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  • Beyond English:Linguistic Diversity in the College English Classroom
  • Melissa Dennihy (bio)

I always did like school, jus' seem school never did like me.

—Sapphire (36)

College English teachers juggle the dual and sometimes conflicting responsibilities to teach both writing and literature. When teaching multi-ethnic US literature in English courses, difficult questions can arise as students who have been taught to follow the conventions of Standardized English—by English teachers, especially—consider the literary and linguistic value of works that use nonstandardized Englishes. Throughout my years of teaching multi-ethnic US literature in college English courses in composition and literature, my students and I have grappled with difficult questions about language rules, sociolinguistic standards, and what makes for "good writing."1 I began considering these questions again recently while revisiting two books I have used as a teacher: Dohra Ahmad's Rotten English: A Literary Anthology (2007), a collection of literature written in nonstandardized Englishes, and Ben Yagoda's How to Not Write Bad: The Most Common Writing Problems and the Best Ways to Avoid Them (2013), a writer's reference guide. The difference in the ways that these two texts represent "good writing" is striking. While Yagoda's book explicates the grammatical and syntactical rules writers must follow to ensure their writing is not "bad," Ahmad's collection shows that language standardization is hardly a requirement for good writing. The selections in Rotten English, including texts by Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Junot Díaz, Gloria Anzaldúa, and Amy Tan, are written in what Ahmad cheekily calls "rotten" Englishes: English-language varieties "perceived as having a lower status than Standard English" (16). Nonetheless, these are well-known, even canonized, works that "throb vibrantly and communicate more than effectively" (17). These texts display the great deal of language variety in US literature; in America, "language does not speak with one voice," as linguist Richard Bailey writes in Speaking American: A History of English in the United States (2012) (5). [End Page 192]

Yet, in academic contexts, instructors typically expect all students to use "one voice"—that of Standardized English. In her work on the politics of language, Martha J. Cutter defines Standardized English as "the grammatically correct language of 'consensus' normally taught in [US] schools." I follow Cutter in using the term "Standardized English," rather than Standard English, to "denote that something has been done to this language to make it the standard, to make it 'proper'" (265). Many discussions of Standard English echo Cutter's point: Ahmad defines Standard English as "only one dialect among many—the one that happened to be spoken by the groups of people responsible for compiling dictionaries and assembling grammar manuals" (17). H. Samy Alim and Geneva Smitherman similarly note that "the language and communicative norms of those in power … tend to be labeled as 'standard,' 'official,' 'normal,' 'appropriate'" (171). That Standard English is sometimes referred to as "White English Vernacular" (Young 90) or "White mainstream English" (Alim and Smitherman 20) speaks to its association with America's dominant racial group, while its affiliation with the educated and upper middle class suggests it is also associated with a certain socioeconomic status (Lippi-Green 53-54, 64).2 Despite the racial and class biases that inform which English is constructed as "standard," teachers (especially English teachers) are responsible for ensuring Standardized English remains the dominant discourse, and expectations that students use Standardized English play an important role in how many college English instructors teach and assess writing.

Given this emphasis on Standardized English, how much, if any, room do instructors allow for nonstandardized Englishes in English courses? If we do include other language varieties in our classrooms, do we limit students' engagement with these languages to their experiences as readers, or do we also allow students to use language varieties other than Standardized English as writers? This debate is hardly new. In 1974, the quarterly journal of the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) published a special issue on Students' Right to Their Own Language. The issue contained the CCCC's newly adopted resolution on language, affirming that US students should have the "right to their own patterns and...


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pp. 192-212
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