English Teachers: Stop Being Agents of Oppression

Now, for those who don’t know me, I’ve been an English/Writing teacher in some form or another for most of the last 30 years. Just gotta establish those bona fides because I know teachers won’t listen to anyone who’s not a teacher. (Not that this is necessarily a bad thing! I went to enough “professional development” meetings led by consultants who had never set foot in a classroom to be extremely skeptical of non-teacher takes on teaching.)

Okay, let’s start with a quiz. Which one of these is an error?

1.) She realized she had got lost.

2.) She seen her friend on the bus.

Some people will say “both” which is at least consistent. But I bet a lot of English teachers would look at #1 and say, “well, that’s not wrong, exactly, it’s just Commonwealth English usage,” and look at #2 and say, “well, that’s an error.”

Well, either they’re both errors or neither is. I’m going to argue for the latter position. “She had got” is common usage a version of English that’s spoken outside the United States. “She seen” is common usage in a couple of different versions of English that are spoken inside the United States. So if you’re going to allow that a group of people in a different country can have different usage (and spelling!), why won’t you allow that a group of people in this country can too?

I’d like to suggest that it’s your bias, either conscious or unconscious, against people who say “she seen her friend,” because that’s common in among folks who are black, brown, or poor.

Now—we live in a racist, classist society, and we can’t, as individuals, change that, so we do have a responsibility to teach our students the language of money and power. But how we talk about this is very important.

Let’s start with the concept of an “error.” This, of course, implies that the usage is wrong rather than just different. Same with “Standard English,” which of course implies, “This version of English is the standard against which all others are measured, and the version you use is non-standard, but really what we mean by that is substandard.”

We have the opportunity to say something like, “That’s not academic English usage,” which has the virtue of being correct as well as nonjudgmental. Everyone benefits from being able to navigate different forms of English in their writing and speaking, and so we can just say this is the style of English we use in academic writing rather than setting it up as “correct” and therefore superior.

“But,” I hear the grammar pedants sputtering, “there are rules. And they matter.”

To which I would answer, no there aren’t: there are conventions, not rules. Nobody has the authority to make rules for English language usage, and it changes over time, which is why we don’t use “an” to mean “if” anymore.

And what matters in both writing and speech is less adherence to arbitrary rules and more the ability to communicate clearly and appropriately to your audience.

Just to reiterate so people don’t yell at me: we have a responsibility to teach students how to successfully navigate the version of English that used in the institutions of money and power in this country. But we also have a responsibility to not degrade other versions of English in the process.

This shouldn’t be hard, but it is. I think a lot of English teachers have invested a lot of their self esteem in being the people who know what’s “right.” I think furthermore, that having a set of rigid rules to follow makes people feel better about the fact that the academic discipline of English, unlike, say, STEM subjects, is all about interpretation rather than right and wrong. We think if we’re extra pedantic about the “rules” we know, we’ll get a seat at the big kids table with the disciplines that have right and wrong answers rather than “well, you can say pretty much anything as long as you support it well.”

English teachers have a reputation for being the kinds of teachers that students can approach and talk to, the kinds of teachers who treat students like people. We also have a reputation for being annoying pedants. The first one is good. The second one is bad. We need to be encouraging our students to use their voices, both out loud and in writing, and to not make them feel like only those who strictly obey the Holy Rules of Warriner are worthy of communicating.

In short, we have an opportunity to be agents of liberation rather than oppression. Why wouldn’t we take it?