Thursday, June 30, 2011

Appropriating Language

In his 1985 essay Inventing the University, Donald Bartholomae explores the struggles of students to join a scholarly community, in large part through appropriating the language of that community. Facility with a certain language is, of course, the ticket into most social communities, not just the English Department in your local college. If you want to run with your peeps, then you'd better learn to talk like your peeps and to talk about what they talk about. Language is a key social marker.

As Bartholomae notes, the problem for most first-year college students is that they have to use academic language long before they have mastered it. Indeed, the academy expects entering students to read, talk, and write like academicians before actually joining the academy. This is not an issue of mere correctness in grammar, punctuation, and spelling—though, correctness also counts—rather, it is an issue of relationships among members of an established community and those outside that community. Language is one of the boundaries—though not the only boundary—that separates those inside the community from those outside the community. Most entering college students are definitely outside, and those of us on the inside spend a lot of time talking about how poorly those on the outside talk. The political and power implications should be obvious.

I have no issues with the rhetorical assumptions underlying Bartholomae's essay: that we use language to create social groups such as English Departments, that we use language to determine who is included in or excluded from the group, and that language in large part determines the knowledge of the group. What bothers me just now about Bartholomae's essay is that he never questions the practice of testing students to determine who is worthy of admittance to the club and who is not.

This question, of course, has ethical implications, but it also has practical implications. We assume that students want to be in our group, so we test them and admit only those who measure up. It seems to me, however, that fewer and fewer students want to be in our group, and that is partly why they don't write and speak they way that we do and why they don't take our admissions tests seriously: they don't want to identify with us teachers. At best, they may want to jump through our hoops because they are still convinced that a college degree has some value (though I think this conviction is on the decline), but they don't care a fig for talking like us so that they can join our cocktail parties. Thus, they will pass our tests anyway they can, including cheating. After all, it's just a hoop.

Can they learn to talk and write as we do? Yes, most of them. Millions of college students have learned tweeting and txting, with their intricate and strange grammars, punctuations, and spellings, in a very short time and without formal training. Why? Because they wanted entry into the groups enabled by those languages. Also, they did it because they were free to create a new language to define their new groups with, and they didn't have to answer to us English teachers for it. Damn.

So on the one hand, millions of college students can learn to write in a peculiar way to join their beloved peeps in marvelous conversations about Lady Gaga or about inventing new online currencies; or on the other hand, they can take a demeaning test writing about some inane topic they would never talk about with anyone they respect all in the hopes of gaining entry to a group of people with whom they wouldn't want to be seen in public.

It's a tough call, but I think the votes are in.

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