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.

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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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