Blogbook -- The Circular Logic of Standardized English

Entry 35

hands with pens drawing themselves
In posts 30, 32, 33, and 34, I discussed the CCSS L.11-12.1 anchor standard and the first of the standards underneath it (L.11-12.1.A). Now, consider the second standard, L.11-12.1.B. It is equally problematic as the first. And it works to maintain the white language supremacy, or a single standard that is dominant in all schools and colleges. It also exemplifies a problem that such standards tend to have when used in classrooms. It’s a problem of circularity, of being one’s own judge. 

L.11-12.1.B states, “Resolve issues of complex or contested usage, consulting references (e.g., Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, Garner's Modern American Usage) as needed.” This standard reinforces white habits of English language in classrooms by using as a yardstick the very standard being contested. So according to this standard, the way you resolve a contested usage is to consult references that point back to the standard. Do you see the problem? This is overdetermined racist discourse. It’s like asking an individual or organization to police themselves. 

The standard L.11-12.1.B even lists a few of these dominant resources. Again, the logic is circular. Checking contested usage of language by consulting “references” such as those listed pretty much guarantees only white, middle class dominant English language usage, unless of course, you have references that offer more than the same elite white habits of language. 

But that is not likely. There are no grammar or language style guides that are written by BIPOC authors, at least none I can find (if you know of one, please send the reference my way!), nor are there any that offer a range of English languaging conventions and habits other than the elite white one. Furthermore, the genre of grammar handbooks isn’t defined by contested usage. It’s defined by showing a singular usage as a “standard,” without naming where that usage comes from, that is, without naming the group of people that have used that usage as their habits of language. This grammar book problem tricks us into believing that English standards are beyond culture and race, beyond history and location, beyond the people who came up with those language standards. But that ain’t so. 

Bryan A. Garner
The examples in parenthesis that L.11-12.1.B offers illustrate the ways the standard sets up all English usages as unacceptable if they don’t match the conventions provided in dominant white published places. Bryan A. Garner (see image), the author of Garner's Modern American Usage is listed as one authoritative reference. Garner is a lawyer and Distinguished Research Professor of Law at Southern Methodist University’s Dedman School of Law. He is an elite white man born in Lubbock, Texas, and worked closely at times with the deceased conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. In 2019, Garner published a memoir about Scalia and him, Nino and Me: An Intimate Portrait of Scalia's Last Years (note 238). This is the reference -- the author -- to settle contested language usage, literally an elite white male lawyer? 

Why is it that most style and usage guides on the market are not written by linguists or language experts? I mean, Garner ain’t a linguist or a language expert. He’s a lawyer. Perhaps linguists and language experts see grammar books and style guides as deceptive and perhaps not worth their time. I mean, most linguists for instance understand their work as mostly descriptive, not prescriptive. But elite white authorities, like the law professor and lawyer, Garner, are used to behaving in such a whitely way. He, and whitely men like him, have always been the authority, or this has been his experience. Or perhaps they write such books out of a whitely paternalistic sense of helping those who don’t speak or write like them (yet). 

Brave Work

Write for 15 minutes. 

Look back as far as you can at as many of the language guides and resources that you’ve used in your life to help you learn the English you use today. This may be style guides, grammar books, or other resources, novels, memoirs, etc. 

Make an inventory of who the authors are, where they came from, and what educational backgrounds they have. Be sure to include race, gender, and geographic place each authority is most associated with. 

What do you see in your list? Where does your language come from? Who does it come from? How close to your students’ lives and languages do your language authorities come?

But maybe you don’t use Garner’s text. What language guides and grammar books do you use? Which ones trained you as a teacher? Who wrote them? What kind of Englishes do they promote? I’m not asking these questions rhetorically. This is a good exercise to find out just how thoroughly each of us as a literacy teacher are colonized (if you do not come from such elite white places), or how we may be taking for granted our own white(ly) orientations to language and the world. What I’m describing is the ways we HOWL (see post 28) in our classrooms without knowing it. 

Consulting references in the way this standard states rigs the language game for the dominant elite white English. Why assume such published references are the only arbiter of “complex or contested” language use? What about the people in the classroom? Consulting an established reference to solve such language questions and problems, while important, easily maintains white language supremacy if the point of consulting that reference is to look for appropriate usage. Another way to say this is to assume that such references are language authorities. And while they may be language authorities from one view, they are not the only ones. The problem is that we have a narrow sense of who is or can be a language authority. The only way around this is to have other yardsticks, other folx at the table, other judges and Englishes that can really contest any usage on an even (or near even) playing field (note 239). 

Part of investigating language usage and conventions means we come to understand the ways expertise and authority in languaging and its judgement have been constructed in our world and schools. But we can’t stop there, otherwise we just identify the white language supremacy around us without doing anything about it. The next step, I think, is to dismantle the supremacy of white languaging authority and expertise as the only kind of languaging authority and expertise. What other ways might we define and enact languaging authority or languaging expertise in our classrooms? How do we make a fuller, more democratic access to that languaging authority and expertise? How might contesting and language diversity, that is language differencing (the act of creating differences in languaging) be a central part of constructing language expertise in a classroom in order to investigate the range of Englishes in the classroom? 

Yet all of this doesn’t address the question of who decides when consulting references is “needed.” Who determines an issue of complex or contested usage in your classroom, on a paper, in an exam? Likely, it's the teacher. It’s you. This is like a police officer being the judge and decider of cases of police misconduct. You’re banking on the officer (or teacher) to be impartial and fair, not to mention ethical and open to being wrong. You are banking on the authority figure being supremely benevolent (a characteristic of white supremacy culture). But we’ve already said that no one can be objective or neutral, that good and benevolent intentions do not make for good and benevolent outcomes all the time. Our politics and subjectivities always get in the way. If this is the case, how do we as readers of other people’s languaging get out of our own languaging ways so that we can be fair judges of other people’s words? 

I know that English teachers are supposed to be experts on language -- that’s why we teach English -- but we are only experts at our own kind of English languaging. It ain’t that we don’t have valuable things to offer our students. As I’ve said, we do. Just don’t stuff your language down students’ throats and call it compassionate education, don’t call it helping or doing what’s “good for them.” We don’t know how language will inevitably change tomorrow -- and it will. If you can’t tell the future, then you don’t really know what is good for them, or how they’ll need to use language tomorrow. And of course, there’s always lots of ways to language successfully in the world. The paradox is that we still have to teach language, or rather, create classroom ecologies that afford democratic, safe, compassionate, language learning. 

As teachers, we have a responsibility to behold humbly the words of others, especially our students’ words, like delicate, paper-thin china, easily fractured or broken in our hands -- just as our own words are similarly delicate. Isn’t that what we want them to do with our words, hold them delicately, pay attention to them carefully? Shouldn’t we reciprocate? So who decides? I think our students do with us watching, or not. Maybe they decide when to consult references and which references are necessary in the secret moments of their own languaging. Maybe they find their own authoritative references. Maybe it’s a communal practice of building such references that work for them at this moment. As many options and more should be explored. 

The point, I think, of such language work with students is not to reproduce a dominant set of language habits, a standard already defined. This may happen much of the time. We have lots to learn from our dominant middle class white masculine ways of languaging in English. But my point is to build critical language practices that students make and inhabit for themselves, not for our grades, nor to please our ears or eyes. They should try to please themselves first, knowing that pleasing themselves is only half of the work. 

We all should be languaging for those around us, and we should get lots of practice at this in classrooms. The contesting that our languaging always generates can -- and should -- be understood and taken up as communal languaging, critical language engagements, or the languaging that individuals must do out of necessity for and in the community(ies) they circulate. 


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