Megan McIntyre | Sonoma State University
We affirm the students’ right to their own patterns and varieties of language — the dialects of their nurture or whatever dialects in which they find their own identity and style. Language scholars long ago denied that the myth of a standard American dialect has any validity. The claim that any one dialect is unacceptable amounts to an attempt of one social group to exert its dominance over another. Such a claim leads to false advice for speakers and writers, and immoral advice for humans. A nation proud of its diverse heritage and its cultural and racial variety will preserve its heritage of dialects. We affirm strongly that teachers must have the experiences and training that will enable them to respect diversity and uphold the right of students to their own language.
~ Students’ Right to Their Own Language
It’s been nearly five decades since “Students’ Right to Their Own Language” (SRTOL) came to be. In fact, it was 50 years ago this year (in the fall of 1971) that the officers of the Conference on College Composition and Communication appointed members of their executive board and other language experts from among the association’s ranks to a committee charged with drafting a statement on varieties of English and students’ rights to learn and compose in the languages that are meaningful to them. In her history of the development of SRTOL, Geneva Smitherman, one of the original authors of the statement, has noted that, at nearly every step of the process, the creation and adoption of the statement was an “intense struggle” (22). So much of the struggle that Smitherman describes in the histories of SRTOL and NCTE’s subsequent decision not to adopt the text –– but to instead adopt a weaker version that, while affirming students’ right to their own language also argues that they need to learn “conventions of what has been called written edited American English” –– feels familiar. Fifty years later, despite SRTOL remaining the official policy position of our largest professional organization, so many writing programs remain stubbornly devoted to a single, mythical “academic writing,” as evidenced by continued references to “academic writing” and a lack of references to varieties of English in programmatic outcomes, including the one from the Council of Writing Program Administrators.
In committee meeting rooms and faculty workshops, writing program administrators and writing faculty like me have defended the continued teaching of this mythical monolith by telling ourselves and others that the kind of standardized English that most resembles white, middle- and upper-class English is what’s expected of students in other classrooms and in professional settings. And we’re not necessarily wrong: problematic, racist assumptions about language facility and variety pervade any number of spaces within and beyond academia, such as in business environments where assumptions about “proper” writing and speaking often mean a default to white, middle- and upper-class English varieties and linguistic bias continues to harm jobseekers of color. But that reality does not absolve us of the responsibility to push back on those assumptions or to fight for our students’ rights to learn and compose in the language varieties that are meaningful to them.
There are numerous ways that devoting first year composition (and other college writing classrooms) to so-called “academic writing” reifies racist and colonialist language practices. We know that we harm our students when we devalue the language varieties that animate their complex rhetorical lives.
We know that there are benefits to helping students connect to topics, questions, and rhetorical practices that are meaningful to them. We also know there is no such thing as “academic writing” as a single genre, that what we mean by “academic writing” shifts from course to course, institution to institution, and discipline to discipline. We also know that grammars evolve, that stylistic choices are fluid and contextual, and that audience expectations and rhetorical situations shift.
Knowing all this, how do we make good on the promise of SRTOL? I want to suggest three places we might begin. First, I’d point us to the work of the Institute of Race, Rhetoric, and Literacy (once known as the CWPA Outcomes Statement Revision Task Force), whose members note that, “there is still a tendency among FYC practitioners to rely on predetermined, singular, habits of White language (HOWL). Too often in writing courses, HOWL purposefully excludes a diverse array of rhetorics and other habits of language that are, at base, equal to and, when used effectively, add to and even surpass the communicative and rhetorical effectiveness of HOWL.” I’d also point us to April Baker-Bell’s Linguistic Justice, which shows us, in no uncertain terms, that English language arts pedagogies are doing lasting harm to Black students. And I’d point to the 2020 CCCC Special Committee on Composing a CCCC Statement on Anti-Black Racism and Black Linguistic Justice’s “This Ain’t Another Statement! This is a DEMAND for Black Linguistic Justice!,” which tells us that, “the language of Black students has been monitored, dismissed, demonized.” Each of these texts calls our attention to the harm we’ve done by ignoring the clear position of SRTOL:
students have the right to write and learn in “to their own patterns and varieties of language — the dialects of their nurture or whatever dialects in which they find their own identity and style.”
Taken together, these resources also offer us a way forward. They tell us that we can support and serve linguistically diverse students if we
- Affirm our students’ existing rhetorical sophistication by assigning readings and inviting writing that encourage them to explore their existing literacies and use their well-honed rhetorical skills and knowledge in our classrooms.
- Make our classrooms and programs spaces for exploring and building on students’ previous literacy practices by using multimodal pedagogies, assigning writing projects that invite experimentation and play, and inviting students to speak and act as experts in their own literacy.
- Help students build sustainable habits and routines for their writing, reading, and making in college and beyond through sustained, mindful reflection.
- Resist efforts to use a single standard to judge our students’ writing by eschewing rubrics that assume there is a single correct version of English and eliminating outcomes that emphasize mythical academic English. Faculty in programs that use a standard, program-wide rubric should push for its elimination or expansion of such assessment tools, or experiment with ungrading and other approaches that center students’ goals, needs, and approaches. Writing Program Administrators for such programs should revise rubrics, heuristics, and criteria to reflect the value of multiple Englishes. Or, we might decide to avoid rubrics altogether.
In the writing program at Sonoma State University, this means I’m working on
- Gathering data (quantitative AND qualitative) on equity gaps. This necessarily includes actual discussions with students of color who’ve gone through our programs and courses. Writing programs share any number of traits, but they are also idiosyncratic things, and local conditions, values, and experiences can have a significant impact both on the ways that programs make decisions and how students experience those decisions. To really understand what linguistic justice means for students in our specific programs, we need to understand their specific experiences. This data can be useful in programmatic assessment and decision-making (about student success, course caps, partnerships with academic and advising support, etc.) and for faculty professional development (At my previous institution, one of the most impactful faculty workshops allowed us to read anonymized student reflections about first year writing courses on our campus and consider how our practices impacted students’ experiences.)
- Revising our programmatic outcomes to eliminate ones that gesture toward or invoke a mythical, monolithic “academic writing” (Again, the work of the Institute of Race, Rhetoric, and Literacy is invaluable here.).
- Focusing our professional development on supporting faculty in doing the classroom work above, including through (as often as possible) paid support for faculty reflection, which can lead to communities of practice and course redesign.
All of these are concrete steps I can take in my own classroom and program. But, as the first post in this series reminded us, all writing and teaching work is local. I can’t chart for you how precisely each of these things might work in your classroom or program, but I can encourage you to find ways to (1) better understand the experiences of linguistically diverse students by reading the work researchers like April Baker-Bell and Django Paris or the College Reading and Learning Association and by talking to the linguistically diverse students in your own classes and programs and (2) interrupt, in ways big and small, the assessment and grading systems that do harm to all of our students, particularly our linguistically diverse students.
We can also insert ourselves, as often as possible, into conversations about writing and literacy on our campuses; we can be a voice for our students’ rights to their own language. But we have to start. And we have to start now.
Writing faculty, writing programs, and English departments, as well as the humanities more broadly have the history, experience, and knowledge to lead conversations on our campuses about the harm of mythical “academic writing”. We can create the permission structure for our colleagues outside of writing studies to let go of the myth of “academic writing.” We can expose the lie.
‘Cause if we don’t, who will? If not us, who?
Baker-Bell, April. Linguistic justice: Black language, literacy, identity, and pedagogy. Routledge, 2020.
Baker-Bell, April. “Dismantling Anti-Black Linguistic Racism in English Language Arts Classrooms: Toward an Anti-Racist Black Language Pedagogy.” Theory Into Practice, vol. 59, no. 1, 2020, pp. 8-21.
Beavers, Melvin, Beth L. Brunk-Chavez, Neisha-Anne Green, Asao B. Inoue, Iris Ruiz, Tanita Saenkhum, and Vershawn Ashanti Young. “Abbreviated Statement Toward First-Year Composition Goals.” Institute of Race, Rhetoric, and Literacy, 2021. https://docs.google.com/document/d/1A0YO3K4IVIJLJTNSBGl5HJKOdddAK73spe2GbOmJn1w/edit.
Cedillo, Christina. “Diversity, Technology, and Composition: Honoring Students’ Multimodal Home Places.” Present Tense: A Journal of Rhetoric in Society, vol. 6, no. 2, 2017.
Conference on College Composition and Communication. “Students’ Right to Their Own Language,” 1974. https://cdn.ncte.org/nctefiles/groups/cccc/newsrtol.pdf.
Conference on College Composition and Communication. “This Ain’t Another Statement. This Is a DEMAND for Black Linguistic Justice,” 2020. https://cccc.ncte.org/cccc/demand-for-black-linguistic-justice.
de Klien, Christa and Rachele Lawton. Meeting the needs of linguistically diverse students at the college level. College Reading & Learning Association, 2015.
Finegan, Edward. “What is “Correct” Language?” Linguistic Society of America. https://www.linguisticsociety.org/resource/what-correct-language.
Kohn, Alfie. “The Case Against Grades.” Educational Leadership, vol. 69, no. 3, 2011, pp. 28-33.
Lyscott, Jamila. “Jamila Lyscott: Why English Class is Silencing Students of Color.” TED, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u4dc1axRwE4.
Mitchler, Sharon. “Pedagogy: Considering Local Conditions.” FEN Blog, 2021. https://compstudiesjournal.com/2021/06/07/pedagogy-considering-local-conditions/.
Paris, Django. “‘They’re in My Culture, They Speak the Same Way’: African American Language in Multiethnic High Schools.” Harvard Educational Review, vol. 79, no. 3, 2009, pp. 428-448.
Smitherman, Geneva. “’Students’ Right to Their Own Language’: A Retrospective.” The English Journal, vol. 84, no. 1, 1995, pp. 21-27.
Stommel, Jesse. “How to Ungrade.” JesseStommel.com, 2018. https://www.jessestommel.com/how-to-ungrade/.
Yancey, Kathleen Blake. “The Meaning-Making of Reflection.” FEN Blog, 2021. https://compstudiesjournal.com/2021/07/12/the-meaning-making-of-reflection/
Young, Vershawn Ashanti. “Should Writers Use They Own English?” Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies, vol. 12, no. 1, 2010, pp. 110-117.
The next special issue of this journal should invite papers on the topic “Theories of Composition that Ought to Be Dumped, and Why.” Now that would be readable for sure!