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Pedagogy 5.3 (2005) 483-487

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We Are English:

Looking for Practical Relevance in Practitioners' Relevance

[Works Cited for Roundtable]
The Relevance of English: Teaching That Matters in Students' Lives. Edited by Robert Yagelski and Scott Leonard. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 2002.

On his 1999 solo CD Black on Both Sides, rapper Mos Def leads into the song "Fear Not of Man" by telling listeners the following:

People be asking me all the time,
"Yo Mos, what's getting ready to happen with hip-hop?
Where do you think hip-hop is going?
"I tell 'em, "You know what's gonna happen with hip-hop?
Whatever's happening with us.
If we smoked out, hip-hop is gonna be smoked out
If we doing all right, hip-hop is gonna be doing all right."
People talk about hip-hop like it's some giant living in the hillside
coming down to visit the townspeople.
We are hip-hop. [End Page 483]

Substitute the word English for hip-hop in the above lyric, and we are presented with a direct and useful answer to the question posed by this collection. How relevant English is depends, ultimately, on how relevant we are, as scholars, researchers, engaged practitioners—as social actors. We are English because English isn't about books; it's about us and our students and all of the texts—conversations, stories, poems, analyses, debates—that flow in, through, and out of our interactions.

This definition of English as something enacted by people is at work in coeditor Robert Yagelski's admission that this book is, at least partly, a way for him to figure out to what extent he is relevant: "When we consider our work in light of students' needs as literate persons in a complex and difficult world, there often seems little point to what we as English professionals do" (6). In other words, even if the pieces in this collection lead to the conclusion that the various elements that comprise what we call "English" can be a force for individual empowerment and collective social change, there still remains the question of what useful role those of us who spend our time researching and writing about the field actually play.

One of the challenges raised in the first section of The Relevance of English is whether it is possible to refer to any singular field called "English." Patricia Fox acknowledges this dilemma, asking, "Who or what is it that we serve by the particular version of English we teach? Are we experts in linguistic etiquette? Gatekeepers? Technicians? High priests and priestesses of the canon?" (258). Certain issues are shared by all branches of English studies—the political nature of curriculum, clashing definitions of "good" writing and speaking. Yet the writers in this collection can be divided into at least two schools (if you'll forgive the pun) with significant distinctions: those writing about high school English and the adolescents for whom (to whom?) it is done, and those writing about college English studies. It becomes clear through the particular ways that the writers construct their arguments that each school is responding to distinct historical and contemporary challenges. For secondary education researchers, the question seems to be how English can be most relevant. For those in college English, the issue is more fundamental: does the advanced study of literature and rhetoric have any socially justifiable purpose at all? Donald Tinney, a contributor to this collection and a high school teacher from Vermont, embodies the kind of antiacademic voice that both Gerald Graff and Scott Leonard decry in their essays when he suggests that there needs to be more emphasis in the English classroom on story and less on the analysis of texts: "Formal literary analysis or traditional literary criticism might easily lead one to doubt the relevance of English. What is [End Page 484] the value of breaking a novel into bits and pieces to analyze the structure and technique of writing? Far too many adults today do not read, simply because literature was...


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