Off the Cuff: Dr. Joy Karega-Mason, assistant professor of Rhetoric and Composition

Elizabeth Dobbins

Dr. Joy Karega-Mason, assistant professor of Rhetoric and Composition, gave a lecture this Thursday in Lord Lounge titled “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution: The Politics of Black Language Practices in Academic Writing.” Karega-Mason sat down with the Review to discuss the perception of black language, expectations in academic spaces and rethinking approaches to writing.

First, could you tell me a little about the current politics of black language practices in academic writing?

We’re still asking black students to think about the ways in which they use language and discourse in ways that are contextually strict. By that, I mean there’s a way of talking and writing in academics, and then there’s a way of talking and writing, say, in your families and in your communities, and those things don’t always match up. At the end of the day, a lot of this is rooted in how people perceive language, but it’s also rooted in racial politics.

When we root it all back, a lot of the linguistic prejudices really have nothing to do with the languages themselves. [Black English] has its own systems and its own rules and its own grammatical and semantical and syntactical elements that are documented and are able to be identified. We see Black English in popular culture and people understand it pretty well, don’t we? We see it all the time. Sometimes you ask, “What’s the problem with it; why are people so much against it?” You start to realize that it really isn’t about the language per se.

It’s really about something else, and it’s about racial discrimination. And we saw this in my talk. I traced it all the way back to the ’60s and the ’70s. Some of the research was trying to link black students’ language practices with cognitive deficiencies and saying that something was wrong with them cognitively because they spoke and wrote in Black English. That’s not happening explicitly in the writing classroom, but it’s happening implicitly where there’s still a lot of teachers and administrators and curriculums that are asking black students to be acculturated into [this] whole thing called Standard English and academic discourse. Whatever that is. As if it’s some sort of monolithic, homogenous thing. Which it isn’t. We know it’s not a monolith, but some- times it’s thrown around as if it is, and a lot of that is rooted in linguistic prejudice that, if we really want to get honest and people really want to get honest, we can tie it back to racial prejudices.

In short, what we’re saying is we’re still seeing black students being asked to do some things that other students are not being asked to do, which is to abandon the range of resources that they have. We’re foreclosing a lot of the resources that they already have and that they may be able to use effectively in academic writing and we’re saying no, we’re not even going to let you negotiate these resources and think about whether or not they can. We’re going to take the power away from you and we’re going to say that they’re not even appropriate. We’re not allowing students to then draw on the range of resources that they may have to be able to produce academic writing.

For me, those kinds of politics are problematic because of the relationship between language and identity in particular. Because of the way in which language and writing mediates social action and mediates the way people make sense of things and how they create knowledge. They’re foreclosing their ability to make those kinds of moves and be objective writers, and I say that that’s a problem.

How could we rethink this or move toward change?

It’s kind of done on two different levels. You have to change people’s ways of thinking about language. All of the linguistic prejudice I was talking about, that has to be challenged amongst professors and students. We’re talking about changing the way that professors and administrators think about language and language practices and how they work. You start to try to get folks on one side of the coin to think about language difference not as a problem, but as a resource — something that students can draw upon in very meaningful and effective ways. So you try to create classroom environments where that’s possible, where students are able to do that kind of work and enact those kinds of practices.

On the other end of the spectrum, you’re trying to develop students’ ability to be critically objective in making those decisions. They [have to] understand purpose and audience and the relationships between those things, as well as the relationship between the traditions and the resources that they have and the consequences that their writing carries in different contexts. You start to teach writing that way. You’re not trying to teach them to master different forms, or this one form, which is the Standard English form, right? Or this academic

discourse thing that we always throw around — I like to call it the mythical academic discourse. We don’t teach that. We start to assist students in how to become those critically objective users of language in their writing. It seems like such a simple thing, but it really is a huge thing to shift from teaching students how to master one way of writing to being these objective writers who are able to be translingual and work across languages and resources.

How do you think the views toward black language in academia manifest themselves outside of the classroom?

I would hope, and maybe I’m being opti- mistic, but I would hope that the students are impacting society. A lot of times in my class I try to get [students] to think differently about language and how it relates to identity and to society, and how power structures and power relations affect that.

My hope is that as these things start to happen in the classroom context, and as you all go out into the world and you take these things with you, that that will impact how society is thinking about language. I’m so amazed sometimes still about how much linguistic precedence there is about non-native English speakers in particular, especially people that speak Black English, and other dialects of English that are not deemed as legitimate. People throw it around with Black English, how it’s often thought of as broken English, or this language of ignorance and illiteracy. Well, it’s not. It’s rooted in a very systematic and textual and thematically and tactical forms, but people see it that way. And I think it’s more prevalent out there than it is here. My vision is that some of the things that Oberlin in particular is doing in the classroom are not just being enacted here, but are being enacted in the greater classroom of the world.