A Response to Paul Beehler -- Part 3 of 3

This is part three of a three-part critique of Beehler's article. Read part 1 and part 2 if you want to catch up.

What Towers Should We Build? 

Photo from Thomas Hawk, Untitled. 
In what I read as the heart of his article, Beehler explains why critical pedagogies that use code-meshing can be harmful to students. Vershawn A. Young (University of Waterloo) has done copious work on code-meshing. If you are less familiar with the concept, you can see an interview of him on the topic from Kentucky PBS, when he was a professor at UK. Or you can check out his co-edited book, Other People's English. In short, code-meshing is the idea that we all already mesh various language codes all the time, and in the literacy classroom, it should be okay to do so. And in fact, the practice offers lots of opportunities for critical work, especially around interrogating dominant English standards.

Beehler explains that “other languages and hybridized languages most certainly have a vital place and function in society, and these languages are, arguably, vital for diversity of thought, linguistic evolution, and advancement of culture itself” (166-167). He then pulls back from this claim to say, “Standard English provides a platform of inclusivity that is arguably absent in multiple Englishes” (167). What he means is that a common language, a single standard promoted in writing classrooms, is needed if that classroom is to be inclusive of diverse people and ideas.

Beehler's logic begins to sound like Stoddard’s eugenic logic of starving out the bacterial infection of inferior races so that superior races can “tend to still higher levels,” only in this example, we are talking about languages, or versions of languages. Remember, Beehler has already referred to alternative Englishes as "diluted" Englishes. What better way to starve out Black English, for instance, than not to value it in school, not to use it in business or civic life, and call it diluted?

Further, what makes people diverse? Certainly more than language, but language is a big part of it, especially in the language classroom. Beehler's logic goes like this: To be inclusive in the language classroom, one must exclude languages in that classroom so that the work of learning a dominant code can occur. It's the enactment of Beehler's Babel story metaphor in the writing classroom. Everyone gots to speak the same version of the same language if everyone's gonna take full advantage of the course, goes the logic. But what is the course really building and at what cost?

What tower to what heaven is such a pedagogy building?

The tower is a language tower, a hegemonic, colonial tower that uses the bodies and voices of the oppressed as its bricks and mortar. It is a familiar historical paradigm. To build monstrous artifices of white power, black and brown bodies and their labor are needed. Those not in positions of enough power can be coerced or made to consent to the tower-building project.
  • Transcontinental railroads built from the bones and blood of Chinese. 
  • Cotton and tobacco empires constructed from the backs and bodies of black slaves and later not-so-free black indentured pseudo-slaves. 
  • Sugar and pineapple plantations grown from the sweat and land of native Hawai'ians, and the captured labor of Chinese and Japanese immigrants. 
  • I could go on to today's examples: Amazon. Starbucks. Walmart. Nike. 
No corporate empire escapes taking part in building hegemonic white towers, because the paradigm is so ubiquitous that it all seems natural, normal, ethical. It would seem you have to engage in monolithic tower building if you are to be successful in the world -- if you want to be a tower.

Whether they have been ones established by nations or multinational corporations, western empires have used the bodies of peoples of color all over the world to advance their towers of Babel with little regard for the people who sacrifice themselves for such towers. The tower in this case is a single standardized English, and the people sacrificed are all those who do not come to the classroom using that English and who leave it and inhabit places that do not use it either.

As I see it, the only effective platform for inclusivity in the literacy classroom is inclusivity -- the inclusion of multiple, hybrid, meshed ways of Englishing that already exist in the world. This can change society, but it is not a cure for changing all the ways that society prioritizes dominant, white, standardized, monolingual Englishes. Those structural changes must occur simultaneously with the classroom changes I'm arguing for and Beehler is arguing against. The presence of such language priorities in society is not a good reason to have the same white supremacist priorities in language classrooms.

Who is the cart and who the horse here? Who is leading in the cultivation of languages? Is it Capitalism and corporations or Academia and teachers? Is it the boardroom or the classroom? Which should it be? Which is ideal?

You know my answers, I'm sure. Why can't we live in ideal classrooms instead of purposefully flawed ones, ones that take their cues from those who do not care about our students, but care more about "economic success," empire building, "proper English" or "standards of good communication," and the like? These are all white supremacist code.

Beehler is simply arguing to teach dominant, white, monolingual standards of English because that is what is accepted in the larger society. In his view, schools and colleges only serve society, they do not push, revolutionize, or change status quo ideas or practices, even ones that are white supremacist.

I choose to not accept the injustices of society, and make them present in my classrooms, because where else can we do so? What other more important ethical teaching obligation do I have when we teach students to language and watch them become themselves?

Language Learning is Personal (aka. Political)

Beehler also argues against the critical classroom project that John Vance argues for, a project that uses students’ own languages to examine those languages and the standardized one in order to come up with rhetorical ways to do language in any situation. Vance is promoting a version of Paulo Freire’s liberatory, problem-posing pedagogy. In effect, it’s a kind of pedagogy that doesn’t assume that a single standard is inherently best for everyone, instead it asks students to inquire about language on their own terms and with their own questions. Beehler criticizes this kind of language teaching, saying,
this kind of inquiry and approach can be helpful in the realm of the personal as Vance points out, but such code-meshing in the formal classroom itself will likely dilute the efforts to provide clear and intense instruction around Standard English. The result, then, is to diminish the likelihood that students will develop a linguistic competence based on Standard English. (167)
If a teacher believes that a standardized English will save their students’ souls, then I suppose this argument holds together. But this assumes that the teacher and their standards are the key to most students’ learning of literacies, and their future successes. We, college writing teachers, are not that powerful, not that influential, yet we do have power and influence.

Furthermore, all language learning is personal. That is the nature of language. It comes from, identifies, references, makes meaning from and among people. Our languages are us, and we are our languages, and Vance’s critical pedagogy shows just how personal all language learning is, thus how important it is to pose such political problems about any standard placed in front of us. This is one way to take seriously the politics of race and other social dimensions in the teaching of English.

So when you use your personal standards of language against me, judge me by them, rank me, and then deny me opportunities, your standards are a personal attack on me. There is no way around this fact if language is us, even when you are not intending to personally attack me, or be personal.

Perhaps the best thing we can do with our limited time in a writing classroom is plant critical seeds that help students self-consciously evolve linguistically, and advance our plural cultures, as Beehler suggests already happens. But how can our languages evolve if we do not allow such diversity of language in the one place we take time to look carefully at language? At what point do we evolve our languages and advance our cultures? Later? That never comes. To call on Langston Hughes' famous poem, later is always deferred.

What I'm getting at is this: Why must our students' differences matter despite our pedagogies? Why can't they matter because of them.

Beehler Misunderstands My Argument

Finally, Beehler takes a narrow interpretation of the argument I make in my CCCC chair’s address (the text of the speech is in two places: CCC journal and this Google doc), which was delivered on March 14, 2019 in Pittsburgh, PA. It is titled, "How Do We Language So People Stop Killing Each Other, Or What Do We Do About White Language Supremacy?"

Beehler quotes me saying, “If you use a single standard to grade your students’ languaging, you engage in racism. You actively promote White language supremacy.” Then Beehler says that this is an artificial dichotomy. His translation of my argument and criticism of it amounts to this:
a single standard to grade student work is tantamount to racism and simultaneously promoting “White language supremacy, which is the handmaiden to White bias in the world.” If a single standard – whatever that standard may be – is not applied to all students equally, then it seems that Dr. Inoue is suggesting that multiple standards be applied to students. That way madness lies; let us shun that. Such an approach would encourage instructors to grade writing based on different standards for different students. Can one fathom a better approach to insure and embed racism in a powerfully seductive realm? (168-169)
First of all, we collectively as a profession of writing teachers already use multiple standards to grade our students -- and in one sense this is a problem, especially when we refuse to acknowledge this fact of how language is judged by humans. But Beehler just doesn't hear what I'm calling for in the talk. What I argue for does not lead to the use of multiple standards for grading language, although it could. We shouldn’t shun such a world. There may be powerful ways of languaging and learning in such a classroom, even if it doesn’t uphold and privilege a single white, monolingual English. But I have never argued this.

I argue to abandon using a single standard against all students in writing teachers’ grading practices. I argue that we rethink how we use our standards, how we deploy them in our classroom, how we circulate our judgements, which come from our own standards, in our classrooms.

The key to the sentence that Beehler quotes is “use a single standard to grade.” To abandon the use of a single standard in one’s grading practices does not mean that we have to use multiple standards to grade, nor does it mean that I am promoting that practice. It could mean we do not have to grade by our judgements of language.

I am agnostic about the use of multiple standards in one classroom. What I am arguing against is hierarchizing students’ languages on a single continuum, like a grading scale that uses a single standard of English. Single standards always promote a white racial group’s language practices as the most effective or preferred because of where they come from (as I discussed in the second part of this critique).

Don't Use Standards Against Students, Use Standards For Them

We all have to have expectations about language if we make meaning when we read or listen to language. Teachers can keep their standards. It’s what we have to make judgments on students’ languaging. I prefer to refer to standards as expectations. I can have expectations as a reader that a writer is not obligated to follow, or that may get violated by a writer for a lot of good reasons that I simply do not have access to until I talk to the writer. Neither situation is cause for punishment, even when trying to learn in a literacy classroom. They are opportunities to dialogue and learn, chances for all parties to problematize their own expectations and language habits. Ironically, as I see it, our linguistic differences are the grounds by which we can forge connections.

So what I 'm arguing for is that we not use our own standards against students by using those standards as a way to grade students, that is, as a way to grant or withhold opportunities and privileges that higher grades usually confer. I argue for teachers and students to find together other methods to produce institutionally mandated grades. There are lots of them out there, like labor-based grading contracts, which I have published much on. There’s also lots of un-grading practices, many of which Jesse Stommel, among others, has offered over the years. Jerry Won Lee has discussed ways to “translanguage assessment” in writing classrooms, considering ways to use translingual approaches to language.

What I read as Beehler’s misunderstanding of my argument also illustrates the paradoxical lesson that I take from his opening story that reflects on the tower of Babel. Misunderstanding, even among thoughtful, careful, and ethical professionals, like Beehler and myself, is inevitable at some point. Language is not common enough to avoid it, not unified enough to demand a single standard, and too political to ignore its politics and history of creation.

Photo taken by inkelv1122, "Urban Density"
Perhaps we can all learn from taking the entire story of Babel, not just the first part about how powerful language is. The whole story of the tower of Babel is one about the paradoxical impossibility of a unified tower of language, and multiple language conditions that we have always lived in and cannot escape. They are not ruins here, no imperfect crumbles of a past unified tower. There are only many different monuments and buildings and structures that do lots of different things in different ways. The geography of Englishes is a city, vast and diverse. In the college writing classroom, we might find ways to learn how we all can live among such a complex and ever-changing cityscape.