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Ain’t or Am Not?: The Ramifications of Academia’s Narrow View of Language

By Letisha Baker

As a poet, I enjoy having freedom of expression and relish the thought of writing without limitations. Academic writing has too many rules. "You need to write at least 500 words." " Make your points concise." "Check your grammar." Etc., etc. Please don't misinterpret me; I'm cognizant of why academic writing needs rules. Still, I think it's also crucial that we question academia's expectations of students and why things are the way they are.

Firstly, there is a multitude of reasons why writing in general needs guidelines. If I said, "Go, we are to the movies," you'd look at me like I had two heads. Just like a cake needs a pan, sentences need structure. Without a basis or standard to follow, our cakes would look like disfigured pancakes, and our sentences would sound completely nonsensical. Structure makes concepts easy to understand, which in turn makes the grading process simpler for teachers. If you have 500 papers to grade, I doubt you care much about each student's creative freedom. You're probably more worried about whether they met the requirements or not, so you can give them a grade and move on to the next. I can't blame teachers for this. Just like students, they also have deadlines and lives to live. But to what extent are we willing to filter students' voices to simplify the grading process?

I ran into this problem in APUSH (Advanced Placement United States History). The class had a checklist of things we needed to cover in our essays, and if one was missing, we'd get points off. We also couldn't use "I" or any other personal words like that. It made the writing process passionless and almost robotic. It was like my classmates and I were machines, whipping up the curriculum's idea of a perfect paper. I absolutely hated it. My friends and I would end up with almost identical essays, and I just got to thinking, "What's the point?"

Most of my classmates say that they want more freedom while writing in school. The extent of that freedom varies from person to person. Some of my peers would rather be told exactly what to do, and others are allergic to rules altogether. But I personally think the problem goes deeper than this. At the end of the day, students will write at least 500 words if they have to, they'll make concise points to get a good grade, and they'll go back and check their grammar to appease their teacher. But there lies the actual problem I feel no one is talking about. When it comes to grammar, there's only one form that's acceptable in academia. Everyone is expected to adopt this standard form of English (American) even if it's not their native tongue.

Language is fluid and ever-changing. Slang and language even vary throughout states. For example, in southern New York, as you get closer down to the city, we speak faster and are very direct, but you get a more western sound that's the complete opposite as you travel north. That being said, is it realistic to expect all students to write one way?

I also think that academia's expectations can be unintentionally prejudiced at times. For example, many minorities come from communities that don't speak "proper English" (e.g., Ebonics, Spanglish, or Chinese English). Children from these communities then go to school and are told that the way they talk is wrong/unacceptable. No one speaks incorrectly, they may say things differently, but it's not incorrect. My rule is "if it gets the point across, then its fine" (Yes, I put its instead of it's on purpose).

Academia and people in general link the way you speak to your level of intelligence, and I cannot begin to list the reasons why this is problematic. First and foremost, language and accent are based on country, region, socioeconomics, and ethnic background. All things people have little to no control over. For example, I did not choose to be a middle-class seventeen-year-old Caribbean American girl living in Westchester County, New York. These factors influence the way I speak:

1) My family speaks Patois. Patois is to English what Creole is to French: a broken form of its predecessor that has taken on a new life and purpose.

2) I'm from New York (lower NY). Unlike people living in the south (Texas, Mississippi, Georgia, etc.), I speak really fast.

3) I'm black. To be crystal clear, not every black person uses AAVE (African American Vernacular English), and just because you're black doesn't mean you automatically know it. But in my case, I do because my family and friends use it.

Not only do these factors influence the way I speak, but they're also a part of my identity. Engrained in my DNA, they're things that will never change, yet I must find a way to do so while writing academically. I view language like my wardrobe. While others feel comfortable in just jeans in a tee-shirt, I love to accessorize. I'd feel naked without my hoops, charm bracelets, and pearls. I have certain pieces I love to wear because I feel like it showcases who I am, and I love to flaunt them. If someone told me to go to school in a suit and tie, I'd feel uncomfortable because it's something foreign to me. That's not how I present myself. This is the exact feeling so many students get when they have to write a paper. It's like walking around in an itchy suit that you can't take off without being reprimanded. In reality, you want to be in a hoodie and jeans, but you have to accept that formalism comes before authenticity at school.

This is not just an American problem. The official language of Jamaica is English (British), even though most residents there speak Patois. Also, I've heard multiple people say Mexicans speak the Spanish version of Ebonics. Do you see the elephant in the room? These two nations were colonized, yet they're expected to communicate in their colonizer's language perfectly or be subject to ridicule. Is it fair to say colonized groups don't speak their colonizer's language correctly when it is not their native tongue? That's a whole 'nother conversation I'm not going to get into. But I bring all this up to ultimately ask: Is it ethical to police someone's grammar or style of talking, and why do we correlate speech and intelligence?

I don't know the answers to either of those questions but what I will say is this. My uncle immigrated here from Jamaica and became a chemistry teacher in the '80s. Despite him being qualified and extremely bright, some people still couldn't get over his speech. They couldn't fathom that a Rastafarian Jamaican man with a thick accent taught them complex formulas or worked in their building. They tried to link his accent to his IQ and came up with inconclusive results. Why? Because the two rarely coincide, they are not dependent on each other.

Academia needs to open spaces for different presentations of smart. We all have this one idea of what an intelligent person and good writing is, limiting our ability to accept texts or people that don't fit the standard. There needs to be a space for everyone to thrive, including non-white professors who didn't go to Yale and writing that isn't always grammatically "correct." Of course, grade-conscious students will still be wary of the language they use while writing, and I'm not saying they shouldn't. I just think the possible reasons why they have to are profoundly flawed and dated.

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