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:

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.