Thursday, September 11, 2014

I am different, not less. Temple Grandin A commentary on language diversity

     What a simple, yet grand assertion: "I am different, not less," and one I find most provocative. I live in the halls of academia, surrounded by colleagues and a multitude of students. One might think teaching the same material year after year would be boring, monotonous, draining. Not so. The material has a sense of stability, especially works that have been in our shared canon for centuries There is always an undiscovered nuance in a verse or line or story that is birthed before me, providing a continuous process of discovery and exploration. Such an evolution of meaning in a text may be the result of a more contemporary, and even more accurate translation; however, more often than not, I am the one who changed, grew, evolved, or shifted perception.

      These thoughts are to provide a backdrop for ideas in reference to the quotation, "I am different, not less." My amazing students come in to the picture here. Each semester brings a new group of students to each of my classes. The material, even if the same, has a new life through the perspectives and filters of these diverse groups of people. Often, they catch me off guard with their questions and comments. I have become increasingly comfortable with my mouth hanging open, eyes glazed over, having no idea what to say. Eventually, something will click, affording me a response or a question in return. "I don't know" works quite well too!

     With sadness, I confess that students have experienced devaluation in their educational experiences due to their differences. A pivotal example is language, especially apparent when teaching English composition. The ability to write and communicate clearly in Standard American English is the "standard" or benchmark for such classes, and understandably so in consideration of its use in professional and academic settings.

     Yet, all too often I hear horror stories of students' language styles, dialects, regionalisms, colloquialisms, being dismissed in the classroom as "less than," or wrong or bad. These various language styles have clearly been adequate, or it is doubtful these students would have made it to college. Adequate is fine. Adequate works. Adequate keeps you alive.

     Language patterns, whether  a Southern drawl, popular slang, ghetto, hick, country, polished and redundant, you name it (and my students do!), such differences are part of our identity. I suggest that choices of words for communicating fit well quite if matched appropriately with your listener.

     In one situation, I may say, "I'm fixin' to go," yet another might require, "I must prepare to leave as I have class in a few minutes." Both work. Knowing when to use a language style is vital. Knowing more than one style is essential in today's world. I encourage students and anyone to celebrate that vibrant part of identity that is language; consider the Standard as yet one more style to learn; it will serve you well.

     One last note: after having this discussion in class one semester, I asked my class to tell me one new idea or concept they were taking with them from class. One young lady raised her hand, and with a radiant smile, eyes passionate, "I learned that the way I talk is okay! It isn't a bad thing!"

     A valued student can be a student. Quote me on that.

      Ya'll have a good day, you hear!

Most cordially yours,

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