How To Cultivate Greater Linguistic Diversity In The Classroom

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

In an earlier essay, I argued for the need for greater linguistic diversity in the university. In this second piece, I offer some methods for fostering that diversity — methods that developed from my teaching and personal experiences as a speaker of an off-kilter English dialect.

At Hunter College, I teach working-class youths from across the globe. My students represent a planet’s worth of distinct backgrounds. And most of my students insist upon their own uniqueness, so an American love of individualism refracts their vast cultural diversity into a kaleidoscope of personalities. Class discussions showcase a melting pot of English dialects: from Sofia, who flagrantly cusses with an outerborough braggadocio; to Jazmine, who drops forms of “to be” from her sentences; to the prim Jennifer, a graduate of an Upper East Side prep school.

My students often seek mobility through education, but many of them also belong — however uneasily — to strict families, ancient traditions and ethnocentric communities. This creates some linguistic tensions: my students want to master academic English, but many of them live with parents and among neighbors who speak dozens of languages (and as many different varieties of English). During my office hours, students sometimes confide:

  • “My grandmother makes fun of me for not speaking Chinese, so I’m studying abroad [in China] next year.”
  • “I had to rearrange my schedule because my father is forcing me to study Arabic.”
  • “I’m learning Italian since I’m the only Greek in my [predominantly Italian] neighborhood.”

By providing English instruction, I may unintentionally exacerbate some of these fault lines.

You say that I’m projecting? It’s true: my own folks speak a twangy, Appalachian English of “y’ins” and “daresn’t.” My early teachers taught me to shun my parents’ speech and to use “correct” grammar instead. During my adolescence, my parents could not understand my vocabulary, and I viewed their speech as stupid. We did not speak the same kind of English.

Teaching with firsthand knowledge of linguistic alienation, I understand that education can enflame parent-child rivalries, pique a sense of assimilation guilt or provoke psychic dissonance. So I try to ease these tensions through several methods, which I discuss below.

Adopt And Mimic

In the classroom, I adopt my students’ vernaculars, because embracing linguistic diversity creates a friendly rapport that advances learning. For example, my student Albert recently announced to our class, “Beowulf is kind of a dick!”

Another student, Alesandro, debated the point: “Beowulf is just a man of his time!”

Frankly, the cliché is as intellectually offensive to me as the slang. And as an instructor, I must lead my students toward articulating their insights with more precision. At some point during the conversation, I asked my students to clarify: “Can you find a more sophisticated term for ‘dick’?”

But first, I adopt my students’ own language. I said, “Albert and Alesandro have proposed diverging arguments, from which we might craft a thesis question: ‘Is Beowulf a dick, or is he simply a man of his time?’” I wrote this phrase on the board and announced to the class, “This is an intriguing title for an essay: ‘Beowulf: A Dick, or Man of His Time?’”

By redeploying students’ vernaculars, I generated linguistic solidarity and cultivate an environment wherein students may speak freely, from the top of their heads. But this approach has more to offer than simply appeasing foulmouthed bad boys.

As the conversation unfolded, the class developed a deeper sense of what makes someone a “dick” in historical context. By permitting some code-switching between vernacular and academic Englishes, students can approach the material, both in their day-to-day speech and also in the more scientific style of university discourse — in order to integrate disparate parts of themselves in relation to their studies. By adopting students’ speech patterns, I clarify that students do not need to jettison their own language in order to learn. Otherwise, I would run the risk of shutting students down by being pedantic.

Ask Students To Write In Their Own Vernacular

Recently, one of my students, Anne, began laughing in class. Anne said, “I’m wondering how I’m going to explain this to my boyfriend.” The class had been reading a particularly raucous portion of Chaucer’s “Reeve’s Tale,” in which the Reeve luridly describes a miller who farts in his sleep.

I took her concern seriously. “Yes, Anne, how would you explain this to your boyfriend? That’s a great question. For homework, I’d like everyone to write a letter to a loved one and tell them about this passage. Write in the voice that you would ordinarily use when addressing this person.”

Instructors familiar with “Writing Across the Curriculum” pedagogy likely already use this sort of exercise. Students often write best when they write to a particular audience. And students internalize new concepts more easily when they use their own voices. (Actually, Anne’s letter to her boyfriend about the farting miller was an amazing piece of criticism.)

Professors can also encourage their students to read outside their specific disciplines. Political scientists, for example, could ask students to read Zen koans in conjunction with excerpts from the military’s Counterinsurgency Field Manual — a mesmerizing collection of mystical aphorisms. By training students to approach our subjects through multiple voices, we enable students to develop deeper relationships with the material.

Model Enthusiasm

To negotiate between my own education and my wood-hick background, I have learned to revere all words as objects of beauty. In the classroom, I perform my love affair with words. Recently, for example, when a student called a literary character a THOT (“that ho over there”), I dramatized my interest. “This is a new word for me,” I explained to the class, “and I need to write it in my notes and learn the definition.”

By expressing my evident pleasure in offbeat words, I model for my students how they might greet unfamiliar lingo with excitement. The educational process needs to work in both directions. I teach my students jargon like “asyndetic parataxis.” They teach me about THOTs. My experience has been that students respond to this approach by becoming as genuinely excited about esoteric linguistic concepts as they are to gossip about THOTs: my pleasure in their slang helps to build a relationship that enhances their pleasure in my jargon.

Admit That Language Is A Problem

A while ago, I told some colleagues about a study that investigated meth addiction. This study proposed that women’s and men’s brains process meth differently. My colleagues — who misheard me, and who believed that I was discussing math — immediately expressed their concern.

English professors don’t necessarily test empirical questions — like scanning meth-addled brains — but our work delves into how subtle linguistic differences may bear upon our reality. A sensitivity to language allows us to see how, in some cases, language poses obstacles to communication. I therefore talk with my students about how prejudices about language influence our relationships.

Sometimes, such discussions take an empirical form. (For example, I share with my students a study that shows how listeners often misperceive speakers as having accents based on race.) Other times, those conversations might take a more anecdotal form. (For example, I share with my students my anxieties about speaking across sociolinguistic divides.)

Foregrounding such issues helps students grasp how their preconceptions influence their relationships with language, because language, in fact, is a problem for professors as much as for students. Owning up to this can help to break down some of the barriers that inhibit real dialogue. Ya heard?

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.