Blogbook -- Be Changing Our Standards

Entry 34

My examples of Faulkner, Walker, and MF DOOM (post 33) show change in language over time as well as variation -- that is, language contesting -- even if such changes are unacknowledged. And, it should be pointed out that Strunk and White agree on this point (see post 25). They explain, “language is perpetually in flux: it is a living stream, shifting, changing, receiving new strength from a thousand tributaries, losing old forms in the backwaters of time” (note 236). What do you think those “thousand tributaries” are? They are various English languagings that are not at that time considered by those in power to be standardized. They are Black Englishes, and multilingual Englishes, Southern Englishes, and Midwestern Englishes, not to mention other languages, Spanishes, Frenches, etc. (picture from USGS Twitter account)

Language ain’t never been static nor still. The Russian linguist Valentin Nikolaevich Voloshinov explains this dynamic of language as the “ceaseless generation of language norms.” Language, he says, is a “ceaseless flow of becoming” (note 237). It’s interesting that Strunk and White and Voloshinov, while miles apart in terms of their politics and ideas about many things, even their own languages (English and Russian), agree about the changing nature of words. Language constantly moves and evolves. It is always being contested in history, in the world, and in particular places among the groups of people there.

I dwell on this first standard (L.11-12.1.A) over the last few posts (posts 30, 31, 32, and 33), as well as this one, because it informs all the other standards in the CCSS. It’s also a pretty common kind of language outcome, one about conventions that writing and language teachers expect students to learn, practice, or master. These kinds of outcomes tend to assume that most of the contesting is over, that the language war is already won, or worse, that it isn’t important enough to focus on in our classrooms when we practice conventioning. It sends the message to students that there never has been a serious language race war. But that ain’t never gonna be true just because one side claims victory in the middle of the conflict.

People are never satisfied with how language worked yesterday. We keep finding new ways to do it today. New things and experiences pop up that urge us to change it tomorrow. And so, we all be languaging, be changing our conventioning. We make new sense out of old and new words in our continually evolving places with the people we find around us. We mess with language all the time, bend it, even break it. We make it work for us, even as it works on us. The most exciting kind of language work I can think of in a writing classroom is when we break language together, then figure out how we broke it and why it was so fragile or brittle in the first place. 

Here’s the rub if you can’t already see or hear it. We all have a stake in how we language or teach languaging in our classrooms. Imagine that, older teacher-languagelings, committed to their youthful language-selves, teaching younger languagelings who are growing toward their own commitments to language in a new place, a place that used to be a different place for the older ones now simultaneously teaching and learning. It’s a paradoxical enterprise, literacy teaching and learning. 

Let me ask: Teachers, when did you get your English? Was it two or three decades ago? Is it a bit dried and crusted on its edges, soft and nourishing in the middle, but not completely fresh anymore, yet still deeply satisfying and nourishing to you? Does some of it taste sour today when younger people put it in their mouths, or maybe they just don’t care for it?

Let me try another metaphor. Maybe we are too attached to our languaging because it has kept us warm, guarded us in the dark, and shown us things bright and shining. It has done these things for us, and we have been the better for it. Our languaging can still do this for our students, right? That’s a real question and a paradox. 

Here’s another metaphor. Your languaging is like an old reliable tool, its handle worn smooth, nicks and marks cut into it that you remember happening both fondly and with a wince. The tool built your home, fed you, even cared for your babies. So you are attached to this old, smooth, familiar tool. It has been a steady companion and you just can’t imagine how others wouldn’t want it as their companion too, as their tool. So you tell yourself things like: “I just don’t understand these kids today,” “they don’t learn English the way we did back in my day,” or “they don’t read anymore, not like we did.” 

If languages change, if we all be changing our languaging, then our orientation to the CCSS standards or the OS’s outcomes likely has to account for this too. If taught in an antiracist way, L.11-12.1.A could ask teachers and students to take all three of its ideas more seriously -- that is, more contentiously. We gotta trouble the outcome -- yeah, “trouble” is verbing in that last sentence. 

Perhaps it would be better for the outcome or standard to be a question, not a commandment. Inductive, not deductive. Bottom up, not top down. Student-in-the-class oriented, not teacher or district or school oriented. I find questions to be more flexible, open to the contingencies and diversities in my classrooms. They are more pedagogical. Questions offer us agency through the answering. Statements demand acquiescence and subservience. So, consider the original standard next to my re-articulation of it. 

Original: Apply the understanding that usage is a matter of convention, can change over time, and is sometimes contested.

Revised: How and under what conditions is language and its conventions always being contested, challenged, and changed over time by various groups of people? 

Note that beyond turning it into a question, I’ve changed the emphasis of the original standard. Now, contesting is more central to what students and teacher learn together through their collaborative answering of the question. Answering this question about a classroom tells you what those students learned, so it’s still a kind of outcome, only not the kind we tend to impose on classrooms for programmatic assessment purposes. 

My revised version makes primary the fact that language usage and conventions change over time through constant contestation, challenges, and questioning of usages and conventions by groups of people with their own politics and positionings in the world. This could encourage language challenges in the classroom, which means it also grows language in that space. It doesn’t assume one naturalized orientation to English languages or the world. It assumes competing ones that always vie for power or dominance. 

The revised version not only poses its ideas as a learning question but acknowledges the language race war we are always already in. It opens up the politics of language in the classroom. It asks about conditions -- history -- and challenges by various groups to dominant forms of English established by other (usually elite white) groups. Antiracist teachers might then turn students’ attentions to the ways that the sides of any language battle are out of necessity raced, classed, gendered, geographically confined or instigated, among other things. Why? Because historical people contest language through usage, textbooks, and other ways of language circulation.  

Brave Work

Write for 15 minutes. 

Look closely at a past rubric of yours, maybe a list of expectations for a writing assignment you often use in your classroom. Choose one of expectations that is most important to you, that you understand is central to good writing in that assignment. 

Write (or rewrite) that expectation down in a sentence, then redraft it as an open-ended question that you (the reader) can ask as you read a student’s document. This question would fuel or initiate your response to the student’s writing. Be sure to make your question one that allows any reader to form a descriptive answer. 

After you finish, what differences in orientation as a reader does your question provide that your statement didn’t? Do you see any aspects of the antiracist orientation I described in chapter 1? How do they operate in the orientation of the reader (you)?

Keep in mind that to contest or challenge something does not mean that we do not present dominant white forms of English, or understand those conventions and habits of language, or even practice them. It means in this case that a dominant English convention is not an unquestioned and uncontested “standard,” not used against students, not the only preferred way to language in the classroom or anywhere else. It is understood and explored as a set of language habits that are standardized, made standard by a group of people in power with uneven consequences in the world and classroom. It is but one way of languaging that comes from a group of people who have controlled institutions and the judging of English for a variety of reasons, most of which have little to do with communicating, learning, or understanding each other. 

Imagine what a version of the above revised CCSS standard could offer a classroom that is reading models like Faulkner, Walker, MF DOOM (see post 33), or Harper (see post 30). The lesson or the goal of activities with such examples is not to try to get all the students to understand and apply how these languagelings use their language, how they do their conventioning in order to mimic that conventioning. This is the act of standardizing. No, the antiracist goal is to investigate what language conditions create or produce such conventioning, what other conventionings have and still do contest and challenge the models’ conventionings. How does such conventioning work in each case and how might we break them and try them on ourselves? 

The classroom would need to first understand: Who are these languagelings that produced our examples, where do they come from, what makes their language conditions and their conventioning? What happens when the particular students in the room convention in the way the examples do? Does such conventioning suit our needs and contexts now? Exploring such possibilities offers students rich and important information about the racial politics of English in order for them to make decisions about their own conventioning. 

My revision of the standard acknowledges and works through the power play, the politics that should be identified and worked with in the classroom. Standardized English isn’t “sometimes contested,” it is always in the act of being contested. This doesn’t erase it or invalidate it as a viable and valuable way to communicate, but reveals it as one of many ways to do so, one that can very easily oppress those English users who use other forms of English. It begs us teachers to ask with our students how shall we grade or determine success by using any given version of a standardized English? Or maybe there is a better way to produce grades, if we have to produce such things. 

And what about the OS’s outcome, “knowledge of conventions” for college courses? We could make a similar revision to it, one that urges teachers and students more directly to do racialized political investigations as the work of conventioning in classrooms. The original element of this outcome that I discussed in post 31 states: “develop knowledge of linguistic structures, including grammar, punctuation, and spelling, through practice in composing and revising.” The new version might be something like what my colleagues and I produced in our “Toward Antiracist First-Year Composition Goals” (found also at: The OS’s element of this outcome is actually in two elements in our version. They are: 

  • Practice in self-conscious ways the dominant, and one’s own existing, linguistic structures, including grammar, punctuation, and spelling, through composing and revising labors. How are students practicing the right to their own Englishes and the right to the dominant Englishes of the course and how are linguistic structures racialized, politicized, and attached to particular historical groups that have controlled the legitimacy of those structures?
  • Understand why genre conventions for structure, paragraphing, tone, and mechanics vary and are historically connected to a dominant group of language users. How are genre conventions connected to the historical groups who used and benefited from them and what are the racial politics of each genre used in the course?

I hope it is clear up to this point that understanding and practicing conventioning in English means understanding and arranging examples of conventioning in non-hierarchical ways. It means students learn about their own conventioning practices as much as they do others. They learn to work through the paradox of language contestation that is always around us. 

The examples I’ve discussed over the previous three posts, Harper Lee’s opening to To Kill A Mockingbird (post 30), Faulkner’s opening to Absolom, Absolom!, Alice Walker’s first paragraph to “Everyday Use,” and MF DOOM’s opening to his song “Rhinestone Cowboy” (post 33), might offer a kind of arrangement of introductions to an array of languagelings that illustrate some contesting and change in language conventioning. I won’t summarize my discussions of each languageling’s conventioning practices, but a reading of these introductions might come after students first write their own introductions in whatever ways they feel will help their colleagues and the teacher know them as a languageling. Then students put their introductions next to these, not to compare which introduction does conventioning better, but to notice the cosmos of conventioning happening and find out what conditions helped foster each kind of languaging. Classrooms can investigate the differences in a range of things, some things I’ve discussed already in these examples, because- and which-clauses, the use of cumulative and periodic sentences, and the order of grammatical subjects. And of course, looking into the history of the groups who have practiced such conventionings is a part of this work. 

This ain’t easy work. Some of it requires students and teacher to look hard at how they have come to their conventioning. This is something we do not usually do. Do you know where you got your ways with words, your phrasings, the habits of language that make up how you write opening paragraphs to the compositions you tend to write? Could you describe in detail, and offer sources or other historical information, that would help others understand your language history, your journey as a languageling who be conventioning in the ways you do now? 

Such a lesson about “knowledge of conventions” would have a very different goal in first-year writing classrooms in college than the typical ones, ones that tend to focus on mastering an elite white standardized set of conventions. The goal, I believe, would be the same as that for secondary classrooms, that is, investigate the racial and other politics of language conventioning and the way they are judged in the world by various people. It would also be to understand the histories and places each student got their own languaging, conventioned in the places they are from. 

Our languaging changes as we do. Doing this kind of conventioning work might cultivate practices in students that ask them to be lifelong languagelings, ones who learn about their conventioning throughout their lives. This can provide more control over our languaging and its circumstances. You could call it rhetorical practice or sensitivity, but I’d call it political and racial sensitivity to languaging and a sensitivity to how languaging is judged in the world. This sensitivity accepts as a foundation that languaging always is in historical processes of contesting and change, and if that is so then we need to pay attention to the groups of people involved in that process and how they are positioned in the world. 

I think this is an antiracist orientation to language learning, usage, and its instruction in classrooms.


This blog is offered for free in order to engage language and literacy teachers of all levels in antiracist work and dialogue. The hope is that it will help raise enough money to do more substantial and ongoing antiracist work by funding the Asao and Kelly Inoue Antiracist Teaching Endowment, housed at Oregon State University. Read more about the endowment on my endowment page. Please consider donating to the endowment. Thank you for your help and engagement.