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Composition Be Deep

I have not agreed with John McWhorter on much, particularly regarding his ignorant remarks about the admission policies of specialized high schools in New York City (discussion for another day). But he raises valid issues in “Don’t Sleep: Linguistically, Black Americans Can Walk and Chew Gum at the Same Time,” his New York Times editorial of May 3. Well, what McWhorter’s title announces that we can accomplish, we, of course, can. This brings us to his objection regarding a panel at the recent Conference on College Composition and Communication. He heard presentations about Standardized English being, in his words, a “potentially unjust” or “flatly racist” requirement for African American students in first-year writing courses. The preferences by panelists, as McWhorter understands it, is to encourage students to write in their home dialect or engage in code-meshing. The approaches are distinct, but McWhorter lumps them together as “an approach” and argues that it “accomplishes the feat of both underserving Black speakers and diminishing Blackness.”

Although he’s a bit off in his logic---and maybe off to a greater degree in his comprehension of the teaching strategies discussed---he is clear about what he heard during the Q and A, especially from former CCCCs Chair Asao Inoue. In response to the idea, forwarded by an attendee, that some BIPOC students in writing classrooms resist code-meshing pedagogies because they view them as set ups for failure, Inoue declared that when he hears that objection he wonders if he must “demean the linguistic history” of students for them to succeed in a “racist, white supremacist system.” He is critical of the fact that students may want to succeed (however that is defined) in this unfair system. His expressed desire is to change social arrangements so that education is not about the way “we, you, become a nice little cog in the system.” A dubious result for Inoue is that “you” enter the workforce and make Microsoft more money.

Inoue has good impulses. We unfortunately live under white supremacy and should resist it and the attendant corporate greed. But McWhorter is correct that “just the notion that standard English is exterior to Black students’ real selves requires a closer look.” He is also correct in following assertions: ”For most Black Americans, both Black and standard English are part of who we are; our English is, in this sense, larger than many white people’s. . . . The idea that people’s authenticity stops at their home dialect does not reflect how people operate linguistically or their experience. Foisted on Black Americans, this idea of the standard dialect as a quiet menace, whatever its progressive intentions, is limiting.” Whew, I had a hard time writing that much agreement with McWhorter. However, I stay grounded in the fact that, unlike the progressive Inoue, McWhorter says not one critical thing about racism or imperialism, only about adaptation to the reality of oppression.

Perhaps a reckoning has arrived for the field of composition. How do its most progressive theorists and practitioners continue to mount an anti-racist, anti-capitalist critique while avoiding essentializing discourses of the type suggested by McWhorter?

The concept that any variety of speech overdetermines a college writer’s written output needs to be criticized more widely. Speech is a strong predictor of writing only if there exist no intervening variables. For the most part, college students have developed writing voices. They write how they write, not how they speak. The problem historically for many African American students is that educators have undermined, even destroyed, their growth as writers. Teachers and institutions have penalized students for Black vernacular expression and misguidedly and perhaps perniciously advanced standards that have nothing to with helping writers to develop. Schools have largely failed Black students, linguistically disabling them with “standard mania” and refusing to be attentive to their needs, which reduces access to generative experiences. All writers need to move from what Peter Elbow terms “wrong voice,” the oral, fragmented, loosely argued, unpolished variety we sometimes subvocalize, to our representations on the page. This is the hardest thing about writing, as students know when they assert that all their ideas are straight their head; they just have to write them down. But the transition I speak of generally has not been seen as the hardest thing about writing instruction. For some, the hardest problem has been how to eradicate the Black English disease.

Little surprise that for several generations now, Black scholars and practitioners have fought in defense of Black students and against the eradication paradigm and, in some intellectual communities, toppled it. It is the right side to be on. Unfortunately, some well-intentioned advocates have fallen for the speech-write fallacy, which has led them to a dialect equals writing equals identity essentialism and some weak articulations. Any positive attribute accorded to Written Standardized English is ridiculed as respectability politics. This is from academics who are very respectable and write 99.9 percent of their articles and books in Written Standardized English and are pretty Standardized in their oral presentations as well. I sometimes wonder if these academics believe that the students about which they write can master the discourses the academics have.

To the extent that teaching in college writing classrooms matters, the only way you set students up for failure is not to push them toward rhetorical excellence. That’s not a Written Standardized English push. That’s recognition of which rhetorical blending is working well and the fostering of rhetorical blending that will work well. That’s treating students as agents and figuring out what they can accomplish. Some of these trickster figures we have in college classrooms are really good. Code-switching is beside the point. You can’t teach it anyway. You can only appreciate it.

McWhorter will probably keep trolling language conferences and cherry-picking fodder for intended conservative pieces that on occasion venture into the reasonable. Inoue will probably teach thousands of students that he’ll tell not to become cogs in a system in which he is a cog.

Composition be deep.


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