Academic Language as Generative Tool

Months ago, in August, I started to blog about the academic language workshop I conducted, and never finished detailing its contents.  Today, with a special shout-out to Rebekah Caplan of the Bay Area Writing Project for pointing me to some of the ideas and references I’ve been putting into practice, I’ll continue describing my approach to thinking about and teaching academic language.

Like all registers, dialects, and languages, I think academic language has multiple aspects, including the systematic/structural/patterned aspects, the social/symbolic/ideological dimensions, and the dynamic/emergent/idiosyncratic phenomena that keep it constantly changing and evolving.

Teaching one aspect without consideration of the others can lead to misfires in our attempts to impart that knowledge on students.  For instance, teachers often try to correct and conventionalize students’ writing, but their red-inked feedback falls on deaf ears because the students have found the academic register in general to be irrelevant at past and alienating, colonizing, or otherwise antithetical to key aspects of their identity, so even when they know its importance in school and society, they resist internalizing it as part of their repertoires of language.  This is trying to attend to the systemic/structural/patterned aspects of language, teaching grammatical structures or punctuation rules, without attending to the social/symbolic/ideological dimensions.

One illustration of this phenomenon is a conversation on an episode of Slate Money (first third of the show) about the jargon used in the banking industry, where the commentators debate whether bankers use such jargon as code to keep out the non-specialists and circle the wagons as a special club, or whether terms such as “credit default swap” are, in fact, efficient intra-group communication shorthands for complicated processes, devices, products, etc. that would take too long to explain or capture in a truly lucid title.  The answer they come to is, unsurprisingly, both: jargon is both shorthand and gatekeeper.

Academic language can be thought of in this way too.  Many aspects of academic language (which we will examine in a subsequent post with the help of some experts such as Mary Schleppegrell, Douglas Biber, and Catherine Snow and Paola Uccelli), such as the density of the vocabulary and the ordering of its syntax, turn out to be very efficient ways to communicate a large amount of ideas, including the kind of abstractions and generalizations that academic language is often in the business of discussing.  At the same time, no language is without its associations, the “air” it gives off, the kinds of social contexts and social meanings it takes on to people.  With these associations, results will vary, of course: a Southern accent can be taken by one as genteel, by another as backwoods, by yet another as wizened.  The degree to which a student identifies with those associations matters a lot to how they will receive it being taught.

Of course, however a student might affectively react to academic language, isn’t it reasonable to think that anything taught in an accessible way can grab a student’s interest, especially if it’s something of so much important in society?  I think this is what most teachers assume, and because of the power that schooled knowledge has in society, I think that presumption is indeed true most of the time.  Most students don’t take a shine to academic language because they’re not good at it, because they’ve struggled with reading or writing or classroom discussion, because they don’t feel themselves to be good students and proficient users, and if they only had clearer instruction, or a chance to fall in love or become totally enraptured with a book or a documentary or political heroine or whatever it is, they’d be very interested in how to “sound smart” in the same way.  Yes, I think it’s true that as teachers, it’s incumbent on us to make academic language accessible, remove the “gatekeeper”-status of it by making its structures and patterns more transparent to students.

But I also think we cannot neglect the reality that oftentimes, as a “gatekeeper” language, academic registers are associated with people, institutions, and traditions that have been exclusionary, hostile, or authoritarian, and sometimes that language intended to keep out or to wound rather than to empower groups of people.  However, what makes language such a fascinating cultural tool to study is that it is so readily and so often appropriated, taken on by other users and invested with new meaning.  In other words, for many students, especially those most estranged from the contexts where academic language is used, recognizing how it can be used as a gatekeeper but teaching how it can be appropriated for purposes that are meaningful to themselves and their communities is crucial.  And it helps when teachers themselves understand academic language that way– as a code that we who are benefactors of a schooled society have gained from, but a code we are trying to share more broadly as part of the project of a more equitable and just society.

Which is the starting notion, for me, for thinking of academic language primarily as a generative tool.  For both the students who would embrace academic language if it could become accessible to them as a system, AND for the students who would embrace academic language so that it can become a tool of the oppressor to use in the liberation of the oppressed, thinking of academic language not as a set of arcane rules or evaluative gotchas, but as an arsenal, a repertoire, a toolkit, a code bank, a set of moves and series of resources, all to be used in the service of developing a voice that can speak powerfully and effectively in those arenas in which academic language has weight and prestige… that’s a reframing of academic language that can be powerful.

I tell the story of walking into an art store one day as a teenager, dressed in a way that had some cultural cache as a Tupac-era adolescent: shaved head except for bangs, baggy jeans sagged low, backwards baseball cap.  I dreamed of being an artist, and I was interested in the tools of the trade.  Seeing me browsing uncertainly in his small store, the owner behind the counter asked me what I was looking for.  “I’m not sure, just looking,” I answered.  With a stern thumb, he pointed out the door, and muttered an obscene non-request to leave the premises.  I guess I looked like a shoplifter.

I was angry, defiant.  I didn’t want to dress differently.  In fact, I left with a more rebellious strut than I walked in with.  I’ve thought now and then of going back to that store with a rock for the window, or my award for outstanding leadership from my high school graduation, or my Berkeley diploma, to stick in the face of that old white man.  But I never think to tidy up and walk in with a suit and tie.  I want to dig up that old baseball cap and those baggy jeans, or the present day version of them, for whatever great comeuppance I would unfurl.

But sometimes I imagine a different encounter.  What if that gentleman had the patience to find out that I was socially uneasy, but actually, very curious about what a bottle of black india ink looked like, and art gum and Strathmore bristol board?  What if a proper apron and hands-free pants (with a belt) were what it took to get my hands dirty as an artist, he would eventually convince me?  What if a suit and tie were the appropriate apparel of the gallery exhibitors whose community I then felt a part of?  Wouldn’t I trade my Giants cap and baggy jeans in a second?  Or at least mix and match for the version that was true to me as an artist and as a young person?

Tools are meant to be learned with careful instruction and modeled apprenticeship.  They’re also meant to be put in the hands of human beings for the purposes of creation and expression.  They should be calibrated for accuracy and appropriateness for audiences and users.  But they should also begin to feel at home, organically linked to the experts-in-the-making who wield them.  They should be held correctly, benefiting from the accrued learning and development of generations of previous tool-users.  But they should also be flexible, adaptive, re-fashioned whenever new uses or new challenges require their manipulation.

This is my general perspective of academic language.

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