Shawanda Stewart is an Assistant Professor of English at Huston-Tillotson University and Rhetoric and Professional Communication PhD candidate at New Mexico State University. Her primary research interests include first year composition pedagogy, developmental reading and writing, composition assessment, and language and culture. Shawanda has a genuine interest in research and scholarship that examines and promotes voice and identity authenticity through language in the college composition classroom.
In the same way that the Black Lives Matter movement was not about excluding others’ bodies, but rather, was created in response to the treatment—namely murder—of black bodies, this post is not about the exclusion of non-black lives; rather it is in response to the treatment of black language in the college classroom. It is about stating outright and plainly that the language, language identity, and voices of black students matter, which also extends to language, language identity, and voices of other marginalized populations.
In the case of first-year composition, there is a move toward demarginalizing students by recognizing language varieties in our classrooms; accordingly, I propose that doing so requires
- combatting monolingual ideologies;
- embracing code-meshing and translanguaging;
- offering teaching and learning alternatives to practices that support the privileging of Standard English to other English varieties; and
- providing learning opportunities that connect students to their personal communities and cultures.
In Geographies of Writing, Nedra Reynolds (2004) explains the relationship between sociogeographies and identity: “Geographical locations influence our habits, speech pattern style, and values—all of which make it a rhetorical concept or important to rhetoric. For writers, location is an act of inhabiting one’s words; location is a struggle as well as a place, an act of coming into being and taking responsibility” (11).
When teaching first-year composition (or any course for that manner), I must question the ways in which I might practice racism in my own classroom, and how I can—even if most of my students look like me-—contribute to the problem. Whether I contribute via my personal actions, my silence, my ignorance, or simply because I am adhering to the system, unless I am aware of the possibilities of me practicing racist writing instruction practices, I cannot work toward creating a classroom that promotes antiracist writing instruction.
I want to further expose students to the usefulness of critical consciousness in rhetoric and writing (namely in their own writing) and encourage them to recognize that their words are powerful because of their past and present sociogeographical positions. Their experiences are unique, and this is power. In On Intellectual Activism, Patricia Hill Collins writes that “developing a critical consciousness can position individuals and groups to challenge social injustices. Learning to think for oneself often leads to action” (131).
The question at hand is what exactly is our purpose for teaching writing to students? If writing is an act of expression whereby we ask students to think creatively, critically, and rhetorically, what message then are we sending students when we tell them that “good” writing is SWE? Even when we don’t use these words exactly.
When we approach standard written English as a writing convention rather than the writing standard in our pedagogy, then we can begin considering seriously the ways by which we can teach students to become better critical thinkers and stronger writers without doing so by taking away their identity.
Hill Collins, P. (2013). On intellectual activism. Philadelphia. PA: Temple University Press.
Reynolds, N. (2004). Geographies of Writing: Inhabiting Places and Encountering Difference. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.