Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Elephant in the Classroom: Race and Writing edited by Jane Bowman Smith

Smith, Jane Bowman, ed. The Elephant in the Classroom: Race and Writing. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 2010. Print.

This collection of essays focuses on the experiences of speakers of African American English (AAE) in the college composition classroom. Many times speakers of AAE and other dialects of English considered nonstandard have difficulty in college writing classes, where Standard American English (SAE) defines the norms of linguistic expression. Often, the speakers of other dialects of English are treated as deficient and enrolled in developmental classes. I once taught a developmental English class composed of students who as far as I could tell had only been placed in it because of their dialect. Many people might not consider this absurd, but I did and felt bad for the students who had to spend money and time taking an extra college class they probably didn’t really need to take (aside from dialectal differences, they wrote as well as any other first year college student and probably could have just taken a regular composition course--I didn't challenge their placement because it was my first time teaching the course and at the institution so I wasn't certain about the situation until much later in the course). Basically, it was the equivalent of having to take a developmental math class because one was used to using the traditional English system of measurement rather than the metric system.

Instead of taking an approach that views such students as deficient, the writers of the essays examine why the academy typically views the students in such a way. While reading the essays, I was reminded of the old linguistic saw, popularized by Max Weinreich, that the only difference between a language and a dialect is that a language has an army and a navy. Because SAE has social prestige and power behind it, it is often viewed as more than just one dialect of English among many. And, despite the efforts of many linguists over the years to dispel the myth of one correct English, most people, including college instructors, still believe in it with the results disastrous for speakers of nonstandard dialects when they enter college. As Arthur L. Palacas reminds us in “African American Voice and Standard English,” “Often, the treatment of this language conflict in class ends up demoralizing the student, with all the attendant harmful consequences.” Consequently, the language issue may have an effect on retention, and may help to explain, in addition to other factors, why minority students and first generation college students return less frequently for a second year of college compared to their counterparts, which occurs here at Ursuline as well as nationwide (thanks to Sr. Virginia DeVinne of URSA for the Ursuline data).

However, despite the linguistic reality that all dialects are equally grammatically complex and valid, the social reality is quite different, so in good conscience we have to find a way as instructors to give our students access to what Jennifer Liethen Kunka, one of the book’s contributors, calls “linguistic capital in the professional marketplace" (76). As Kunka notes, using the example of business process provider Office Tiger in India, other speakers/writers of English are quite willing to adopt SAE if such an adoption proves profitable, with the results that speakers/writers of English without access to SAE will be left behind economically (77). This situation provides a linguistic Gordian knot with no Alexander in sight to untie it in one bold stroke.

Instead, we will have to muddle through somehow. To that end, the book’s contributors offer some useful advice. Palacas recommends that writing instructors: "1. Give explicit teaching about differences between standard English and [African American English] (or other varieties of English). 2. Use linguistically and culturally affirming readings. 3. Allow the student to use comfortable language in the composing stages of writing and in discussion periods when the flow of ideas and thoughts is paramount." Given that Ursuline doesn’t have a composition class per se, Palacas’s recommendations might be difficult to implement. However, if you encounter a student who appears to be speaking and writing in a nonstandard way, consider the possibility that he or she is using a dialect of English that is different from your own and is not merely a bad speaker or writer. Focus on the student’s ideas. Most dialects of English are mutually understandable. Though it may not be comfortable, it’s a good bet that you can understand the student. If you only care that the student understands the content of the course in the content and form balance of speaking/writing, that may be all you need to do. If the form part is important though (say the student is writing a research paper that might be presented at a conference), then you will have to help the student bridge her or his home language into SAE. This must be done delicately and in such a way that adds to the student’s linguistic competence.

One good approach is as Peter Elbow advises in his essay, “Why Deny a Choice to Speakers of African American Language that Most of Us Offer Other Students.” Allow the student to compose the paper initially in her or his own dialect and then once the ideas and structure are worked out, then help the student to translate the nearly-completed document into SAE. To that end, many resources are available to you. The book In Other Words is available in the Writing Instruction Mini-Library in the Ursuline Studies Program office (Mullen 318). I am available for consultation. And this book is available through OhioLINK.

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