Monday, July 30, 2012

On Short Skirts, Black Vernacular English, and My Role as an Educator: Decisions from the Intersections

"That student's skirt is too short. You should tell her. It could be a distraction."


I am an educator, and I want all of my students to be successful, but I understand that "success" is not a one-size-fits-all path. Besides, I am not just an educator. I am also a feminist. I am a rhetorician.

So when someone starts telling me that it's my job as an educator to interfere in my students' personal communicative choices, I have to make decisions from the intersections.

Irish scotish!

It's not that I don't get why it's helpful to inform students about the way their short skirt (or ripped jeans, or low neckline, etc.) might be viewed. I understand that clothing is a communicative choice, but I also understand that it's a choice we don't always fully understand, especially when we're young. And I agree that it's my job to teach students that there are circumstances and occasions when we need to be more attentive to those choices than others. If you wear the wrong thing into a job interview, after all, you might be closing opportunities for yourself. And if you aren't conscious about your clothing choices, you could be sending messages that you don't want to send. Those are things I need to talk about as a rhetoric teacher. 

But that's different from policing individual students' choices about their clothing. As far as I'm concerned, it is not my job (or my right) to tell an individual student that her skirt is too short. I can talk about the impact of rhetorical choices, but once my student has made a rhetorical choice, we're entering into different territory. 

Which brings me to a more complicated example of making a pedagogical decision from the intersections: students' rights to their own language. 

I borrow the phrase from a movement in the 1970s fueled largely by Geneva Smitherman, whose book Talkin' and Testifyin' I've been reading lately. Here's a retrospective on the movement that gives a great overview. Basically, Smitherman (and others) clearly establish that what has traditionally been thought of as the "flawed" speech patterns of many black students is actually a grammar-bound language that grew from African languages spoken by slaves. She provides many, many examples of how this African influence functions and makes an excellent argument for why we should consider this way of speaking as a dialect with its own grammar rules and vocabulary choices. Dubbed Black Vernacular English (or, often, simply Black English), this way of speaking has been viewed as sub-par in many academic and professional settings. As Smitherman explains, Standard American English (which has traditionally been spoken by white people) has enjoyed (white) privilege in the classroom and professional settings. This places speakers who grew up speaking Standard American English at an advantage. And that's an advantage that is based entirely on an arbitrary selection of which language is the "right" one. Standard American English is no better--linguistically speaking--thank Black English. But racial politics, oppression, and power structures have privilege Standard American English, just as those influences have privileged its speakers. 

So, I said earlier that I teach around the edges of communicative decisions by giving students the tools to make informed rhetorical choices (such as knowing how that short skirt might be interpreted and teaching them the way that authorial choices and audience interpretation operate). I also said that I stop short of policing individual student's rhetorical choices when it comes to clothing. I'm not going to pull my student aside and tell her that her skirt is too short. 

But there's one time that I have to judge my students' individual rhetorical choices: when they turn in their papers. 

I teach composition, so part of my literal job description is judging rhetorical choices. I am supposed to evaluate and comment on students' papers, which are written representations of the rhetorical choices they have made. It is my job to read these, judge them, and tell the students how they can improve on these choices. It's a job I very much enjoy, and it's a job I take seriously. Helping people communicate more clearly hones a tool that those students will carry forward into every aspect of their lives. 

But, once again, I have to make a decision from the intersection. I am an educator, but I am also someone who cares deeply about eradicating racism. 

Fork in the road

So what do I do? The anti-racist in me says that I must recognize a rhetorical choice to use Black English (or other non-standard forms of English) as valid. I must understand and acknowledge the racism at play in privileging one form of language over the others. 

But the educator in me knows that my class is not my students' only class. In fact, since I teach developmental writing, my students are depending on me to bridge the rhetorical gap standing between them and their future classes. 

And the realist in me knows that the world is not fair. I know that turning in a college essay written in Black English, for example, is likely not going to end with an acceptance letter and a scholarship. A cover letter written that way is less likely to end with a job interview.  

So there's racial justice, there's the students' own academic desires, and there's pragmatism. 

What do I do?

I can't--like with the skirt--just talk about the impact of these rhetorical choices, giving the student information to make those choices, and then ignore the individual choices they make. It's my job to grade that paper. 

I can't not comment on the use of non-standard English. If I do that, I set the student up for failure in future courses. It's my job to prepare them for those realities. 

So I make compromises. 

I create a variety of assignments, many of which are evaluated solely on clarity and organization of ideas. These are spaces where students' rights to their own language are in tact. I assign these early and often. 

But we talk about language uses. We talk about grammar and what's considered standard. We talk about vocabulary. I make metaphors. I talk about how our language choices mirror clothing choices. While there's absolutely nothing wrong with choosing to wear ripped jeans and a t-shirt, you wouldn't wear them into a job interview. I say that's how we have to think about language. 

And, at the end of the day, I grade final papers based on Standard American English conventions. My students enroll in my class to become "better writers," and they mean better writers based on the conventions they are going to be evaluated against by other instructors and employers. They mean Standard American writers. I want them to get what they paid for. 

Is this an easy choice? Not at all. Is this the right choice? I don't know. All I know is that it's the choice that I've arrived at by deciding from the intersections. 

What do you think? Are there intersections in your own identity that inform your professional choices? If you are an educator, how do you handle students' individual rhetorical choices? 

1 comment:

  1. It seems that your institution may assigning pedagogical objectives that are unclear, and perhaps at cross purposes. You have my sympathy: it is this more than anything else that has dissuaded me from continuing a teaching career. I would ask my department head: (1) to suppose that my English Composition students are bilingual; (2) to recognize "an increased competence to write in -both- languages" as a plausible pedagogical outcome; and (3) to advise me on how I should value this outcome as an indicator of having achieved core pedagogical objectives (or even as an ungraded pedagogical objective in it's own right).

    If you can open up conversation about the value of teaching compositional skills that are not language specific (I imagine the true need of most first year students is knowing how to organize their thoughts on paper before knowing how to style them), it might lead to a conversation on the role of this and other courses as service courses to other departments.

    With the course purposes distinguished, the purposes of teaching skills related specifically to Standard English might be more clearly explicated, perhaps to the point of being explicated in the course requirements. Perhaps this could result in a teaching situation which is less stressful for you.

    (Then again, there may be people with an interest in such purposes -not- being clearly explicated. If that should be the case, you again have my sympathy.)