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Recognizing the Importance of ‘Keeping It Real’ Language for Today’s Students

Recognizing the Importance of ‘Keeping It Real’ Language for Today’s Students

By Caleb Corkery

Attending convocation at a historically Black college or university, you’re likely to experience eloquent prayers, well-trained singers and rousing speeches imbued with cultural pride — all trademark performances of the HBCU tradition.

You may also see attendant lines of robed faculty and administrators, led by flags and a scepter. At the HBCU where I taught for 10 years, the community gathered this way five times a year.

About six years ago, the school invited author J. California Cooper to speak.

The dean introduced her as an important African-American contributor to contemporary letters, distinguishing her with the academic language he would use to extol any invited guest. However, Ms. Cooper never assumed that persona. Wearing jeans and a leather vest, she walked the edge of the stage talking with the students about their families, their relationships, their dreams. She hit on many of the themes we usually heard from behind the podium, but she spoke in a way they could identify with. She was “real,” and the students cheered and clapped and laughed throughout.

When the dean stood up for his closing comments, he couldn’t bring himself to take the position behind the podium; instead, he stood next to it and put down his prepared comments. Extemporaneously, he tried to bridge the time-honored world of academic respectability and the ubiquitous pressure of popular culture to “keep it real.”

The students left quoting Cooper.

We all know that academic and popular culture collide regularly on our campuses. But the forces depicted above reveal fundamental differences in the way our students have been educated. And I’m not just talking about school. The neighbor, uncle, minister, parent or pop star they learn communication skills from shape how well students will fit into the academic tradition.

In many cases, the influences students bring to college contribute to the divide between education’s haves and have-nots.

Academic researchers have devoted significant attention to the linguistic differences between the vernacular spoken in African-American communities and Standard Edited American English.

But little attention is given to differences in persuasive strategies.
Over the past several years, I have studied my students’ communicative role models, their primary teachers for making themselves understood by others.

I discovered that many of the students at my former institution admired figures that were at odds with the standards I had been hired to teach them.

The data I collected from nearly 300 students at my old school uncovered the students’ rhetorical influences: Whose language skills do they find particularly effective? Why do they respect those skills? Whose skills do they follow or who would they want to emulate? Among the results, two key models emerged: people who demanded respect, like parents and teachers; and “honest-speaking” people, like friends and rap stars. Of the 20 percent who claimed that their largest influence came from those who were “real” and spoke their own truths, about half struggled with the class or failed. The nearly 50 percent who followed models espousing the effectiveness of authority were among the highest performers. These two types of students generally had different ways of orienting to the class. Unlike those who admired the authoritative source of a message, students who valued honesty saw little need for detail, elaboration or most writing lessons for that matter. And you can see the logic behind this perspective: why should a message be adjusted if its power is in its original expression?

At many HBCUs, students are invited to immerse themselves in an academic tradition by participating in events like convocations. My former colleagues in the English department explicitly initiated students into the world of academic language by grading papers with an error chart, deducting points for each linguistic deviation from Standard English. Hammering home mainstream grammar and diction might bring students into the fold linguistically, but it is a questionable approach for students who admire rhetorical skills that do not clearly fit into academic discourse.

This is diversity’s shy cousin, the one educators promoting multicultural perspectives probably have not met. Everyone hears linguistic differences, but the different ways we view effective language use can easily go unnoticed. It is hard for a student to interact productively in an environment where the underlying assumptions don’t make sense.
This alienation is particularly salient at majority schools, where minority students are already likely to feel some need to adjust culturally. Trips to the writing center will probably not help much if the focus is only on grammar. I have discovered that those who admire personas that project with a forceful “true” inner confidence can be deflated in an academic setting if their abilities are not identified and appreciated. Such students can be shown that the strong ethos they possess is also prized by others, which is the first confidence-building step toward adapting to new audiences.

— Dr. Caleb Corkery is an assistant professor of English at Millersville University of Pennsylvania.

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