Identity, Creation, and Direction

Micha’el Leventhal said, “The closer you come to knowing that you alone create the world of your experience, the more vital it becomes for you to discover just who is doing the creating.”

I am the creator of my own world. This means that the choices I make every single day of my life affect the outcome of my entire future. This means the choices I make can affect other people’s lives. This means that as an individual, I have way more control over my own life, and others’ lives too, than what I may perceive myself as having.

The term create, according to Lexico, means to “bring (something) into existence … Cause (something) to happen as a result of one’s own actions.” This term seems quite fitting for myself since the choices I make day-to-day can cause other things to occur.

If one, for example, I walk up the hill by Lauderdale Health Services in order to go to the library, I will likely end up eating at least two of my meals at Books n Bytes since it is the most convenient location for me to eat at. I chose to walk up the hill to ensure that I have a productive day at the library. With this decision, my course load work can be accomplished even more efficiently as I surround myself with students who are also striving to complete their work. With this decision, I am portraying myself to others as a student who cares about her future and wants to excel in her studies.

As a creator, this means that somehow, in some ways, the choices I make every day provide me with a direction. This direction can also be as simple as where I will choose to eat, which depends on where I feel like walking. This direction can be as complex as, what will I major in? That can affect my life’s career. Should I choose to do psychology so that I can become a therapist? This means I have to take such and such psychology courses. This means that if I choose to pursue psychology that I need to maintain such GPA and attend such and such years of graduate school. This means that I can make X amount of money when I am older. Each of my individual actions affects both the world I currently live in as well as my future world.  But what if I am unsure of my direction or if I quite simply had no direction?

When I ponder the question of not having a direction, I automatically think about my identity. In some ways, my identity is what gives me a direction. This direction can be as simple as where my name is in alphabetical order compared to my peers in a classroom. In Professor McCoy’s class once, our class discussed the idea of alphabetical order and what this specific order signifies. Our class first had to alphabetize ourselves by our last names, and then after, by our first names. We discussed the idea behind this organization and whether or not being alphabetized means anything, I said aloud that my last name is both a sign of my culture and my family’s heritage, as well as indicative of where my position is in an organized fashion compared to my peers’ last names.

An identity, according to Lexico, is “the fact of being who or what a person or thing is.” This means that as an individual, I can define myself by my name and say my state of being is Leila and my last name Sassouni is what provides me with the direction or life path that I will follow.

In some ways, however, if I did not have a name, then I would be lost in the world. If I do not know my own name, then how can I expect to be able to further identify with myself as a human being? If I do not know my own name, how can I expect to follow some kind of direction if my name cannot even provide one for me? I would be lost without my identity.

This intervention between identity and direction leads me to speak about my own uncertainty. I will introduce my own uncertainty of direction, and its specific association to English courses. I am a current psychology major with a minor in English. I enjoy speaking to people about personal issues and can envision myself as a therapist one day working with adolescents. I also enjoy writing and editing and would like to write for a newspaper in the future. While I may seem to have an idea of my life’s direction, I did not used to. In the beginning of this semester, I encountered a struggle. My struggle was regarding whether or not I wanted to stay an English minor or if I should instead declare a communication minor. I internally lost my sense of identity, as I previously considered writing one of my biggest passions. I questioned if the Leila from freshman year of college was the same Leila in sophomore year. I questioned if the Leila who loved writing for the newspaper actually wanted to pursue some kind of journalistic field when she was older. I questioned, who is Leila without writing? The overall answer is that I was completely unsure of my path and felt as if I had no direction. I had no guidance. I found challenge in connecting to myself through writing as I had once been able to.

To overcome this uncertainty and further reconnect with my identity and myself as a creator of my own direction, I pursued English. I enrolled in my first English minor class ENGL 203. I chose to do this because I needed to test the waters for myself, and to further identify whether or not I, Leila Sassouni, was meant to pursue English and get a degree in the field. Taking this class was one step that would either help me create a stronger foundation for my future world or would make me change my future path if I chose instead to declare communication as a minor. I chose to stay in the field, as I allowed myself to get passionately lost in the writing I produced in my blog posts. I wrote write about discussions I had in class with peers when reading different texts. I blogged about my thoughts of literary works and I would somehow form a strong connection with other disciplines; I finally felt reconnected with my identity, which gave me a direction.

This leads me to Percival Everett’s novel I am Not Sidney Poitier. As evidently noticed through the novel’s title as well as through the course of Not Sidney Poitier’s experience as an adolescent to his later adult life, his actual name starts with the word “Not”.

As defined by Lexico, a definition for the term “not” is “exclude[s] a person or part of a group.”

Not Sidney, which is just his first name, essentially has no identity. He is known as “Not” being someone. This lack of identity plays into his life’s journey as his life becomes an adventure since he is given no specific direction to follow. In other words, his name reflects his path: there is none. While his upbringing includes him being raised by his mother for a short time, and then being raised in Ted Turner’s house, his entire journey takes a spin as he suddenly becomes arrested, he becomes a prisoner, and then he helps random nuns who he encounters while driving on a road. He had absolutely no direction; therefore, he was not even the creator of his own world.

This links similarly to a previous blog post I wrote where I demonstrated that throughout his life, Not Sidney did not make choices for himself. He was arrested because of his skin color; he became a prisoner because of the fact that he was arrested. Neither of these were his decisions nor were they in his control; they were decisions made by a third party. This is similar because of the fact that his name means he is not part of a group, which means that he is an outlier. He is alone by himself, while all other people who have a name are part of an in group and can identify by their names. Since others have names that do not include the word “not”, they have a direction to follow because of the fact that they can identify with themselves. This is the opposite for Not Sidney since he cannot even identify with his own name. Therefore, this lack of a connection causes him to lose control over creating his own world.

Overall, both my experience in the English disciplinary field as well as my interaction with the text I am Not Sidney Poitier illustrate how crucial an identity is to set a concrete foundation and/or a direction in life. If Not Sidney had a name without the term “not”, he would have been better able to create his own world. Without my identity, I could not become a creator of my own world.

The Prevalence of Racism

Percival Everett’s novel entitled I am Not Sidney Poitier, contains a lack of temporality in the context of the novel. Being that this novel is strongly focused surrounding the issue of racism, I initially assumed, as seen in my third post, that the contextual time period was likely before 1954. I assumed this because of the Brown vs. Board of Education case in 1954 that declared segregation as unconstitutional. However, after closer analysis, I discovered that Everett does not provide a specific year to base his novel on. As a reader, I followed closely to see that in the year of 1970, Not Sidney was two years old, but as mentioned, racism was declared unconstitutional in 1954. After discussing my observations with Claire about the confusion of years, she helped me arrive at the interpretation that perhaps Everett’s intention in including the uncertainty of years is to show the prevalence of racism. Perhaps he wants to convey that racism, even though it was declared unconstitutional in 1954, is still a prevalent issue in today’s society.

Racism, according to Ross Murfin and Supryia M. Ray’s The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms, is defined as, “the destructive devaluation of one cultural group by another based on supposed (but in fact nonexistent or insignificant) differences” (365). This term applies to the idea of this novel in general, being that the main protagonist is African American and experiences racism.

Not Sidney, the novel’s main protagonist, grows up in Atlanta, Georgia. The only time he mentions a calendar year is at the mention of being two years old as he says, “When I was two, in 1970…” (Everett 6). Upon encountering this specified year, I felt both confused yet somewhat understanding. I felt confused since I know background information about the Brown vs Board of Education case in 1954 and its decision, but I also somewhat understood that there must be purpose in including the year 1970. Without considering possible interpretations of these mixed messages and also of his birth year, I asked myself a range of questions: had Not Sidney just started to experience racism? Was Not Sidney experiencing the lasting effects of racism? Had any higher officials, like the President of the United States, acknowledged the issue of racism previously?

Everett specifically omits the mention of years because he intends for readers to perceive racism as an ongoing issue. At a later, unspecified date, Not Sidney decides to leave Atlanta, and in the beginning stage of his travels he is pulled over. The officer, using racist language, says, “Y’all done heard me na, boy! Move na! Move yo black ass. Na, git out chere, raght na!” (Everett 47). At this point in the novel, all I know is that Not Sidney is almost at the legal age to drive; he is not yet able to though, according to the law. He uses a “fake” license (Everett 45). With the uncertainty of his age at the time he starts driving, as well as the occurrence of being racially profiled, Everett deliberately leaves me baffled in my attempt to decipher between how many years have passed since Not Sidney was a young boy.

I find it challenging to grapple with the duration of time that Not Sidney has had to experience racism. Not Sidney, since his early childhood, has been both exposed to and confronted with racism. In his early childhood, when Betty first introduced him to the concept of racial distinctions as she said, “the devil is white”, Not Sidney has both known and has had to accept that the treatment he receives is incomparable to the treatment of Caucasians (Everett 10). He begins to learn and understand that because of the unequal treatment that many African Americans face, those whom have achieved successful, stable jobs, have had to work tirelessly since members of society who have more racist attitudes have tried to keep them “down” (Everett 128).

When Not Sidney is meeting his girlfriend Maggie’s African American family during their school’s Thanksgiving break, she describes to him the politics that her mother is involved in, assuring Not Sidney that he should feel comfortable while at her home. She explains her mother’s job as she says, “My mother testifies before Congress and goes on television all the time talking about conservative issues. She’s trying to get rid of the welfare system because it keeps black people down and to stop gay rights because it endangers the family structure and keeps black people down and to abolish affirmative action because it teaches special preference and that keeps black people down. That sort of stuff” (Everett 128). Her mother’s job is relevant to today’s society since African American people are still being kept “down” (Everett 128). Today still, many African Americans are still discriminated against and are not given equal financial opportunities in comparison to Caucasians. According to a statistical wealth gap produced by American Progress, “In 2016, the median wealth for black and Hispanic families was $17,600 and $20,700, respectively, compared with white families’ median wealth of $171,000.”

Additionally, while in the car with Maggie after meeting her father, Maggie tells Not Sidney about her father’s background. She says, “My father has gone through a lot to get where he is. From dirt poor Alabama to Yale… It’s very impressive. My father is one of the biggest and most successful lawyers in D.C.” (Everett 137-138). While there are some people in society who have racist attitudes regarding African Americans, Maggie’s father defeats this stereotype as he exemplifies that the color of his skin cannot prevent him from seeking out an education. Despite the continuum of racist mindsets, he emphasizes that success is possible for minority groups that are still being discriminated against.

Even though the Brown vs. Board of Education case in 1954 declared segregation as unconstitutional, individuals both in the novel and in today’s society are complicit in perpetuating the unchanging, arguably racist attitudes towards African American people.

A Reflection Post on Reflection


Image result for vintage photos of people readingI remember vaguely from five months ago,  sitting next to my adviser and picking classes. When discussing the required classes for my major, she firstly offered up “Reader and Text”.   I remember asking her what the course entailed and after reading the description, still clueless as to the meaning behind “fluid readers and text” was, she offered little to no help on demystifying the course’s entails. When entering the class, the first assignment we received was to analyze the reader in the painting Young Girl Reading, by Jean-Honoré Fragonard.   For the first time in my scholastic career, I was asked to analyze the anonymous “reader” behind the book. Over these fifteen weeks, the importance of the fluidity of readers became more and more obvious. It is important to have fluidity in a reader, for if not, the puzzle pieces of the narrative may go undetected. Even in class, the witness of how each person interprets a plot, or character decisions, and how a work affects someone is individual to each one of my peers.  Continue reading “A Reflection Post on Reflection”

Thoughts on Bias in Discipline Part 2: The Arts; Should an Artist’s Contribution To Their Art Be Separated From Themselves?

All disciplines share fault in the use of bias in their study—this is especially true when it comes to figures that have provided substantial movement to the discipline; typically, these are the individuals whose work we tend to study when we take a course. There may be omissions to several of the defining factors of an event or person, or there may simply not be a lot of coverage on the flaws and faults of the event or person. The purpose in the use of bias is to communicate selective values and positive moral judgments; this will maintain the discipline’s positive standing and prevent any discouragement from people who wish to study the discipline.

In an attempt to maintain the public integrity of a discipline and continue the study of a discipline, the dominant and influential figures that have provided substantial contributions to the development of the discipline are often depicted as unrealistic perfect beings—in my opinion, it should be a priority to properly teach about the figures that hold such weight without any omission to their biography; unfortunately, this is not the case. The bias toward individuals and events in history branches across several disciplines including: English literature, Western Music, and Western Art. The leading figures in these disciplines are often celebrated and solely recognized for their contribution, which creates the sensation that these individuals are flawless and perfect—interestingly, this image can be quite intimidating for disciples, which sort of works in contrast with the attempt to maintain more disciples with the bias towards the figures.


If you continue reading this post, I encourage you to ponder. Should things in a discipline be taught truthfully? Is there any validity in this approach to teaching? Should we still learn about these individuals? Is it alright to neglect these individuals and their large contributions to the progression of a discipline?
Warwick also had a fairly interesting question to ponder on, which was referenced in Joe Moran’s book Interdisciplinarity: “Is it not sufficiently attractive to ensure a voluntary attention to it”?

Continue reading “Thoughts on Bias in Discipline Part 2: The Arts; Should an Artist’s Contribution To Their Art Be Separated From Themselves?”

Yes and no

Graff and Birkenstein, p. 63:

“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.

Compare Martina Navratilova on Serena Williams in today’s New York Times:

Serena Williams has part of it right. There is a huge double standard for women when it comes to how bad behavior is punished — and not just in tennis.

But in her protests against an umpire during the United States Open final on Saturday, she also got part of it wrong.

Read the full article, a model of the approach that Graff and Birkenstein call “Agree and Disagree Simultaneously,” which they also call “our favorite way of responding” (62) to what “they say.”

More meta moves that matter

Last week in “Fluid Readers, Fluid Texts,” we looked at Graff and Birkenstein’s They Say/I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing. If’s worth noting that in their effort to offer practical guidance on good academic writing, Graff and Birkenstein quickly and naturally make the shift we’ve described in previous discussions as moving “up one level of abstraction.” There’s simply no way they can argue for the value of their practical advice without getting theoretical, without getting “meta.” They don’t call attention to this move, but it’s there all the same. In the first paragraph of their introduction, they describe writing as a particular kind of activity – an activity, like playing the piano, shooting a basketball, or driving a car – that is learned and that can be broken down into a sequence of “moves.” Not all human activities are of this type.

Behind that first paragraph, then, lies the theoretical question “What is academic writing?” – a question to which the answer is no more obvious than the answer to the question, “What is a text?”

Graff and Birkenstein go further: the move-based activity that writing most closely resembles – perhaps is simply a form of – is conversation. To categorize writing this way is to imply answers to some related theoretical questions: What’s the purpose of academic writing? How, exactly, does it work? By what standards can we distinguish effective from ineffective writing?

We can think of Graff and Birkenstein the theorists as looking for a way to represent the activity of writing, as trying to build a model of it. These are useful words in general for thinking about what the activity of theorizing is. (And to choose them is, of course, to theorize about theory. There’s no end to how meta we can get!)

We spent the last part of class looking at the Lindsay Ellis video on film studies that Taylor posted. We saw that Lindsay Ellis’s argument seems to make many of the “moves” Graff and Birkenstein describe – that her argument fits their model of argumentation quite well. We also saw that to make her argument, she, too had to move up one level of abstraction; she, too, had to theorize. Her main theoretical question – What makes a bit of culture (whether a poem or an action movie) worth examining closely? – is one of the most important ones we can ask as practitioners of criticism.

Thursday theme – Waters of March

As we turn to consider Graff and Birkenstein’s They Say/I Say, our theme song for today is “Águas de Março” (“Waters of March”) written by Antonio Carlos Jobim (aka Tom Jobim) and performed here by Jobim and Elis Regina.

For Graff and Birkenstein, academic writing, at its heart, is a conversation, and, more generally, “writing well means entering into conversation with others” (4th ed., xiv). In their introduction, they quote the philosopher Kenneth Burke’s famous description of “the world of intellectual exchange” as a kind of un-ending conversation at an interminable party.

Here’s the full passage from Burke’s The Philosophy of Literary Form:

Where does the drama get its materials? From the “unending conversation” that is going on at the point in history when we are born. Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. 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, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally’s assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.
(1941; 2d ed., Louisiana State University Press, 1967, 110-11.)

It’s interesting to consider Graff and Birkenstein’s use of Burke alongside Alasdair Macintyre’s claim, which we discussed in class, that “conversation, understood widely enough, is the form of human transactions in general” (Michael Sandel, ed., Liberalism and Its Critics, New York University Press, 1984, 133).

By putting the activity of conversation at the heart of what makes humans human, Burke and Macintyre are pursuing a line of thought that grew out of the Romantic movement of the late 18th and early 19th centuries in Europe (especially in the writings of J.G. von Herder and Wilhelm von Humboldt). Interest in the origins of human language and in the relationship between language and culture led for some during this period to a re-definition of human identity in general: it wasn’t the capacity for reason (as Aristotle, for example, had supposed) so much as the capacity for language that separated human beings from other animals.

(It’s interesting to consider the fluidity of human identity at this scale. Not only does each of us, arguably, possess an identity that changes over time, but the various attempts to identify a defining characteristic of humanity as a whole means that it may be useful to think of humanity as existing in a variety of “versions.” Wikipedia’s list of names for the human species is instructive here.)

Macintyre describes conversations as “enacted narratives” (133), highlighting the way our conversational engagements often represent the unfolding of some kind of story. This way of thinking about conversation fits his definition of human beings as “story-telling animal[s]” (138). Graff and Birkenstein treat the subcategory of academic conversation as a kind of game characterized by a fairly circumscribed set of “moves,” but there are clearly narrative elements in their conception as well, as evidenced by their quotation from Burke and their advice about “putting in your oar.”

But the Regina-Jobim performance perhaps suggests something even more fundamental about conversation than its narrative element, something about the sheer pleasure to be found in conversation’s back-and-forth dynamic, even when it doesn’t involve an exchange of ideas with what Macintyre calls a telos – that is, a projected goal. If you look at the song lyrics (in either English or Portuguese), you see that Regina and Jobim are simply taking turns running down the items in a list; they’re not conducting the kind of conversation Graff and Birkenstein have in mind at all. There’s no advocacy here, just the pleasure of moving the song forward by taking turns. At the same time, they’re clearly singing to each other, not just trading off. You can see it in their gestures as much as you can hear it in their voices.

I get the same sense of the pleasure inherent in the interactivity of conversation – prior to and apart from its intellectual content – watching this video of a nonsense conversation between twin babies that went viral in 2011. As a basic human activity, conversation doesn’t seem to be entirely about the content of the words.

Tuesday theme – Sit Right Down

To balance the high-tech communication tools we’ll be discussing, the theme song for ENGL 203-04 today evokes an older, slower medium of expression. “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter” was written in 1935 by Joe Young (lyrics) and Fred Ahlert (music) and was made popular by the great jazz pianist Fats Waller.

Of course, since the singer (let’s call him “Waller” for now) is describing a letter he’ll be writing to himself, he won’t have to watch the mail to learn what’s in it: so maybe this isn’t such a slow-paced communication after all.

This theme song also looks forward to the discussion we’ll have on Thursday about Graff and Birkenstein’s They Say/I Say. The book’s premise is that academic writing typically takes the form of conversation, even if the conversation is one between the writer and an imaginary interlocutor. Waller’s letter will be from himself to himself – but he’ll be imagining it’s from his lover.

I’m gonna sit right down and write myself a letter
And make believe it came from you

The song’s wit lies partly in the way it becomes a song about writing, and indeed about the singer’s own power as a writer.

I’m gonna write words oh so sweet
They’re gonna knock me off my feet

This amusing prediction of self-astonishment (which is also, perhaps, an expression of authorial self-satisfaction) has tripped up some performers. Listen to Ella Fitzgerald get the pronouns wrong in this version, telling the listener, “I’m gonna write words oh so sweet,/ They’re gonna knock you off your feet.

She also substitutes “you” for “I” twice in what should be “A lot of kisses on the bottom, I’ll be glad I got ’em.”

Sarah Vaughan, too, sings “knock you off your feet,” but then recovers for the “kisses” line.

Both Fitzgerald and Vaughan are more interested in the music of this song than the lyrics, of course; and we might usefully think of them as entering into conversation with Ahlert (and Waller as the song’s canonical performer) through the way they play with the melody. At the same time, their slips are an indication that there’s a bit of psychological complexity to the singer’s situation.

Is this a jaunty, playful song or a sad one? Why must the singer pretend to write a letter in the lover’s voice anyway? Evidently the lover has failed to write. Why? The singer doesn’t appear too hopeful about their relationship, or it wouldn’t be necessary to “smile and say [taking on the lover’s identity], ‘I hope you’re feeling better.’” And, come to think of it, whose smile is it – that of the lover (in the singer’s imagination) or of the singer? If the singer’s, it could be a smile of pleasure (at the singer’s own cleverness), but it could also be a smile of resignation (in accepting the reality that the lover isn’t smiling … or writing).

The air of loneliness that hangs about this song of one-way communication imagined as two-way communication is reinforced, in Waller’s version, by the urgency with which he repeats the phrase “make believe” three times at the song’s conclusion, as if trying to persuade himself that he can be persuaded – if only he tries hard enough – that the letter is from the uncommunicative lover:

I’m gonna sit right down and write myself a letter,
And make believe – make believe – make believe it came from you.

And for whom are these urgent words intended? For whom is the song itself a kind of love letter? Why, the very same lover who hasn’t written and, for that very reason, probably isn’t listening – assuming the song even reaches them. Perhaps, after all, the song, like the imaginary letter it describes, is merely from the singer to the singer: a perfect and self-contained act of make-believe.

The Real-Life Application of “Reapers”

Admittedly, I have trouble going back and revising my writing. Growing up, I always kind of had a chip on my shoulder when it came to this. I was always allowed to submit essays without any real necessary needs for extensive revisions. Even recently, I submitted an essay early in my History of Theatre class, and managed an A the first time around, meaning I saved myself a lot of trouble in the upcoming weeks. However, when it came to my “Essay 1” submission for intertextuality, I cringed as I found myself deleting all but 400 words of my formerly 1600-word essay for revisions.

Continue reading “The Real-Life Application of “Reapers””

The Importance and Rationality of Impatience In the Case of Feminism

As many of us may know, feminism has been the subject of debate and scrutiny for as long as we can remember in our immediate lives.  From job inequality to societal values, women have never really seemed to get what they want or even what they deserve.  Part of this, it seems, is the misconception that the force that feminists bring to their requests and demands is a statement of vengeance or a superiority complex.  In Interdisciplinarity, Moran says that feminism “has been founded on an impatience with the power arrangements…and the way that the experience of women is devalued or excluded” (Moran 92).   Continue reading “The Importance and Rationality of Impatience In the Case of Feminism”