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 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.