Brennah Hutchison, University of Memphis
Angela Morris, University of Memphis
Website: Mesh It Y’all
This article reflects a study conducted at the University of Memphis to gauge effective methods for inviting each students’ cultural English into the writing classroom with the help of code-meshing workshops provided by writing center tutors. Because writing center tutors are trained to work with students, rather than assess and score their writing abilities, we can create a non-intimidating classroom environment for writing experimentation. This workshop challenged students to mesh their home language and vernacular within their academic prose, thus expanding the limits of effective written text and preventing a sense of double-consciousness felt by students whose own culture—rather based on race, class, gender, or sexual orientation—has been historically marginalized. This article also adapts the outcomes of the study into writing center pedagogy through necessary perspectives from students. This study is a bottom-up approach (student to tutor) rather than another top-down approach (tutor to tutor then finally to student).
Keywords: code-meshing, Students Rights to Their Own Language
The student fidgeted from the corner of the table as we talked about her essay. Her research and argument on police violence in the city of Memphis was strong, carefully contemplated, logically deduced. The anxiety derived from the words and sentence structures on her paper, all clearly communicative and reflective of what appeared to be her cultural upbringing. She shared that writing each word felt overbearing. Her language wasn’t good enough—her writing, influenced by mid-south African American vernacular, not right for the classroom, or so she believed. We took a deeper look at a few sentences together. Were they good enough?
In 1986, David Bartholomae discussed how students “invent the university” as they struggle to acculturate the language of academia. But this situation didn’t seem quite like that. The student’s ideas were articulate and syntactically and lexically mirrored the English one could easily hear walking through several areas of Memphis. However, she feared this particular familiarity made her less valuable on a college campus. How many people over the years made her feel her English was “ghetto,” “poor,” or “uneducated?” How deeply ingrained was this mindset that typing a single sentence felt like the weight of a boulder to her?
This student is not the only individual in the primarily African American community of Memphis who has shared with us similar experiences when it comes to writing. The staff and director of our institution’s Center for Writing and Communication (CWC) often discuss these shared experiences, debating the best way to collaborate with students who’ve been told their home languages are lesser than and have come to believe they are outcasts in academic writing spaces.
The three-page handout—received upon signing one’s contract to become a CWC consultant and completing a brief instructional workshop—consists of the fundamental roles of our writing center as well as best practices, methodologies, and suggestions. In our one-on-one roles with clients, we are told to build an interpersonal dynamic, serve as collaborators rather than editors, focus on macro issues rather than obsess over micro matters, present interrogatives rather than declaratives, exercise patience, etc. However, an official language policy appears to be a trickier concept to bullet-point.
Our writing center, like others, focuses on moving away from the age-old paradigm that contends good writing is correct writing. We endorse pedagogical beliefs such as writing is a process, writing is a recursive rather than linear act, good writing is rhetorically based on audience, purpose, and occasion. We reference linguistic research to help form our insights on language use. Yet, still, a tired or old-school tutor might revert back to correcting grammar. Does one orientation workshop properly dismantle the years-old belief of a Standard American English (SAE) hammered into graduate students, staff, even faculty, since grade school? Are we helping students by not addressing effective lexical or syntactic choices some might view as erroneous? Essentially, should we nurture students’ home languages in academic prose or ask them to conform to stuffy, grammatical rules? More importantly, which would they prefer? As two white women writing this article, we wonder if we ever unknowingly reinforced white language supremacy as tutors in the writing center, and if yes, how do we make sure to not do it again. How do we ensure restorative justice via language policy and practice?
To help answer these questions, this article will first provide a brief background into the contentious conversations surrounding the College of Composition and Communication’s 1972 resolution, Students’ Right to Their Own Language. Then, it will explore the controversial idea of code-meshing before discussing the “Mesh It, Y’all” workshop our writing center held for five classrooms in spring 2020. The results gathered from this workshop present necessary perspectives from the students in regards to uses of their Englishes in written work, a bottom-up approach (student to tutor) rather than another top-down approach (tutor to tutor then finally to student). We then use said results to argue effective methods for incorporating diverse language practices into writing center pedagogy. This provides students agency in the Students’ Rights to Their Own Language conversation, and makes writing centers a site that advocates against white language supremacy notions. In this article we also provide links to our website, Mesh It, Y’all, which includes an instructional video on code-meshing, downloadable PDFs to be used in the classroom and writing centers, in-depth student feedback on code-meshing, successful examples of students code-meshing, testimonials from students, and interactive forums regarding the matter.
Students’ Rights to Code-Mesh
The discussion of multiple Englishes made its official appearance on a national, educational platform at the College Composition and Communication Conference (CCCC) in 1968. The previous ten years had born shifts in the social and economic makeup of the classroom, often referred to as the public turn in education. Alongside the GI Bill, Brown versus the Board of Education, and the Immigration Act of 1965 diversifying classrooms in an unprecedented manner, a paradigm shift in the teaching of writing also occurred, as rhetorical effectiveness and insight from cognitive writing research began to outweigh the emphasis on solely correctness (Berlin, 1987; Connors, 1997; Hairston, 1982; Perl, 1980; Warnock, 1983; Welch, 1987).
Within this wake, the 1968 CCCC’s sought to address these intricacies, with Panel Nine committee members specifically discussing language issues of historically marginalized groups. This controversial topic concentrated on: “the education of ‘disadvantaged’ students, especially Negro students, and the approach that should be taken towards their training and language use” (“Workshop Report” 247). Within the panel’s debates on employability and the cultural violence being committed by the suppression of various Englishes, implicit and often explicit support for white language supremacy was evident – foreshadowing another half-a-century of conversations. “We discussed whether it would be best to teach a ghetto Negro ‘standard English’ or to teach his future employers something about the nature of linguistic prejudice” (247), the report shares.
As scholarship from James Sledd (1969) and Geneva Smitherman (1972) continued to support the latter, CCCC’s formed the Committee of Language, tasked by the executive officers to address questions regarding the hierarchy of dialect, its effects, the linguistic options accepted in the classrooms, and dialects’ relationship to employability. By 1974, the committee proposed the “Students’ Right to Their Own Language” resolution, which stated: “We affirm the students right to their own pattern and varieties of language—the dialects of their nurture or whatever dialects in which they find their own identity and style” (19). The white pages accompanying the resolution recognized a homogeneous “standard” American English a myth (25) and revealed the classist and racist origins of such structures (30). Furthermore, the pamphlet charged English composition teachers with leading the movement to demolish century-old hierarchies of language and open society’s acceptance of various dialects of English without predisposed beliefs that one dialect be superior to another. “Since English teachers have been in large part responsible for the narrow attitudes of today’s employers, changing attitudes toward dialect variations does not seem an unreasonable goal, for today’s students will be tomorrow’s employers,” the pamphlet stated (39).
While many extolled the resolution (Koper, 1977), claiming it expanded students rhetorical choices (McPherson, 1980) and broke down dangerously superior notions that harmed students’ sense of worth (Kelly, 1974), others attacked the resolution as “sham scholarship” (Berthoff, 1975) that shamed and bullied teachers for teaching correct English (Zorn, 2010) and not only prevented social mobility to marginalized students but also encouraged sloppy writing (Smith, 1976). Over the following decades, others used the resolution as an endorsement of code-switching (Wheeler and Swords, 2006, 2010) while some contended the resolution was too conservative (Parks, 2000), with Edited American English (EAE) simply a “soil term” for Standard American English (Clark, 1975). Some who contend the resolution was flawed and didn’t go far enough in correcting a classist and racist power structure of language still believed it to be a step in the right direction against “teaching the compulsory, mandatory, imposed, coerced, enforced, obligatory regiments use of standard English simply to flatter the prejudices of the power that be” (Sledd, 1983, pp. 671).
Around the time the “Students’ Right to Their Own Language” resolution passed and the newer pedagogical approaches to writing endorsed, writing labs available at no extra cost to students formed across university campuses. While these writing labs and centers served as an extension to composition classrooms with personal one-on-one interface with students, the traditional paradigm of good writing being correct writing still weaved itself into praxis, both with teachers and tutors (Hairston, 1982 & Boquet, 1999). Such an approach greatly hindered the progression of conversations between consultants and clients regarding various options for language choice and structures. The controversial topic left implementation of pedagogical tactics that endorsed Students’ Right to Their Own Language to be slow-moving in both classrooms and writing centers.
For decades, code-switching, as endorsed by Peter Elbow (1999), became the strategy gaining most traction on the heels of the 1974 resolution. Yet this reality met arguably its largest opponent in 2004 when Vershawn Asanti Young published his first article in College Composition and Communication (CCC), “Your Average Nigga.” In the essay, which later served as the title of his inaugural monograph, Young argues the harm of exaggerating the difference between black and white speakers and writers and addresses the Dubiousian double-consciousness felt by people of color who believe their language inferior. In doing so, he subtly blends lexical and syntactic aspects of Black English Vernacular with more traditional elements of academic prose. Later building on Rosina Lippi-Green’s (1999) contention that language is fluid and evolves over time, Young (2009) coined the term “code-meshing” to describe how various Englishes from various ethnicities are meshed daily in society and writing reflecting such reality should be not only accepted in academia, but endorsed. He contends anything less than an acceptance of code-meshed text equates to Jim Crow standards of English which breeds double-consciousness and “educational schizophrenia” among students of color.
Despite some push-back (Rogers, 2018; Wheeler & Thomas, 2013), the conversation of introducing code-meshing into the classroom continues to gain support, as seen with three edited collections of leading scholars supporting the cause (Condon and Young, 2017; Young and Martinez, 2011; Young-Rivera, et. al, 2014;). Furthermore, code-meshing as it applies to writing center pedagogy also continues to grow in popularity (Greenfield and Rowen, 2011). While the scholarship on code-meshing continues to gain endorsements among the field of academics, we believed students’ response to the conversations on “Students’ Right to Their Own Language” and code-meshing would enrich the discussion as well as help steer our institution’s need to address a language policy during tutor orientation.
The idea of the workshop emerged when Hutchison (then the Graduate Assistant Director of the Writing Center) and Morris (then the Graduate Assistant Director of First-Year Writing) brainstormed ways the writing center could best engage with first-year writing students both inside the center and in classrooms. Morris was premiering a new curriculum for first-year writing that paired African American rhetorical traditions alongside classical Greek and Roman traditions. While the curriculum addressed Call and Response, Rhythm and Cadence, Testifying and Narrativization, and Signifying, very little time was left for the nuts and bolts of African American Vernacular English, which often impacts all four rhetorical strategies. Thus, the plan hatched to provide a workshop, hosted by the University of Memphis’s CWC, regarding Students’ Rights to Their Own Language and code-meshing in the first-year writing classroom.
We initially advertised to first-year writing teachers to let us host the two-day “Mesh It, Y’all” seminar in their classroom. The seminar included information on code-meshing and an exercise, composed by Hutchison, to gauge first-year writers’ ability to incorporate “their own language” within a genre of academic writing, specifically a rhetorical analysis. The first day only took 20-minutes of the classroom session. We’d provide a brief pitch to the classrooms regarding writing center services and then ask students to generate a word or phrase specific to their daily oracle practice—one they’d hesitate to use in an academic paper—for homework. These specific lexes could be generational, regional, or cultural.
The following class period, we’d engage students in a conversation regarding diverse Englishes and their potential use in academia. We’d project the Students’ Right to Their Own Language amendment on a screen, ask students as a class to generate a pros and cons list as to why or why not they should use their own Englishes, and from there we would dive into a deep discussion. We’d let students share their ideas on the use of diverse Englishes in academic prose and we’d present ideas other scholars shared. During that inaugural workshop we hosted, it quickly became evident students needed concrete examples of code-meshing done well, so we showed them Vershawn Ashanti Young’s phonetically code-meshed welcome note for CCCCs 2019, and his lexically and syntactically code-meshed 2008 article in CCC. These pieces later became cemented into the workshop as students enjoyed engaging in a rhetorical analysis of Young’s approaches. Afterwards, students would break into small groups and share their homework assignment. Groups were told to pick one word generated from their group and perform the following exercise (also available as a downloadable PDF):
Once you have chosen a word or phrase, write a 2-3 paragraph analysis of this word or phrase. You may consider the first four questions below. However, you must address the fifth prompt.
- What is the origin story of your word or phrase? (i.e. Boujee and/or Bougie—an abbreviation of “bourgeois”—also hip-hop slang for expensive lifestyle)
- Is your word or phrase cultural, regional, and/or generational?
- Why is your word or phrase persuasive or powerful?
- Does it have more than one meaning?
- What does it evoke tonally? For example, is it sad, sarcastic, or funny?
- Why is it representative of your culture, region, and/or generation?
- Can most people relate to, or at least understand, this word or phrase?
- Persuade a scholarly audience to use this word or phrase in academic writing. Consider when and where you could use your word or phrase in academia. For example, would it make a good greeting for an email? In the right context, could your word or phrase be used in a research paper, literacy narrative, or persuasive essay? How should your word or phrase be incorporated into one or more of these academic situations?
Hutchison composed this prompt to ensure students delved into the rhetorical context of a word or phrase they did not recognize as academic, but with which they identified. We discovered in our pilot workshops students were hesitant to use some words or phrases they considered “slang.” Students described “slang” as “abbreviated,” “informal,” and the opposite of “professional” or conceived out of “laziness.” We therefore provided an example in our prompt that illustrated how a word perceived as “slang” has complex layers of meaning. We consider how words like “boujee,” abbreviated by hip-hop slang, bore from Marxist terminology and successfully represented an expensive lifestyle. In other words, we knew we’d have to encourage students to analyze the cultural etymology of a word or phrase so they could observe how it survived and adapted with time and social change.
In addition to an example of slang, our workshop prompt needed a way for students to categorize their word or phrase according to several different discourse groups: cultural, regional, and/or generational. This way students could begin to narrow their analyses on the evolution of a word or phrase based on the characteristics of at least one of the aforementioned discourse groups. We also wanted students to be able to effectively share the rhetorical significance of the word or phrase they chose to a broad audience.
Finally, we encouraged students to visualize their word or phrase in a genre of academic writing. We knew this would be especially hard for students because most were taught that EAE was the only way to write academically. We thought it crucial students be given a hypothetical opportunity to justify the use of their word or phrase in academia. This challenged them to consider the points they would have to make to convince a scholarly audience. In pilot workshops, we often suggested they answer this question as if they were convincing a professor.
Based on the insightful results and conversations produced from a semester’s worth of workshops, we decided to conduct a more formal, in-person mixed-methods study for Spring 2020, replete with pre- and post-surveys, more discussions (this time documented via note-taking), and the above writing prompt. However, shortly after recruiting participating instructors who would let us host our two-day workshop in their ENGL 1020 classes, COVID-19 struck our community, our university moved all classes online, and shelter-in-place mandates took effect across the state.
In our classrooms—the ones outside our study—students contracted COVID-19, forcing them to miss weeks of coursework and take an incomplete for the semester. Other students moved back home from campus, sometimes losing direct access to computers and the internet. Some students dealt with higher-levels of unemployment within their immediate family, compelling students to agree to 60-hour work weeks in fields deemed essential during the pandemic. Realizing similar situations plagued classrooms who had agreed to participate in the study, we redesigned our initial ideas to best fit the needs of participants within an online platform.
The workshop was sent to participating students in five different Composition II classes over a period of two days. Participating students were instructed to take two four-question surveys using the online survey platform Qualtrics: one before and one after the workshop took place. The pre-workshop survey was meant to gauge first-year writers’ capacity to recognize distinctions between academic writing and personal or everyday writing standards. This initial survey was also meant to determine whether students ever considered integrating aspects of regional, generational, idiomatic, and world vernaculars and/or dialects they may associate themselves with in their academic and professional writing. The post-workshop survey asked first-year writers if they feel it is possible to code-mesh successfully in their academic and professional writing considering the current preference for Edited American English. This second survey also told us if the workshop was effective in helping students think of ways to code-mesh in their academic and professional writing. In addition, students were invited to include their advice for writing tutor assistance on coded writing. Online classroom conversations took place on each class’s eCourseware discussion board. Instructors sent responses from participating students anonymously to us.
After students completed the pre-workshop survey, they were asked to watch an introduction video that incorporated information on “Students’ Rights to Their Own Language” and supplemental material written by Young (“Your Average Nigga” and the CCCC’s 2019 Program “Welcome Letter”). The video is available on our website’s homepage and on YouTube. This video demonstrates how to recognize examples of phonetic, syntactical, and lexical code-meshing within Young’s work so students could understand the many ways a piece of academic writing can be code-meshed.
The next step of the online workshop was more conversational. Students were asked to list the “pros” and “cons” of code-meshing in academic and professional writing on their class’s eCourseware discussion board. Due to the new online setting of this workshop, we did not have direct access to engage with students on their classroom discussion boards, but rather worked with instructors to respond to student questions. Instructors sent these questions anonymously to us and we worked with instructors to address both concerns and excitement. In terms of analyzing the data we received, we documented students’ responses to the idea of code-meshing, grouping discussion posts into common categories based on excitement to code-mesh, fear of code-meshing, etc.
Finally, each student completed the writing prompt then submitted the analysis to their Composition II class’ eCourseware Dropbox. Afterward, the instructor sent analyses of participating students anonymously to us.
Even though we had to transition the workshop to an online platform, our primary goal remained. We wanted to encourage students to deliberately code-mesh in an academic assignment so they could begin to think about the rhetorical moves they would make when given the opportunity. Furthermore, we wanted student input on this discussion. In previous scholarship regarding code-meshing, scholars consulted with other scholars regarding whether or not students should code-mesh. This discussion directed by the top (scholars) then trickles down to students either in classrooms or writing centers. Consequently, the population that is to benefit from this research the most is seldom included in the debate. For our study, we wanted the students to direct the conversation, creating more of a bottom-up approach that allowed for teachers and tutors to learn from students. This differs from a top-down approach where the discussion simply takes place at a professional level with little student feedback. We believed a bottom-up approach would help tutors and/or scholars better learn how to best assist and empower those who visit our writing centers.
When asked to guess when the “Students’ Right to Their Own Language” resolution was first passed, a vast majority of participants believed the conversation only took place in the last few years. The fact scholars have been having this discussion for nearly half a century was startling to students. In all their years of education, the debate had yet to reach them. The perceived stark contrast between their own Englishes and academic language was all they had been taught, with more than 90% of the 42 respondents in the pre-workshop survey initially believing their own Englishes were neither compatible nor appropriate for academic prose. The most common reason mentioned for this was the belief that their natural English was unprofessional. They had never thought how to incorporate their own voices in a professional setting, but rather just believed their own voice to be unprofessional. We worked with instructors to help explain the power structure of language that propagates such a cultural idea. Open-ended responses from the pre-workshop survey also revealed that the difference between their personal and academic writing styles adversely affected “the way I set up the paper and how I ever think about the paper itself.” Furthermore, students feared their southern vernacular might come out in their academic writing, leading to negative responses from readers.
The post-workshop surveys, however, differed some in responses, with 69% of students agreeing they could incorporate code-meshing into academic writing, 24% responding that they might or might not incorporate code-meshing, and only 7% holding to the belief that they shouldn’t code-mesh. When asked if the workshop helped them begin to think of ways to incorporate one’s personal writing style into their academic writing, 89% of students said either definitely yes or yes. This was further materialized in the 25 writing samples produced by the workshop. Students choose to analyze phrases and lexes such as “Bougie,” “Shook,” “Salam,” and “Throw Shade.” When discussing the lexi “Lowkey,” one student wrote:
“Let me tell you something, and can we keep it lowkey?…Low is the act of keeping information or a situation away from the public’s eyes and ears…It is a secretive toned word. It also can have different meanings. It can mean not only keeping things to yourself, but it can also be used in agreeing to someone slightly…[this word] will probably be used for many more years ‘til another word or phrase is made up to replace it. For the most part, I do not believe I will stop using it as I get older and most of our generation won’t either.”
This student’s analysis of “Lowkey” successfully proves the rhetorical nuance of the word. This participant seamlessly incorporated their chosen word in the very first sentence of their analysis to demonstrate how it is properly used. Also, this student describes the rhetorical fluidity of “Lowkey” by providing contextual information; it can be a way of keeping information secret or a term that indicates a slight degree of agreement. “Lowkey” is seen as a generational lexis that does not qualify as “academic language,” but this analysis reveals otherwise.
When discussing the southern slang, “Junt,” one student wrote:
What is junt? Junt is a noun. A Memphis made noun. It is rooted in the Memphian culture and is tied to multiple generations. Junt is local, but it is universal! Say you got invited to the cookout. Aunt Sheryl just made a sweet potato pie with a new recipe, but you didn’t taste the sweet potato. You actually didn’t know what the pie was made out of and you didn’t want to hurt her feelings, so you go up to her and say “Aunt Sheryl, this junt good” with a very polite but fake smile. Aunt Sheryl was very happy with my praise for her, and she made sure to send me home with two more slices. Yikes. But at least we spared her feelings by using “junt” instead of assuming what her dish was.
Because junt is so universal and has no ties with a specific noun, it can take the place of any person, place, thing, or idea that you want to talk about without actually saying what the thing is. Junt can be intensely general, as well as contextually specific. Because of the utilitarian nature of the word, it can be thoroughly integrated within an academic work with little to no preparation. But really though, that junt is easy to use.
This example demonstrates the balance between academic writing and everyday speech. The first paragraph contextualizes “Junt” by providing specific examples of when and how it is used socially. However, the second paragraph explains how it can be used academically.
When discussing the word “Periodt,” one student wrote:
When discussing the word “Periodt,” one student wrote: Periodt is a word used at the end of a sentence, meant to add emphasis to a point that has been made. It is often regarded as a more extreme or intense version of “period.” It is also often preceded by the words “and that’s on” to add further emphasis…Periodt, articulated and spelled with a last T, is commonly credited to Black English. It has been explicitly credited to Black Women slang. The last T of periodt follows an example in Black English where a last D can get articulated as a T or a type of one…[Periodt] would benefit the argument because it would allow the audience to know that the writer is actually standing behind the points that they have made in their writing. For example, if the writer was to say, “This is the best movie of all time, and that’s on periodt,” the author is adding more emphasis on the point that they just made to back it up.
The example above illustrates how this student considers the rhetorical significance of syntax and phonetics. They display how “Periodt” is usually placed at the end of a sentence to express a firm stance on whatever is being discussed. Also, the inclusion of the letter “t” at the end of the word reaffirms its unyielding connotation. Not to mention, this word’s purposefulness can really be heard when read.
While these writing samples demonstrated students’ abilities to effectively code-mesh, their discussion posts in which they addressed the cons to “Students’ Right to Their Own Language” and code-meshing mostly spurred from fear. Out of 25 students who participated in the discussion, 50% of students specifically mentioned that the fear of grammatical errors hindered their ability to code-mesh, demonstrating the fact that the emphasis on good writing as “correct” writing had still been drilled into their heads more than 50 years after such a pedagogical tactic was discredited. Similar results were prevalent in the post-workshop survey. Students, when asked to consider and prioritize aspects of writing assessment they thought were important, responded that grammar, spelling, and vocabulary were key. We worked with instructors to discuss how grammar, spelling, and vocabulary are all rhetorical tools to be utilized for particular effects based on the reader’s goals and intended audience. We discussed how, if the reader wants to build their ethos as an insider in a particular discourse community, specific lexi and grammar might be the right rhetorical choice.
Fifty-two percent of students also feared that using their home language or dialect would lead to them being misunderstood, with specific posts stating, “Due to prejudices against certain vernacular, certain writing may be negatively judged or seen as poorer quality if the reader holds one of these prejudices.” Another student feared that such a negative response might prevent an audience from reading the student’s whole paper, therefore silencing the student’s points. Thus a candid conversation regarding power structures of language ensued, including how white supremacist language structures have long been percieved as the language of social mobility, yet should we continue to endorse this culturally violent language structure or work to dismantle it through information and strong code-meshed prose. Twenty-eight percent of students also mentioned a fear that code meshing would negatively affect their grades in class.
While fear dominated the cons of using plural Englishes in a single essay, the pros were also abundant. Thirty-four percent of students mentioned that being able to mesh their own languages in their academic writing would make them more comfortable and confident when writing; it would give them freedom. Alongside a gain in confidence when writing, 40% of students stated that meshing their own Englishes would allow them to better express themselves, add passion and personality to their work. Forty percent of students also mentioned that they would better be able to relate to assignments, enjoy assignments more, and gain fuller interest in their work. Twenty-eight percent of students specifically mentioned how their culture or identity would be better represented in their writing through code-meshing with three students specifically stating that code-meshing was more inclusive and one student writing that code-meshing breaks down “Gatekeeping… There is nothing to hold back because ‘correctness’ is subjective. You just put your thoughts out there to be received and that’s that.”
As graduate students and writing center tutors, we represent the student body and institution simultaneously. Therefore, we are in an opportune position to change institutional tutoring, teaching, and learning habits in favor of the student. Accordingly, we should really consider taking a more active approach to writing sessions with students. Instead of just identifying patterns of supposed grammatical errors for them and watching them nervously try to find and correct mistakes they just learned to recognize, we need to focus on how these students want to come across academically; specifically, would they like to maintain some semblance of identity whenever they are writing for the academy. As Nancy M. Grimm (2011) emphasizes in “Retheorizing Writing Center Work to Transform a System of Advantage Based on Race,” “This regular reminder (often internalized) to ‘make the student do all the work’ does harm because it discourages tutors from offering useful information, even ideas, to a writer who is working to bridge the literacy he or she brings from home with the literacy expected in the academy” (p. 84).
As white women, and as writing center tutors, we have been taught to ask students what they believe they are struggling with in their writing at the beginning of each session. Often, this leads to questions concerning, among other things, verb tense, punctuation, and syntax. However, what students do not realize they can inquire about is their right to maintain their language within academic discourse. The following sections shed light on ways of thinking and best practices that can enable a writing center tutor to begin a conversation about student literacies and how they can be preserved within academic writing.
Students Need to Know Their Rights
Students should be made well aware of conversations being had about academic writing. Not only does transparency give them the opportunity to form their own opinions on the current state of college composition, but it encourages them to form standards of agency over their academic writing. Not to mention, it opens their eyes to the fact that academic writing should be fluid and reformable. This is why it is important to have discussions with writing center clients about how they want to come across academically. If you find a writing center client is overwhelmed by strict grammar guidelines, let them know grammar is not, necessarily, hard and fast rules to follow, but rather rhetorical tools that complement the argument they’re making. However, if a client is adamant about following grammatical rules associated with EAE after having said conversation, it is important to abide by the concerns they may have. Apart from grammar, it is crucial to determine what coded language(s) a client may want to utilize in order to get their point across.
EAE is just Another Coded Language
Edited American English is seen as a secret handshake of success and anything else is seen as a coded language that exists to subvert it. We need to admit that academic writing is a code that is easily cracked by white, middle-class tutors due to systemic privilege. The “code” in “code-meshing” is seen as a representation of non-mainstream dialects and/or languages that white people need to crack in order to become more “woke” or understanding of their peers and writing center clients of color. Admittedly, this leads white, middle-class tutors to hone their “natural capacity” for EAE, but predicate the fact that we’re well aware of systemic racism in academic writing and have willingly taken the time to learn “coded” dialects and/or parts of other languages. Simply put, EAE is just another coded language. But, instead of indicating any cultural identifiers belonging to the writer apart from all-encompassing “whiteness,” it indicates how successful one can be in a predominately white society based on how well it is mastered. We need to ask ourselves how EAE, as a coded language, complements other dialects and/or languages. Furthermore, a tutor’s intentions should be to help students find connections and partings between their home dialects and/or languages and EAE’s problematic history. This is so writing center clients can not only challenge the status quo of academia with rhetorical devices cultivated and nurtured from their respective racial and cultural backgrounds, but also foster a diverse repertoire of writing practices that go beyond academic standards.
For example, if a client arrives with a writing project that has coded language that is not EAE, and, as a tutor, you are not familiar with it, start the session’s conversation by bringing this up. Learn why they chose certain words or phrases and how the client thinks they contribute to their argument and writing style. This way, you can show your client that their sense of identity within their writing takes priority. Moreover, the session conversation becomes constructed around the ways in which the student wants to express themselves academically, and not how they should sound academically. Likewise, you can show the client how EAE can complement what they have already written and still meet the standards that most college instructors ask of them.
Furthermore, white writing center tutors should not assume that a student has not yet mastered the art of code-meshing. It goes without saying that many students of color have already cracked the EAE code and have had to negotiate their literacies in spaces of discourse (Grimm, 2011, p. 85). Your only job is to inform them that the skills they have already mastered in other spaces of discourse can be utilized effectively within their academic writing.
Writing Center Sessions are Interdependent Learning Opportunities
Finally, tutors should appreciate the interdependent learning of a session. While our expertise in academic writing may lend itself to the tutee, their expertise in a dialect and/or language we may not be familiar with could lend itself to our rhetorical repertoire. This allows us to become better tutors, instructors, and even scholars. The need for tutors and instructors to use their own home dialects and/or languages when conversing with students was made apparent in our post-survey results. When asked what tutors and instructors could do to assist with code-meshing, one participant suggested that, “They could give examples of their own code meshing, or encourage it.” Another replied with “They could assist me with code-meshing by just putting it in their own common language while teaching. That will help me more as a student to understand it.”
Tutors should use home dialects and/or languages when consulting with clients. Doing so creates a sense of comfort in a session. Even if a client’s paper is written in EAE, make sure that you acknowledge the way they speak when discussing their project. For example, “I noticed when I asked about your argument, you said “x.” Why is “x” related to your argument?” Often, clients use their everyday speech when discussing their writing projects even if the project itself is written in EAE. This creates a prime opportunity for you to show them how to accompany their dialects with EAE. That way, they can start seeing how two different codes can supplement one another. Additionally, this interdependent learning can change academic writing systemically on a small scale. Beyond providing a service, the writing center is establishing a community. In order to be considered a part of that community, it is important for newcomers to feel that they have participated and even helped develop the identity of the community by sharing their cultural rhetoric.
Code-Meshing and Faculty
Undoubtedly, faculty’s willingness to acknowledge the rhetorical and inclusive importance of code-meshing is essential. As writing center tutors, we can preach the good word of code-meshing to students, but we all know the real test is convincing faculty across the campus to understand the benefits of it. The CWC at the University of Memphis discussed the potential of hosting workshops for faculty outside of the English Department, but knowing the time demands of faculty, the question of whether or not anyone would attend continues to linger. For this reason, we’ve created a forum section on our website where faculty who wish to engage in the conversation can. We created this in hopes of continuing the conversation outside of a workshop or an article. Whether we can fully convince the old guard to endorse our beliefs is still unanswered; however, students we collaborate with today will be tomorrow’s leaders, teachers, and professionals. If we can get the example student in the beginning of this article to realize her language is valid and acceptable, not only will she feel less burdened by the boulder of oppression when writing, she can show such acceptance to others when she takes her leadership role in the future. The more we can keep this conversation alive with students today, the more promising tomorrow looks in dismantling oppressive language structures that tell students their own Englishes just ain’t good enough.
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