• Just Visiting

    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


Is Shaq Attaq! Literature? Does It Matter?

Early on I didn't consider why certain standards were in place. I now try to ask questions and make more informed choices.

November 8, 2017




Third year of graduate school at McNeese St. University in Lake Charles, Louisiana, and I’m teaching a section of English 102, the culmination of our freshman composition curriculum and the course in which students were expected to be introduced to college-level researched writing. This was 1996-97, just before the widespread availability and adoption of the Internet. The library had digital search capabilities, but they were crude enough that sometimes the card catalog was preferable.

The final assignment was a research paper centering on a single book.

Not particularly inspiring, but the goals were limited to measuring basic competency at skills like locating appropriate sources and properly quoting, paraphrasing and citing them in the text. McNeese was an essentially open admission institution, which meant incoming students demonstrated a wide range of abilities and experiences with writing. By English 102 they were expected to be mostly competent at the sentence and paragraph level. Our job was to certify some familiarity with the why’s and wherefore’s of the library.

Following the legacy of those who had come before me, I listed a bunch of books and authors that I thought would work for the assignment, a mix of the classic - Faulkner, Austen, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck - and some of my own favorites – Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor, Geek Love by Katherine Dunn, The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith. From the 60 or so titles an short descriptions, I asked each student to pick one by the next class period.

Of the twenty-five students, all but one did this successfully. The one who did not approached me at the end of class and asked if he could write about a different book, “the best book ever.”

“What’s the book?” I said.

“Shaq Attaq,” he replied, pulling a well-worn copy from his backpack.

Shaq Attaq!: My Rookie Year by Shaquille O’Neal (as told to Jack McCallum) promised the exciting inside story of Shaquille O’Neal’s first year as a professional basketball player for the Orlando Magic, what it’s like to be a center on the basketball court and the center of so much media and fan attention. If you want to know what it’s like to film Pepsi commercials by day and be double and triple-teamed in the low post by night, Shaq Attaq! is the book for you.

Without even thinking about it, I told the student no. I didn’t even consider the request because it seemed so far outside the boundaries to me. The assignment was to write about a work of literature. Shaq Attaq! wasn’t literature. Q.E.D.

The student picked an unchosen book off my list at random, and I went back to my shared office to tell a good one about the kid who thought he could get away with writing his English 102 research paper on Shaq Attaq!

I forgot about the student’s request until a few weeks later when I read a draft of the paper on the book he’d chosen after I’d rejected Shaq Attaq! and it became apparent he hadn’t read said book and had precisely zero outside sources in his draft. We had a conference in which I told him he was on a trajectory to fail the assignment, worse than fail, like get a 30% fail. It was worth almost one-third of the semester grade, so this generally okay C+ student was at risk for failing the semester.

He shrugged. He wasn’t pouting, so much as appearing indifferent to where the chips were about to fall. Failing English 102 meant repeating it, or quite possibly meant leaving school altogether. I alerted him to the dangers and consequences of the path he appeared headed down. I told him I liked him and would hate to see him fail the course when he was so close to getting over the hump. This student had come out of English 090, the developmental English course which sometimes weeded out as many as 50% of my students in a single semester. He’d already bucked the odds. More shrugging. In an effort to get him to connect to the book he’d chosen I asked him what was so great about Shaq Attaq! My student was from Baton Rouge and an LSU Tigers fan, so Shaq had become his favorite player. They’d also lived similar lives, sons of military men whose families did some moving around and whose fathers demanded discipline, but also loved them.

My student’s connection to the book was primal, elemental. He said he’d read it three times. He didn’t ask again if he could switch books, but I imagine he wanted to.

As he left the conference he shook my hand and said, “You’re a good teacher, Mr. John.” He’d been raised to be respectful to authority.

I saw him one more class period. He never turned in a final assignment. I was graduating and moving on. I have no idea what happened to him.

It’s possible, maybe even likely some other factors prevented him from completing the course, but over the years I’ve often wondered what might have happened if I’d made a different decision.

Some are likely believing I made the right call, that standards and objectives matter, and writing a research paper about Shaq Attaq! is beyond the pale. But when I consider the events in hindsight, I see an instructor too inexperienced and insecure to question what’s underneath those standards and find a way to make it work for this student.

After all, those standards I was enforcing have largely been superseded by new approaches to first-year writing curriculum that moves away from writing “researched reports” about literature to requiring students to engage more critically with texts of different stripes. The “research paper” of the kind I was expected to assign is a largely bogus genre which existed primarily as a hoop for students to jump through. Even at the time, I thought it largely pointless, but I also had a somewhat impoverished notion of what my students were capable of doing, as well as an unquestioning fidelity to the “standards.”

I know now there could’ve been a route to a student-produced artifact fulfilling the requirements while using Shaq Attaq! as a jumping off point. I’m left wondering at my own attitudes during a time when I was so consciously pursing my own enthusiasms but I would so quickly deny the enthusiasms of a student.

I was under the thrall of an unexamined set of underlying values which I didn’t even know enough to question, but which have come to seem less and less vital over the years. If the goal of a writing class is to help students learn to think and write and engage with the ideas of others, who’s to say Shaq Attaq! couldn’t have facilitated that work, particularly given my student’s obvious enthusiasm for the subject?

Maybe his paper would’ve been a disaster, but it would’ve been something, rather than nothing.

These days, when a student wants to try something that seems outside the boundaries, I try much harder to find a way to say yes.





Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top