we have no way of knowing. This is all hap-
pening in complete darkness. We have no way of knowing
how our personal data is being mined and used to influence
us. We don’t realize that the Facebook page we are looking at,
the Google page, the ads that we are seeing, the search results
we are using, are all being personalized to us. We don’t see it
because we have nothing to compare it to. And it is not being
monitored or recorded. It is not being regulated. We are inside
a machine and we simply have no way of seeing the controls.
Most of the time, we don’t even realise that there are controls.
Rebecca MacKinnon says that most of us consider the internet
to be like “the air that we breathe and the water that we drink.”
It surrounds us. We use it. And we don’t question it. “But this
is not a natural landscape. Programmers and executives and edi-
tors and designers, they make this landscape. They are human
beings and they all make choices.”
But we don’t know what choices they are making. Neither
Google or Facebook make their algorithms public. Why did my
Google search return nine out of 10 search results that claim
Jews are evil? We don’t know and we have no way of knowing.
Their systems are what Frank Pasquale describes as “black boxes.”
He calls Google and Facebook “a terrifying duopoly of power”
and has been leading a growing movement of academics who

C A R o l E C A d W A l l A d R
4 9 2
are calling for “algorithmic accountability.” “We need to have
regular audits of these systems,” he says. “We need people in these
companies to be accountable. In the US, under the Digital Mil-
lennium Copyright Act, every company has to have a spokesman
you can reach. And this is what needs to happen. They need to
respond to complaints about hate speech, about bias.”
Is bias built into the system? Does it affect the kind of results
that I was seeing? “There’s all sorts of bias about what counts
as a legitimate source of information and how that’s weighted.
There’s enormous commercial bias. And when you look at the
personnel, they are young, white and perhaps Asian, but not
black or Hispanic and they are overwhelmingly men. The world-
view of young wealthy white men informs all these judgments.”
Later, I speak to Robert Epstein, a research psychologist at the
American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology,
and the author of the study that Martin Moore told me about
(and that Google has publicly criticized), showing how search-
rank results affect voting patterns. On the other end of the
phone, he repeats one of the searches I did. He types “do
blacks . . .” into Google.
“Look at that. I haven’t even hit a button and it’s automatically
populated the page with answers to the query: ‘Do blacks commit
more crimes?’ And look, I could have been going to ask all sorts
of questions. ‘Do blacks excel at sports,’ or anything. And it’s only
given me two choices and these aren’t simply search-based or the
most searched terms right now. Google used to use that but now
they use an algorithm that looks at other things. Now, let me look
at Bing and Yahoo. I’m on Yahoo and I have 10 suggestions, not
one of which is ‘Do black people commit more crime?’
“And people don’t question this. Google isn’t just offering
a suggestion. This is a negative suggestion and we know that
negative suggestions depending on lots of things can draw

Google, Democracy, and the Truth about Internet Search
4 9 3
between five and 15 more clicks. And this is all programmed.
And it could be programmed differently.”
What Epstein’s work has shown is that the contents of a
page of search results can influence people’s views and opinions.
The type and order of search rankings was shown to influence
voters in India in double-blind trials. There were similar results
relating to the search suggestions you are offered.
“The general public are completely in the dark about very
fundamental issues regarding online search and influence. We
are talking about the most powerful mind-control machine ever
invented in the history of the human race. And people don’t
even notice it.”
Damien Tambini, an associate professor at the London School
of Economics, who focuses on media regulation, says that we
lack any sort of framework to deal with the potential impact
of these companies on the democratic process. “We have struc-
tures that deal with powerful media corporations. We have
competition laws. But these companies are not being held
responsible. There are no powers to get Google or Facebook
to disclose anything. There’s an editorial function to Google
and Facebook but it’s being done by sophisticated algorithms.
They say it’s machines not editors. But that’s simply a mecha-
nized editorial function.”
And the companies, says John Naughton, the Observer col-
umnist and a senior research fellow at Cambridge University,
are terrified of acquiring editorial responsibilities they don’t
want. “Though they can and regularly do tweak the results in
all sorts of ways.”
Certainly the results about Google on Google don’t seem
entirely neutral. Google “Is Google racist?” and the featured
result—the Google answer boxed out at the top of the page—is
quite clear: no. It is not.

C A R o l E C A d W A l l A d R
4 9 4
But the enormity and complexity of having two global com-
panies of a kind we have never seen before influencing so many
areas of our lives is such, says Naughton, that “we don’t even
have the mental apparatus to even know what the problems are.”
And this is especially true of the future. Google and Face-
book are at the forefront of AI. They are going to own the
future. And the rest of us can barely start to frame the sorts of
questions we ought to be asking. “Politicians don’t think long
term. And corporations don’t think long term because they’re
focused on the next quarterly results and that’s what makes
Google and Facebook interesting and different. They are abso-
lutely thinking long term. They have the resources, the money,
and the ambition to do whatever they want.
“They want to digitize every book in the world: they do it.
They want to build a self-driving car: they do it. The fact that
people are reading about these fake news stories and realizing
that this could have an effect on politics and elections, it’s like,
‘Which planet have you been living on?’ For Christ’s sake, this
is obvious.”
“The internet is among the few things that humans have
built that they don’t understand.” It is “the largest experiment
involving anarchy in history. Hundreds of millions of people
are, each minute, creating and consuming an untold amount
of digital content in an online world that is not truly bound
by terrestrial laws.” The internet as a lawless anarchic state? A
massive human experiment with no checks and balances and
untold potential consequences? What kind of digital doom-
mongerer would say such a thing? Step forward, Eric Schmidt—
Google’s chairman. They are the first lines of the book, The
New Digital Age, that he wrote with Jared Cohen.*
*Jared Cohen Director of Jigsaw, formerly Google Ideas, a technology think tank.

Google, Democracy, and the Truth about Internet Search
4 9 5
We don’t understand it. It is not bound by terrestrial laws.
And it’s in the hands of two massive, all-powerful corporations.
It’s their experiment, not ours. The technology that was sup-
posed to set us free may well have helped Trump to power, or
covertly helped swing votes for Brexit. It has created a vast net-
work of propaganda that has encroached like a cancer across the
entire internet. This is a technology that has enabled the likes
of Cambridge Analytica to create political messages uniquely
tailored to you. They understand your emotional responses and
how to trigger them. They know your likes, dislikes, where you
live, what you eat, what makes you laugh, what makes you cry.
And what next? Rebecca MacKinnon’s research has shown
how authoritarian regimes reshape the internet for their own
purposes. Is that what’s going to happen with Silicon Valley
and Trump? As Martin Moore points out, the president-elect
claimed that Apple chief executive Tim Cook called to con-
gratulate him soon after his election victory. “And there will
undoubtedly be pressure on them to collaborate,” says Moore.
Journalism is failing in the face of such change and is only
going to fail further. New platforms have put a bomb under the
financial model—advertising—resources are shrinking, traffic
is increasingly dependent on them, and publishers have no
access, no insight at all, into what these platforms are doing
in their headquarters, their labs. And now they are moving
beyond the digital world into the physical. The next frontiers
are healthcare, transportation, energy. And just as Google is
a near-monopoly for search, its ambition to own and control
the physical infrastructure of our lives is what’s coming next.
It already owns our data and with it our identity. What will it
mean when it moves into all the other areas of our lives?
“At the moment, there’s a distance when you Google ‘Jews
are’ and get ‘Jews are evil,’” says Julia Powles, a researcher at

C A R o l E C A d W A l l A d R
4 9 6
Cambridge on technology and law. “But when you move into
the physical realm, and these concepts become part of the tools
being deployed when you navigate around your city or influence
how people are employed, I think that has really pernicious
Powles is shortly to publish a paper looking at DeepMind’s
relationship with the NHS.* “A year ago, 2 million Londoners’
NHS health records were handed over to DeepMind. And there
was complete silence from politicians, from regulators, from
anyone in a position of power. This is a company without any
healthcare experience being given unprecedented access into
the NHS and it took seven months to even know that they had
the data. And that took investigative journalism to find it out.”
*NHS National Health Service, the name of the United Kingdom’s public
health care system.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

Google, Democracy, and the Truth about Internet Search
4 9 7
The headline was that DeepMind was going to work with
the NHS to develop an app that would provide early warn-
ing for sufferers of kidney disease. And it is, but DeepMind’s
ambitions—“to solve intelligence”—goes way beyond that. The
entire history of 2 million NHS patients is, for artificial intel-
ligence researchers, a treasure trove. And, their entry into the
NHS—providing useful services in exchange for our personal
data—is another massive step in their power and influence in
every part of our lives.
[Because the stage beyond search is prediction.] Google
wants to know what you want before you know yourself. “That’s
the next stage,” says Martin Moore. “We talk about the omni-
science of these tech giants, but that omniscience takes a huge
step forward again if they are able to predict. And that’s where
they want to go. To predict diseases in health. It’s really, really
For the nearly 20 years that Google has been in existence,
our view of the company has been inflected by the youth and
liberal outlook of its founders. Ditto Facebook, whose mission,
Zuckerberg said, was not to be “a company. It was built to
accomplish a social mission to make the world more open and
It would be interesting to know how he thinks that’s work-
ing out. Donald Trump is connecting through exactly the same
technology. . . . And Facebook and Google are amplifying and
spreading that message. And us too—the mainstream media. Our
outrage is just another node on Jonathan Albright’s data map.
“The more we argue with them, the more they know about
us,” he says. “It all feeds into a circular system. What we’re
seeing here is a new era of network propaganda.”
We are all points on that map. And our complicity, our cre-
dulity, being consumers not concerned citizens, is an essential

C A R o l E C A d W A l l A d R
4 9 8
part of that process. And what happens next is down to us. “I
would say that everybody has been really naive and we need
to reset ourselves to a much more cynical place and proceed
on that basis,” is Rebecca MacKinnon’s advice. “There is no
doubt that where we are now is a very bad place. But it’s we as
a society who have jointly created this problem. And if we want
to get to a better place, when it comes to having an information
ecosystem that serves human rights and democracy instead of
destroying it, we have to share responsibility for that.”
Are Jews evil? How do you want that question answered? This
is our internet. Not Google’s. Not Facebook’s. Not right-wing
propagandists.’ And we’re the only ones who can reclaim it.
Joining the Conversation
1. In what ways does Carole Cadwalladr believe that Google
is jeopardizing democracy throughout the world? What sup-
porting arguments and evidence does she provide?
2. Cadwalladr makes clear what her own views are, but she does
not say much about other viewpoints. What objections could
be raised to her argument, and where would you introduce
them in her essay?
3. Cadwalladr frequently quotes others on the prominent
representation of right-wing views in Google searches, but
she doesn’t always set up these quotations or follow them
with explanations. Find two examples—in each case, how
might she add a sentence or two to explain their mean-
ing and significance? (See pp. 45–49 for ways to frame

Google, Democracy, and the Truth about Internet Search
4 9 9
4. Compare the author’s view of Google with Nicholas Carr’s
view of Google (pp. 424–40). How are they similar? How
are they different?
5. Cadwalladr makes a number of debatable claims: “The
right has colonized the digital space . . . far more effec-
tively than the liberal left” (paragraph 26) and “Google and
Facebook . . . are going to own the future” (paragraph 49).
Write an essay responding to one of these claims or another
claim that interests you, drawing upon your own experiences
to support your argument.

5 0 0
Go Ahead:
Waste Time on the Internet
k e n n e t h g o l d s m i t h
Is the Internet a waste of time? It’s not so easy to say.
When I click around news sites, am I wasting time because I
should be working instead? What if I’ve spent hours working,
and I need a break? Am I wasting time if I watch cat videos, but
not if I read a magazine story about the Iran nuclear deal? Am I
wasting time if I look up the latest presidential polling numbers,
but not if I’m communicating with an old friend on Facebook?
The notion that the Internet is bad for you seems premised
on the idea that the Internet is one thing—a monolith. In
reality it’s a befuddling mix of the stupid and the sublime, a
shattered, contradictory, and fragmented medium. Internet
Kenneth Goldsmith is a poet and author of ten books, including
Seven American Deaths and Disasters (2013) and Uncreative Writing:
Managing Language in the Digital Age (2013). He is the founding editor
of UbuWeb, an online archive, and senior editor of PennSound, a web-
site for digital poetry recordings based at the University of Pennsylva-
nia, where he teaches writing. This essay, first published on August 12,
2016 for the Los Angeles Times, is from his book Wasting Time on the
Internet (2016).

Go Ahead: Waste Time on the Internet
5 0 1
detractors seem to miss this simple fact, which is why so many
of their criticisms disintegrate under observation.
The way Internet pundits tell it, you’d think we stare for
three hours at clickbait—those articles with hypersensational
headlines—the way we once sat down and watched three hours
of cartoons on Saturday morning TV. But most of us don’t do
any one thing on the Internet. Instead, we do many things,
some of it frivolous, some of it heavy. Our time spent in front of
the computer is a mixed time, a time that reflects our desires—
as opposed to the time spent sitting in front of the television
where we were fed shows we didn’t necessarily enjoy. TV gave
us few choices. Many of us truly did feel like we wasted our
time—as our parents so often chided us—“rotting away” in
front of the TV.
I keep reading—on screens—that in the age of screens we’ve
lost our ability to concentrate, that we’ve become distracted.
But when I look around me and see people riveted to their
devices, I notice a great wealth of concentration, focus, and
And I keep reading—on the Internet—that the Internet
has made us antisocial, that we’ve lost the ability to have a
conversation. But when I see people with their devices, what
I see is people communicating with one another: texting, chat-
ting, IM’ing. And I have to wonder, in what way is this not
social? A conversation broken up into short bursts and quick
emoticons is still a conversation. Watch someone’s face while
they’re in the midst of a rapid-fire text message exchange: it’s
full of emotion—anticipation, laughter, affect.
The Internet has been accused of making us shallow. We’re
skimming, not reading. We lack the ability to engage deeply
with a subject anymore. That’s both true and not true: we skim
and browse certain types of content, and read others carefully.

k E N N E T H G o l d S M I T H
5 0 2
We’re not all using our devices the same way. Looking over the
shoulders of people absorbed in their devices on the subway, I
see many people reading newspapers and books and many oth-
ers playing Candy Crush. Sometimes someone will be glancing
at a newspaper one moment and playing a game the next.
The other night, I walked into the living room and my wife
was glued to her iPad, reading “Narrative of the Life of Frederick
Douglass.” Hours later, when I headed to bed, she hadn’t moved
an inch, still transfixed by this 171-year-old narrative on her 21st-
century device. When I said good night, she didn’t even look up.
Internet critics tell us time and again that our brains are
being rewired; I’m not so sure that’s a bad thing. Every new
media requires new ways of thinking. Wouldn’t it be
strange if in the midst of this digital revolution we were
still expected to use our brains in the same way we read
books or watched TV?
The resistance to the Internet shouldn’t surprise us: Cultural
reactionaries defending the status quo have been around as
long as media has. Marshall McLuhan tells us that television
was written off by people invested in literature as merely “mass
entertainment” just as the printed book was met with the same
skepticism in the 16th century by scholastic philosophers.
McLuhan says that “the vested interests of acquired knowl-
edge and conventional wisdom have always been by-passed and
engulfed by new media . . . The student of media soon comes
to expect the new media of any period whatever to be classed
as pseudo by those who have acquired the patterns of earlier
media, whatever they may happen to be.”
I’m told that our children are most at risk, that the exces-
sive use of computers has led our kids to view the real world
as fake. But I’m not so sure that even I can distinguish “real”
from “fake.” How is my life on Facebook any less “real” than
See pp. 25–27
for ways to
introduce an
ongoing debate.

Go Ahead: Waste Time on the Internet
5 0 3
what happens in my day-to-day life? In fact, much of what does
happen in my day-to-day life comes through Facebook—work
opportunities, invitations to dinner parties, and even the topics
I discuss at those dinner parties.
After reading one of those hysterical “devices are ruining
your child” articles, my sister-in-law decided to take action. She
imposed a system whereby, after dinner, the children were to
“turn in” their devices—computers, smartphones, and tablets.
They could “check them out” over the course of the evening,
but only if they could prove they needed them for “educational
purposes.” Upon confiscating my nephew’s cell phone one
Friday night, she asked him on Saturday morning, “What plans
do you have with your friends today?” “None,” he responded.
“You took away my phone.”
On a vacation, after a full day of outdoor activities that
included seeing the Grand Canyon and hiking, my friend and
her family settled into the hotel for the evening. Her 12-year-
old daughter is a fan of preteen goth girl crafting videos on
YouTube, where she learns how to bedazzle black skull T-shirts
and make perfectly ripped punk leggings. That evening, the girl
selected some of her favorite videos to share with her mother.
After agreeing to watch a few, her mother grew impatient. “This
is nice, but I don’t want to spend the whole night clicking
around.” The daughter responded indignantly that she wasn’t
just “clicking around.” She was connecting with a community
of girls her own age who shared similar interests.
Her mother was forced to reconsider her premise that her
daughter was just wasting time on the Internet; instead, she was
fully engaged, fostering an aesthetic, feeding her imagination,
indulging in her creative proclivities, and hanging out with her
friends, all from the comfort of a remote hotel room perched
on the edge of the Grand Canyon.

k E N N E T H G o l d S M I T H
5 0 4
Many Internet critics yearn for a return to solitude and
introspection, quiet places far removed from the noises of our
devices. But those places, away from the rabble, are starting to
remind me of gated communities.
Joining the Conversation
1. Kenneth Goldsmith introduces a series of standard views fol-
lowed by a series of “I say” statements. List each pair, noting
the specific language the author uses in each instance.
2. So what? Who cares? Where does Goldsmith explain why
his argument matters—and for whom?
3. Goldsmith quotes Marshall McLuhan, a scholar who wrote
about the effects of technology on people. Compare Gold-
smith’s paraphrasing of McLuhan’s ideas with Nicholas Carr’s
(p. 426, paragraph 4). Which author, in your view, provides
a better paraphrase? Why?
4. Read Andreas Elpidorou’s article “The Quiet Alarm” on What do you think Goldsmith would
say to Elpidorou’s claim that the “next time boredom over-
comes you . . . [i]t might be best not to cover it up with your
5. How do your friends, family, and/or coworkers spend time on
the internet? How do they feel about it? Incorporating their
views as evidence, write an essay responding to Goldsmith
in which you agree, disagree, or both with his argument.

5 0 5
No Need to Call
s h e r r y t u r k l e
“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 science, technology, and society pro-
gram 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 Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital
Age (2015), Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology
and Less from Each Other (2011), and Life on the Screen: Identity in the
Age of the Internet (1995). This essay is from Alone Together.

S H E R R y T u R k l E
5 0 6
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 say-
ing 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 encouraging feeling of already being together. In this
curious relational space, even sophisticated users who know
that electronic communications can be saved, shared, and show
up in court, succumb 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

No Need to Call
5 0 7
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

S H E R R y T u R k l E
5 0 8
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.”

No Need to Call
5 0 9
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

S H E R R y T u R k l E
5 1 0
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.

No Need to Call
5 1 1
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.”

S H E R R y T u R k l E
5 1 2
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.”

No Need to Call
5 1 3
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

S H E R R y T u R k l E
5 1 4
thirty-five to forty-four.5 Conventional wisdom stresses
how different these adults are from their children—
laying 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.”
wisdom” is the
“standard view.”
For more on
this move, see
pp. 23−24.

No Need to Call
5 1 5
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.

S H E R R y T u R k l E
5 1 6
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

No Need to Call
5 1 7
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

S H E R R y T u R k l E
5 1 8
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
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

No Need to Call
5 1 9
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

S H E R R y T u R k l E
5 2 0
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 can-
not all write like Lincoln or Shakespeare, but even the least
gifted among 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
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

No Need to Call
5 2 1
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.

S H E R R y T u R k l E
5 2 2
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,
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,
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

No Need to Call
5 2 3
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. 508−13) in
one paragraph.

S H E R R y T u R k l E
5 2 4
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. Go to and read Tim Adams’s interview
with Turkle. In what ways have Turkle’s views about con-
versation in a digital age changed, if at all? How have her
views stayed the same?
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.

5 2 5
Does a Protest’s Size Matter?� �
z e y n e p t u f e k c i
The Women’s March on Saturday, which took place in
cities and towns all across the United States (and around the
world), may well have been the largest protest in American
history. There were an estimated 3.5 million participants.
This has to mean something, right?
After studying protests over the last two decades, I have
to deliver some bad news: In the digital age, the size of a pro-
test is no longer a reliable indicator of a movement’s strength.
Comparisons to the number of people in previous marches are
especially misleading.
A protest does not have power just because many people
get together in one place. Rather, a protest has power insofar
as it signals the underlying capacity of the forces it represents.
Zeynep Tufekci is a professor at the School of Information and Library
Science at the University of North Carolina who researches the rela-
tionship between technology and society. She is also a faculty associate
at the Harvard Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society and
author of Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked
Protest (2017). This op-ed piece first appeared in the New York Times
on January 27, 2017. Follow her on Twitter @zeynep.

z E y N E p T u f E k C I
5 2 6
Consider an analogy from the natural world: A gazelle will
sometimes jump high in the air while grazing, apparently to no
end—but it is actually signaling strength. “If I can jump this
high,” it communicates to would-be predators, “I can also run
very fast. Don’t bother with the chase.”
Protesters are saying, in effect, “If we can pull this off, imag-
ine what else we can do.”
But it is much easier to pull off a large protest than it used
to be. In the past, a big demonstration required months, if not
years, of preparation. The planning for the March on Washing-
ton in August 1963, for example, started nine months earlier,
in December 1962. The march drew a quarter of a million
people, but it represented much more effort, commitment and
preparation than would a protest of similar size today. Without
Facebook, without Twitter, without email, without cellphones,
without crowdfunding, the ability to organize such a march
was a fair proxy for the strength and sophistication of the civil
rights movement.

Does a Protest’s Size Matter?� �
5 2 7
The Women’s March, on the other hand, started with a few
Facebook posts and came together in a relatively short amount
of time. The organizers no doubt did a lot of work, and the size
and the energy of the gathering reflected a remarkable
depth of dissent. However, as with all protests today, the
march required fewer resources and less time spent on coordina-
tion than a comparable protest once did.
This is one reason that recent large protests have had less
effect on policy than many were led to expect. I participated
in the antiwar protests of February 2003—at that point, likely
the largest global protest in history, with events in more than
600 cities. I assumed the United States and its allies could not
ignore a protest of that size. But President George W. Bush,
dismissing the protesters as a “focus group,” indeed proceeded
to ignore us, and the Iraq war began soon after. Mr. Bush was
right in one way: The protesters failed to transform into an
electoral force capable of defeating him in the 2004 election.
In 2011, I attended the global Occupy protests, which were
held in about 1,000 cities in more than 80 countries—again,
likely the biggest global protest ever, at that point. Thanks in part
to digital technology, those protests, too, had been organized in
just a few weeks. I was optimistic that I would soon see political
and economic changes in response to this large-scale expression
of resistance to economic inequality. I was wrong, then, too.
Two enormous protests, two disappointing results. Similar
sequences of events have played out in other parts of the world.
This doesn’t mean that protests no longer matter—they do.
Nowadays, however, protests should be seen not as the culmi-
nation of an organizing effort, but as a first, potential step. A
large protest today is less like the March on Washington in
1963 and more like Rosa Parks’s refusal to move to the back of
the bus. What used to be an endpoint is now an initial spark.
See pp. 64–65
for more “yes
and no” moves.

z E y N E p T u f E k C I
5 2 8
More than ever before, the significance of a protest depends
on what happens afterward.
Consider the Tea Party protests of 2009, which also brought
out hundreds of thousands of people in cities throughout the
United States, and which also were organized with the help of
digital communication. Like any other protest, including the
Women’s March, these were symbolic expressions of support,
and they also functioned as events where like-minded individuals
could find one another. But the Tea Party protesters then got to
work on a ferociously focused agenda: identifying and support-
ing primary candidates to challenge Republicans who did not
agree with their demands, keeping close tabs on legislation and
pressuring politicians who deviated from a Tea Party platform.
Last Saturday, as I participated in the Women’s March in
North Carolina, I marveled at the large turnout and the passion
of those who marched. But if those protesters are not exchang-
ing contact information and setting up local strategy meetings,
their large numbers are unlikely to translate into the kind of
effectiveness the Tea Party supporters had after their protests
in 2009.
The Tea Party, of course, is not the only model for moving
forward. But there is no magic power to marching in the streets
that, on its own, leads to any other kind of result.
The march I attended in North Carolina ended with every-
one singing along to a song called “Let’s Get to Work.” For
today’s protests, more than ever, that’s the right message.

Does a Protest’s Size Matter?� �
5 2 9
Joining the Conversation
1. Identify the primary “they say” and “I say” statements in this
essay. Why, according to Zeynep Tufekci, is the number of
people participating in a protest no longer a reliable indica-
tor of the strength of a movement?
2. What role, both short-term and long-term, does the author
believe social media plays in the development of a protest
movement? How does her discussion of the Women’s March
toward the beginning and at the end of this essay fit into
her argument?
3. In pargraph 13, Tufekci states, “more than ever before, the
significance of a protest depends on what happens after-
ward.” Why, in your view, does Tufekci then describe the
Tea Party protests of 2009?
4. Tufekci focuses on the ability of technology to bring large
groups of people together around a cause, but also argues
that protests are not enough. How might danah boyd
(pp. 219–29) respond to this claim?
5. Write a Facebook post inviting like-minded people to a
protest march (devoted to a cause of your choice). In the
post, describe your plan for the march and also for follow-up
activities to take place after the march.

5 3 1
what’s gender got
to do with it?
In the news, at home, at school, and out with friends, gen-
der is a much-discussed topic. Gender, in the words of Kate
Gilles, a policy analyst at the Population Reference Bureau, “is
a social construct—that is, a society’s assumptions about the
way a man or woman should look and behave.” Gender roles
in our society have changed considerably in recent decades:
there are more women in the workforce, many doing jobs once
held exclusively or primarily by men, and more men taking
an active role in the raising of children, including a growing
number of men who choose to stay at home with the children
while their partner works outside the home. Moreover, while
discrimination still exists, there is increasing acceptance of
nonheterosexual relationships—most notably with same-sex
marriage now legal in all of the United States—and, in the
last few years, of people who choose to change their gender
or sex.
No matter one’s roles or beliefs, pressure still exists for people,
particularly children, to maintain traditional gender roles—for
males, playing sports, acting tough, and not showing emo-
tion; for females, emphasizing physical appearance, attracting
members of the opposite sex, and not acting “too intelligent.”

5 3 2
Journalist Laurie Frankel writes about how her son went from
“he to she in first grade,” and how her child experienced this
transition at home and at school. Stephen Mays, an editor
at U.S. News and World Report, finds that the same gender
stereotypes that exist in society at large are often also pres-
ent in same-sex relationships, arguing against these limiting
Other writers in the chapter focus on the unique expectations
of women, arguing that while women have made substantial
progress in the United States, serious obstacles remain. Anne-
Marie Slaughter, a former government official and current
university dean, observes that women who want to advance in
their careers find it difficult to also raise children—and that it’s
not possible to really “have it all.” College president Raynard
Kington explains why he still has it easier than working moms
even though he is, as he says in the title of his essay, “gay and
African American.” Kate Crawford, a technology researcher,
argues that the dominance of white males in the technology
industry has led to a bias against women and minorities.
In response to such critiques, some male writers argue that
the situation for men in contemporary American life is, in
many ways, just as problematic for women. Journalist, husband,
and father Richard Dorment writes about the increasing dif-
ficulty men have in balancing work and home life. Educator
Andrew Reiner argues that conforming to male stereotypes of
toughness and stoicism makes it much harder for men to be
“emotionally honest”—with themselves and with others. And
economist Nicholas Eberstadt discusses the plight of men who
are now unemployed or underemployed due to the decline of
industrial production in the United States.
W H A T ’ S G E N D E R G O T T O D O W I T H I T ?

5 3 3
Gender is personal, part of one’s own developing identity
and web of relationships, but it is also political, related to ques-
tions of equity, fairness, and civil rights. In reading about some
of the discussions taking place around gender, you will have
the opportunity to learn more about this topic, formulate your
views, and become part of this ongoing conversation.
What’s Gender Got to Do with It?

5 3 4
Why Women Still Can’t Have It All
a n n e – m a r i e s l a u g h t e r
Redefining the Arc of a Successful Career
Eighteen months into my job as the first woman director
of policy planning at the State Department, a foreign-policy
dream job that traces its origins back to George Kennan, I found
myself in New York, at the United Nations’ annual assemblage
of every foreign minister and head of state in the world. On a
Wednesday evening, President and Mrs. Obama hosted a glam-
orous reception at the American Museum of Natural History.
I sipped champagne, greeted foreign dignitaries, and mingled.
But I could not stop thinking about my 14-year-old son, who
had started eighth grade three weeks earlier and was already
resuming what had become his pattern of skipping homework,
Anne-Marie Slaughter is the president and CEO of the New America
Foundation, “a think tank and civic enterprise committed to renewing
American politics, prosperity, and purpose in the digital age.” She has
taught at Princeton University and Harvard Law School and worked as
director of policy planning for the US State Department. She is also the
author and editor of several books, most recently The Chessboard and the
Web: Strategies of Connection in a Networked World (2017). This essay
first appeared in the July/August 2012 issue of the Atlantic.

Why Women Still Can’t Have It All
5 3 5
disrupting classes, failing math, and tuning out any adult who
tried to reach him. Over the summer, we had barely spoken to
each other—or, more accurately, he had barely spoken to me.
And the previous spring I had received several urgent phone
calls—invariably on the day of an important meeting—that
required me to take the first train from Washington, D.C.,
where I worked, back to Princeton, New Jersey, where he lived.
My husband, who has always done everything possible to sup-
port my career, took care of him and his 12-year-old brother
during the week; outside of those midweek emergencies, I came
home only on weekends.
As the evening wore on, I ran into a colleague who held a
senior position in the White House. She has two sons exactly
my sons’ ages, but she had chosen to move them from California
to D.C. when she got her job, which meant her husband com-
muted back to California regularly. I told her how difficult I was
finding it to be away from my son when he clearly needed me.
Then I said, “When this is over, I’m going to write an op-ed
titled ‘Women Can’t Have It All.’ ”
She was horrified. “You can’t write that,” she said. “You, of
all people.” What she meant was that such a statement, com-
ing from a high-profile career woman—a role model—would
be a terrible signal to younger generations of women. By the
end of the evening, she had talked me out of it, but for the
remainder of my stint in Washington, I was increasingly aware
that the feminist beliefs on which I had built my entire career
were shifting under my feet. I had always assumed that if I could
get a foreign-policy job in the State Department or the White
House while my party was in power, I would stay the course as
long as I had the opportunity to do work I loved. But in January
2011, when my two-year public-service leave from Princeton
University was up, I hurried home as fast as I could.

A N N E – m A R I E S l A u G H T E R
5 3 6
A rude epiphany hit me soon after I got there. When people
asked why I had left government, I explained that I’d come
home not only because of Princeton’s rules (after two years of
leave, you lose your tenure), but also because of my desire to
be with my family and my conclusion that juggling high-level
government work with the needs of two teenage boys was not
possible. I have not exactly left the ranks of full-time career
women: I teach a full course load; write regular print and online
columns on foreign policy; give 40 to 50 speeches a year; appear
regularly on TV and radio; and am working on a new academic
book. But I routinely got reactions from other women my age
or older that ranged from disappointed (“It’s such a pity that
you had to leave Washington”) to condescending (“I wouldn’t
generalize from your experience. I’ve never had to compromise,
and my kids turned out great”).
The first set of reactions, with the underlying assumption
that my choice was somehow sad or unfortunate, was irksome
enough. But it was the second set of reactions—those implying
that my parenting and /or my commitment to my profession were
somehow substandard—that triggered a blind fury. Suddenly,
finally, the penny dropped. All my life, I’d been on the other side
of this exchange. I’d been the woman smiling the faintly superior
smile while another woman told me she had decided to take
some time out or pursue a less competitive career track so that
she could spend more time with her family. I’d been the woman
congratulating herself on her unswerving commitment to the
feminist cause, chatting smugly with her dwindling number of
college or law-school friends who had reached and maintained
their place on the highest rungs of their profession. I’d been the
one telling young women at my lectures that you can have it all
and do it all, regardless of what field you are in. Which means
I’d been part, albeit unwittingly, of making millions of women

Why Women Still Can’t Have It All
5 3 7
feel that they are to blame if they cannot manage to rise up the
ladder as fast as men and also have a family and an active home
life (and be thin and beautiful to boot).
Last spring, I flew to Oxford to give a public lecture. At
the request of a young Rhodes Scholar I know, I’d agreed to
talk to the Rhodes community about “work-family balance.”
I ended up speaking to a group of about 40 men and women in
their mid-20s. What poured out of me was a set of very frank
reflections on how unexpectedly hard it was to do the kind of
job I wanted to do as a high government official and be the
kind of parent I wanted to be, at a demanding time for my
children (even though my husband, an academic, was willing
to take on the lion’s share of parenting for the two years I was in
Washington). I concluded by saying that my time in office had
convinced me that further government service would be very
unlikely while my sons were still at home. The audience was
rapt, and asked many thoughtful questions. One of the first was
from a young woman who began by thanking me for “not giving
just one more fatuous ‘You can have it all’ talk.” Just about all
of the women in that room planned to combine careers and
family in some way. But almost all assumed and accepted that
they would have to make compromises that the men in their
lives were far less likely to have to make.
The striking gap between the responses I heard from
those young women (and others like them) and the
responses I heard from my peers and associates prompted
me to write this article. Women of my generation have
clung to the feminist credo we were raised with, even as our
ranks have been steadily thinned by unresolvable tensions
between family and career, because we are determined not to
drop the flag for the next generation. But when many mem-
bers of the younger generation have stopped listening, on the
See p. 138
for tips on
indicating the
importance of
a claim.

A N N E – m A R I E S l A u G H T E R
5 3 8
grounds that glibly repeating “you can have it all” is simply
airbrushing reality, it is time to talk.
I still strongly believe that women can “have it all” (and
that men can too). I believe that we can “have it all at the
same time.” But not today, not with the way America’s econ-
omy and society are currently structured. My experiences over
the past three years have forced me to confront a number of
uncomfortable facts that need to be widely acknowledged—
and quickly changed.
Before my service in government, I’d spent my career in
academia: as a law professor and then as the dean of Princeton’s
Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
Both were demanding jobs, but I had the ability to set my own
schedule most of the time. I could be with my kids when I needed
to be, and still get the work done. I had to travel frequently,
but I found I could make up for that with an extended period
at home or a family vacation.
I knew that I was lucky in my career choice, but I had
no idea how lucky until I spent two years in Washington
within a rigid bureaucracy, even with bosses as understanding
as Hillary Clinton and her chief of staff, Cheryl Mills. My
workweek started at 4:20 on Monday morning, when I got up
to get the 5:30 train from Trenton to Washington. It ended
late on Friday, with the train home. In between, the days were
crammed with meetings, and when the meetings stopped, the
writing work began—a never-ending stream of memos, reports,
and comments on other people’s drafts. For two years, I never
left the office early enough to go to any stores other than those
open 24 hours, which meant that everything from dry cleaning
to hair appointments to Christmas shopping had to be done
on weekends, amid children’s sporting events, music lessons,

Why Women Still Can’t Have It All
5 3 9
family meals, and conference calls. I was entitled to four hours
of vacation per pay period, which came to one day of vacation
a month. And I had it better than many of my peers in D.C.;
Secretary Clinton deliberately came in around 8 a.m. and left
around 7 p.m., to allow her close staff to have morning and
evening time with their families (although of course she worked
earlier and later, from home).
In short, the minute I found myself in a job that is typical
for the vast majority of working women (and men), working
long hours on someone else’s schedule, I could no longer be
both the parent and the professional I wanted to be—at least
not with a child experiencing a rocky adolescence. I realized
what should have perhaps been obvious: having it all, at least
for me, depended almost entirely on what type of job I had.
The flip side is the harder truth: having it all was not possible
in many types of jobs, including high government office—at
least not for very long.
I am hardly alone in this realization. Michèle Flournoy
stepped down after three years as undersecretary of defense
for policy, the third-highest job in the department, to spend
more time at home with her three children, two of whom are
teenagers. Karen Hughes left her position as the counselor to
President George W. Bush after a year and a half in Washington
to go home to Texas for the sake of her family. Mary Matalin,
who spent two years as an assistant to Bush and the counselor
to Vice President Dick Cheney before stepping down to spend
more time with her daughters, wrote: “Having control over
your schedule is the only way that women who want to have
a career and a family can make it work.”
Yet the decision to step down from a position of power—
to value family over professional advancement, even for a
time—is directly at odds with the prevailing social pressures

A N N E – m A R I E S l A u G H T E R
5 4 0
on career professionals in the United States. One phrase says it
all about current attitudes toward work and family, particularly
among elites. In Washington, “leaving to spend time with your
family” is a euphemism for being fired. This understanding is so
ingrained that when Flournoy announced her resignation last
December, The New York Times covered her decision as follows:
Ms. Flournoy’s announcement surprised friends and a number of
Pentagon officials, but all said they took her reason for resigna-
tion at face value and not as a standard Washington excuse for an
official who has in reality been forced out. “I can absolutely and
unequivocally state that her decision to step down has nothing to
do with anything other than her commitment to her family,” said
Doug Wilson, a top Pentagon spokesman. “She has loved this job
and people here love her.”
Think about what this “standard Washington excuse” implies:
it is so unthinkable that an official would actually step down to
spend time with his or her family that this must be a cover for
something else. How could anyone voluntarily leave the circles of
power for the responsibilities of parenthood? Depending on one’s
vantage point, it is either ironic or maddening that this view
abides in the nation’s capital, despite the ritual commitments to
“family values” that are part of every political campaign. Regard-
less, this sentiment makes true work-life balance exceptionally
difficult. But it cannot change unless top women speak out.
Only recently have I begun to appreciate the extent to which
many young professional women feel under assault by women
my age and older. After I