Podcast Episode 5: “What can we actually do about native speakerism?”

The episode, which you can find here, will be notable because the audio is bad. It’s bad for two reasons. One just the simple use of the internet to call the other side of earth. And two, because my phone was dropped this summer, and the screen is cracked, and it randomly opens apps for no reason sometimes, which cuts off the recording of audio while the random apps are open. This all happened because my dog got overexcited on a walk. It’s actually the very first time I’ve ever had a cracked screen. End of an era. Oh well, turn the volume up!

I think this episode is important, because we have been talking about “native speakerism” since sometime in the 80s, and here we are having the same conversation in 2019. I wanted to hear from Dr. Mehran because she’s experiencing the impact of said discrimination in a different environment than the West. Her experience is sort of the opposite of mine, where I had no experience, applied for a job online, had a phone interview (with a white person) and got the job. She, as you will hear if you listen, has a doctorate but still has to get her jobs through word of mouth.

It’s an interesting and complex issue and I’m glad, even if the audio isn’t great, that I am able to share it with some folks. Please do listen and share.

Just Deserts

In some research I am doing, I have been looking at studies on “implicit bias,” which I’m sure you’ve heard of if you’re the type of person who reads what I write. Through all my searching, I only found two studies (really two parts of the same study) where a version of the Implicit Association Test was used with regard to the field of English Language Teaching, and in this case it was performed on students. So in my research methods class, I am proposing that we use this instrument on ELT professionals.

Yet that’s not very compelling to me. Will it show that, like every other group of people, ELT professionals also have implicit bias towards white people? Of course. And the evidence is weak that implicit bias can really be altered, as it seems to descend from a life of being influenced by a world that reifies the message that people of color are worth less than whites.

Accordingly, I’ve looked at a few studies on system justification and meritocracy, not so much on whether the system is truly just or meritocratic (it’s not!), but whether or not the participants believe they exist within a meritocracy. I have no particular justification for the claim I am about to make, but there is a thread I am trying to draw through the literature review I just submitted to my professor that suggests that there is a chance a person’s external beliefs can be changed, and even if not, their behavior might be malleable.

I say all this to say that I doubt it’s possible to erase implicit bias, regardless of the nonsense the NYC DOE is trying to do. So I spent some time thinking more deeply about what meritocracy really means, and I did the corny thing and straight up found the definition. There’s a curious word in there, and that word is “deserve.” Basically, in a meritocracy, people are to be rewarded according to what they deserve.

Most Americans believe their country is meritocratic, despite all evidence to the contrary. 

So what does it mean that they can see the system for what it is – and, similarly, they tend to believe things are rigged – yet also see it as meritocratic? It goes back to that word, “deserve.”

Simply put, we have, for centuries, taught that the status quo, which prioritizes the few over the many, is the only way, and though some have always pointed out how wrong this is, we tend to accept it at face value. Why? Because a part of us, without realizing it, believes that the people who have fewer rights deserve their station in life.

This could apply to all sorts of discrimination, but ultimately, when it comes to racism, my point is simple: people believe, simultaneously, that they are not racist but that racism is deserved, even though they would never express it as such.

Can this be changed? Probably not just through a debate or a conversation, hard though one might try. Maybe through an entire educational program that has yet to be developed. I think there is some real unexplored value in developing a theory about people’s opinions on who deserves what kind of treatment. I think that, ultimately, people really do give people exactly the amount of respect, consideration, and kindness that they feel they deserve, whether or not they realize this or are willing to express it. And I think if this could developed and analyzed, real change could occur.

People really do give people what they feel are their just deserts, within the confines of social obligations (eg, professional hierarchy), and it absolutely applies to racial discrimination. It’s something I’m going to think about and gather research on, and perhaps make it the focus of my conceptual work in early 2020. To paraphrase a well-known movie, deserve’s got everything to do with it, much as we might pretend otherwise.

 

Unstandardized English episode 3: “Everyone has an accent.”

I try to be smart with my word choice, but even though I know it to be the case that there is no such thing as not having an accent, I slip into that binary of accent/not accent sometimes, and I need to get away from it.

I hope that this episode and our dialogue is of use to anyone who still thinks that standardized American speech is one that lacks accents.

Follow the link here. Audio can be spotty but it’s still okay.

Of Two Minds

I feel as though I’m of two minds at all times when it comes to the work I am doing (and hope to continue doing) in the field. So these are some conflicted thoughts I have that I believe others committed to social justice in education can relate to.

On the one hand, I would prefer never to publish in journals that the public (and really, I just mean the educator public, since other folks probably won’t care) can’t access without paying. I think open-source is the future and it’s the only fair way.

On the other hand, the open-source journals don’t carry the same weight as PRESTIGE. And you need the Names to do a lot of things in academic or academic-adjacent work.

On the one hand, there is so much I want to write and say that is critical of the education I have received thus far and how I feel I’ve been let down, particularly as a learner of color.

On the other hand, would I not be in the position I am in to write the way that I write had I not attended these institutions? Can I prove the counterfactual that I’d be better off had I studied in other places? I cannot. It’s a sample size of one, and there’s no control group, to be a wonk about it.

On the one hand, I want to shout that there is such a poor understanding of the ordinariness of systemic racism that, yes, you can perpetuate it even if you’re a “good person.” I have perpetuated it too.

On the other hand, to make any progress, I’ll need support from a broader community, and I can’t be running around with a rhetorical flamethrower this early in my career.

On the one hand, any writing and presentations I do may make more of a splash if provocative.

On the other hand, they’re likelier to just not be accepted/published, or, if they are, just make a splash while sinking to the bottom after a short burst of activity. Provocation isn’t sustainable, because you just end up chasing it instead of doing good work after a while.

This last point is the crux of the internal debate I have now made external: it might feel cathartic to poke people, but it’s not very productive to make that a goal in itself. If it happens, be prepared, embrace it, roll with it. But if you just want to shake people up for its own sake, you won’t really succeed for more than half a second, even though the system does need to be shaken to its core.

So that leaves all of us, with a clear-eyed view of what needs to change, looking for small ways to chip away at a mountain. By the time it’s reshaped we won’t be here, but the small steps are worth taking anyway. At least that’s what I choose to tell myself. On the other hand…

 

 

Episode 2 is up!/TSE

Episode 2 of “Unstandardized English” is available now. Listen, enjoy, share!

(I’ll still use this site for blog posts in between podcast episodes, of course.)

The very end of the podcast, however, sees me come to a conclusion that I really should start writing towards spreading “Teaching Standardized English” as a phrase/acronym that encapsulates both the fact that norms still need to be taught but that they also need to be framed as norms chosen by dominant groups. We can’t abdicate our responsibility as language educators and pretend that there aren’t negotiated meanings and forms, but we must always be explicit about the negotiation that has created said forms and meanings. Frankly, we should be giving out degrees in “TSE,” as these educators would be well-versed in both the chosen standards and the stories behind the standardization.

Look for me to write about this in more depth over time.

My podcast exists!

Please listen!

My own voice (boy do I hate hearing it) is a bit spotty, as it was recording online via my guest’s phone. I pressed the wrong button on my phone and thus my own recording failed. Sure is good that he also recorded it.

This episode is about “expats,” who is allowed to be one and who isn’t.

Anyway, I hope people enjoy it. I’ll be back with another in a few weeks, and hopefully able to keep having interesting discussions.

My “Unstandardized English” podcast

I created a podcast. (There aren’t any episodes yet. )

My wife, who is usually right about what I want even before I realize I want something, thinks I should talk about “all of the things [I] like to talk about” (that’s a direct quote) in podcast form.  Years ago I would have ignored this advice. I put up a protest when she suggested it.

Reasons why I tried to weasel my way out of it:

  • I don’t like my voice
  • I don’t have time
  • No one will listen
  • There are so many already
  • Many other nonsense things

I’ll debunk these briefly.

My voice: My voice is Northeast/New York nasal and can come off shrill. It has very little baritone. And it got me a ton of teasing growing up in the era of Steve Urkel and Carlton Banks, to the point where I subconsciously tried to deepen it for a long time. But as I grow more confident in my figurative voice as a writer and scholar, it’s time to embrace my speaking voice. If it does nothing else, it will help me in my possible future presentations and teaching.

Time: I have time. Even with the puppy, and work, and school, I spend far too much time idly pondering “issues” and wanting to take them apart. I don’t need to be recording an episode every day or even every week. So long as I do it consistently, it will work fine.

Audience: You’ll listen! And you’ll share! And honestly, a few dozen people is a good enough audience for me. Maybe it will grow.

Repetition: Eh. If I ground it in my perspective, which belongs only to me, it will be authentic and hopefully resonant. And if I do it well, it just won’t matter if it covers similar ground to others.

So. Let’s talk about what it will be.

I wanted to discuss race and language, but I needed a hook. And one thing I’ve thought about writing about – that I realize would be richer in a more informal audio format – is to look at words (or phrases) that are not inherently racist (so, no slurs) but are often used, unintentionally, in ways that other and devalue the minoritized. I’m talking about “accent,” I’m talking about “low-skill,” I’m talking about “professional/unprofessional,” I’m talking about “cultural fit,” I’m talking about, in what will be the subject of my first episode, “expats” and “immigrants.” My plan is to invite those who have some expertise (either through their profession or their life experience or both) that would highlight something compelling about a particular word or phrase and how it is often used to perpetuate systemic racism, and hopefully find ways for educators, parents, and students to contend with the words we choose to use. It’s not an empirical study, but it’s a bit of critical discourse analysis, some critical and racial literacy, using the lenses of critical race theory, critical whiteness studies, and a bunch of other (critical) things. (Maybe I should say “critical” again!)

My goal is not to get you to stop using the words I analyze in this podcast. I want only for us to chew on and consider the impact of the way these words are used. I expect some will get in their feelings thinking that I’m calling everyone racist for using what they see as innocuous words, but 1. if you think you’re being called racist and I haven’t done so explicitly, ask yourself why you default to that assumption, and 2. that’s not the point. We live in a society suffused with systemic racism and it’s literally killing people. Our language is part of that violence, even the words we tend to classify as “neutral.” Ultimately, there is no neutral, and there is no “standard” without the majoritized having chosen it. So, I am calling the podcast “Unstandardized English” to try and take apart the supposedly harmless words we all use in an accessible and hopefully engaging fashion.

I have, uh, no episodes, so there’s nothing to listen to yet. I hope to secure a guest at some point soon and have an episode out in the next few weeks.

Here’s the link again. Add it to your bookmarks if you would be so kind and I’ll let you know when there’s actually something to listen to. And if you, my race and language audience, want to be a guest, I am sure we can find a word or phrase that’s ideal for you to analyze with me. Also, feel free to suggest words for my ongoing list, which has about 25 items on it thus far and will continue to grow.

Thanks for reading and, I hope, listening someday.

 

 

Strong Voice

There’s a difference between a voice and an opinion. Everyone has opinions, deeply held or otherwise. And some of those opinions are dehumanizing garbage. We don’t need to get into those right now.

I’ve been thinking lately why my academic doubts have continued to grow smaller and smaller. Yes, I’m particularly interested in the material, and yes, it’s tied to what I want to do professionally, but that was true in my MA as well, and the writing didn’t flow as much as it does now.

Surely I will struggle in certain classes as my degree continues. But I come back to one particular item of a rubric I saw last fall.

In my introductory class, we were tasked with trying to create a project proposal for a study we may or may not do. In my case, it’s related to what I’ll probably put together in the next two years, but not precisely the same. One of the ways in which we were graded was on “evidence of strong voice.” This is different from the other items, which were much more objective. But it was encouraging to me, and I tried to write with my authentic linguistic patterns for almost the first time in my academic career.

I’ve written good papers before, papers that received high grades, but I wasn’t really in the words of those papers. Anyone with certain experiences could have written them, and thus they really weren’t as good as they could have been. Now, I ended up losing points on this assignment because I messed up the APA, but that goes to an important point: you do need to learn the standardized forms and practices so that you can choose to deviate from them, and part of what we’re learning is what publications will expect of us as writers.

When I say that I find much of academic writing to be of not particularly high quality, I am not referring to the findings or methodology. To me, the most interesting part of an empirical study is the discussion, where the authors can really stretch their expository legs and get some heft under their work. Although I do plan to conduct studies over time, I find the best writing comes when the author’s voice is clear and present, even if I disagree with their analysis and their points.

You can tell – or at least, I think you can tell – that someone has contorted their voice into what they hope will be accepted by editors and reviewers, because it sounds and feels choppy. I hope this doesn’t happen to me, though I’m sure, to some extent, it will.

Nevertheless, I want all of my writing, whether for school, on here, or for a larger public someday, to be technically sound and scholarly, but also unmistakeably mine to whose who have read or listened to me. And if it doesn’t sound like I’d say it, then I shouldn’t write it.

I hope this doesn’t mean that people think writing doesn’t take considerable effort. Of course that is not the case. However, in my view, and I finally feel confident in saying this, that effort should be put towards expressing your authentic voice in the strongest possible fashion. Anything else is just holding you back.

Jargon

I have a secret to tell you. I hate jargon. I think I’ve always hated jargon. I’m not sure when it started, maybe when I started at various selective PWIs, but I think I’ve always been a little uncomfortable using in-group language, even as I wanted to be accepted by the groups.

I was thinking about this this weekend and I was listening to a linguistics podcast (what level of nerd…). And I think there’s a thread that can be pulled to new places. Most think that pretentious language is exclusionary when used deliberately as such, but I think its very use and existence is the violent act.

I think if we are to ever increase equity (ugh that word) and access, jargon has to be torn apart.

More to come!

Recontextualizing

Having had my eyes pried wide open on how deeply racism impacts all facets of education, I’ve been reflecting of late on my own experience as a black boy (and man, but mostly boy if we’re talking about school) in predominantly white institutions.

I felt as though I was mostly happy, but learning what I have, some of the experiences of my schooling that had initially made me uncomfortable for reasons I couldn’t pin down are aligning with the influence of institutional racism.

I’m not going to tell a list of stories here, for this is not Racial Trauma Story Hour on the Internet. I am only saying that denying its impact doesn’t diminish it, and we can only fight what we can see. Just glad to see it clearly now.