Literacy Privilege, Part 2: But Wait… You’re an English Teacher
So, wow. Apparently people have a lot of feelings about grammar.
I felt that I should address a point several people have brought up, which basically goes something like this: Hey, you correct people’s writing for a living. Doesn’t that make you a massive hypocrite? Well, it’s possible (I actually think it’s impossible to get through life as a conscientious person without being at least somewhat hypocritical, but that’s a topic for a future post). But I don’t really think so in this case.
I absolutely do believe there is a time and place to teach people about grammar and spelling – I should hope so, otherwise I’d have to fire myself, and that would suck because I really love my job. It is entirely possible for me to take a neutral, non-judgemental view of language and yet still realize that my students will benefit most from learning widely-accepted conventions that will give them the best chance at success in our society.
I talk openly to my students about these ideas. We discuss registers and dialects, and the difference between spoken and written English. I minimize the emphasis on right vs. wrong, and instead present grammar and spelling lessons as communication tools within the context of our society’s power structures. That sounds like a lot of academic blather, so here’s an example.
What I don’t say: “The following sentence is wrong: At my last job, I had less customer complaints than the average employee. Find the error and correct it.”
What I do say: “Employers will judge cover letters not just on content, but on form. Even if you have strong work skills, some employers won’t bother to read a résumé if they see non-standard grammar in the cover letter. Let’s look at a few examples of common structures that you will hear and see often, but that can cause you problems if you use them in formal writing.”
Now, you might have additional feelings about the whole debate regarding whether it is right or wrong to talk about things being right or wrong. That is probably a debate worth having. But keep in mind that my students are often people who have heard all their lives that they are wrong, wrong, wrong, lazy, stupid, dumb, useless, unteachable, and wrong. I am not going to push that thorn in any further.
But what about outside the classroom? Isn’t people’s writing fair game when they put it out there for everyone to read? Isn’t it better to try to help them improve by letting them know when they’re making mistakes? By way of response, let me take you through a scenario.
In my class there is a woman in her sixties who has hardly ever touched a computer. She is there partly to improve her writing skills so that she can exchange e-mails with her grandchildren. She is also interested in gardening. After a few weeks in class, when she feels she has built up her confidence enough to try, we get her logged in and on her way. We agree that signing up on a gardening forum might be another fun way for her to practice her new skills. She makes an account, logs in and spends twenty minutes carefully labouring over a question to post; meanwhile, I have stepped away to help another student. The next day there are three replies. The student’s question contains two spelling errors, and all three replies are subtly snarky, “helpful” references to these errors. She closes the window, logs off and never goes near a computer again. The confidence gained in the past few weeks is erased in an instant.
(Note that although I have altered a few details to protect students’ identities, this scenario is a composite of real people and events.)
I’m not going to tell you what you should and shouldn’t do when you encounter non-standard language Out There. I can only share my experiences and the conclusions I’ve drawn from them. There are probably situations where it’s appropriate to let someone know, for example, that their* meaning isn’t clear, or they’ve made an unintentionally embarrassing pun. The important thing, in my mind, is the intent: Is this about reaching out with sincerity to help someone? Or is it about showing off superior knowledge, silencing someone, or taking a cheap shot for laughs?
As I see it, the latter options are where we start getting into this elitism business. Several people have questioned me on the idea of dialect-dominance as oppression. I will admit that this was an idea I had never considered before I stumbled across the article I linked to – and I’m open to hearing (respectful, civil) opposing viewpoints. I don’t think high-prestige dialects are inherently oppressive, nor do I wish to bash on everyone who uses them (hello; I am using one right now). But I certainly see how they can be used as yet another subtle means of withholding power and influence from certain groups of people.
*Yes, their. This is a variant whose increasingly widespread acceptance I welcome with open arms. Good riddance to ‘his/her’!