Rutgers University is changing its standards for teaching English. New Jersey’s flagship public institution of higher learning made news last week for an email Rebecca Walkowitz, English Department chair, sent to all students, faculty and staff in mid-June.
Dr. Walkowitz touched on many topics in her email, which she summarized as “Department actions in solidarity with Black Lives Matter.” The new initiatives include, among others:
- Launching a webpage that will serve as a resource center, moderated by the department’s Committee on Bias Awareness and Prevention (CBAP).
- “Organizing two teach-ins focused on Black Lives Matter, anti-racism, police brutality, and prison reform that will be offered remotely to the entire department in August.“
- A recommendation (endorsed by the department chair) for all instructors to attend at least one workshop on how to have an anti-racist classroom.
- “Increasing the awareness of linguistic diversity at Rutgers University.”
- “Providing guidance and resources on inclusive and translingual pedagogy.”
- “Incorporating critical grammar into our pedagogy.”
That last one seems to be driving most of the hubbub over these changes, and is defined in Walkowitz’s email as follows: This approach challenges the familiar dogma that writing instruction should limit emphasis on grammar/sentence-level issues so as to not put students from multilingual, non-standard “academic” English backgrounds at a disadvantage. Instead, it encourages students to develop a critical awareness of the variety of choices available to them w/ regard to micro-level issues in order to empower them and equip them to push against biases based on “written” accents.
Man, those English professors sure are fond of words. There are lots of them in that definition, and in the repetitively redundant (see what I did there?) 3,416-word email.
Verbosity aside, there is wide latitude for interpretation and speculation as to the true implications of “incorporating critical grammar into our pedagogy,” or “providing guidance and resources on inclusive and translingual pedagogy.” It’s worth pointing out that the word, “translingual” is not recognized by the program I am using to write this article, nor is it recognized by merriam-webster.com or dictionary.com. Perhaps Rutgers is far ahead of the curve by incorporating the word into their pedagogy. By the way, pedagogy is defined by Webster as “the art, science or profession of teaching,” for those of us not as translingual as those in the Rutgers English Department.
Getting back to interpretation and speculation, that’s what several writers were left with after requests for comment from Walkowitz or other Rutgers officials went unanswered. This memo received a flurry of coverage last week, much of it critical. None of the critical pieces that I read included comments from Rutgers, though several writers said they reached out. One supportive piece, written by Hank Kalet for Medium.com did include some follow-up commentary from Walkowitz. You may be wondering how Kalet was able to elicit a response when more critical writers weren’t. Kalet is a part-time lecturer at….Rutgers. He also received his undergraduate degree from Rutgers. His major? English. Regardless, his take on the department’s new initiatives is well-written, well-reasoned and offers balance to the more numerous, less supportive stories found here, here and here.
Rutgers is aiming, in their own words, to empower and equip students “to push against biases based on ‘written’ accents.'” Written accents? The beauty of writing is that it nullifies accents and neutralizes the verbal shortcuts that most of us take when talking. Fortunately, we write more eloquently than we speak. Is Rutgers’ effort to not disadvantage “students from multilingual, non-standard ‘academic’ English backgrounds” going to be achieved by dumbing down the written English word? Will the highly improper grammar seen and heard from teens and celebrities on Snapchat, TikTok and Twitter become the new, woke dialect formally taught in higher education?
The two most commonly taught foreign languages in the United States are Spanish and French. Are the Spanish and the French compromising their language for those of us with non-standard academic Spanish and French backgrounds? I think not. I took two years of Latin and two years of Spanish in high school, followed by two semesters of Spanish in college. I learned the culture, the history, the religious beliefs. And I learned the language, as the native speakers speak it. There are gendered words. There is a backward (when compared to English) sequence of nouns and verbs in the sentence structure. These weren’t modified for me, the unlearned and clumsy student. I was expected to conform to the sentence structure, the spelling, the pronunciation, the proper gender expression of nouns. Why should we teach English and writing any differently? Just because some people either choose to, or know no better than to, speak our language inartfully, doesn’t mean we should accept those as “written accents,” or part of the “linguistic landscape.” Nor should we feel that we are part of a “racist classroom” if students are being taught the correct way to write and speak the English language.
While possibly well-intended, Rutgers’ efforts here may be be more racist and offensive than any wrong they are trying to right. Dr. Carol Swain, author and former professor at Princeton and Vanderbilt, said that what Rutgers is doing implies that Black people can’t learn like other groups, so they have to have special treatment. Dr. Swain, who is Black, went on to say that it is demeaning to her, as a Black college student from the 1970s and 1980s, that the younger generation is “complaining the loudest and getting cheated out of a quality education.” This is what George W. Bush referred to as “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” and it will only serve to hurt those it is aimed at helping, while lowering the educational standards for all students.