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.


About Joseph Pendleton

I am the Reading Specialist--Basic Skills at Victor Valley College. I teach the reading courses in the English Department and the basic English grammar courses in the Basic Skills Department. My primary interests as a teacher is in how students retain the information and skills we teach them. View all posts by Joseph Pendleton

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