Thoughts on Lisa Delpit and Standard English


I feel I should clarify that this post focuses on Delpit’s chapter rather than the other readings or multilingualism as a broader concept.

I agree with Lisa Delpit’s statement in her chapter, “No Kinda Sense,” from The Skin That We Speak about embracing students and their interests wholeheartedly. While I acknowledge this is a controversial position, I’d prefer for my freshman composition students to write about anything under the sun that interests them, including themselves, their hair, their boyfriends and girlfriends—whatever they want—and learn to do so in standard English, than for my students to adhere precisely to topical assignment guidelines that I set forth in whatever version of English they choose. I realize we’re teaching them how to follow assignments, and that’s an incredibly valuable skill, but isn’t it a bit arbitrary to insist that they learn “follow the assignment” skills while dismissing “use standard English” skills as dated and oppressive? After all, I—the instructor—write the assignments. I am white, female, American with ancestry in the country dating back to the Revolutionary War, the beneficiary of a very privileged education, and I have my own set of unique political inclinations and perspectives on the world. I write assignments that I think will interest the students, but I make judgments about that through the lens of my own subject position, and I’m just making educated guesses. Why do I have any more right to demand that the students follow an assignment that happens to bore or alienate them than I have to ask them to use Standard English? My own education has taught me to scrupulously observe prompts and assignments in certain formal circumstances—on the Bar Exam, for instance—but in less formal contexts like ordinary school papers, it’s often best to critique the prompt or even stray from the prompt in the interest of creating a really good piece of writing. Why should I ask my students to do anything different? What’s wrong with making content as light and fluffy as the students please if they learn writing skills in the process? Why should composition courses use heavy-duty social and political thematic content instead of hairstyles, sports teams, cartoons, and breakups? Is it because we’re afraid the wrong person will come across a student essay about braiding customs, judge it as frivolous, and cut our program’s funding?

Of course, I’m never suggesting anyone needs to be a grammar fascist (my usual caveat), and I present the above with the notion that we have a responsibility to our students to teach them how to write in ways that will serve their own future interests. I do not mean to suggest that students’ language skills should be homogenized so that they eventually may become better employees for their employers’ sakes. But if we’re going to encourage them to dream of greatness within the existing system according to its traditional, capitalist, bourgeois, white(?) metrics of success, shouldn’t we equip them to fulfill those desires? Perhaps what Delpit’s daughter says is true, and it really is “their problem” if prospective admissions committees and employers reject her for her nonstandard language style, but if we’re going to embrace that, maybe we should also examine the assumptions we’re teaching about what paths in life are laudable and even satisfactory.

Along similar lines, I am not sure I agree with Delpit’s statement that students don’t speak in class because they are afraid that nitpicking teachers will criticize every little stylistic idiosyncrasy of their speech. Perhaps Delpit is right about that in the context of the first school her daughter attended—a predominantly white, upper-crusty private school—but I think that attitude is the exception by far. Some of my College Now students—high school seniors—struggle to grasp the concept of the complete sentence, and yet they tell me their high school English teachers give them As and praise their intelligence. They have high GPAs and some have even skipped grades with their schools’ encouragement. Some of them turn up their noses at the prospect of attending any CUNY college, let alone a community college, and they dream of being doctors, lawyers, and research scientists. But most can barely crack an 800 on their SATs and are daunted by the prospect of having to labor over a medical or law school application essay; they shrink in horror when I tell them they will have to do quite a bit more work after the application essay if they actually get into medical or law school, not to mention in college. These students are blatantly receiving a lot of welcoming, warm encouragement; they are obviously being told they are smart and should shoot the moon, but most don’t understand basic elements of Standard English. I do not believe that’s because someone is teaching them Standard English in an unwelcoming way; clearly, they are being welcomed, but no one is trying to teach them Standard English.

At what point should these students experience the rude awakenings to the fact that they haven’t been taught the skills they need to fulfill their dreams? When should they discover that college and the world of professional work expect much more work and more standard usage of English than anyone has ever asked of them? Clearly there is some kind of disconnect, some moment of disappointment and despair that probably has a lot to do with the low graduation rate from community colleges in the CUNY system. I don’t have the answers, but I do feel obligated to try to furnish students with some skills that no one has offered them before; at least then it’s their choice whether to learn and use them or not.