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Delpit, Silenced Dialogue

Delpit argues for teaching traditional content in a progressive way with radical intent. Instructors who are reluctant to acknowledge their own power, or to teach the conventions of those in power, do poor students and students of color no favors (and are on some level motivated, Delpit suggests, by a desire to maintain the status quo). Instructors like the idea of giving students the freedom to express themselves, and it seems stiflingly autocratic to impose one set of rules for language use on everyone. Students and parents, on the other hand, expect teachers to communicate their expertise and equip students with the skills they need in order to complete their education and pursue careers. Conflict arises surrounding the issue of facilitating entry into the "culture of power," as well as over different perceptions of how to acquire and exercise authority.

Delpit agrees that it’s important to respect students’ home cultures and the styles of speech that are currently comfortable for students. Peer workshops, literacy autobiographies and other trappings of progressive classrooms are valuable, as they affirm students’ own expertise, but insufficient. Instructors must explicitly teach the codes of the culture of power, such as the conventions of standard English, so that students may ultimately gain some measure of power as participants in that culture. Standard English and other conventions should be presented in their political and historical contexts, not as superior but as the rules of the power players’ game. They should be taught through relevant communication situations rather than depersonalized memorization. But students must demonstrate their proficiency with the rules in the papers and other materials they produce: “Teachers do students no service to suggest, even implicitly, that ‘product’ is not important? (447).

Meanwhile, educators who see injustice in requiring people to conform to arbitrary codes should work toward institutional change—serving on curriculum and admissions committees, for instance.


I found this article quite compelling, and interesting that while--via a certain reading--she could be interpreted as a "Bartholomae" type, she really does fuse both. Indeed, she begins the chapter by arguing against the doubting game, and ends the chapter by asking White educators to play the believing game with their colleagues of color.

I thought it was particularly helpful, that in her "Bartholomae-esque" section, she talked about how it was important how models are used. Because the week before last, I was drifting away from Elbow for some of the reasons she cites. This week, I was drifting away from Bartholomae because whenever I approach the "imitation" model, it saps me of energy and purpose, and I can't do anything. I thought maybe I'd be lost in the abyss. But Delpit makes me feel that there's some hope for putting Humpty Dumpty back together again.

Occasionally, I was confused about what grade levels she was referring to--first graders or first-year college students, or both?

Also, I thought her summative paragraph ("students must be taught the codes...") tried to make it sound, a little, like "this is all you have to do," when I thought, my God, how can I possibly achieve all this? But hell, I'm willing to try.

I found this article very interesting and somewhat logical in explaining that the power structures in American education don’t serve the interests of the powerless, even when the intentions may be noble. As educators are being convinced of this truth, there are more and more movements to bring an acceptance of the linguistic variations of our diverse student population. This is very common in Spanish, where many universities have heritage speaker courses that acknowledge the importance of the student’s most familiar dialect (sociolect?), but also teach formal Spanish. It seems that this approach to English can also be fruitful. There is no reason why we can’t accept the student’s style of speech, but also teach that there are situations in which formal speech is appropriate. I think this is what most people do anyway. We all speak many different variations of every language speak. Why not just come to terms with it?

I really, really liked this article. I try to keep my mind open to Elbow-ish ideas, but some days I remind myself of that phrase, "It takes all kinds. . ." I tell myself that I'm the kind that doesn't rock the boat, and that it's a good thing others are willing to! If nobody rocked it, we'd never get anywhere - but if we all did, we'd likely capsize. I don't think that we should simply maintain the status quo, ever - but I'm not one to take big risky leaps to try changing it.

I like, as Marcia points out, that Delpit seems to find a balance. Teach the "culture of power," but help students to see that "more powerful" does not equal "better" or "right." I think that can be done, but it requires careful vigilance and lots of frequent reinforcement. If minority students are hearing everywhere outside the classroom (both explicitly and implicitly) that the power culture is the better culture, simply telling them the opposite once in a while probably won't be very convincing.

I'd like to echo Marcia's feelings as I close - yes, this is a daunting task, but it's certainly worth trying!

I certainly agree with Delpit’s view about how liberal people and their “good will? (‘noble intention’, in Edward’s words), linked with ethnographic ignorance or plain unconsceaness in powerless class allow “the status quo [to] remain [s] the same? (p. 580) I have a lot of similar examples from deaf culture.
Actually, this article reminds me of Paulo Freire’s view (that we recently reconsidered in Clark’s article about genre, p.249) and his suggestive approach toward the culture of poverty in Brazil.
In Delpit’s words, in the current education system, “there is a political power game that is also being played, and if [the powerless] want to be in that game, there are certain games that they too must play.?
The discursive game related with request styles (direct or indirect) and other pragmatic issues is, in fact, a fascinating realm to ethnographic research about power and writing pedagogical reconsiderations.
On the other hand, I was trying to link Delpit’s experience with my pedagogical practice, even between Venezuelan students (in his/her own social diversity). I find it truly interesting to conceive inexperienced students as “strangers in strange lands,? in McCarthy’s view. In this sense, I find Delpit’s proposal useful for:
a) Empowering the student in his or her own knowledge (because “the teacher cannot be the only expert in the classroom? p. 575). By the way, this week there was actually a discussion in my Sociolinguistics class about the acceptance of linguistic diversity in American white-middle class. The popularity of rap songs was shown as a funny, but increasingly accepted, example of vernacular and non-prestigious English varieties. What a coincidence that Delpit mentions RAP as a strategy to empower black student in class.
b) Teaching the standard variety through real communicative experience: “Actual writing for real audiences and real purposes is a vital element in helping students to understand that they have an important voice in their own learning processes.? (p. 575)
Finally, I was wondering how this kind of game works when the role of power in class is played for someone that belongs to a less empowering culture, such as me here: a Hispanic teaching Spanish to a primarily Anglo audience.

My reactions to this essay have varied over the years. The first time I read it, I was hooked because I ran a process-oriented course and was aware that some of my students were decidedly NOT flourishing in the student-centric “writing is messy? atmosphere I was so bent on creating.

More recently, I find myself thinking that there is a little bit of bait and switch going on. She opens with a provocative “skills versus process? equation, but then assures us later that some process level elements, such as low stakes discussions and opportunities for students to work through ideas, are incorporated into her recommendations. It is important, I think, to remember that the skills she is recommending that we more directly teach are code-oriented, not content oriented. In this she is leaning toward Bartholomae, no?

In my experience working with profs from various disciplines on writing instruction methods, I often find that the “indirectness? with which they approach code or usage-mechanics issues is not caused by a fear of squelching students’ “native? writing voices, but by an unfamiliarity with usage and mechanics.

Delpit touches on some interesting ideas here about student expectations of instructional authority. This is another block I encounter when talking to instructors from other disciplines: they often assume that if they are going to effectively incorporate writing instruction into their courses they must radically alter the roles they’ve been playing. New roles associated with writing instruction are, interestingly, either very top down (old fashioned grammar teacher) or, alternately, a “touchy-feely? student centered approach which would contrast markedly with the lecture format that they’ve been teaching in.

We’ve often articulated our desires that via our instruction, students become able to make choices about discourse styles. We want to equip them to be able to write in clean and compelling academic discourse, and we want them to know why they are doing it. In her argument for “teaching students the codes of power,? how does Delpit come down on the importance we are giving choice?

After I read this essay I read Bean's chapter on "Dealing with Issues of Grammar and Correctness," where he says that as a teacher he wants to "empower students to make their own decisions about social embarrassment by describing very clearly those language practices that cause embarrassment in different rhetorical contexts and by giving them the the power to avoid unintentional errors in whatever dialect their audience expects." While his use of "embarrassment" makes me a little uneasy (as an instructor I don't want to embarrass anyone into doing anything), he seems to me to be on the same page as Delpit: we are as teachers in a position to empower students to do a lot of things. The question to me seems to be...what do we want to empower them to do? Do we present it all as a package deal that includes the Bartholomae piece and the Elbow piece and say now, consider yourself empowered, you figure out what's going to work where? Maybe I'm just restating where we've been all along, but "empowerment" seems highly subjective here...different students want different types of "empowerment" -- teach me what I need to know to do X (resistance to the "open-endedness" of Brannon and Knoblauch?), versus true freedom to explore, even if they don't know how to use MLA style or write a lab report. Do students need to know how they would like to be empowered before we can know what our approach will be? Or is it our approaches that will provide the empowerment?

I think that there might be something of a bait and switch in this essay; towards the end, it certainly does soften in its criticism of teaching process. I was struck, though, by the black student who claims that he didn't learn anything in a process oriented class. What exactly happened in this group that prevented him from learning the codes in this class? Were his peer members unable or perhaps nervous about correcting him? One of the things that I find useful about peer groups is that the groups often pick up the exact same things that I would tell the student. Were the members of his peer group also minority students and thus also struggling to learn the codes? I am, however, not sure if I would completely equate Delpit with Bartholomae. The codes for Delpit seem to clearly be empty class or race signifiers, completely arbitrary things such as grammar. While Bartholomae's conventions might include things like grammar they also include more basic ways of doing research in a discipline, for instance what kind of evidence a discourse relies on. I'm far from convinced that those things are arbitrary in the way grammar is. Can you talk in any depth about literature without quoting the text? I doubt it. That convention of the English discipline is there for a compelling reason. The discipline could, however, survive fine without Formal English, so forcing students who don't speak Formal English to do so is blatantly about racism. I think, however, that Delpit is right in that you cannot make racism go away by simply not acknowledging and by not preparing disadvantaged students for a society that demands that they speak and write in a racially biased way. I try and get this point across to my students (almost all of whom are white) by having them "correct" a passage of dialogue from a Toni Morrison novel. As soon as I think they've sensed how creepy the task I've given them is I tell them what I think is wrong with what I've asked them to do. I tell them that I could have them write their research papers in Black English that this would essentially put them in the position of learning a foreign dialect in the same way that minority students have to learn middle class white dialect, but that doing so wouldn't help them to make money.

Steven, I'm very interested in the activity and discussion you describe. In the writing center I often found myself trying to explain why it was accepted, even lauded, for prominent authors to write in various dialects, but for most academic purposes students should stick to edited English. I spoke in terms of faithfully representing the speech of characters, including narrators -- but where does that leave the student writer? Unable to faithfully represent her own speech? And some students "corrected" the English in the quotations that had become part of their papers! To address the issue of dialect in my classes, I had planned to have students read a couple of viewpoints on AAVE (there are some concise statements of why it's ludicrous to call edited English superior to AAVE, as well as strong condemnations of teaching AAVE from African Americans -- sort of like Delpit). But Steven's exercise sounds much more engaging.

I like the idea of that activity too, Steven. Through all of this talk about whether or not to teach students the "correct" way to write, and if so, how to do it, I find myself thinking that we should probably be working just as hard to convince other (non-writing course) instructors and employers that Standard American English is not superiour to other varieties. (And by teaching your current students to be aware of that, you are hopefully preparing future academics and employers to be more open-minded in that regard.) Otherwise I feel like when we tell students that they are free to make choices, what we are actually telling them is that if they choose not to conform to "standard" American English, they may well be choosing to exclude themselves from many academic and professional opportunities.

Okay, I'm chime it too; I also really like this activity, Steven. I'm finding it hard to think about this article this week -- it seems too dichotomous. The posted comments seem to reflect this continuing either/or dilemma. I'm tired of it, or maybe I'm just tired.

Like Ann and Thea, I'm very interested in Steven's exercise...maybe he could talk a little bit more about it in class.

I was very disappointed in someone I know in grad school when he told me, He didn't like a speaker who came to a class of his. Why? Because the guy kept "slipping" into "ungrammatical" speech, which was really AAVE. I was stunned that an intelligent, liberal person (and a friend of mine!) would think someone was less intelligent because he spoke AAVE.

I think a good way to get at the social-constructivist stuff in a classroom may be the way Steven has mentioned, something really hands-on that can move into a more theoretical discussion.

For those of you still listening--Straub addresses the central conflict of control over student texts in his essay for this week and shows some interesting examples of comments that string along a control continuum. I'm curious about your reactions.