A Call For Greater Linguistic Diversity In Higher Education

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher EdA. W. Strouse is a poet who teaches medieval literature at the City University of New York.

Why We Need Greater Linguistic Diversity

Maria — a mild-mannered Latina student who sat in the front row of my class — straightened her back and shouted at me, “What’s up, my nigga!” Then she slouched and blushed: “Sorry, Professor!”

Class discussion had turned raucous. In this session of The History of the English Language, my syllabus shifted from pre-modern Englishes (my own specialty) to the varieties of English that my students specialize in — dialects that deviate from academic norms, both grammatically and in terms of register. As my students taught me about the versions of English that they speak, they also taught me about the need for greater linguistic diversity in the university.

“How would you classify the word that Maria used?” I asked my class.

Immanuel called out, “Slang!”

“Yes. What else?”

Katie put up a hand. “A discourse marker.”

Discourse markers are, like, totally cool. Because they tell you, like, who a speaker is and, like, where they are coming from, you know?

Maria explained, “My friends use that word casually, but we can’t say it in school.”

Or as Xuechen put it, “When my friends called me their ‘Chinese nigga,’ I felt like I had made it.”

The word marks Maria and Xuechen as members of groups that dwell outside of the white, middle-class milieu that governs academe in the United States.

Academics master discourse markers. We deliver lectures according to strict protocols, and we use jargon that signals our membership in particular schools of thought. Codes of decorum control our speech, and style guides regulate our writing. We receive advice about how certain discourse markers might “hurt” our careers.

For example, as Derek Loosvelt recently explained, overusing the word “like” can mark a speaker as “unintelligent” and “as someone who’s lacking a mastery of the English language.” Of course, the film Clueless has already given the lie to those prejudices. (The main character, Cher, is anything but unintelligent!) And linguists know that notions of “proper” speech have nothing to do with “mastery” and everything to do with how certain in-groups dictate propriety. Still, such prejudices can, in fact, destroy careers. Linguistic conventions try to shut out speakers like my students Maria and Xuechen — like, fer sher.

I object to academe’s linguistic monoculture for aesthetic reasons. An analogy: I teach in Manhattan, and for lunch I could eat crepes, bibimbap, New York pizza, halal or sushi — all of which are within walking distance of campus. Or I could eat every day at the college cafeteria. I’d rather add some spice.

But this argument sounds decadent. (Like a 19th-century dandy, I flippantly feast on the delicacies of empire.) So let me offer another argument: as academics, we need to vary our ways of speaking in order to avoid the precanned insights and stale platitudes that deaden thought. In privileging certain forms of speech over others, we denigrate the possibility of thinking outside our own norms.

Indeed, much queer, feminist and anti-racist scholarship has given voice to marginalized communities — precisely because, without those voices, mainstream academia does not possess a vocabulary for understanding diverse social realities. As Allen Ginsberg once told William F. Buckley, white audiences cannot comprehend phenomena like police brutality unless the media grants access to what Ginsberg called “the linguistic data” — the actual words spoken in the streets. Ghettoized linguistically, elite academics may even fail to appreciate why some voters might prefer a president with a foul mouth.

Outside of teaching, my research also focuses on dialects of American English. This work began earnestly last year when my husband, Evan — in one of our dinner-table lovers’ squabbles — complained to me, saying, “Allen, you talk too slowly, and you never interrupt — it’s annoying!” Initially, Evan’s request struck me as absurd. I soon realized that some African-American families (like Evan’s) tend to talk over each other quite boisterously, while uptight Anglo-Saxon families (like mine) tend to wait our turn to speak (or, often, remain silent).

Fans of Annie Hall might recall a similar juxtaposition between the Singers and the Halls. More scholarly, though, is an essay by Arthur Spears. In his chapter in Sociocultural and Historical Contexts of African-American English, “Directness in the Use of African-American English,” Spears admits that his work may appear to air “dirty laundry.” Spears investigates speech events such as “cussin’ out” and “reading people,” as well as “getting real” and “trash talk.” As Spears shows, such forms of speech typify the “directness” of the African-American vernacular. Furthermore, Spears argues that African-American educators teach African-American students more effectively when they use a direct style. And, inversely, Spears finds that white educators often fail to appreciate the direct style of their African-American students. Spears suggests that, in order to improve educational opportunities, scholars need to speak more directly about linguistic differences.

In other words, we need to think critically about the conventions that govern academic speech. (As I just drafted my summary of Spears’s work, I obeyed my university’s dictum that I must avoid using gendered pronouns.) Such policies rarely arrive through official memos. Instead, we internalize linguistic norms unthinkingly and judge people’s intelligence based on dubious standards.

As a scholar of English, part of my job is to help my students work within those standards. But my job is also — in part — to question those standards. And questioning them is risky. For a white teacher like me, Spears offers a dangerous proposition. After all, I have no cover for airing other people’s dirty laundry, and admiring nonstandard dialects leaves me open to accusations of exoticizing or stereotyping. Nevertheless, education is a risky business. And, as my student Maria’s case shows — and as Annie Hall shows — this is not a black-and-white issue, but one that bears upon all members of the university. Nobody speaks academic English as a mother tongue.

Already, scholars of rhetoric believe, as the consensus view, that instructors should not try to change their students’ speech patterns. In the classroom, students shut down in the face of pedantry because they hate when bossy teachers tell them how to talk, especially in cases in which bourgeois white teachers dictate ex cathedra about what speech is “correct.” As Vicki Spandel and Richard J. Stiggins write, “Negative comments … tend to make students feel bewildered, hurt or angry,” but “positive comments build confidence and make the writer want to try again.” Experts recommend an approach in which professors use positive reinforcement rather than direct criticism.

But I would take that position one step farther. Rather than simply ignoring “nonstandard” English, I try to facilitate its open, friendly analysis. For example, when my student Xuechen referred to a medieval poem as a “bromance,” I asked my class to use this word in their essays about the poem. Such assignments do not simply tolerate linguistic diversity — they actually affirm and embrace different forms of speech. As Spears has suggested, we must think directly about linguistic conventions in order to better appreciate the identities that we create through language. Rather than simply ignoring “improper” or nonstandard speech, we might relish in linguistic diversity.

In an upcoming essay, I will suggest specific methods for encouraging students and faculty members to critically and creatively employ diverse dialects. For now, may I recommend that we start by sitting down at the supper table with people who speak differently, like me and Evan — our two Englishes, direct and academic, overlapping and interweaving.

A Queer Confession: Academia Made Me Conservative

Note: this blog post was originally published on our Inside Higher Ed column. A. W. Strouse is a poet who teaches medieval literature at the City University of New York.



Like most of my scholarly projects, it began as a joke. I had just entered an English doctoral program, where my fellow students hotly protested the blood drives held on campus by the Red Cross. As a gay man, my heart bled with the crusaders, who opposed the Food and Drug Administration’s ban on donations from men who have had congress with men.

But, again as a gay man, I recoil from groupthink with Pavlovian predictability.

My new program placed me smack-dab in a crowd of radical queer compatriots, and I instinctually cringed about jumping on the gay-blood bandwagon. Suddenly, a wicked impulse seized me. I started drafting an essay in support of the FDA’s embargo, which appeared as an op-ed in The Advocate.

With a lust like de Sade for unfettered reason, my essay gorged on intellectual perversity. The essay did not reflect my actual views but merely celebrated rhetoric for rhetoric’s sake. Soon, however, I grew ever more skeptical about the leftist activism so prevalent in the humanities. My whole life, I have espoused progressive views — but graduate study steadily drove me to conservatism. At first, I performed conservative poses only in order to resist the tedium of conformity, but soon those postures seduced me, as they provided a resource for dealing with some of the excesses of leftist thought.

Let me clarify what I intend by “conservative.” I proudly pay my union dues, and I cohabitate with another dude. And I write plenty of poems about sodomy. Most citizens would register me as a New York City liberal, and right-wingers might denounce me as a bohemian. But friends have cautioned me about my old-school rep, and some of my colleagues have condemned me as a conservative — a word that they use as a slur. It seems that, in the academic cloisters, moderates look like reactionaries. So when I say that the university made me conservative, I mean this literally. Academic culture has defined me as such. And as the liberal catechism teaches, people tend to conform to the categories placed upon them. Slotted as a conservative, I became one — that is, in the sense that Roger Scruton defines the term: someone who believes that they have inherited traditions worth hanging on to.

I consider my conservatism a queer positionality for three reasons. First, it arises not essentially, but in response to social norms. My conservatism responds to the culture of my department, which sees the “good, beautiful and true” as oppressive. But it does not seem truly conservative relative to the culture of my hometown in Appalachia, which sees English professors as propagandists for decadence, decline and decay. Second, it finds expression in camp — in rhetorical pranks that decline sincerity (like this sonnet). And, third, such an ambiguous stance defies partisan classification and often incites phobia and panic. Someday I hope to make this positionality more legible by writing about my coconspirators in the secret subculture of queer academic conservatives. But to make my own Brexit from theoretical exposition, let me turn to my story proper, and let me tell, as a cautionary tale, how I came out to myself as an academic conservative.

First Flowerings

I began to feel the latent stirrings of my tendencies during my last semester of doctoral course work, in a seminar on textual criticism (i.e., the tricky process by which “Old, learned, respectable bald heads / Edit and annotate the lines / That young men, tossing on their beds / Rhymed out in love’s despair”). My classmates, like the lovers of Yeats’s poem, despaired of ever arriving at any certainty in editorial matters. But I found myself proposing that, at least, we can accept the basic existence of facts. “Some things,” I said, “are true, like that we are here in Manhattan.” This naïve statement turned me into an object of pity and derision.

Another student insisted, “But there’s no such thing as facts! Everything is just a social construction!” And my professor more politely offered, “There’s no guarantee that the sun will rise tomorrow.” Horrified, I realized that no other member of this graduate-level university course would dare to defend a priori truth. At this moment, I experienced my first full-fledged conservative yearning: “If I ever have children,” I promised myself, “then I must homeschool them — to protect them from this nihilism!”

Mind you, I understand that culture inflects knowledge and that humans participate in the creation of facts. But — call me old-fashioned — I still assume that truth exists (perhaps beyond our grasp) and that scholars ought to quest for truth (even if futilely). Whereas one of my previous articles cites Saint Augustine ironically (as an argument for queer identity), now I took honest refuge in the Bishop of Hippo. In Against the Academicians, Augustine eloquently responded to those who claim that humans can never know anything for certain. Augustine pointed out that such a claim must call its own certainty into doubt, thus nullifying itself and demonstrating that reason demands faith.

During this first flower of my conservatism, I started to craft a dissertation prospectus, and my interest in theology irked some of my medievalist co-workers. Christian doctrine, as you can imagine, plays no small part in the culture of medieval Europe. And as a scholar of medieval literature, I feel comfortable saying that no full account of the subject can ignore its Catholic context. In any case, my dissertation, like most of my scholarly projects, began as a joke. I proposed to examine the ways that premodern theologians and poets thought about language using metaphors of the foreskin.

The topic titillates me. Yet I also consider the project swishy in its ambitions, since it cruises the locker rooms of literary history, peeping at the ways that male poets related to one another by way of the prepuce — a tissue that queerly belongs to, but elides, the phallus. I know that certain queer scholars have called my relationship with theology “reactionary,” while theologians are just as likely to consider my project perverted. Maybe publishing offers some degree of protection. But it seems as though there is no way not to offend somebody.

Reflecting on how some queer scholars dislike Augustine, my ears became more attuned to such biases. Teaching a class on Chaucer last semester, I noticed that several of my students felt free to describe Chaucer’s religious references as “weird.” And I noticed how many of my students share the same lukewarm prejudices and postmodern platitudes. Like the student who announced in my linguistics class this semester that she disliked a certain medieval devotional lyric because “I don’t like anything that’s religious.” I noticed, too, how few of my students converse with the ancient spiritual traditions that might provide some electricity for defibrillating contemporary culture.

And — though I feel nervous about saying this publicly — I also noticed that my Muslim students, most of them quite pious, rarely suffer from such clichéd thinking. In my Chaucer course, one such student earnestly investigated Chaucer’s abiding love for the Christian stoicism of Boethius. This student, in an email, recently prayed for me, writing, “God reward you with good and make your studies successful!”

This prayer fills me with fear and trembling. This prayer makes me regret the flippancy with which I have participated in the culture wars, and it makes me wonder how a belief in revealed truth might redefine what humanists think of as successful studies. Too much of my own work — shaped by the fashion for partisan scholarship — has promoted cynical, one-sided mythologies instead of seeking a genuine encounter with the summum bonum. But many conservatives partake of the same type of cynical mythologizing. And my student’s prayer reminds me that successful scholarship means trying to escape the trap of easy binaries by queerly accepting ambiguity, ambivalence and mystery.