Beyond the Basics

Susan Naomi BernsteinSusan Naomi Bernstein’s most recent book is Teaching Developmental Writing, Fourth Edition. Her articles on basic writing, social justice, and learning differences have been published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Journal of Basic Writing, Modern Language Studies, and elsewhere. She is a past co-chair of the Council on Basic Writing and a past co-editor of BWe: Basic Writing e-Journal. Susan taught her first Basic Writing course in 1987 and has worked with students for more than two decades in urban and rural settings in New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas.

The Nice White Lady Teaches Comma Splices, Part 2

posted: 11.5.12 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

What needs revision in the following sentence?

“The teacher is nice and white and explained everything clearly.”

Yes, the tenses are mixed. Change is to was or change explained to explains. Yet that does not solve the problem, nor does using stronger words than is (or was) and everything. The logic is faulty. Nicewhite. Whiteexplains everything clearly.

With grammar, substance matters as much, if not more, than style.

Academic English is a dialect—an institutionally privileged and culturally powerful dialect, yet a dialect all the same. My brother calls academic English my “teacher voice,” and sometimes he finds its cadences quite bristling (even though he can communicate in this voice himself). The students can correct me at every turn when I purposefully drop academic English for more informal speech. Indeed, practicing more informal speech in the classroom often takes me out of my comfort zone, as if I had worn torn sweatpants and an old T-shirt to work instead of the more formal slacks, sweaters, and scarves I normally wear.

Indeed, academic English requires code switching and a kind of double consciousness that can allow for creative experimentation in writing and speaking. However, when correctness and incorrectness are the emphasis of instruction, the double bind of the “nice white lady” returns. In none of the nice white lady films is any white person forced to confront racism. Racism is the problem of individuals, usually administrators whose arcane rules serve as roadblocks to students’ achievement. Racism is never the responsibility of the nice white lady—or of the society that raises us to become nice white ladies.

What we call “standard” English is deeply embedded in cultural hierarchies that are often left unspoken. To address those hierarchies draws attention to the larger social context in which our teaching takes place—and to challenge that larger social context may bring chaos into our classrooms. Or so it would seem. In the 1966 film To Sir with Love, Sidney Poitier plays a Black Guyanese engineer who, when he cannot find a position as an engineer, accepts a teaching position in a tough London school. Almost all of his students are white and working class. Racial and class tensions are turned on their ear in this film. White teenagers must confront their own racism as they engage with the social hierarchy through poignant and often unexpected struggles.

As I write this Bits post, Hurricane Sandy gains strength outside my window in Queens. The city is on virtual lockdown, with public transit and Port Authority tunnels closed until further notice. People living in the highest-risk flood zones face mandatory evacuation. A cursory glance at the city’s emergency evacuation plan reveals that many of the public housing projects are located in those flood zones. For some of our students, flooding and evacuation will cause a great disruption with schooling, not to mention everyday life and livelihood.

So what is a nice white lady to do? First, we must recognize that, whether we like it or not, we are not only part of the problem—but also part of the solution. The problem is that our English class cannot change the world, no matter how much we wish it were so. The solution is to recognize this reality—and to teach in contradiction to that reality. We must assume that our students can learn and that they are resilient—even as learning and resilience often remain invisible to us or occur outside of our ability to measure the outcome.

That is, we must learn to teach for a future in which our humanity is not lost to the ephemeral lessons of hypercorrect academic English. And all too often, we will need to address this future while simultaneously teaching comma splices. Our students, as people in the process of learning to write, deserve nothing less.


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One Response to “The Nice White Lady Teaches Comma Splices, Part 2”

  1. Robert Williams, Northern Illinois University Says:

    Susan, I want to be a great writer like you when I grow up.

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