Supporting Students’ Humanity

At the end of each semester, the students at my university are prompted (on their evaluation forms) to evaluate their instructors based on how the course was organized, whether or not the instructor gave prompt feedback, and whether or not they speak clear, standard English.


“What does this mean? What do you all think this means?” I was red in the face, desperate for my students to explain to me that it wasn’t really as bad as it seemed. According to my students, that question doesn’t affect much of anything or anyone…really. Oh, except for the instructors who have thick or unfamiliar accents.

This morning (instead of staying home and stuffing my face with pie), I drove to the University of Arkansas at Little Rock campus for the Southern Regional Composition Conference. There aren’t many things to be pumped about the Monday morning after a tornado and the daylight saving “spring forward,” but I was interested in hanging out at a low-key conference and was pumped to listen to the keynote address by Dr. Vershawn Young. Young writes great stuff about codemeshing, the blending of Englishes as one in speech and writing.

Earlier today, Vershawn Young talked to us about performance and blackness and the violence that’s inherent in literacy instruction. His keynote address, “Making Black Lives Matter in Digital Spaces: Three Lessons in/for Critical Literacy,” was what my academic spirit (and maybe my heart, too) needed.

Young began by arguing that we want to classify violence in traditionally physical (e.g., murder, looting), which allows us to then dismiss or overlook psychic and emotional violence (e.g., microaggressions, stop-and-frisks). What does that have to do with literacy instruction? Look at how Rachel Jeantel was treated for the way she spoke in court. If you think that’s an exaggeration, peep the screenshot below, which is what pops up when you google her name.

Image shows Google result of Rachel Jeantel
A classic overcoming narrative: “One year after being outed as illiterate in the George Zimmerman murder trial, Trayvon Martin’s friend Rachel Jeantel is a changed woman after graduating from high school.”

There were a lot of important takeaways from Young’s keynote, and I’ll offer the three points he offered us.

One, we need to be conscious of the violence of literacy instruction. When we ignore or (worse?) reinscribe rigid, arhetorical notions of SAE (standard american english), we’re telling students their voice—their upbringing, their culture, their identity—doesn’t matter.

Two, we need to recognize Black expression as an art (and value it as part of the language arts). While it’s unwise to encourage students to communicate however they want in any context, we can ask students to be linguistically and rhetorically aware of the contested nature of SAE and express themselves accordingly. “It’s your voice. It’s your choice.”

Three, we need to embrace codemeshing. Language habits that differ from SAE are often still positioned as deficient (regardless of the social progressivism that we academics often tout), and it’s important to recognize that different language habits can be resources rather than just obstacles we need to overcome.

“See language habits as a resource first, not as a barrier to overcome.”

I started thinking about intersectionality, the way deficit-oriented labeling and treatment runs through the histories of both disability studies and writing studies, the pervasive nature of rhetorics of overcoming.

I thought of an argument I make in the first chapter of my dissertation, which draws connections across the field’s historical positioning of non-normative student populations (from non-native English writers and students of color to disabled students).

I thought of the way that we ask students to let go of parts of themselves, as if it is so easy (or safe or reasonable) to divide yourself into separate parts and present only the most academic (read: white, cis, able-bodied, etc.) version of yourself. That the things that help make you you are not welcome in this space, cannot help you succeed, must be overcome.

I thought of the Black student who stayed after class to ask me, “Have you ever noticed that there aren’t many Black professors?”

I thought of the Black student who came into my office to get advice about whether or not to drop out. After 30 minutes, their eyes darting from my face to the framed diploma behind my head, they sighed, said, “I don’t know why I’m talking to you. No offense, but you already got your degree. You don’t care about me.”

I thought of a conversation in a panel earlier today about millennials and suicidal ideation and how so many college students are depressed and in need of support.

My students matter to me. Many students—Black students, disabled students, queer students, first generation students, international students—feel like they don’t matter. Sometimes, the way we teach reinforces that, whether we do it intentionally or not.

Young ended his keynote with a reminder that our purpose as instructors is twofold: to educate students and to support their humanity.

Educate students.

Support their humanity.

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