This week I’ve had a difficult time coming up with an “exhibit,” a practical exercise or policy or what have you that would be informed by our readings. So much of the work seems based more on attitudes and responding to context rather than concrete practices. I think that a lot of the things that many of us plan to do already can contribute to a classroom where students feel safe expressing things in non-standard English. For example, peer workshops in which the students discuss with one another why they chose particular phrases, what those phrases communicate, and so on can contribute to the sort of negotiated texts Canagarajah discusses. Similarly, making sure that readings for class represent a range of different voices from a range of different contexts would be valuable. It seems to me that any class that worked with genres would be a case study in how we use different voices for different tasks–which seems different in scale, not kind, from the type of “codeswitching” that is frowned upon by our authors–but nonetheless would allow space for a voice that more closely approximated natural speech than academic jargon.
I think that the concrete practice that I would take out of these articles will be something like this: discuss, at the beginning of the semester, what type of writing goals each student wants to work on. I don’t mean that students will give me a list of things they’d like to learn, and I will make sure they learn them, but rather that we’ll have a joint conversation about the types of skills they’d like to have at the end of the semester–and if we have different ideas about goals, we could discuss them openly.
What I’m getting at is this: it feels unfair to me to make a value judgement about the student’s desired growth as a writer. My first impulse is to note mechanics or grammar only minimally for students writing English as a foreign language, or those using non-standard dialects, and to focus instead on structure, content, and other big picture issues. As a teacher, I’m ok with my students writing with an accent–missing articles, subject-verb agreement, or non-idiomatic language–but I know that won’t universally be the case throughout their education and career. I feel like it could be unfair to follow a philosophy of ignoring language fluency issues that I know will not be ignored later down the road. If FYC is a service course, that service is in part to my students–to give them the skills to write at a level their disciplines expect. So, basically, my policy would be transparency through conversation. Perhaps one ESL student really wants comments on syntax and grammar, and another would rather not get bogged down in mechanics. I prefer not to choose for them, but rather to have an open conversation about the politics of standard English–a conversation that I think would be just as helpful to native speakers as to those who grew up speaking other languages.