Monthly Archives: February 2011

Contradicting Myself on Standard Written English–Well, Not Really

Reading Research Quarterly has an excellent article on a topic quite similar to the rant that College English published last month. But, unlike, College English, Reading Research Quarterly shows its usual dedication to good research to back up the article.

The article is a review of research by Melanie Sperling of UC Riverside and Deborah Appleman of Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. Sperling and Appleman look at the research on the poorly defined concept of “voice” in the writing of college students. There are essentially two ways of looking at voice, one that focuses on the individual as the producer of a rhetorical position within his or her writing and another that is ideologically constructed and shaped by the context in which the student develops academically and socially.

Sperling and Appleman do an excellent job of going through both conceptions of voice and review the literature in both areas thoroughly. The students who achieve a fluency of voice have progressed in a way that allows them to be understood and to center their identities in their spoken and written communications. Even though voice is not something that can be clearly defined in this sense, instructors often evaluate for it and see it in the abilities of students to navigate their rhetorical contexts with a good degree of dexterity.

Here is what Sperling and Appleman write:

In this view, the ability to write with voice and to imbue reading with voice demonstrates not only a particular  threshold of linguistic accomplishment but also a threshold of identity achievement, with identity understood to be firmly centered in the individual.

The important element for the students is the development of a personal mastery over their language. The characteristics of this “voice” are not all that easily delineated for a rubric, but they are evident to anyone who has read the writing of a developing student. Even if we cannot quantify voice all that well, teachers know that watching students find their voices in our own classrooms might be the single reason we slog through those stacks of essays.

Sperling and Appleman then go on to describe the conception of voice as a social or cultural construct. To readers of Vygotsky, this notion is not all that new, but Sperling and Appleman develop this approach a good deal more with the perspectives of Bakhtin and Wertsch, among others:

For Wertsch, following Vygotsky and Bakhtin, human thought including language and learning, is fundamentally social in nature. From Vygotsky’s perspective, humans learn and develop language in social interaction. What begins as interaction or dialogue in the social sphere becomes, for the individual, internalized as thought.

Vygotsky, Bakhtin and Wertsch show that an individual’s dexterity with language is not simply a personal mastery of a set of cognitive skills, but is a manifestation of social conventions and the ideologies that refined them in the individual him or herself. Linguistically speaking, no one is an island, and this has much to say about notions of voice in the writings of our students.

What we see as voice in the writings of our students represents not just a level of personal development but also a navigation of the rhetorical modes originally developed by social and political forces. A student’s name may be on top of an essay, but an ideologies he or she is not aware of are shaping much of the language and rhetorical approaches used throughout the essay.

This should give pause to English teachers, especially ones such as me who argue for the utility of teaching Standard Written English to students from lower classes and marginalized ethnic groups. Standard Written English is a dialect developed primarily by middle class white folks for communicating with each other, and its conventions are frequently used to exclude people from lower classes and non-white ethnic groups. There is no way around this historical fact.

In the College English piece, Bruce Horner sees Standard Written English as a tool of the dominant groups for keeping other groups marginalized and weak. Their argument is that English teachers need to “legitimize” other dialects in the college classroom by accepting them as legitimate discourses. This would counteract the history of using Standard Written English to marginalize ethnic minorities. I think this is just plain silly.

What Sperling and Appleman argue for is somewhat different and more useful, but I still see the need for Standard Written English to play a dominant role in our composition courses. They point to the work of a number of researchers who have developed alternative ways of developing voice in our students. Fisher and Jacson both find ways to include non-standard discources in the classroom that I think are legitimate. They use poetry in urban classrooms to “legitimize urban youth culture” and give “voice to students who generally are silenced by traditional academic writing assignments.”

I see these types of assignments as interesting to students because they allow students to act as the experts right when they walk in the door. The student research for such assignments is done through many of the activities they already engage in with their computers and iPods. The assignments qualify as academic because they require the students to reflect on elements from their own culture in ways that are more critical and more appropriate for an academic setting.

I would, however, say that these assignments have a limited value for developing a more thoroughly developed voice. I do not use these types of assignments myself, but it is not because I enjoy lording Standard Written English over my mostly marginalized students. Instead of such “high interest” assignments, I stick to more traditional topics because I see that student gain a greater level of confidence from working and writing in Standard Written English than by using a polished version of their own home dialect.

Sperling and Appleman seem to want to hold onto such an approach and cite Smitherman’s 1972 essay where she “mashes” Black English and Standard Written English in an academic essay to argue for the acceptance of non-standard dialects in composition courses.

Smitherman writes:

There are, to be sure, a few brave enlightened souls who are doing an excellent job in the ghetto. To them, I say: Keep on keepin’ on. But to those others, that whole heap of English teachers who be castigating Black students for using a “non-standard” dialect, I got to say: the question in the title is directed at you, and if the shoe fit, put it on.

Smitherman continues:

As a daughter of the Black ghetto myself, don’t seem like it’s no reason the teacher be doing none of that correctin’ mess. I contend that the size of the above mentioned shoe fully exceeds the magnitude of the problem, for language power is a function not of one’s dialect but of larger linguistic structures skillfully and effectively employed.

One wonders what W.E.B. DuBois would say to this.

What troubles me about Smitherman and others is that they take their own position and treat it as if it were the black position. All that “correctin’ mess” is actually something my students, especially my black students, want to learn about and master most often because their own parents and grandparents have told them in no uncertain terms to clean up their speech and stop talking “ghetto.”  The whole notion of a college professor “legitimizing” any dialect strikes me as little more than patronizing.

The core mistake that Smitherman, Horner and others make is that they see dominant ideologies as inherently exploitive and needing to be resisted at every corner. Standard Written English becomes the language of those in power and is good for keeping the marginalized powerless and little else. (Horner actually acknowledges that he is using Standard Written English in his own essay but sheepishly avoids discussing this irony in any detail.) Smitherman, Horner and others are correct in this assessment of the way Standard Written English can be used against marginalized students to a degree. Making people believe Standard Written English is inherently superior to other dialects is often what English teachers do, and that is simply wrong on so many levels.

What they miss is that Standard Written English is the most effective dialect for people to use to communicate about more complicated situations and to do so across cultures and times. Regional dialects simply do not work well when people from different backgrounds are trying to work with each other on more challenging tasks where clarity and accuracy are important. I could imagine how well Smitherman’s writing style would strike a Latino man from East Los Angeles or a poor white woman from West Virginia, let alone someone from Ireland or England.

Regional dialects are not used in professional fields simply because there are so many white professionals but because you cannot write about genetics, engineering, business management, contract law or pre-Columbian history all that effectively in any dialect other than Standard Written English.

When I read of scholars and others criticizing the use of Standard Written English as a tool of alienating and marginalizing certain groups, I fully agree with them, but there is far, far more to it than that. I also see Standard Written English also as a common meeting ground where people from different groups can and do communicate with each other quite well.

So I agree with Sperling and Appleman when they argue for a greater awareness of how dialect and ideology walk hand in glove:

Teaching voice, then, means that we understand with students how and whether one discourse infiltrates or meshes with another, and to what rhetorical, academic, and not least, political ends.

But I would add that Standard Written English, when taught as a living dialect and not enforced as a rigid set of rules, does not squelch the development of voice in students. If it is taught as a dialect that students can learn, use and change, then their voices become all that much stronger and clearer and colorful. When internalized by someone who has been marginalized, Standard Written English becomes a discourse of personal power. And that is nothing less than a good thing.


Standard Written English–The Universities’ New Whipping Boy

I just finished an Opinion piece in College English delineating the many ways that Standard Written English is oppressive and demeaning to minorities and others outside the existing power structure. Sadly, this has become a standard practice among university types.

Bruce Horner, Min-Zhan Lu and a couple others spend ten pages or so in the essay “Language Differences in Writing: Towards a Translingual Approach” making Standard Written English into a tool for oppression and the people who teach it into cultural tyrants with naive notions about the English language.

I know it might sound as if I am exaggerating, so allow me to turn the floor over to them:

[Instructors] take as the norm a linguistically homogeneous situation: one where writers, speakers, and readers are expected to use Standard English or Edited American English–imagined ideally as uniform–to the exclusion of other languages and language variations. These approaches assume that heterogeneity in language impedes communication and meaning. Hence, the long standing aim of traditional writing instruction has been to reduce “interference,” excising what appears to show difference.

Horner et alia resort to simplifying the many English teachers out there who see value in Standard Written English as a uniform type bind to the flexibility within Standard Written English. Apparently, we hold onto some ideal that Standard Written English is “uniform,” and then we exclude other languages and language variations thusly.

This is, of course, a rhetorical stance designed to portray people such as me both ignorant about the nature of the English language and prone to punishing linguistic elements of which we do not approve. I know there are people who are pedants first and teachers third or fourth, but most of the people I know who teach this language know something about the arbitrary nature of the conventions we teach and use their red pens judiciously.

No matter. Horner et alia get worse:

For, in fact, notions of the “standard English speaker” and “Standard Written English” are bankrupt concepts. All speakers of English speak many variations of English, every one of them accented, and all of them subject to change as they intermingle with other varieties of English and other languages. Likewise, standards of written English are neither uniform nor fixed.

Notions of Standard Written English are “bankrupt”? Horner et alia are getting a little over-dramatic with the rhetoric here, but they are using an approach that is quite common among composition and linguistics faculty at universities.

Mark Liberman, a linguist at the University of Pennsylvania, pillories such an English “peeve” named Richard Grant White in an blog entry concerning White’s criticism of the use of what is known as the progressive passive. White is just the kind of person that Horner et alia see as the problem. They are nit-picking and pompous and go around making people feel all bad about their writing, and Liberman does a wonderful job of poking holes in everything he writes. The problem is White wrote his critique of the progressive passive back in 1869 when peevishness was in vogue. White is dead and so are many of the most egregious pedants.

In fact, Horner et alia‘s piece is not so much a scholarly work as much as it is a manifesto signed by 50 faculty members from a few dozen universities with little experience of student writing outside of the universities where they teach. (Only one of the 50 is from a community college.) These people are not all that likely to encounter the kinds of oppressed masses they seem so willing to go to the ramparts to defend.

Horner et alia are not about to let their lack of experience teaching slightly more marginalized people hold them back, however:

While it is both accurate and useful to identify the language strategies by which specific collectivities have tried to resist domination, the aim should be to honor their linguistic ingenuity and to encourage other innovative strategies–not to reify a set of forms that supposedly have intrinsic power.

Horner et alia know their rhetoric of oppression, but they seem to have little to no familiarity with the students who come to a community college and sign up for a grammar class. They have this image of marginalized students from lower classes and minority groups coming to the universities and fighting the good fight and resisting the power structures of people such as myself who teach Standard Written English to people who speak and write in non-standard forms. But I am here to tell you that I am really not such a bad guy.

Horner et alia are correct in recognizing that Standard Written English is the language of the powerful today, but they are naive in thinking that marginalized students are looking to “resist domination.” The students I see aim to learn Standard Written English for school and work and become part of the powerful classes not for the sake of oppressing their fellow comrades but for the sake of having a life with little less drudgery. Nor do the students I see want us to “honor their linguistic ingenuity” any more than they want us to share their lunch with them or compliment them on the t-shirt selection for the day. They just do not need us to legitimize their language. Urging English instructors to do so strikes me as patronizing and little else.

What strikes me about this piece is that it is endorsed by so many big names in the field of composition studies from so many big name universities where the first order of business is to exclude so many common people from their classes and from their campuses. These professors from Dartmouth College, University of Louisville, The Ohio State University and many other universities seem to think “marginalized” people occupy a great number of places in their classrooms. They do not. Marginalized people cannot make it past the entrance exams at these universities in large part because they are nowhere near fluent in Standard Written English. Trust me.

Instead these composition scholars are spending most of their time working with high achieving students who happen to have some markers of non-standard English on their tongues and pens. Allowing them to get away with these in their writing is not all that egalitarian.

What would be truly innovative and egalitarian would be to accept anyone and everyone who applies to their universities and then allow them into their English classes. When the first batch of essays comes rolling in, most of these scholars might not endorse the peevishness of a Richard Grant White, but they would probably be a little more tolerant of the pedantries of Strunk and White and others of their ilk. Such as me.


Misconceptions and Refutations in Grammar Textbooks

Reading Research Quarterly has an excellent study from a group of researchers based at the University of Cyprus that examines the differences between expository and refutation writing for teaching college students about scientific concepts.

The study is fairly involved and has a number of nuances that are beyond the scope of this entry, but basically the researchers take two groups of students and have them read one of two different pieces about how energy works in physics. The researchers picked this topic because energy is something that students often have trouble understanding or come up with misconceptions to explain situations around them that seem to use energy. Many students, for example, see energy as akin to a natural force or believe it has mass that can be seen in a microscope or measured with a scale.

The first group was given an expository text written in much the way textbooks are written while the second group was given a refutation text written in much the same manner as the first but with refutations of common misconceptions about energy at certain key places. The refutation texts were slightly longer but they did not provide extra information, but instead simply debunked common misconceptions about energy.

The abilities of students to understand the core concepts regarding energy were essentially the same in both groups, but the students reading the refutation texts tended to be better at making inferences about energy and its application to situations. This difference was especially pronounced among students who were assessed as having very little knowledge about energy or as having knowledge that was made up primarily of misconceptions. The students who started the study with lower levels of knowledge about energy and physics in general were prone to making poor inferences and were easily confused by situations that required application of the knowledge to a concrete situation. Could you, for example, see the energy within sugar with a microscope?

To me, this was interesting.

Students of grammar come to class with a great number of misconceptions about how the language works and what learning grammar is supposed to involve. Misconceptions seem to be more common and more deeply rooted than actually understandings. There is, of course, the comma rule that is not a rule (“Put a comma wherever there is a pause”); then there is the clear and concise definition of a sentence that makes no sense (“A sentence is a complete thought”); and, there are many many others that students have picked up from well meaning family members and poorly educated English teachers. All these misconceptions add up to a great deal of interference when the students are trying to learn this messy language.

I see the research as having application to grammar instruction not only because of the number of misconceptions students bring with them but also because it showed how useful refutation writing is for developing the ability to make inferences. The reality is that knowing grammar is not all that impressive if it cannot be applied directly to writing more effectively.

Oddly enough refutations of common misconceptions rarely make it into the basic grammar books. There are plenty of books out there that deal with how silly many of the “rules” that English teachers have come up with over the years are, but the books are written by linguists for other linguists and never make it into the textbooks students use.

The teachers tend to use textbooks that answer certain questions and resolve the issues that students bring to class without taking the time to explain how arbitrary many of these “rules” actually are. There are plenty of books by linguists that blow holes right through these “rules” but there are no books that I am aware of that balance the need to teach students how to use the language but make them aware that these rules are really just useful conventions.

Knowledge of these misconceptions has been around for quite some time. Mina Shaughnessy, David Bartholomae, Joseph Williams and many others have written about the nature of “error” in student writing decades ago, but the students do not have their error patterns directly addressed in the textbooks themselves. A more direct approach to the misconceptions students have would make teaching them new concepts all that easier. No major rewrite of the grammar textbooks would be needed. Just a revision, a revision that would incorporate refutations of the many misconceptions students already have on the first day of class.