“Your life is dependent on your relationship with words” 

young adult author Jason Reynolds speaking to Trevor Noah of The Daily Show.

In Unit One, you will write about a word (or a short phrase) that is important to you, a discourse community you are a part of and the language of that particular discourse community. This should be a word that many of your readers are somewhat unfamiliar with, not a word like “family” or “love,” but an insider word, one that includes some people and excludes others. This word might be in a different language, or it may be a slang word. 

The point here is not simply to define the word for your readers, but to explain the word’s importance to outsiders, and in so doing to paint a portrait of the discourse community itself. (don’t worry– we’ll be talking about what “discourse community” means.) 

We’ll see some examples of this with Junot Diaz’ “Fuku,” and Hanif Abdurraqib in his essays on his name and “alright.” These writers take different tactics to look at words that are important to them and try and express the importance of those words to potential outsiders. Don’t just explain the word to your readers, show it to us in action! Both of these writers do so, Abdurraqib by writing in a formal, poetic way, Diaz by writing in a Dominican Spanglish slang. They are both prize-winning authors — so we can see that both styles are effective in different ways.

You are free to write in any way that feels natural to you and that you think best expresses the importance and meaning of the word you choose. You may write in what you consider the slang of your discourse community, if this applies. You may write in “standard written English” (SWE) if you like. Either way, even if you write in SWE, you should be able to explain why you’ve chosen the language you have. Why is this language the best tool for the job? 

Here are some questions and ideas to think about before you begin writing. You certainly don’t have to include all the answers in your essay, but this might help get the ideas going:   

  1. What was your first experience of this word/ phrase? What was your first impression of its meaning? Has its meaning changed for you over time?
  2. Why is this word important to you and your community?
  3. Is there a way using this word correctly indicates membership in the community?
  4. Who is allowed to use this word and who is not? Or how does this word change when people from outside the discourse community use the word?
  5. Who do you think needs to know about this word? What do they need to know? Why?
  6. If you could publish your article anywhere, where would you publish it? Keep this in mind while you write– and write as though you’re talking to that audience.  
  7. Brainstorm scenes and memories, important events having to do with this word. This will help you construct your essay.

Remember, you’re not just writing for yourself. You’re trying to teach or show your reader something they need to know about your discourse community– and maybe the world at large. The word or phrase you’ve chosen is an entryway to this discussion.  Think of how Abdurraqib uses “alright” to talk about police violence, or his own name to talk about his relationship to Islam. 

What will I get graded on? 

AUDIENCE: Aside from me, who would you want to read an article about your discourse community? I am talking here about a SPECIFIC publication.  Please list your dream publication at the top of your essay. 

PURPOSE: Now, consider your audience further. What can you do to keep them reading? Nobody on this earth will read an essay that is one three-page long paragraph. You wouldn’t!  So, strive for an engaging, clear article that teaches your readers something or helps them see something in a new way.   

TONE: You can write with whatever diction (style of language) you choose, but it must be the best language for the job– as you see it. It also must be at least partially in English. That is, you may write in Spanglish if you want, but I am not able to read a whole paper in Urdu. (Some Urdu is great, though!) Take note of the way Diaz goes in between Spanish and English, though he is writing for an English-speaking audience. 

ENGAGEMENT WITH “MENTOR TEXTS”: I’m not asking you to quote from Diaz or Abdurraqib in your final essay—you are just using them as examples of ways you could go with this type of assignment. I do expect you to read the articles closely as a writer and choose at least one technique or style of their writing that you would like to emulate. 

WORD COUNT: At least 1000 words 


schedule & assignments for Unit 1