CUNY Professor Condemns Use of Standard English

'Instructors should not try to change their students' speech patterns'

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August 11, 2017

A professor of medieval literature published an article Friday, in which he argued that students and scholars should not be "privileging certain forms of speech over others" and advocated for the use of "nonstandard," "improper" English in academic work.

A.W. Strouse, who teaches at the City University of New York (CUNY) and the New School, claimed in Inside Higher Ed that it was a sign of "prejudices" to believe, for example, that overusing the word "like" in one's speech is a sign of "unintelligence."

"[L]inguists know that notions of 'proper' speech have nothing to do with 'mastery' and everything to do with how certain in-groups dictate propriety," he wrote, criticizing the notion that speaking in slang or without decorum could impede one's professional opportunities.

To Strouse, students' use of the word "nigga" in class was a mark of being "members of groups that dwell outside of the white, middle-class milieu that governs academe in the United States."

Strouse compared his "object[ion] to academe's linguistic monoculture" to the variety of cuisine options available in Manhattan, where he teaches.

"[F]or lunch I could eat crepes, bibimbap, New York pizza, halal or sushi—all of which are within walking distance of campus. Or I could eat every day at the college cafeteria. I'd rather add some spice," he wrote.

Strouse so encouraged "linguistic diversity" that when a student referred to a "medieval poem as a 'bromance,' I asked my class to use this word in their essays about the poem."

"Such assignments do not simply tolerate linguistic diversity—they actually affirm and embrace different forms of speech," he wrote.

But, Strouse noted, "[f]or a white teacher like me" it can be a "dangerous proposition" to promote "nonstandard dialects" as his admiration "leaves me open to accusations of exoticizing or stereotyping."

Strouse also contended that the "consensus view" among scholars of rhetoric has become "that instructors should not try to change their students' speech patterns."

"In the classroom, students shut down in the face of pedantry because they hate when bossy teachers tell them how to talk, especially in cases in which bourgeois white teachers dictate ex cathedra about what speech is 'correct,'" he wrote. "Experts recommend an approach in which professors use positive reinforcement rather than direct criticism."

Strouse told the Washington Free Beacon, "I am trying to suggest that we can expand our definition of what constitutes sophisticated language."

"Students often learn more about writing when their instructors kindly ignore grammatical mistakes," he noted, adding, "as far as I am concerned, it is beneath my dignity as a scholar and poet to behave as some tedious enforcer of bourgeois civility."