The truth as and in fiction: a confession

“The only real people are the people who never existed, and if a novelist is base enough to go to life for his personages he should at least pretend that they are creations, and not boast of them as copies.”
Oscar Wilde, The Decay of Lying

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I have a confession to make. I am guilty of deliberately misleading people. But here’s the thing — I’m not sorry. I think if you give me chance to hear why I did what I did maybe at least a few of you might decide that my transgression was not quite as bad as it might initially seem. Or maybe you will. Let me at least try to make my case.

A few days ago I posted another in my series of essay tests. These tests, for those who have not read them, consist of my posting an essay that was written in response to an admission application prompt. The last test I posted actually had two essays, both written by the same person. One was submitted to Berkeley, the school he ultimately attended, and the other was one that he had help with from his mother. He decided to send in his own essay instead, He had some ethical issues about his essays and he wrote about this, but he ended up doing the right thing and ultimately this helped him get in. Or at least that would seem to be the case.

In both essays he underscores he is not a typical student. His tiny town in Georgia, Braggsville, has 712 people, virtually no government services, and a view of the world that emphasizes service to the country (military) and belief in the civic virtues as outlined in the constitution. This community is what some would call a conservative God-fearing community. Some might call it some other things and these things would not be particularly complimentary.

After posting the essay itself I asked some follow-up questions. For me, the one question that differs in kind from the other questions I have raised on my essay tests in previous posts had to do with a big buzzword in the world of admission: fit. I questioned whether a student like him would be a good fit to a school like Berkeley, the university where he applied. His background and view of the world are not at all in the mainstream of the typical Berkeley student. Should Berkeley accept a student like this since he would add diversity? Should they turn him down because they think he may not find a welcoming community? Should schools try to enroll students whose views differ from most of the other students (and most of the faculty too)? 1

Some who answered these questions on some forums for college counselors and admission officers said the shock might do him and the school some good. Others thought the writer was remarkably candid and demonstrated writing talent and should be offered admission even if he might go though lots of culture shock. No one wrote that the student should not have been offered a place. But this could have happened. Students whose views are at odds with the mission of the school they have applied to might end up not getting in.

One question that gets asked a lot by parents and students about essays is whether there are some topics that students should avoid when writing a personal statement. Reading the advice that universities put forward — there are no ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ topics — would seem to be in keeping with free speech and the laws of the land. I have argued before that cognitive bias, our tribal ties, and even the ideology of a particular school care all reasons to be skeptical about whether admission readers can be objective when it comes to certain topics that students choose to write about.

But here is where things get even more complicated and ethically murky. The person who wrote these essays is named D’aron Little May Davenport. But what I have just written is not true. I have not changed the name that is attached to the essay; instead, I left out some information. D’aron does not ‘really’ exist. He is a fictional character. He is, in fact, the central character of an exceptionally well-written novel, Welcome to Braggsville. Given that the author of these essays is fictional so too are the essays that ‘he’ submitted to Berkeley.

Here are a few questions I want to ask myself

Why didn’t you make it clear that the essays you were posting were not written by a ‘real’ student and that the essays were not submitted to Berkeley?

There are two reasons I set this essay test up the way I did. The first is that I wanted to test (pun intended) to see if something that a lot of admission people say is accurate. What do they say? They say that they can tell when a student has not written an essay. I think in some cases this is certainly true, but my experience in reading tens of thousands of essays has convinced me that there are some essays that have been ghostwritten that I have not spotted. In the case of this essay not a single admission person mentioned the essay sounded sketchy. Instead, some thought it well done and courageous but not that it any way merited special scrutiny for being real.

I guess it is not all that wonderful to demonstrate that there are essays that can come in that wont get immediately flagged for being fake. On the other hand, I think this kind of information is worth knowing by the general public. Of course what I have done is anything but scientific but I think I could set up an experiment with real and not real essays that would test who could separate the two. I would bet a lot of money that most taking the test, no matter how experiences, would not earn a perfect score. I have had students, after the fact; let me know they had essays that had been ghostwritten. Maybe others are better versed about this than I am, but I fairly sure that most readers might not be able to tell either. And what if an admission officer suspects a student’s essay is not genuine? Do they have the right to deny a student without giving the student a chance to defend himself or herself? This is an issue that does not get discussed much but probably should. What is the admission officer is wrong in thinking an essay has been ghostwritten? The student would never know. There are, suffice it to say, many ethical issues surrounding essays these days.

The other reason I wanted to let people read this essay thinking it was from a rural white kid is because the author of the novel wants us to question the significance of race, background and the ideological usefulness of essentialism when it comes to writing. In order to address these philosophical investigations it would help to know who the real author is:

Born and raised in New Orleans, T. Geronimo Johnson received his MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and his M.A. in Language, Literacy, and Culture from UC Berkeley. His second novel, the bestselling Welcome to Braggsville was longlisted for the 2015 National Book Award, the 2015 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence, named one of the ten books all Georgians should read by the Georgia Center for the Book, and won the 2015 Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence. A former Stegner Fellow, Johnson has taught writing at UC Berkeley, Stanford University, the Writers’ Workshop, the Prague Summer Program, San Quentin, and elsewhere. His first novel, Hold it ’til it Hurts, was a finalist for the 2013 PEN/Faulkner Award. He lives in Berkeley, CA.

Johnson’s credentials prove he is one of the country’s top writers. His books, stories and non-fiction pieces have served to provoke discussion about issues that are part of headlines almost daily in the US. What does it race mean and what does it mean to be African American.

Johnson’s inhabits the characters of D’aron, a white kid from the south as well as 3 others, one Asian, one African American, and one with some Native American background. The symbolism of this group is purposeful but the other aspect I think it worthy of comment is whether Johnson should be praised for his inclusivity and his ability to inhabit others who are not like him.

Let me ask another question. Should Johnson earn our praise for being able to inhabit the consciousness of an Asian American? I raise this question, as there has been a lot of controversy this year about a white person who published a poem in a major literary journal using an Asian name. The poem had been turned down at many places when he used his own name but when he used the Asian name it was not only accepted but was included in the best poems of 2015.

The editor of the best poetry collection wrote that the poem was selected in part because he thought an Asian American had written it. Should the real author be condemned for misleading the public? Even more controversial, Rachel Doezalwas elected to a leadership position in the NAACP because she identified herself as black even though she is the daughter of white parents. For those who see race as a construct rather than a generic category her choice was not perceived as inherently wrong. Others, however, condemned her for acting as something she is not. Which brings us back to Mr. Johnson. Should he shy away form trying to depict the voice of an Asian? Should he avoid imitating the voice and the essays of a white male form the south. After all, Mr. Jonson is African American. What if a white person decided to write an essay from the perspective of an African-American?

American? Would this be ok? For those who believe that race is an essential characteristic the answer might just be no. Johnson’s book challenges this not only through the plot, but more importantly through the way the words give us insight into others that are different from the author.

If our identities are indeed largely fictions and social constructs does this mean that students applying to schools can pick and choose their identities — including race and class and anything else? I think most would say no. But does the ability to capture the voices of others, in an essay or a poem or a piece of fiction demonstrate talent? I think the answer should be yes.

I do not propose to have anything close to the right answers to many these questions but I do hope that this discussion illuminates my decision to post my previous essay test. I hope too it calls into question the notion that all of us have a unified and single voice by which we can be identified.

Below are two blurbs about Welcome to Braggsville. The book is one of the best I have read this year or any year when it comes to holding up to examination the group of people attending competitive schools and the group of people who do not. The stereotypes we often have about people are skewered and our views called into question. I guess for some this book should come with a trigger warning but that is the subject for another essay.

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Welcome to Braggsville

By T. Geronimo Johnson

Welcome to Braggsville. The City that Love Built in the Heart of Georgia. Population 712

Born and raised in the heart of old Dixie, D’aron Davenport finds himself in unfamiliar territory his freshman year at UC Berkeley. Two thousand miles and a world away from his childhood, he is a small-town fish floundering in the depths of a large, hyper-liberal pond. Caught between the prosaic values of his rural hometown and the intellectualized multicultural cosmopolitanism of Berzerkeley, the nineteen-year-old white kid is uncertain about his place until one disastrous party brings him three idiosyncratic best friends: Louis, a “kung-fu comedian” from California; Candice, an earnest do-gooder claiming Native roots from Iowa; and Charlie, an introspective inner-city black teen from Chicago. They dub themselves the “4 Little Indians.”

But everything changes in the group’s alternative history class, when D’aron lets slip that his hometown hosts an annual Civil War reenactment, recently rebranded “Patriot Days.” His announcement is met with righteous indignation, and inspires Candice to suggest a “performative intervention” to protest the reenactment. Armed with youthful self-importance, makeshift slave costumes, righteous zeal, and their own misguided ideas about the South, the 4 Little Indians descend on Braggsville. Their journey through backwoods churches, backroom politics, Waffle Houses, and drunken family barbecues is uproarious to start, but will have devastating consequences.

With the keen wit of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and the deft argot ofThe Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, T. Geronimo Johnson has written an astonishing, razor-sharp satire. Using a panoply of styles and tones, from tragicomic to Southern Gothic, he skewers issues of class, race, intellectual and political chauvinism, Obamaism, social media, and much more.

A literary coming-of-age novel for a new generation, written with tremendous social insight and a unique, generous heart, Welcome to Braggsville reminds us of the promise and perils of youthful exuberance, while painting an indelible portrait of contemporary America.

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By Ron Charles of the Washington Post

The most dazzling, most unsettling, most oh-my-God-listen-up novel you’ll read this year is called “Welcome to Braggsville.” The 44-year-old author, T. Geronimo Johnson, plays cultural criticism like it’s acid jazz. His shockingly funny story pricks every nerve of the American body politic. Arriving smack dab in the middle of Black History Month — our shortest month, naturally — “Braggsville” lashes self-satisfied liberals in the academy and self-deluded Confederates in the attic. As we feign surprise at police brutality and our Twitter outrage flits from Ferguson to Staten Island to Cleveland, this is just the discomfiting book we need.

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D’aron’s essays

The following personal statement was written in response to the University of California admission prompt:

Describe the world you come from — for example, your family, community, or school — and tell us how your world has shaped your dreams and aspirations.

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Dear Sir of [sic] Madam,

My mother helped me write several previous drafts of this personal statement. In them, we listed accomplishments such as the Eagle scouts, the volunteer work for the local Red Cross, and my membership (for one day) in the Braggsville Historical Preservation and Dissemination Society. We also listed my participation in several school organizations and the time I saved my cousin from drowning, saved a cat from a bird, and saved my grandmother from certain starvation when she wandered off into the Holler and got lost. I also claimed a long-term interest in about a dozen majors that aren’t even related.

I learned a good word in the process: logorrhea. Not only were those letters too long, and had too many fancy words, the biggest problem was I didn’t remember many of these things. I will not dare to question their veracity. It was my mother who spoke those words, mind you. But the fact that I could neither remember these renowned events with which my extended family regaled each other around the Green Egg, nor supply my own memories, explains exactly how my world has shaped my dreams and aspirations. As my cousin Quint would say, I’ve been worked over by a one-armed potter.

It is not a college admission board who I write at this late hour, long after the parental units have retired because I need to write this on my own, it is to a parole board that I write.

I love my family and my town. My parents never went to college, but have done right by me all their lives. They didn’t take my schooling for granted and they made me study and take summer classes, and made me read all those test-taking books because they wanted me to go to college, but neither could tell me what for, other than that I have to. And for years I never understood why I have to, especially when they want me to go right up the road. But I need to get out of shouting distance of this place where everyone secretly calls school, Juvie!, and openly calls prison, School! So in addressing the parole board in this hearing I feel I must demonstrate that I have changed, that I have atoned for whatever sin caused me to be born in this partially dry county, that I have learned my lesson. And I have.

I have learned that no matter where you go to school, it’s what you do after school that counts. But, we don’t have an afterschool program. I have learned that kids from all different areas can get along if given a chance, but our schools rarely meet and I have learned that sports can bring people of different races and colors together to work for a common goal, but I don’t play sports and we only have one team, and it has only one race on it. I have learned that with access to public health care people avoid dying unnecessarily painful and lonely deaths, but the nearest hospital is over 100 miles away.

I have learned all this from reading books and watching the History Channel and Discovery because my town is tiny. It isn’t even on most maps, and we never had a representative. All our lives we wanted to matter, and we’ve applied for the Special Olympics, the Georgia Games, and the Capital Seat, all to no luck. We’ve tried, but our resources are limited until someone invests something in us, like time and a little money and a little outside influence.

So I guess what I’m saying is that I’m like my hometown, and I need someone to take a chance on me so I can prove my worth. And, I also would really like the chance to experience in person what I so far learned only on TV.

In regarding my major. There are over three hundred at Berkeley, and it’s hard to choose one when the most popular extracurricular activities here are 4-H, hunting, and Xbox. I like food and I observe that most people do as well. When the whistle blows at the mill the blacks go back to the Gully, the Mexicans to Ridgetown, and the Whites back here. But they all meet at the markets and after they talk about the weather, they exchange recipes. My parents are now making burritos and the Mexicans are eating headcheese, and for the best barbecue, Old Lou Davis has the biggest smoker and makes good pulled pork, but I’ve heard the Gully is where they have the best beef ribs. I think nutritional science and anthropology are my interests. To meet other people and learn how food can bring us together.

Thank you for considering my humble application.

I read on the YouTube advice link connected to the application page that we’re not supposed to end with a quote, especially from a book called “The Road Less Traveled.” Well, I guess I just did that anyway, but only to remind you that to get to some of my relatives we drive partway and walk the rest because they don’t have roads leading to where they live. (I hope you liked that.)

I gave up hunting and I’m a vegetarian and I think I’m ready to be released into society.

On another note, YouTube also said to be honest, so I must admit that the other reason I like UC Berkeley is because the only way I could get farther from home is to learn how to swim.

Sincerely,

Hopefully,

Class of ??!!

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Dear _______ Application Committee, I am submitting respectfully this essay written for your perusal.

If we were a TV show, we’d be a soap opera. If we were a musical, we’d be a rock opera. But, in real life, we’re a Shakespeare play, Romeo and Juliet. I was born into a working-class family in the heart of Georgia. My mother’s family was Irish and my father’s family was descended from coal miners. They never had much, but we worked hard and made our way up. Mostly everyone works for the Kenny Hot Air factory where they make motors for the hand dryers used all across our great United States of America. The Davenports and the McCormicks never got along until my folks were married. We believe in diversity and multi-culturalism. My father wanted to go to college, but after coming back from Honorably serving his country in the First Gulf War, the GI Bills weren’t any use because he had to work and couldn’t commute seventy-five miles each way to the nearest community college. Now he is a floor manager and enrolled to earn an online degree in business because capitalism is the future of the world and even China realizes that now, after what Reagan did to Russia and Germany.

My community is working class. When we get together each summer for the annual town picnic, we all share food and really we’re like one big community. We have the most Special Forces soldiers in all of the state per capita. We don’t have a school in town or a college nearby. The nearest community college is 75 miles away and the high school is in the next town. My town is small, only 700 people, so I had to be bused to school. I integrated well and managed to get along with everybody. I was captain of the debate team and I once saved my grandmother after she was lost in the woods for three days with cancer. It was a scary time. We’re blue collar, but proud and my family supports the American spirit and the freedom we’re bringing to the middle east, and our town has that same kind of spirit. We’re all red, white, and blue underneath.

I want to major in political science, bio-engineering, and bio-technology because people require peace, parsimonious food, and hygienic water. We also need to protect the earth. Ecology is the future. Not a day goes by when we don’t see a volcano erupting or an earthquake. Global warming is debasing the atmosphere and only we can prohibit it. I am also interested in education because we need better schools and no child should be left behind. The children are the future. After I graduate, I will also teach. My town needs a summer camp that doesn’t involve hunting and camping and whittling. Trees have rights, too. It should involve things to prepare you for the real world, like math and science and computers.

That is why I am applying to ______________._____________ has the best programs in these majors. Every time I read the paper, I see someone from _____________ being quoted in the news and giving scientific evidence and explanations for how we can make the world a better place for everybody. That’s how I know that ______________ is the school for me.

Johnson, T. Geronimo (2015–02–17). Welcome to Braggsville: A Novel (pp. 49–50). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

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Footnote 1

A series of studies demonstrates that most colleges and universities value diversity when to comes to race and economic background but not as much when it comes to how people think about issues ideologically. There is, in other words, group think going on in the places that often trumpet their commitment to encouraging critical thinking and open ended debate. If a professor strong disagrees with the political views of a student writing a paper could the professor be objective when giving a grade? Could you?

Unfortunately, new research also shows that academia has itself stopped short in both the understanding and practice of true diversity — the diversity of ideas — and that the problem is taking a toll on the quality and accuracy of scholarly work. This year, a team of scholars from six universities studying ideological diversity in the behavioral sciences published a paper in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences that details a shocking level of political groupthink in academia. The authors show that for every politically conservative social psychologist in academia there are about 14 liberal social psychologists.

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