By Paul Beilstein
In a 2016 article for Written Communication, Bethany Davila critiques practices in writing pedagogy that continue to privilege the standardized variation of English, even though the field’s research and theory have been challenging that privileging for decades. Davila cites, among others, Geneva Smitherman, whose work defies claims that Standardized Academic English (SAE) is “the only dialect that can accomplish the work of academia” (129). As Smitherman has proven time and time again since the 1970s with her own rhetorical performances, incorporating multiple dialects into an academic text is generative and expands our notion of academic ethos to include strategic and political forms of personhood, potentially innumerable ways of being. Davila’s research reminds us that SAE is still constructed as ideologically neutral by many writing instructors, who pose it against “other, marked language use” (135). The “expectations of sameness” (137) remain high, and student performances that do not meet those expectations continue to be ‘corrected’ by instructors who find the identity differences that are associated with “marked language” to be unfit for the academic occasion
Students, of course, are not the only ones who are subjected to expectations of sameness. Recently, Vershawn Ashanti Young’s call for proposals to the 2019 Conference on College Composition and Communication prompted a variety of responses from contributors to the WPA listserv. Some critiqued Young’s meshing of SAE and African American English (hereafter, AAE; I use this term here, rather than the other available terms, because Young uses it in his 2009 JAC article); others defended his rhetorical style. And though a number of perspectives were offered on this contentious issue, I am interested here in the suggestion made by several contributors to the listserv that first-year composition (FYC) instructors who include code-meshing in their curricula are requiring students to mesh codes in their writing, and that such a practice conflicts with students’ need to develop competency in SAE. These contributors view AAE as inappropriate to the occasion of a call for proposals to the field’s largest national conference; likewise, they find it inappropriate for inclusion in student writing.
One implication that simmered at the surface of the listserv threads in response to Young’s call is that writing instructors who put code-meshing on the syllabus seek to indoctrinate their students into a naïve idealism about their agency as language users. This strikes me as hyperbolic, if not simply false. Though it is probable that some number of composition instructors use first-year composition as a forum for advancing their own non-standardized language ideology, it is almost certainly the case that most composition instructors implicitly or explicitly privilege SAE (again, see Davila 2016), due to its (presumed) dominance in academic and professional settings.
Rather than looking at this issue through the false dilemma that a teacher must align with either a standardized or a non-standardized language ideology—and thus require students to adopt the practices associated with that ideology uncritically—I would argue that we should (and, in very many cases, do) posit language ideology as an object of inquiry for our students. Critical inquiry is a familiar term in the stated learning objectives of FYC courses, and the nearly ubiquitous rhetorical approach to FYC gives us ample opportunity to think about the “available means of persuasion” as legitimate options, and not as a multiple-choice problem with only one correct answer.
Though the idea obtains throughout much of American culture that competency in standardized literate practices is a necessary prerequisite to achieving or maintaining a desired socioeconomic position, teachers who understand that all such notions are socially constructed should de-stabilize the idea by presenting it as hegemonic, not as inevitable. In this case, we can treat SAE as an option that has come to be seen as a requirement, due to the frequency with which the people involved demand it and comply with it (or simply perform it as the familiar means of accomplishing something). By demanding SAE without encouraging critical awareness of it, a composition instructor simply reproduces hegemonic practices (and probably strengthens them). This is a low-risk approach to FYC, in one way of looking at it, because it seems an efficient way to serve students’ need to assimilate to the norms of the various academic disciplines and professional domains they may enter in the future.
If, on the other hand, composition instructors were to enforce a non-dominant language practice (for the sake of consistency, let’s say meshing AAE with SAE), they would be participating in a resistant or radical countermovement. And by requiring students to participate in this practice, they might be enlisting support for their political project among a population that has a practical motivation (the grade) to comply with her requirements. Even though such a pedagogical practice might, on the surface, have an activist orientation in opposition to social injustice, it also has a potentially coercive mission.
As an activist, I join those who are committed to changing the dominant narratives of what language says about the people using it, and of the ways of being that are and should be available to us as we use language in particular settings. As a teacher-scholar, I am opposed to the uncritical acceptance of SAE, just as I am opposed to curricular acquiescence to norms such as the five-paragraph essay (at least most of us can agree about its limitations, right?). So, how do I reconcile my desire for the dismantling of language prejudice with my belief that pedagogy is not doctrine?
In the classroom, I try to place the object of inquiry into the center of the room, where all of us can examine it and develop our own views on it. This seems no radical practice, of course, but it potentiates a variety of perspectives, as well as a variety of ways of being. For example, I have offered texts by both Geneva Smitherman and Vershawn Ashanti Young to students who have been placed into the basic writing course sequence at my current institution. Students are placed into the course by their ACT English subscore (that’s the multiple-choice, mostly grammar and mechanics part of the ACT, so SAE is a particularly salient topic), and most are students of color. I, it should be noted, am a cisgender white male with a graying beard (but, Dr. Kynard, if you’re out there—no elbow patches!). Whenever I offer these texts, a part of me hopes that students will take up the texts with the same excitement I have when I read them—the excitement that their authors’ language practices might proliferate and spawn more new hybrid forms of discourse. Admittedly, I also hope that some students will deploy their AAE in the texts they compose for my class, but I certainly do not require it (I have the rubrics to prove it).
Nevertheless, in the case of the Smitherman text, it is more typical for students to react in a manner that is not unlike how contributors to the WPA listserv responded to Young’s call. That is, though they agree that non-dominant varieties such as AAE are legitimate linguistic codes, they are reluctant to accept the idea that such varieties should be used in academic or professional settings.
The Smitherman text I offer is her March 1974 “Soul ‘n Style” column from The English Journal. In that column, Smitherman classifies people’s views on AAE into three groups—eradicationists, bi-dialectalists, and legitimizers. Many of my students, as well as contributors to the WPA listserv, represent the bi-dialectalist view. This view claims that AAE is legitimate for use “in the home environment, but not in school and mainstream America,” and that “Blacks will need to acquire the ‘prestige’ usage system in order to facilitate they socio-economic mobility” (14). Smitherman posits legitimizers as the antidote to the problematic “sociolinguistic attitudes” that perpetuate the other two viewpoints. Legitimizers speak out against linguistic prejudice, and as is seen by the responses to Young’s call, they risk a backlash from the broad range of people who inhabit the bi-dialectalist perspective. A great many who inhabit that range have the would-be legitimizer’s best interests in mind, and the WPA listserv is populated by teacher-scholars who want their students to succeed.
I, too, want my students to succeed. But I do not want them to acquiesce uncritically to received notions of success. That is, I do not want them to think that the only way to get by is to learn the most privileged way of being and then perform as such a being. I also do not want to dictate to them that they should not adopt a privileged way of being—doing so would assume from the outset that they cannot develop their own cunning strategies for getting somewhere good. I want my students to construct their own aims, and to choose from the available means those that might help them achieve their goals. My role is to roll the map out onto the table, point out where groups of people have assembled and what their allegiances tend to be and get my students thinking about what to pack for the trip. This, I believe, is an activist orientation toward the work of the classroom, one that encourages students to intervene critically in the lifeworlds they currently know and the ones they will encounter, wherever they may go after the term of our work together ends.
Bio: Paul Beilstein is a PhD student in Writing Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He earned an MFA in Poetry from the University of California, Irvine, where he also taught writing courses for seven years. He then taught first-year composition at Portland Community College, Rock Creek Campus before returning to Illinois, where he was born and raised. He lives with his wife Shereen, a PhD candidate in Educational Psychology at UIUC.
Davila, Bethany. “The Inevitability of ‘Standard’ English: Discursive Constructions of Standard Language Ideologies.” Written Communication, vol. 33, no. 2, 2016, pp. 1-22.
Smitherman, Geneva. “Soul ‘n Style.” The English Journal, vol. 63, no. 3, 1974, pp. 14-5.
Young, Vershawn Ashanti. “‘Nah, We Straight’: An Argument Against Code Switching.” JAC, vol. 29, no. 1/2, 2009, pp. 49-76.