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approaching cultural differences (and especially our own culture) with a sense of inquiry

Today, I was clearly missing you all during my day-long conference with Minnesota Writing Project teachers because I kept hearing your voices in my head as we were reading and discussing articles on the "achievement gap." One quote from Julie Landsman (a local teacher/author who wrote A White Teacher Talks about Race) really resonated with me and our recent conversations about the American-centeredness of ways of writing and learning to write [my additions in brackets]:

"The best teachers are those who have explored how their own background and experience of the world is different from that of others, and have reflected on how that difference affects their beliefs, their personal reactions, and their teaching. Once white [or American, or Minnesotan, or middle-class, or female, etc. ] teachers, in particular, accept that their experience is just one of many experiences of being an American [or being a person, a writer], they become more open, more able to deal with cultural issues that come up in the classroom [or consultation]."

Part of what I was asking about yesterday when we were reflecting on recent consultations was what kinds of beliefs and assumptions do we bring to our discussions of writing? Are there ways we could highlight in our consultations the way those assumptions are merely cultural constructs? For example, would it make any difference to say to a student (even one who is native-speaking and American born) that "American academic readers typically expect the paper's body to defend the argument presented in the introduction" rather than "The body of your paper needs to defend your argument"? Are there ways we can call attention to conventions we understand as "good writing" as merely conventions-- rather than the "right" or "normal" way to do things?


I've been reading Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace (the whole thing is excellent, by the way), and one of the essays is a 50-odd page review of a dictionary. (That may sound bland, but it isn't. In fact, I think Emily L. would enjoy it thoroughly.) Anywho, he makes a few points in there about different dialects of English that I think kind of apply to what you're saying.

He talks a lot about Standard Written English (SWE), and eventually admits that it's basically Standard White English. He then goes on to talk about all kinds of other English dialects (Standard Black English, Midwest Farmer English, etc.) and how the grammar in these isn't really "wrong," and often has more internal consistency than does SWE.

Then he hits on the idea that you're talking about: how do we tell people that they will need to use SWE within an academic setting? His preferred approach is quite direct (blunt, even), telling a student straight-away that they'll need to use SWE in college. I don't know if that's necessarily a good or bad way to do things, but I do think that the more important point is thinking about SWE not as Right, but as One Way.

I don't think I really did Wallace justice; there's an online version here:


That doesn't seem long enough to be the full book version; maybe it's edited down somehow. Anywho, it's worth reading, regardless.

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