Language, Power, and the College Archives

This is a post about how I partnered with the college archives to help my students interrogate language and power as part of “culturally sustaining” pedagogy. I didn’t do an IRB or plan an official study of the class, so this is a somewhat vague, but hopefully interesting/helpful, description of what what I did, what went well, and what I would do differently next time.

Courtesy of the College and Lutheran Archives at Gustavus Adolphus College

Short version:

For an “academic success” class designed for multilingual students at Gustavus Adolphus College that is supposed to, among other things, improve students’ academic communication skills, I used the archives to enact a culturally sustaining pedagogy approach by theming the class as an investigation into the multilingual and international history of the college which was supposed to result in a Wikipedia Editing Project as the final outcome. Part of the goal with this themes was to unseat the idea of one, necessary “academic” language by interrogating the complicated linguistic/cultural history of the college. Our research questions were: Who were the first international students? Who were the first multilingual students? What languages were used for instruction and when/why? We read a lot, but also turned to the college archives for answers. We never made it to the Wikipedia editing part (thanks COVID), but students did seem to learn a lot about their college, their place within it, and why archives are important, in addition to practicing the academic skills we were after, like discussion, reading/writing, critical thinking, etc., and interrogating the power-laden and shifting notions of “academic language.”

What was the class?

This was an “academic success” course designed for multilingual and international students designed to help new students adjust, and to help continuing students re-establish their footing. It was much like a tiny first-year seminar, but students could take it any time. The course is meant to help multilingual students find community together, articulate their academic goals, and practice common academic skills like class discussion, critical reading, writing for revision, presentation skills, etc. It did bear credit, but not towards any major or particular general education designation. It bore half the credit of a usual class because it was only half a semester. We ran it twice a semester every semester.

The class was capped at 10, and usually had between 8-12 students. The class was open to any “multilingual” student, which they could define in any way they wanted. The class was usually split roughly down the middle between international (studying on a visa) and domestic students (often either born here or came to U.S. some time between 3-13 years old). Most were first year or second year students. Sometimes a junior or two would take in. In some cases a few seniors would take it to get a boost in their GPA and a nice re-set of their academic goals/strategies as they looked towards grad school. I did some differentiated instruction in which some assignments had slightly different expectations/grading rubrics/scaffolding between the first and second year students vs. the third and fourth year students.

As I started teaching this course at Gustavus, I quickly realized that it worked better when we had something specific to discuss, read, write, and present about. So I started coming up with a new theme every 1-2 semesters. For the iteration I’m talking about here, the theme was the international/multilingual history of the college. Our class readings were personal essays from international and multilingual Minnesotans, history excerpts about the college, the college Wikipedia page, relevant news, etc. We used those readings as a basis for our reading, writing, discussion activities. We moved from secondary sources to primary sources as we got deeper into the history of the college, which is when we turned to the archives to look at photos and documents. Students were going to make a group edit on the college’s Wikipedia page and do presentations about what edit they made and why, when COVID hit and half-semester classes like mine simply ended early as the college took a pause and decided what to do.

Why this assignment theme?

I did this theme because I thought it would be a good way to enact culturally sustaining pedagogy. Here is the founding text for CSP, but the way I understand it for myself is to 1) acknowledge/affirm/center the students’ existing literacies, languages, and cultures; 2) use those to backgrounds to leverage into the thing you’re supposed to be teaching them (let them have a substantial role in identifying and articulating those learning objectives or else you will undo some of #1); and 3) model and teach them to be critical of the institutions in which they find themselves. (For this context that means institutions of higher education, “academic English” as an institutional project, institutional definitions of “success,” etc.) These three things are not necessarily chronological steps, although I find that #1 comes early, #2 is iterative, and #3 begins later and crescendos towards the end of my courses.

I knew a little about the history of the college, and as I learned more, I thought it might lend itself well to CSP methods. Gustavus Adolphus College is a small, private liberal arts college about an hour drive South of Minneapolis, Minnesota. As you may already know, parts of the Midwest were populated heavily by immigrants from Norway and Sweden, displacing much of the native population. You can read here about the Dakota War, the concentration camp at Fort Snelling, and mass execution of Dakota warriors at Mankato.

Gustavus embraces its Swedish Lutheran heritage and is proud of its history. The flag of the college is the three crowns. The college offers robust, high quality study away programs to Sweden, and also brings in a steady stream of international and exchange students from Sweden each academic year. The Scandinavian Studies program is well-known, and the college regularly draws on Swedish traditions and aesthetics in various college-wide events, ceremonies, signage, etc.

While Gustavus is proud of its Swedish, Lutheran heritage, the college has a tradition of trying to be sure every student feels they belong and has opportunities to embrace and share their own various cultural and linguistic backgrounds. For example, International Festival and Africa Night are among the most highly anticipated events on campus. There are a wealth of student cultural organizations, and there is a robust International Friendship Family program. (Does it sound like I’m talking them up and I loved it there? Well, it’s true! I loved it there!)

However, Gustavus has historically struggled with the same challenges that all predominantly white, monolingual institutions of higher education face—how to go beyond surface-level diversity/inclusion and move towards equity? How can the college both identify the particular needs/concerns of particular groups, like international students, without othering them? How do you know when DEI is “working”—enrollment? retention? grades? where/how students arrange themselves in groups in the cafeteria? which students speak up in class? This was the context for the creation of the position I was in, and the creation of the course we created.

My theory here was that the pressures to assimilate, the fraught expectations of “academic” English, the raciolinguistic profiling of the multilingual/international students could be resisted by centering immigration/multilingualism in the college’s history, within the context of Minnesota’s settler/colonial history. What does it mean to be asked to achieve “academic success” using “academic English” at a college begun in Swedish by Swedish immigrants on land where Dakota speakers were forcibly removed and some placed in English-only boarding schools?

Some more specific/logistical info about what we did:

I had at least two meetings with the archive staff before the class began. One to just pitch my idea and discuss with them what I was thinking. Professor and archivist Jeff Jenson and Adrianna Darden, the archives collections and record manager, were enthusiastic and helpful, and really helped me shape a thoughtful journey for my students. After our first meeting, Jeff and Adrianna took some time to identify and select items that would be useful for the critical thinking, discussion, and writing I wanted to see from the students. They previewed these items in a second follow up meeting to make our plans more concrete.

Jeff and I scheduled two class “field trips” to the archives. The first trip was after the students were oriented to the course, knew each other fairly well, and had read a fair amount about the history of the college already, and had discussed it a bit together. This first trip was an orientation to the archives, and a hands-on tour. The orientation/tour day included a very helpful activity Jeff prepared to help students reflect on what archives are and why they matter. The second visit was scheduled soon after, and was an exploration visit. Jeff and Adrianna had the most relevant boxes selected and set out on tables. By now the students knew what to do and what they wanted to know—so they dug in! We started that visit reviewing our research questions, then explored in the boxes, and then finished our visit with a reflection/wrap up.

What went well:

Students participated in engaging discussions about the college and what it means to them to be there. Students actually care about their college and what their place is within it, and this investigation into the history of the college helped them see their place in the bigger, albeit complicated, picture. It was much easier to coax discussion, reading, and writing out of students when the topic felt real and relevant.

Just having students in the archives at all was a win! I learned that most students have no idea what “archives” are or why they are important. Students reported that they had walked by that part of the library before but did not ever realize/investigate what it was—they were really surprised and very enthusiastic about it. They loved looking at old photos and old maps of how the college used to be laid out.

Students noticed how changes in power result in different language policies on institutions of learning, like English in the residential Indian schools, but Swedish in the college. Later, as English became more dominant among immigrant groups at the college, rules had to be put in place to enforce Swedish use on campus (including a rule for Swedish in the dorms). They noticed how the curriculum changed when the instruction shifted from Swedish to English. As I’d hoped, they critically engaged with what “academic English/language” means and to whom.

The students declared that the college had always been multilingual and international, so to ask “who were the first international/multilingual students” was the wrong question.

The students engaged critically with the history around student organizations at the college. One student was a member of the “Pan African” Student Organization (PASO), and got interested in its history as the “Black” Student Organization. Another student was interested in the history of the “International Cultures Club,” which used to be called the “Foreign Students” Club. We had good discussion about the change in terms and why, and, with a little prodding, students noticed that the two clubs started around the same time, and roughly coincided with the Civil Rights Movement. One student discovered that there used to be a “Spanish House”—a residential space in which only Spanish is spoken—and asked good questions about why it doesn’t exist anymore, but Swedish House still does. She eventually proclaimed her intention to try to get the college to reinstate it.

What could have gone better:

COVID hit and so our class, which was only a seven week class, ended two weeks early, before students were able to make their chosen Wikipedia edits or do final presentations.

The course may have had too many moving parts for such a small span of time, even without COVID. Students had to learn about Wikipedia, read about the history of the college, learn what archives were and how to use them, etc.—sometimes it felt like a lot for just 7 weeks.

I’d like to have prepared more guiding worksheets/materials for archive visit days just to help structure the time and help the students keep a record of what they found/learned to use for their writing/discussion/presentation assignments. It seemed to be a bit of stimulation overload at times and it was not always easy for them (or me) to know what the specific take-aways should be.

For the future:

I will absolutely be experimenting with archives collaboration again. I’m still getting my footing at my new institution, and the context is very different. Different student population, different type of institution, different department, etc., but I’m playing around with the idea of using the digital archives here at Oakland University for a project about the history of college slang for my introductory linguistics courses I teach. Not sure yet what I’ll do yet, but I will blog about it once I do!

“Honest-to-Goodness American Speech”: MLA “Outtakes” Part 2

This post is the second in a series inspired by material I came across in my research for MLA 2021, but did not quite fit into the presentation project. My MLA project traced the way literary texts were used as data for insight into African American language in the important journal, American Speech, in the 20th century. Along the way there was much more to see.

In this post I want to share the way specific states in the Midwest start to arise as having their own Englishes in this specific scholarly community. Why do I want to share this? Because there is a myth in the mind of the general public that the Midwest is the source of “standard” American English, and that this is because that is the variety of English that is the most neutral and easy to understand. Because Midwestern English is so neutral, it was chosen to be the English of radio broadcasting, which then perpetuated it. On the contrary, linguists have long studied the quirks of Midwestern Englishes. By looking at when, where, and how Midwestern Englishes become registered as “different,” we can help to dispel the myth of the neutral Midwestern Standard. In short, if Midwestern English is so neutral, why has it historically been so fascinating to early linguists?

For this post, I focused on articles that specifically mentioned in their title “Midwest” (or actually “middle west” for this era) or a state that today I would recognize as part of the Midwest (although each person likely has different judgments on this). I excluded any articles about place names. Overall, I found that in American Speech, specific Midwestern states’ Englishes began to pop up slowly beginning in 1928, especially Nebraska. Some of the content is from full on studies/informants, but much of it comes from amateur write-ins to the journal. Other states that are mentioned are Idaho, Wyoming, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, etc. I found that usually the English examined was specific to a region in the state–not a variety attributed to that whole state.

We learn that in Nebraska, folks can say “cheesy” to mean “pale,” and “misbobble” for “mistake” (Burwell 1931). Iowans, we learn, say “boughten,” and use the phrase “sit up” to mean “court” (Buxbaum 1929). In Idaho you can call a “dust devil” a “brainstorm” (Jensen 1931).

Most pieces were about specific vocabulary, but there was still some documentation of pronunciation/phonology. One experiment tested and documented the length of speech sounds of a “Middle Westerner” reading a narrative (Parmenter and Trevino 1935). One literary enthusiast argues that Edward Eggleston’s rendition of “Hoosier” dialect in the Ohio River Valley checks out, where they say “WAIR” for “were” (Bloom 1934).

There was often an association with Midwestern English and racial “purity,” which tracks with a lot of work by scholars like Thomas Bonfiglio, who argue that white supremacist ideology is actually the force behind what we historically associate with the “standard.” One B.D.J. from Chicago complains in 1933 about New Yorkers’ bias against Midwestern speech:

. . . And one can hear fearful speech in New York City, perhaps the least American of our cities. In our metropolis the English tongue is mutilated by foreigners from many lands as well as by the natives. Their perpetrations are far worse than anything heard in the Middle West.


Midwestern Englishes are often framed by these early linguists in ways that are inseparable from their settler-colonial history, like the language used by the “Nebraska Sandhillers;” “sandhillers” are those who took advantage of the Kincaid Act of 1904, an add-on to the Homestead act, intended to facilitate “progress” via settlers farming land in the west. Melvin Van Dern Bark’s 1928 article, “Nebraska Sandhill Talk” offers mostly regional rancher/farmer slang, but links the land and the language in a particularly romanticized way that is notable:

This great sea of hill country is inevitably becoming “improved,” though the marks of change are not yet discernible. Some day the “sandhillers” may no longer say “God never made this land fer farmin’.” That day the sandhills will have lost much of their present picturesqueness and its people much of their “talk.”

Van Den Bark, pg 133

Finally, the other aspect of the Standard Midwestern English myth I wanted to address is that it was chosen by radio broadcasters to be the target English. The myth makes this sound easy–there is a selection of Englishes, so of course choose the most neutral one. Everyone agrees, right? But that’s not quite what happened. Much ink has been spilled since the late 1920s about how radio broadcasters should speak, including among early linguists.

In the journal American Speech, alongside the articles about Midwestern states mentioned above, we can see almost a parallel rise in pieces about how radio broadcasters should speak. Some call out specific pronunciations; others argue for the formation of special committees, modeled after the recent British Broadcasting Company’s Advisory Committee on Spoken English. For example, a “miscellany” article in 1930 argues that “there is need for some impelling force to direct attention to pronunciation that has become acceptable through usage” (vol 6 no 1 pg 78), like using the correct vowels in “victory” and “apparatus” (77). Another writer complains that listening to the radio means hearing your “mother tongue” “hung, drawn, and quartered,” and offers a long list of pronunciation corrections (Combs 1931). One writer argues that “the radio is making us take stock of the other fellow’s pronunciation, more than ever before” (vol 5 no 5 pg 420). He rails against what he hears on the radio as affectations of “especial culture” in pretentious pronunciations, and compares them to a recent MLA presentation (I’m not joking!) in which a presenter pretended to “speak as an Englishman” but then “he would drop right back into plain, honest-to-goodness American speech” (422).

Overall, Standard English is a project; it’s found in our language ideologies, not in any particular place.

“A Crude Duplication of the Sounds”: Some “out-takes” from my MLA 2021 talk

I’ll be honest; my presentation for MLA this year–a pilot study on how linguists talk about literary texts in the journal American Speech in the early 20th century–was probably the least polished talk I’ve ever done at MLA, or maybe anywhere. It was difficult to focus on that work knowing people were storming the capitol and not knowing what that might mean. I made my slides using the MLA template and never figured out how to change the session # info at the bottom–I just left it that way, y’all! Wow. Anyway, I thought some of you might enjoy this series of posts I’m doing to share some of the “out-takes,” as I’m calling them–bits and pieces of what I found that didn’t fit in the time, or just weren’t maximally relevant to the talk.

I’m interested in (among other things) the relationship between linguistics as a field (as broad, varied, and ever-changing a thing that is) and literary texts. Literary texts are often used as data for variationist studies, like documenting varieties of English or analyzing how those varieties change. This is both important and problematic, as we know that literary texts are not transcriptions of speech at all, and are subject to confounding effects from the author, genre, etc. (Some researchers attend to this confound; many don’t.) I know a fair amount about the long nineteenth century, and I know a fair amount about sociolinguistics of the 2000s and beyond, but I wanted to know what was happening in the 20th century–how is literature being used by linguists in that era? To limit the study, I did a pilot of sorts, looking at the first 40 years of issues of the journal American Speech, and specifically looking at studies on African American language.

The results show a real anxiety about the use of literary texts as data. I’d like to sit with one of the later articles for a bit, called “Negro Dialect in Eighteenth-Century American Drama” from 1955, by Richard Walser. Walser argues for using early American drama as a source for what early African American language was like because:

Askew or not, the dialect as written was uninfluenced, at least in the earliest efforts, by literary tradition; and there can be little doubt that most of the Negro characters were drawn from life and that their speech is a crude, if occasionally distorted, duplication of the sounds which the playwrights thought they heard. (269)

There are a few things going on here that are interesting to me. One is that, although Walser is making a case for verisimilitude, it seems to be a weak one that I’m not sure even he truly believes. The representations are “askew,” “crude,” “distorted” versions of what writers “thought they heard.”

I’m also interested in the metaphors–“drawn from life” is an artistic endeavor. “Duplication” sounds a bit more rigorous and reliable, but how do you duplicate a sound?

The crude distortions are framed here as a result of the honest pursuit of verisimilitude-inconsistencies are to be expected, right? And they are framed in opposition to the suspicious regularities of the “local color” movement, which Walser argues is the result of literary convention and genre taking over:

The ten plays impose two general observations. None of the playwrights, with the exception of Murdock, exhibits any great consistency in rendering the dialect. Spelling is capricious, even within one play; and syntax is widely variable […] The variations are understandable. Not until much later did written Negro dialect assume its literary conventionality; nor was any uniformity possible in the eighteenth century. (269)

This inconsistency=authenticity (and therefore reliability) claim is a regular one in this era. But so is the opposite. Consistency=authenticity (and therefore reliability) is also common. (These contradictory logics are also present in studies from the 1990s and 2000s, as I discovered in my dissertation.)

Overall, the goal posts for when and how to use literary texts as American English variation data shift a lot in this era. More out-takes soon!

Linguistic Diversity “Starter Kit”

This is a hastily written, flawed introduction to linguistic diversity and linguistic justice, but I put it together at the request of some colleagues and thought others might find it helpful. Some caveats: this is not a syllabus, this is not an academic lit review, this is in no way complete. This is just a way of getting started, for those who are not used to thinking about linguistic diversity as such, and who don’t have the time/inclination to read a book about it (yet!).

The problem:

People are discriminated against every day because of how they speak and write English in ways that are usually a proxy for other identities/social categories/ways of being, like race, gender, ethnicity, socio-economic class, nationality, region, etc., even though there is no linguistic basis for the idea of one “correct” way to speak English. The idea of “Standard” English in the U.S. is largely ideological and historically situated, with roots in white supremacist and colonial ideas and power structures. For some, the stakes are low. For others in the U.S. (perhaps especially African Americans), there are serious consequences to linguistic bias and discrimination. 

How Do We Know? (Selected Scholarship):

Listen, watch, and read more:

Poetry and Performances:



Articles and Blog Posts:

Tips for Teaching African American Language in American Literature

As we all launch into a new semester, I’d like to draw attention to a post from this spring I wrote for the Pedagogy and American Literary Studies blog. This was written mainly for white college professors and high school/middle school teachers, but might be helpful for any educator who does not identify as a speaker of African American Language.

The Shift Online is Both Good and Bad for International/L2 Students

This could be great.
Most of the advice out there for online teaching emphasizes scaffolding and transparency, which is absolutely key for international/second language students. As Raichle Farrelly, Shawna Shapiro, and Zuzana Tomas explain in Fostering International Student Success in Higher Education (2014), scaffolding can mitigate the fact that college learning is rife with unarticulated assumptions and expectations that can baffle international students, or other populations, like first generation students. For example, we often take for granted what office hours are for and how they work. Online “office hours” will require explicit discussion of expectations around when/how to interact with particular tools and interfaces, and this transparency will be a relief for many students.  When I was first trained to teach online at the University of Massachusetts, my eyes were opened to scaffolding techniques, like keywords lists and pre-discussion reading questions, which I immediately began to incorporate in the face to face classroom. This temporary move online may result in more inclusive face to face classrooms when the crisis is over.
Relatedly, online teaching requires crystal clear communication–exactly what experts like Shapiro recommend for your international, multilingual, and second language students. Written instructions using concise, everyday language and that leave little room for ambiguity will help faculty from getting too many clarifications emails, and will help students succeed.
The asynchronous learning that comes with online coursework can lower some of the barriers that international students using English as a “second language” tell me they face. They often report that their class discussions move so rapidly that students have trouble formulating their thoughts quickly enough to jump in with their idea. Online discussion forums, whether written or recorded, allow students to plan their responses to discussion and re-read/look up words if they don’t understand their classmates’ comments at first. What’s more, asynchronous, recorded lecture videos (which is the recommended mode of lecturing in an online course) can be paused for note-taking, and difficult portions can be reviewed. This will be a relief to many students who are used to feeling that they only caught a portion of what was said.
This could also be bad.
What makes online learning potentially more accessible for some international/second language students is also what could make it a barrier. The stakes for scaffolding and clear communication are even higher. If it is not done right (let’s face it–we are human!), lack of scaffolding and transparency might disproportionately disadvantage international, second language, first gen students, not to mention students with accessibility needs.
More emphasis on writing in discussion/reflection/other tasks might mean that students writing in English as a second language spend an inordinate amount of time on those tasks. L2 writers spend a lot of time doing the aesthetic labor of sounding “native” (revising for -s endings, deciding which preposition is best), even if their ideas are clearly understandable, because they know that most courses will penalize them for not doing this aesthetic labor (my words, not theirs).
Shapiro and other also explain the importance of building rapport with international students, which can be more difficult with distance learning because of the, well, distance. It might be more difficult to know if/when these students feel alienated or become disengaged.
Online instructors will be on the lookout for cultural content, like movie clips, memes, etc., because they are fun ways to engage and invigorate students during the tedium of increased screen time, but these texts might go unexplained or decontextualized, which could disproportionately disadvantage international students who don’t get the joke, or who don’t see how it applies to the course concept.


What International Students Need vs. What the Campus Thinks They Need

If you ask a random staff or faculty member on a college campus, “What are the needs and concerns of international students?” they will likely point to 1) help developing their English skills and 2) help assimilating to American culture. If you ask a random international student, though, the answer may not include either of those things.
First of all, of course some students are concerned about their English skills and seek out campus resources for that. Likewise, some students are concerned with adapting to and adopting the practices of the Americans they study with and meet off campus. But most international students on the campuses where I’ve worked are proficient in English. Sure, they have an accent. Everyone does!
Furthermore, while some international students tell me that their goal is to do what Americans do and live the way local Americans live, this is usually not a top concern. Many students prioritize finding foods they are familiar with and cultivating social groups with people who come from the same country or region of the world as them, and enjoy speaking their language together after a long day of classes feeling like an outsider.
International students are not usually trying to “figure out” American culture or “assimilate,” whatever that means. More often than not, they are fairly familiar with the way we do things here because they are already well traveled, well read, and have been exposed to many aspects of American culture through film and media. Many are from the biggest, most cosmopolitan cities in the world, and have been developing intercultural skills their whole lives. Most go through some degree of “culture shock,” and many underestimate how serious culture shock will be for them in the beginning. But culture shock is a highly complex experience that has a lot to do with processing and adjusting to difference. It’s not a process of assimilation, and for many students, culture shock doesn’t end after they are very familiar with their new place and how to interact there.
Overall, the image of the bewildered international student trying to understand American language and culture needs to go. Instead, these are the things international students tell me are their top concerns:
Finding good food
Time management (especially getting through course readings)
What will happen after graduation (especially concerning visa status)
Mental health concerns (anxiety, depression, stress)
Missing family
Racism and micro-aggressions on campus
Clearly, these concerns are in no way exclusive to international students, but we can imagine the ways in which the stakes are sometimes higher for those thousands of miles from family and home.
On top of that list, I’d like to add a few that I have noticed over the years:
Institutional separation on campus (separate programs and spaces when that isn’t necessary)
Perceptions and policies that treat international students as a problem to be solved
Perceptions that international students are a resource that benefits the campus rather than having value as humans and students themselves
Low expectations about students’ academic, linguistic, and social skills
Assumptions that anything that goes wrong (poor grade, argument with a roommate, failure to pay tuition bill on time) is because the student is international
I encourage you to talk to the international, multilingual, and multicultural students on your campus to find out who they are and what they need from you.

The Contingent Faculty Crisis is also a DEI Crisis for Students

One important step higher education institutions can take to support international students and domestic multilingual students is to grow the tenure-track faculty. International students and multilingual students (along with all students of color, first gen, and low-income students) are disproportionately affected when the college resorts to visiting and contingent faculty. I outline a few things I have noticed in my ten+ years in higher ed, and while some experiences stem from my current position, this post is in no way to be read as an indictment of my current institution, but rather the decades-long trend of gutting tenure track positions in favor of adjuncts, lecturers, contract and visiting positions.
Note: I had already drafted most of this post earlier this year, but a popular Tweet by Corey J. Miles at Morgan State earlier this week prompted me to post it now. I definitely recommend following him.
Graduate School Applications (and other high-stakes applications)
One of the ways that we measure success is how many students who apply to graduate school get placed. Letters of recommendation from tenure track faculty are crucial to those applications, and will become more so as programs (rightly) move away from requiring GRE scores. Students need up to four letters, which is difficult for them to secure in small departments. These letters should speak to the students’ academic strengths and likelihood of succeeding in graduate school. In small departments, students’ excellence is only seen by one or two professors, and visiting professors are less likely to be asked, since they have limited time to get to know the student, and if they are asked, their letters will be given less weight because academia deems the tenure track position as the most prestigious position.
Because my position is high-contact with students, and many of them take my course, I am routinely asked to write letters of recommendation for graduate school. I always decline because I know what graduate school admissions offices are looking for, and my recommendation of the student is not going to be valued highly, and will likely be seen as irrelevant. I am not faculty at all, let alone tenure track. I explain this to the students and encourage them to look elsewhere. This is distressing for students who are feeling marginalized on campus and haven’t made close enough connections to enough of the faculty to get the required number of letters. Sometimes I agree to serve as a letter writer or reference for less high-stakes applications like fellowships, scholarships, and internships (but only after urging the student to ask tenure track professors first).
Students also need advising about graduate school from multiple sources, because programs vary and because graduate school has changed so much in recent years. However, getting a breadth of advice is challenging when the departments are small. I pick up some of the work of advising on graduate school, but I always tell students that I am just one person and that they need to ask multiple people, but since they often feel marginalized, that advice is tough for them to follow.
Academic Advising
On campuses where tenure track faculty are also the academic advisors, more faculty means a lighter advising load for all, and better student-advisor relationships. We know that faculty-student connections are a huge part of well-being and satisfaction among historically marginalized students. It’s easy to imagine how increasing advising loads puts a strain on these relationships in academic advising.
Connections to Campus and Surrounding Communities
On my campus, like many others, we have community connection and mentorship programs like the International Friendship Family Program and Global Mentors, Friends, and Faculty program, which depend heavily on faculty participation, but few contingent and visiting faculty can invest in the community as much as they would like. Of course, some contingent and visiting faculty do invest deeply in the community in lots of different ways that are not easily measured, but many others simply cannot even if they wish to, because they they need to put their energy in other areas, including the job search (which for many starts immediately), publishing, conducting and presenting research, and cultivating professional relationships elsewhere that are likely to lead to stable, tenure track positions. For adjuncts, huge teaching loads (sometimes at multiple campuses) might make committing to these kinds of programs absolutely impossible.
Furthermore, fewer faculty means fewer allies at students’ cultural outreach and celebration events. For culture-oriented student organizations, faculty attendance at their major events is one of the ways they assess success of the event. The percentage of faculty who attend on my campus is low, but stable, and a growing faculty would mean growing faculty attendance at these events, which supports connections between the students and faculty overall.
Pedagogy and Professional Development 
Most campuses offer resources and opportunities for professional development around supporting international and multilingual students as part of inclusive teaching initiatives. However, contingent faculty may be less likely to invest in this or any other voluntary DEI professional development because of the issues I mentioned above–large teaching loads, the need to immediately begin another job search, do research, etc. On large campuses, contingent faculty are sometimes not even aware that these services exist. And the ones that do take advantage of these opportunities are taking their new skills/knowledge with them and using them elsewhere at their next institution.
Campus Climate
Students do not often talk to me about their professors who leave, but when they do, they express what they perceive as a lack of commitment from faculty, for which they feel resentful. I have had to explain to students that the professors must leave if their contract is up, and also that if they are in contingent positions, they may feel that they must leave to find more permanent employment. Part of the reason this pattern is allowed to continue is because the students don’t know what is happening, but they ultimately suffer.
Access to Chosen Majors
This is the most serious issue I have encountered. For marginalized students, a small faculty pool in their major department is potentially damaging for their future. Some faculty members are known for presenting challenges in their required courses that only the most resourceful and persistent students can overcome. Students with resources can afford to take the class multiple times, take the class somewhere online and transfer it, or commute to another campus to take the course and have it transferred. For other students, the only option is to transfer to another college or change their majors, which potentially changes the rest of their lives. This disproportionately affects students without cars and/or disposable income, which includes many of our international and multilingual students, first generation students, and students of color who come from low income families. A larger faculty pool might mean more chances that the most disadvantaged students could try to take the class with another professor.  Furthermore, students who experience micro-aggressions in one department may find it impossible to avoid future courses with the offending professor, and decide to change majors, or suffer through (or transfer to another college). Both of these situations make it even more difficult to get sufficient graduate school advice and recommendation letters, as mentioned above.
To be sure, no single issue outlined above is insurmountable, and our international students, multilingual students, and students of color are resourceful problem-solvers, used to being challenged. However, I believe that when multiple departments lose tenure track lines all over campus for years at a time, some students are especially disadvantaged. I believe it results in poorer outcomes for academic advising, community connections on and off campus, success in applying to graduate school and other high stakes applications, and even just the basic ability for students to major in what they choose. Growing (back) tenure track lines would go far in our efforts to make our campuses more diverse, equitable, and inclusive.

The Word Gap is a Racist Myth (and it follows kids to college)

Former Vice President Joe Biden was asked, during the most recent Democratic debate, to speak on “inequality in schools and race,” which was framed (correctly) in terms of “the legacy of slavery in our country.” Biden topped off his bumbling response with a gesture towards this idea of a “word gap” that children of color in low income neighborhoods are supposed to experience. His response was so bad, it deserves to be repeated in full right here:
Well, they have to deal with the — look, there’s institutional segregation in this country. And from the time I got involved, I started dealing with that. Red-lining banks, making sure that we are in a position where — look, you talk about education. I propose that what we take is those very poor schools, the Title I schools, triple the amount of money we spend from 15 to $45 billion a year. Give every single teacher a raise, the equal raise to getting out — the $60,000 level.
Number two, make sure that we bring in to help the teachers deal with the problems that come from home. The problems that come from home, we need — we have one school psychologist for every 1,500 kids in America today. It’s crazy.
The teachers are — I’m married to a teacher. My deceased wife is a teacher. They have every problem coming to them. We have — make sure that every single child does, in fact, have 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds go to school. School. Not daycare. School. We bring social workers in to homes and parents to help them deal with how to raise their children.
It’s not want they don’t want to help. They don’t — they don’t know quite what to do. Play the radio, make sure the television — excuse me, make sure you have the record player on at night, the — the — make sure that kids hear words. A kid coming from a very poor school — a very poor background will hear 4 million words fewer spoken by the time they get there.
This response is so astonishingly bad in so many ways and has already been roasted and dismantled everywhere on the internet in funnier and smarter ways than I can do here. What I want to do is focus on something that not everyone in my online orbit knows about–the “word gap” Biden is alluding to.
The Word Gap is the idea that children of color in low income families grow up hearing fewer words than their whiter, wealthier counterparts, and that this results in a cognitive deficit, which then puts them behind at school from the very beginning. The Word Gap myth is driven by the false belief that language=knowledge and words=language. More words? More language, and therefore smarter kids.
(This is the same idea that sells products and services to middle class parents to teach their kids more words earlier than everyone else’s kids, and the same idea that makes parents think that how early their child begins speaking is a clue into their kid’s intelligence. None of this is based in linguistic reality.)
The idea that people of color have deficient linguistic and cultural practices is as old as colonization of this land, but this particular framing of it as a Word Gap that has consequences for education disparities (and the use of “low income” as a dog-whistle for non-white) can largely be connected to a widely cited study by Betty Hart and Todd Risley, titled “Meaningful Difference in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children” (1995).  To summarize, the book argues that “by the age of three, children from affluent households are exposed to approximately 30 million more words than children from families on welfare. The authors claim that this ‘word gap’ is largely responsible for low academic achievement of students from economically impoverished backgrounds” (“Bridging the Language Gap,” 67).
The idea had already been dismantled by celebrated linguist William Labov in his famous 1972 study “Language in the Inner City.” The 1995 study was critiqued by Curt Dudley-Marling and Krista Lucas in “Pathologizing the Language and Culture of Poor Children” in 2009 and clearly debunked by Sperry, Sperry, and Millers 2018 “Re-Examining the Verbal Environments of Children from Different Socioeconomic Backgrounds” in Child Development. The researchers showed that there is “substantial variation in vocabulary environments within each socioeconomic stratum.” One of the many problems with Hart and Risley’s study was that it narrowly defined what counted as input (numbers of words; speech specifically directed at the child) and privileged language socialization practices of white, higher income families as the norm.
The Word Gap persists into the current day as a seductive solution to educational “gaps” because it becomes a problem with parents/cultures instead of with schools, and therefore masks the structural nature of these inequalities. A more appropriate framing is the existence of what Gloria Ladson-Billings has called an “education debt,” and which education scholars since Ladson-Billings have been addressing through Culturally Relevant and Culturally Sustaining Pedagogies (see H. Samy Alim, Django Paris, Jonathan Rosa, and many others). These approaches, especially recent work in CSP see the object of critique as the school systems, not the students. The linguistic practices and cultures students are bringing to the classroom are an asset to build upon.
In light of the history and implications of the Word Gap myth, Biden’s finger-pointing at parents (they, them) and their problems, and the teachers and their problems (the word “problem” seems to be denoting the children themselves) is disgusting. The Word Gap framing persists, though, and while there is a robust effort to fight deficit frames in K-12 systems, I hear relatively little about it my conversations with higher ed administrators, and even less among faculty.
The Word Gap discourse follows students of color (especially those from low income backgrounds) into their time in college, but it hides itself a bit better. The idea that deficit perspectives in higher ed, generally speaking, are a problem, and that they are racist/classist, is not new. But I want to point out here that these deficit discourses are directly related to the myth of the Word Gap, and we can see that through the focus on “Academic English,” and/or “Basic Writing” remediation classes, reading and writing workshops, and other student success initiatives, as the solution to inequities in higher ed. I’m not saying don’t offer services to students; this is a large part of what I do every day, and I hope to write more about how I approach that work in future posts. My problem is with the logic and what that logic closes down, in terms of possibilities and the future of higher ed: if we can just offer enough services, programs, administrative support to help students bridge this “academic language gap,” it seems, we won’t have to face how the entire system is designed to privilege wealthy and middle class whites, whose linguistic practices are normalized.

The problem with “But some day they’ll have job interviews!”

I absolutely loved Viji Sathy and Kelly A. Hogan’s inclusive teaching guide from the Chronicle this summer. It made me think a lot about how we support linguistic diversity in our classrooms.

Sathy and Hogan address, unflinchingly, some common questions about inclusive teaching that many of us in this space have heard before. Among them, “Are the tools of inclusive teaching just hand-holding? Shouldn’t students be expected to learn on their own?” As the guide explains, the idea is to provide more structure, not hand-holding.

Relatedly, when I’ve advised teachers that they should leave room for multiple Englishes to exist in their classroom, I often hear some version of this question: “Some day these students will be looking for jobs and have to write cover letters and speak in interviews. Isn’t it our job to hold students to those standards so they can be successful getting jobs?”

I’d like to flip that around. Our students are some day going to be the ones doing the hiring. It is important that they understand that “proper” or “correct” English is a construct that is used for gate-keeping, often around racial/ethnic lines. We want them to have the tools to distinguish between arbitrary and irrelevant “grammar” rules, and effective writing skills. (Of course, issues of audience and context are always at work, and that’s what we should be teaching. But no blanket “rules” about “correctness.”) This acceptance of the way people outside the campus are going to judge our students would never fly if we were talking primarily about race, or ability, or gender.

I suspect this appeal to career readiness is more about discomfort with the idea that there is no real “Standard English” than it is about preparing students for the job search. After all, we don’t ask students to wear job interview clothing to class (at least on most campuses), and we don’t worry (all that much) about how our course content will add to a student’s resume. The discomfort is probably more with the feeling that “anything goes,” which makes it hard to draw traditional distinctions between who is educated and who is not. And if “anything goes,” how are we supposed to grade student writing? There is a lot out there to help with this final question, and I have the privilege of helping faculty think through this on a regular basis.

Even better, of course, would be to reject the capitalist logic of this question altogether–ideally higher education would be about expanding minds instead of sorting workers into those who can be hired and those who cannot. But I don’t feel very well equipped to fight that most days.