Carrie Gillon: Hi and welcome to the Vocal Fries podcast, the podcast about linguistic discrimination!
Megan Figueroa: I’m Megan Figueroa.
Carrie Gillon: And I’m Carrie Gillon. We have two really fun announcements. The first one is that we’re part of LingComm21, which stands for the year. [Laughs]
Megan Figueroa: Perhaps you’re like, “Why is Carrie saying that?” It’s because I, who was part of this, thought it was the 21st one.
Carrie Gillon: Which is not a totally weird thing to think. It’s just, as you also pointed out yourself, podcasting hasn’t even really been around that long. I mean, close, it’s almost 21 years but not quite.
Megan Figueroa: Really? It didn’t start with Serial?
Carrie Gillon: No, it did not start with Serial.
Megan Figueroa: It feels like it did.
Carrie Gillon: It blew up with Serial, but yeah, it’s been around since, I think, 2003. It’s been around for a while.
Megan Figueroa: I guess we came late into the game, but yeah. Well, to be fair to me, I still think it’s 2020 because – [laughs]
Carrie Gillon: Well, yeah. [Laughs]
Megan Figueroa: But yes, LingComm21.
Carrie Gillon: That’s April 19th to the 22nd. Every day will begin at 1:00 p.m. our time – so PDT and MST. Pacific and Mountain Standard will be at 1:00 p.m. Everywhere else, I guess you’re gonna have to figure that out because – we’ll post the link, and you can look up your time.
Megan Figueroa: I’m doing Podcast 101. What are you doing?
Carrie Gillon: Podcasting 102 – sorry, 201.
Megan Figueroa: 201. Oh my gosh. Come see us.
Carrie Gillon: It should be fun.
Megan Figueroa: We’re really excited about the next thing, which is LingFest, which is a program of online linguistic events aimed at a general audience. We are going to be doing a liveshow called, “You Want Fries With That?”, on Sunday, April 25th. That’s gonna be 11:00 a.m. Pacific and Mountain time.
Carrie Gillon: Well, Pacific Daylight and Mountain Standard.
Megan Figueroa: Yes, yes. Oh my god. Just Arizona time. Just google, “What time is it in Arizona?”, which is what I have to do every time. I’m like, “What time is it in New York?” That’ll be a lot of fun. We’re gonna talk all things language. You can tell us about your favorite things about language. You can ask us any questions. Anything goes. No experience in linguistics required. Feel free to bring questions or examples of linguistic discrimination, and we can all chat. We’ll post a link. It’ll be via Zoom. Admission is free, but donations are welcome. Oh, and live captions in English will be provided.
Carrie Gillon: The Zoom will be doing them. They won’t be perfect, but given that it’s free, it’s what we can afford.
Megan Figueroa: Exactly. That’ll be a lot of fun. I’m really excited.
Carrie Gillon: Before we get into our episode, we had a couple of language things to talk about. Let’s start with the one that you brought up first.
Megan Figueroa: So, Thandiwe Newton, who we’ve known as “Thandie Newton” for a long time now, recently, I guess, did an interview or something, and she told us that we’ve been saying her name wrong this entire time.
Carrie Gillon: Yes. Do you remember why? Or how it happened?
Megan Figueroa: No.
Carrie Gillon: Okay. So, she was in a movie. I think it was her first movie. And the director asked her if they could use first name. She was honored. She thought, “Yes. Yes, you can.” It was spelled the correct way – T-H-A-N-D-I-W-E – for the character. Then her quote-unquote “real” name, the actor’s name, was “Thandie.” For some reason, they just gave her a different name. Her real name – like, her as real person, they gave her a different name.
So, she just went by that because that’s how everyone knew her by – kind of like a stage name, I guess – but one that was applied to her, not one that she adopted herself. Now she’s like, “No, I’m gonna go back to my actual name, which was taken from me.” The pronunciation, at least – okay, I’ve seen two different pronunciations. The one on Wikipedia is /tænˈdiːweɪ/ and then the other one I saw was /tɑnˈdiːwɛ/. I don’t know which one is actually correct, so feel free to let us know.
Megan Figueroa: Right.
Carrie Gillon: It’s kind of close to the name she was given, in some ways, but then, also, it’s way cooler, her real name.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah. I mean, I know it’s more complicated when it comes to the acting world, and there’re decisions that are made by people – especially minoritized people. It just makes it easier to access these spaces. But, you know, just a good place to remind people how important it is to get other peoples’ names right. Try your best.
Carrie Gillon: She didn’t come up with this. If she had, it’s a different story. Lots of people for lots of reasons create stage names. But it was a given-to-her – that’s weirder.
Megan Figueroa: That’s so strange.
Carrie Gillon: From now on, I’m gonna say /tænˈdiːweɪ/ because that is pretty easy for me to say, and it’s what Wikipedia says, but I will correct it if that is wrong. But, no more “Thandie” – “Thandiwe.” The second thing that I think we should at least briefly address is Derek Chauvin’s trial where he’s accused of murdering George Floyd. One of the things that George Floyd said before he died was, “I ain’t do no drugs,” or something like that. The audio was misinterpreted by a few people – like, one person on the stand at least – as “I ate a lot of drugs.”
Megan Figueroa: A non-black person –
Carrie Gillon: Right.
Megan Figueroa: – misinterpreted – yeah.
Carrie Gillon: There’s been this conversation. Well, some of us are wondering whether there should be some kind of letter to I don’t know who – the media, the prosecutors – about how this makes no sense. This is not a thing that people would say. At least in all the North American varieties that I’m even remotely aware of, no one says, “eat drugs,” ever. That’s just not a thing. There might be some varieties of English elsewhere, but here, I don’t think so.
Megan Figueroa: It’s one of those things I feel like it’s a situation where it’s convenient for non-black people to assume this is Black English – or African American language – somehow. It just reminds me of the George Zimmerman trial, too – which we have a great episode on that.
Carrie Gillon: Yes. I just was like, “Is this a thing that anyone would ever say?” Obviously, they’re motivated to hear it a certain way, slash, maybe they’re just straight up lying. Obviously, I can’t know that. Where in their brains would they even come up with that? That’s not a thing that English speakers in North America say.
Megan Figueroa: It’s in the racist cortex. [Laughs] That’s where they find it. It’s amazing what people can pull out of that cortex when it’s convenient.
Carrie Gillon: Yeah, fair.
Megan Figueroa: I know we do have listeners in the journalism world, so definitely contact a Black linguist to talk about this, please.
Carrie Gillon: Don’t ask us to talk about it.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah, no. Unless you’re emailing us to ask who you can talk to that’s not us.
Carrie Gillon: I’m happy to send on ideas, but yeah.
Megan Figueroa: Absolutely there are many great Black linguists that can speak to this. Many of them have been guests on our show.
Carrie Gillon: The episode today we talk, well, about higher ed again. Accidently. This is a similar topic but not quite the same – but definitely overlapping. It’s a fun conversation.
Megan Figueroa: It is. And important – just as I say with every episode. So, enjoy!
Megan Figueroa: Today we’re very excited to have Jamaal Muwwakkil who is a sociocultural linguist higher ed leader and advocate for racial justice. He is currently a PhD candidate in the Department of Linguistics at UCSB. His research specializations are African American Language and Culture, political discourse, and educational linguistics. Jamaal is also serving as University of California Student Regent for 2020 to 2021. Thank you so much for being here with us!
Carrie Gillon: Yeah, thank you!
Jamaal Muwwakkil: Thank you so much for having me. I’m really excited to chat with you all.
Megan Figueroa: I’m so excited to have you. You’ve been on my wish list. I say this to everyone, but I know it’s a busy time for you right now since you’re the student regent.
Carrie Gillon: What is a student regent?
Jamaal Muwwakkil: In the University of California as, I think, is the case for a lot of different higher education institutions, it’s governed by a group of folks – a board of folks. For the UC, those folks are called, “regents”; for, say, the Cal State, they’re called, “trusties”; for the community college system, they’re called, “governors.” Everyone has a different name for these folks. In the UC, they’re called, “regents.” It’s 26 of them for the UC. One of them is mandated to be a student at all times – one voting student regent.
For the student regent role, it’s a two-year term where, in the second year, that student has a vote. What that generally means is that you, as student regent, have access to all the information, and you get to vote on all the governing policies that the University of California is enacting. Big responsibility. Long meeting days. But it’s fun.
Megan Figueroa: I just wanna shout out the fact that you are also, like me, a first-gen college student. I love to see that – that there are people – I want to see first-gen college students in all of these places, like being student regent. That’s fantastic because the type of insight that we can bring is so often overlooked. I just think it’s great. I mean, and you include being a first gen student in your work, too, right? This is something that speaks to your work.
Jamaal Muwwakkil: Absolutely, yeah. I really try to bring my whole self to whatever work it is that I’m doing, so my positionality as a Black American, my position as a community college transfer student, my position as a first-generation college student, first-generation graduate student hoping to be a first-generation professor – all of that informs my work. I use it as a pedagogical tool to connect with students and help them to learn what they need to learn.
Carrie Gillon: Your work focuses on African American English and how it’s stigmatized in higher education. So, how is it stigmatized in higher education?
Jamaal Muwwakkil: Absolutely. There’s a few points I’ll make. One of them is that, of course, as I think you all have keyed into before, sometimes language and language discrimination is just a proxy for race and racism broadly – and AAE is no exception to that point. The logics of African American English and the stigmatization within in a higher education context is the same as the stigmatization of Black people in the higher education context. It’s just something built without Black people being in mind to be participants in that structure. Language is just a proxy for that.
What that looks like in practice is a general sense of being incompetent or under-prepared – more specifically, sounding like an un-prepared person. I think in a previous episode, you used a segment from Yamiche Alcindor, who was doing some commentary about Former President Trump.
Carrie Gillon: Hallelujah!
Megan Figueroa: Yeah! [Laughter]
Jamaal Muwwakkil: We did it everybody! But Tucker Carlson, the right-wing pundit, played a clip of hers and just heard her as speaking ungrammatically and dismissed all the things that she said because of how she said it. But of course, notably, none of the features, structurally, were ungrammatical, but she was still heard as being ungrammatical. In that same way, people who come from communities where African American English is spoken are then perceived as incompetent in a higher education and academic space, independent of the content that they’re conveying.
The two parts here is, 1.) where is the communicative burden placed? Whose job is it to understand whom? Is it the professor, or the institution, or the administrator’s job to try to accommodate to the speech that’s being provided? Or is it student’s job to accommodate to the expectations of the professor or the structurally powerful person? I think in that dynamic, we set people up for failure because, as we’ve noted, it’s not the content, the structure, or the grammar that’s the problem. It’s who they are that’s the problem. African American English is just being isolated as the variable for discrimination.
Megan Figueroa: I just finished April Baker-Bell’s book. She put it into such – it was just right in your face, like, that’s so obvious that if institutions, if people, if the hearer or listener expects someone who speaks African American English or Chicano – many different stigmatized varieties – to change the way they speak, that is a function of white supremacy. That’s racial injustice. And I was like, “This is so obvious now.”
Jamaal Muwwakkil: I think another degree of that, to piggyback on what you’ve been saying, is that it really does speak to a sense of belonging – or more specifically a sense of not belonging. When you say African American English sounds dumb, right, if you take that stance, then what you’re saying is – to the student who speaks that variety, who learned that variety from the communities from which they come, from their mother, their father, their grandmother, the smartest people that they know – what they must then say, logically, is that “My mom sounds dumb. My mom is dumb. My dad is dumb. My grandmother is dumb. And in order to be smart, I need to sound less like them.”
It really does put the student in the situation where they have an identity crisis. “I wanna be a smart person. I’m in college. I might be a first-generation college student. And I want to thrive and persevere in this space, but apparently, in order to do that, I have to distance myself from everyone and all the practices, the cultural dynamics, and the language that got me here.” It’s a really tricky situation to put a student into.
Megan Figueroa: You used the word “unprepared,” which is, I think, really important. It makes it from the perception of – perhaps the professor, adjunct, or whoever – that the student is “unprepared,” and I think that that’s – you know, I’ve not heard that word used or thought about that way, but of course, that’s another – that’s really important when it comes to a classroom. If a student is seen as unprepared, I mean, what kind of biases are being – what is the professor putting under participation for that day, or whatever? What is the grading gonna look like if you’re assuming that someone’s unprepared?
Carrie Gillon: I have encountered this because I used to be a professor, and some of my colleagues would say this very thing. They’d be very careful about how they said it, so that you wouldn’t be like, “Oh, you’re talking about the black and brown children in your classes,” but you know. They would say, “They’re coming to ASU under-prepared. They don’t know how to write,” etc., etc. I definitely heard it. It’s widespread, I would say.
Jamaal Muwwakkil: It’s a trap more than anything, right, because, again, as we said, there’s nothing that you can do. Even as we might encourage students to go up – “Well, you’ll avoid that stigma, you’ll avoid that trap, if you just stop sounding like how Black people sound, and then you’re golden.” But the tricky part is it’s not sufficient because you can see me. So, the stigma isn’t based on how I sound actually. That’s just the excuse that you use. You actually have some internalized implicit or explicit stigma that you associate with me being here. This is just how you’re making sense of it – to me and to yourself.
I think that in order to address that, we need to be more comfortable explicitly saying what it is that we’re actually trying to get at. If we’re talking about in a, say, composition classroom that there’s issues of style here – maybe this type of prose is less generic for this type of writing – then let’s be able to talk about that. But that’s not – I don’t wanna call professors sometimes “lazy,” but sometimes that’s where it goes. You’re not doing the deeper-level work and really getting at what you’re trying to say and what is the intervention you’re trying to make. And so, it just comes off as saying, “You’re wrong for being wrong. Stop being wrong and be more right.” I can’t do anything with that.
Carrie Gillon: The evidence that you can’t do anything about it is the case you just talked about, Yamiche Alcindor, because she didn’t seem to be speaking with any features that I would associate with African American English. It seemed to be White Standard-ish type language, so he saw, yeah, he saw her. He didn’t hear her.
Megan Figueroa: Some of the consequences of this are really quite detrimental. That can follow someone for a really long time. What are some examples of this that show up in higher ed?
Jamaal Muwwakkil: In a higher ed context, I’m going to be speaking from an undergrad perspective and a graduate student perspective, so I’ll use more or less a metaphor of how this works in, say, the job market. In the job market – and there’s a lot of work in this area – a lot of times managers are hiring folks, they’ll tying to empathize with the candidate who comes in and submits their application. They’ll empathize in a way of seeing themselves at that phase of their career and saying, “Ah, I’ll hire you because you’re like me when I was then,” and so I might orient to you as a mentor or, even if I’m not, I might just be able to see your future trajectory because I was there, too. I know this phase of life. We understand each other.
But if you happen to be within an academic department that is – I’ll be provocative and say – “wholly unintegrated,” which is to say you have a homogenous faculty pool, it’s really hard to empathize. If I come to your graduate program as an applicant, you don’t know what to do with me. You feel like you can’t sympathize or empathize with my plight or my life experience. And so, you don’t necessarily want to take a chance on me. Sometimes, that gets interpreted as this anomalous word, “fit.” “We don’t know if the ‘fit’ is right,” because you can’t empathize with me.
The other way that that works is, even if you do accept me, you’ll do one of two things. Either you’ll fit me into your paradigm of what it is that a graduate student could and should be that’s informed by your own personal lived experience but mapped on as a disciplinary constraint. You need to do what I did in the way that I did it in order to gain access into this space, and if you don’t, I don’t know what to do with you, so I’m not going to deal with you. Either be like me, or you don’t get to have this job.
In that sense, a lot of folks are pressured into shifting what their research interests are, shifting what type of work that they’d like to do, shifting where they’ll work or what type of career or profession they envision because those doors are being closed.
The other way that’s a little insidious in the way it looks it more or less taking your hands off the wheel as an advisor and a mentor. What that looks like is, “Thank you for applying to my fine program. I’ll let you in. I understand that you’re interested in gesture as demonstrated in battle rap performances. Well, I don’t know anything about that. So, go nuts. Good luck. Feel free. I’ll be here if you have questions,” and they’ll more or less let you do it. But then, what they’ve done, because they’ve taken their hand off the wheel, is they’re not guiding through the process.
As we know, higher education functions in this guild/apprenticeship model. There’s a lot of – we talk about it sometimes in the way that introductions to other faculty are done at the bar or in social settings. The advisor will invite his or her advisees out to meet the other people in the space, network, making introductions. What that’s doing, practically, from a structural dynamic, is introducing you into a scholarly community. You’re handing people off because these relationships are so valuable in this space. If you take your hands off the wheel, I’m not getting that benefit. If I’m first generation, I don’t know that I’m not getting that benefit. I think that everyone’s getting the same opportunities and everyone’s relationship with their advisor is the way that my relationship with my advisor is.
In fact, that’s not the case. Everyone else is getting introduced to other faculty, introduced to other folks who are doing similar work, getting recommendations on what they should be reading or other work that is in line with their research interests, so they can model it. They now know where to publish or submit their work for publication. They know which conferences they should be attending. All of this stuff that has capital within academia that you don’t get because your advisor took his or her hands off the wheel because they’re not interested in expanding their knowledge base to encompass what you’re interested in.
You’re just kinda left out to dry. And that’s rough because you worked four, five, six, seven, ten years to complete your graduate education, and you apply for jobs, and no one wants you because you don’t have the academic capital to demonstrate your competence. It’s rough.
Megan Figueroa: It sounds like your first point will lead to the issue of the second point because if people want to study gesture in rap battles or whatever, but they don’t have any support, then they decide to change the topic or they’re like, you know, linguistics – we’ve talked to Dr. Anne Charity Hudley, which people should pause and go listen to that episode or do it after this – this gatekeeping where people aren’t getting in. And so, then students that do wanna look at gesture in rap don’t have anyone to advise them because the person that may have looked at that stuff was just like, “I give up. This is so difficult.” No one’s supportive.
Carrie Gillon: One of the things you have to learn about academia is, like, where do you go for something like that? You have to know how to find the experts, and maybe you’re not able to move to find those experts. There’s just so many layers of problems with finding someone who could actually mentor you properly.
So, how does language play a role in creating a more socially just and equitable environment in higher ed?
Jamaal Muwwakkil: I think that that’s more an issue – and it’s tied to the previous question – around who’s in the space. As we said before, it’s tricky when you don’t know where you’re supposed to be or who’s doing the specific type of research, so you don’t know where you have people that you’re in conversation within this scholarly communication plane.
The tricky part about that is that this work has already been done. There’s a lot of forebearers that we have that took a chance, who did the amazing, foundational work in a lot of these different areas – in African American English and Black people in higher education and scholarship for teaching and learning. The work is there. The communities exist. The tricky part is – does your advisor know that that’s happened such that they could refer you?
It is not my contention that everyone should be an expert in everything. That’s not practical. But if you only relegate your research and your scholarly engagement with the very narrow thing that you do, and then you map what you do as the broad-scale idea of what the discipline can be, then you now structurally shut out everyone else who’s trying to push the boundaries or explore in a different way. That could still resonate with what it is that you’re doing but because it’s so different from what you’re used to doing, you can’t expand the disciplines, can’t grow anything, because you’re gatekeeping.
I think that how language can help to push the bounds of higher education is through a bit more inclusion. If you have people in your social networks, in your department, on your faculty who are doing this work that’s on the margins or more expanding the boundaries of what the discipline is and can be, talking to them, socially and professionally, and understanding what they’re up to, so that you can make strong references and encouragement in different areas. The other side of that, if you don’t do it, then we get into this thing of – especially within linguistics – we get into this trope of, “Well, that’s not linguistics.”
That’s hard because you shut down a whole lot of people who have fascinating, amazing intellectual interest related to linguistics. But you told them it’s not linguistics, so now what are they to do? They should probably go somewhere else. They should probably go to education, anthropology, English – any of these other disciplines that maybe welcome their questions. Where linguistics is fully able to welcome their questions, but do the people who are currently in places of power acknowledge those questions as valid questions within the frame of linguistics?
Megan Figueroa: Why are there professors that are tenured in our field that would rather say, “That’s not linguistics,” than say, “Oh, I need to expand the way I think of linguistics. That’s so exciting.” Why the fuck isn’t that happening?
Jamaal Muwwakkil: That’s a good question!
Megan Figueroa: It just reminds me of how we were talking about earlier people are expecting society or the structures we set up expect people that speak African American English to change the way they speak. It’s just like, “Why aren’t you hearing me differently, then? Why don’t you expand what you are hearing?” It’s just the same thing. It’s so frustrating to me.
Carrie Gillon: It’s power.
Megan Figueroa: Of course.
Carrie Gillon: Why would they give up any of their power?
Megan Figueroa: Carrie has to remind me of this every episode, Jamaal – every episode! [Laughter] I ask this existential – well, not even existential question – but this question that basically –
Carrie Gillon: She’s like, “Why aren’t people better than they are?” That’s always your question. And I’m like, “Well” – [laughs]
Megan Figueroa: Why aren’t people nicer?
Jamaal Muwwakkil: Yeah, no, it is an issue of power. I think that we have to be upfront with that. It’s not as though, say, African American English as a subject field or Black people in higher education broadly is intrinsically bad or not worthy of research or structural affordance. It’s that the people who – I don’t wanna be too stigmatizing – but it’s that, sometimes, we conceptualize academia and disciplinary politics as a zero-sum game. If it is the case that I broaden the scope or include more people than what I did, and more varieties, then I’m necessarily limiting or lessening the influence, power, and the authority of the thing that I do. And I like the thing that I do. Therefore, I have to not encourage this new wave because it might not allow me the same level of access and authority that I’ve been accustomed to.
Carrie Gillon: That’s exactly it. I encountered that all the time, too. There was all this shuffling around like, “Oh, no! My turf is here. I don’t like your turf.” It’s really frustrating. Very limiting, as you were saying.
Jamaal Muwwakkil: I will just say on the tail end just in case anything any one was vague. It’s not a zero-sum game. We can all do this. Again, as a linguist, yeah, I do phonology. It’s a thing. I understand it. Phonetics is great. Syntax – love it! Morphology – one of the best linguistics classes I’ve ever taken was a morphology class. I can appreciate and encourage morphologists and work alongside them in a department. That’s completely fine with me.
The tricky part is – are you find working alongside me and my interests?
It seems to be unidirectional on the inclusion frame. I’m good with the existence of generativists and structural linguists. Are you good with socio-cultural linguists and sociolinguists in your department? This thing. There’s enough room for us all to thrive. We don’t have to make these distinctions.
Carrie Gillon: Yes! And I’m not going to be the person who’s studying socio-cultural stuff. That’s just not my area. I want someone else to do it so that I can learn about it. It’s – ugh. Yes. I’ve always had this annoyance that we can’t have room for everybody – because we can.
Megan Figueroa: I feel like you spoke to this already, but I just wanna bring up community college again. Do you think that this looks differently at the community college level versus at a university level – how we can get to a place where it’s more racially just and equitable in terms of language?
Jamaal Muwwakkil: The community college is a magical place. We have a lot of people. Again, I’m from California, so I’m speaking from the California perspective. We have a very robust community college system. There’s some clear articulation between the community college and then the pathway to transfer into the University of California or the California State University system. That’s the beautiful part. Public higher education in California is the crown jewel of California.
And I participated in it. I went from community college to transfer to the UC. The tricky part there, especially from a first-generation and an under-represented community in higher ed, is that there’s this pressure to conform to the expectations of the people with structural power in order to gain access to the different institutional frames. What that looks like is, if I come from a community like I come from, and I go to the community college, I’m very much so ignorant of the pathways. I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing, and I’m leaning on the expertise and the advice from my counselors, from my professors, from the other people around me who know more about the process and the pathways than I do.
So, how do I get you to invest in me that information that will help me to get to where I’m going? Too often, what keys you in to understanding that I’m a good investment is my speech – how I sound. Do I sound like a person who could transfer? We’ve done a fair amount of research – myself and my colleagues – doing a fair amount of interviews with current community college students, transfer students to the UC, people who graduated, graduate students, in this way, and we’re finding a resonance in that point, right, this idea of a hyper-awareness about how they sound and the capital that that is oriented to as.
If I sound like a person who could transfer, which is to say I can speak with a more of a standardized English variety, then you’re more likely to take a chance on me – then let me know that there’s this workshop that’s happening, or there’s a recruiter on campus today, and you should maybe look into it. These practical material resources that are given to me because you think that I’m smart solely based on how I sound. Everyone gets this message. You can sound like a person who can transfer, and so if you want to transfer, you have to stop sounding like a person who doesn’t transfer. That’s rough.
Carrie Gillon: I dunno why that never occurred to me before, but of course that happens.
Megan Figueroa: Absolutely. Because I know that – I mean, I dunno about California, but at least in Arizona – and I was an adjunct at a community college – I know that the pipeline – I mean, people get stuck. They get so stuck. One of the reasons I think that they get stuck was actually something that I was a part of which is I was hired to teach “developmental grammar” and “developmental English.” I still – just the name of the class is upsetting to me, and it was upsetting to my students, too. They felt like they were unintelligent. And 100% of my students were Black and Latino. 100%.
This was 10 years ago. What I did was I’m not gonna take off points for quote-unquote “grammar mistakes” because this is just – I’ll put where the commas – like, you know, I’m gonna help with your toolkit. This is what people are gonna mark off for in other classes, but I won’t. I told them that this is just – the way that you speak is perfect, and some people are gonna expect you to write a certain way.
I’ve learned so much that I wish I could go back in time and tell them. But it’s like, you know, they were also discouraged. It was rough. I just didn’t wanna be a part of it in a way where I’m making them feel any worse. I did the best I could with what I had at the time. But how many people are teaching similar classes across the country that just don’t have these resources of being a linguist, maybe, or knowing about this socio-cultural stuff? It could be just one class that gets you stuck there because they had to pass that to get to Comp 101, and 102, to then graduate.
Jamaal Muwwakkil: Yeah, yeah. I’ll say as a person who did 10 years at the community college before transferring, there are a lot of traps that you can fall into.
Carrie Gillon: Could you describe a trap? Because I never experienced it so –
Jamaal Muwwakkil: Yeah, so, structurally, there’s not a lot of clarity on what actually needs to happen – what you need to do as a student – in order to meet the minimum eligibility and transfer requirements to get from community college to the university that you choose to transfer to. What that can look like is, for instance, we talk about this – from the general discourse – we talk about community college as a “two-year college.” We talk about full-time enrollment as 12 units.
What that says, then – four semesters, two years, 12 units, that’s 48 units, right? I can transfer at 48 units. Well, actually, you need 60 units in the California system to transfer – at minimum. If you didn’t know that, well, that’s another year because you missed the application date. Sometimes, people will say, “Okay, I’ll do” – and this is common – “I’ll do math last.” I’ll do all the other stuff first, and then I’ll do math last. But depending on where you test into math, that can be a two-year sequence in and of itself. So, you did your two years – your two-and-a-half years – and then you go, “I’ll just do math in the last semester.” But now it’s another two years. Now, it’s four years.
All this time, you’re in a very interesting age, right, 18, 20, 22. You’re setting down roots. You’re working a job. You have family obligations. You’re just trying to make it through, and community college becomes less and less of a priority. Most folks, sadly, fall away and just never complete. So, if you’re a bit more clear on what you needed to do, getting people a clear sense – an explicit, very clear sense – of what they needed to do in order to get to where they wanted to go, then they can make the decisions that they need to make in order to get themselves together. If we just let it be very hazy and anomalous, let their expectations inform their practice, then oftentimes, they’ll be guessing and find themselves off base.
Megan Figueroa: Well, with my class – with the developmental English class – people thought that that would count toward their Comp credit, but it actually doesn’t count for anything at all. It’s nothing.
Carrie Gillon: It’s just a prereq.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah. Whatever the test that they had to take said that they can’t take English 101 yet, so they have to take this. So, people will take it at the very end thinking that it’s going to be the credit that they can do, but no, it’s nothing.
Jamaal Muwwakkil: It’s not always as intuitive as it should be.
Megan Figueroa: No. And universities are no better.
Carrie Gillon: No, they’re not. But I think they’re structural reasons why more people going to universities have better – at least the terminal degree is there. You got a bit more of the tools at your disposal a bit more.
Jamaal Muwwakkil: Agreed. Absolutely. The residential dynamic makes a huge difference – that you’re living in the environment where the thing is happening. You have a lot of other peers who’re living right alongside you that can act as accountability. Even if you were falling behind, your roommate is saying, “Hey, did you enroll in classes?” It’s like, “Oh, snap! I’m supposed to enroll. Got you. Thank you.” If you’re commuting, as most community college students are, you don’t have it in the same way. You also don’t have as many resources through counsellors, through professors, things like this where you can make sure to check your understanding in the same way.
Megan Figueroa: We have a structural problem where we hire adjuncts who are not required to do office hours. I was not required to do office hours. It’s like, this is a fucking – this is a disservice to the students.
Carrie Gillon: I’m an adjunct right now, and I have to do office hours.
Megan Figueroa: They’re like, “We’re not paying you for it, so you don’t have to do it.” I did because I was like, my conscious can’t –
Carrie Gillon: That’s appalling.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah! I’m sure this is common. People tell us, I’m pretty sure, that this is not abnormal.
Carrie Gillon: I’m in Canada now, so I don’t know.
Megan Figueroa: Oh, just rub it in our faces again, Carrie. [Laughter]
Carrie Gillon: I mean, the system has got the same kind of issues. It’s just I’ll pretend I don’t know anything anymore. How can people still in academia and people outside of academia empower Black students in a sincere and authentic way?
Jamaal Muwwakkil: There’s quite a few ways. I’ll say, from a structural perspective, hire Black professors, please. But in a very specific way. Sometimes – and, again, I talked to you before about the idea of potentially having a Black professor, Black graduate student, to integrate a department – that’s traumatic. We wanna avoid this, which is to say – don’t just bring in one person. Cluster hires are your friend in this regard. The logic being, of course, if you’re coming in, you’re saying, “All right. We’re trying to diversify. We’re trying to do better. So, here’s a great Black candidate that’s hired for a tenure-track position.” Great.
But they’re gonna see some things that are problematic in your department, and none of you have seen it so far. And so, it’s very easy for them to sound like they’re off base, and they have no one to compare this to because it’s just them seeing this thing. “Ah, it seems like your syllabus is kind of not diverse. Maybe you wanna have a more inclusive curriculum.” And you might say, “Well, this is the way we’ve always done it. You’re the problem here. You’re the only one that’s saying anything. No one else has said anything up to this point.” That’s a stressful situation.
The other thing is that, oftentimes, the professor from a minoritized positionality finds themselves taking on a lot of the other diversity labor and the diversity service exclusively. They see they’re oriented to as the outsource point for all the other faculty. So, if you have a black undergraduate who comes and is looking for a mentorship or someone to serve as their advisor, you might say, “Oh, this is great. We just hired a Black faculty. Their name is whatever. You should go and talk to them. They might be interested in advising your stuff.”
And now they’re getting 30 students that they have to advise – all of the Black graduate students that you have that they should have to advise – and everyone else feels really good that they provided this service. But it’s Black undergraduates and graduate students, and this is just the only one person. They have the same publication responsibility as everyone else, the same service responsibility as everyone else, while they’re do all the other diversity work as everyone else. It’s not sustainable. There’s only 24 hours in a day.
Oftentimes, we’re setting them up for failure because if they continue in that way and follow their heart to mentor and guide the students in the way that they wish that they were mentored and guided, they might find themselves lacking in their tenure review. We just sabotaged this person’s career while ostensibly trying to help them. This is the problem. How do you solve that? Cluster hires. Bring in more folks.
Other side, give structural merit to the work that we expect that these folks should do. If you except them to take on the roles as serving on the diversity and inclusion committee and expect them to mentor the Black and brown undergraduates and graduate students, then give them some academic credit towards their tenure review for having done so. If it is in fact service to the discipline, service to the department, then let’s orient to it as such not just as additive, ancillary, volunteering. We don’t wanna set up people for failure for doing the right thing.
Megan Figueroa: What about in terms of language and African American English? What can people – linguists, language adjacent people – do in the classroom or even for their peers when it comes to language?
Jamaal Muwwakkil: This is tricky. It’s a lot trickier than we might think initially. I’ll say, just contextually, most folks who are making this correction – so you have a student in your class who speaks African American English. Now, you know that we live in a racist society. You know that the structure – the institutions in which they’re embedded – have been historically racist and lock these folks out. But you know that you want them to do well.
So, to help them, you might say, “Hey, student, talk a little different because they’re gonna hear you in this way and they’re gonna stigmatize you because of it. I’m trying to help you,” right. And, again, as I said before, that’s tricky because now you’re calling their grandmother dumb. But the way that you might about doing this is acknowledging and validating their cultural context. As you said before, Megan, “You’re right. You’re not wrong. I understood what you were saying. You communicated this well. Here are some other ways of saying this that might be heard as less stigmatized, both in your writing and in your presentation, because of the system that we’re in.” Take the time to detail and make explicit the intervention that you’re making and situate in the institution and its history.
Now, again, I know that this is difficult because, if I’m a linguistics instructor, I just wanna teach the IPA. I just wanna teach the IPA unproblematically. Just give me my narrow, nerdy thing that I wanna do, and let me do that. I don’t wanna have to deal with politics and history and sociology. That’s messy. And I get it. I get it. In a perfect world, we would be able to. But from a justice and ethic standpoint, we do have to do a little more work to situate our intervention into the structures in which we find ourselves.
What that looks like is, as you give the student the information that they need in order to be successful, which is the situational awareness of the dynamics that are at play, that will give them agency. You want them to be able to choose how they present themselves – choose how they write, give them the tools to make the best decision for themselves at the moment, and maybe that best decision for them is, “I’m not going to assimilate into the paradigm. You’re gonna accept me, and you’re gonna accept this variety, and I’m gonna make that stand.” But, if and when they do that, they’ll do that in full knowledge that that’s what they’re doing – as opposed to going into it in ignorance thinking that, because my content is good, you’re just gonna accept me not knowing that the way that they presented that stigmatized them in a different way. My encouragement is just give them the fullness of the information and the contextual realities so that they can make the best decision for themselves.
Megan Figueroa: Absolutely. I had to learn this, too, just to kind of pause and think about what people are saying when we say that people are good at code-switching or good at doing these moving in between spaces and changing the way they speak. Why have they had to do that? Just stop and think about that I think is really important because it seems like a nice thing to say, like, “That’s awesome! Look at how you’ve navigated the world.” Let’s pause and be like, “Why has the world made you navigate in this way?”
Jamaal Muwwakkil: Yeah. There’s other benefits. That’s a unidirectional stance, right. “How can I as a person from a stigmatized and minoritized population gain access to institutions and frames in which I’m historically underrepresented?” The other side is there’s a lot to learn from communities and peoples and places that have been not well-represented in the research within different academic disciplines.
As we go forward, I would also encourage a lot more community-based participatory models of research that validates the lived realities of folks from communities and not just doing this “I’ll take the best one from that community, train them up to be like me. Then it’s like equity.” No. We can do a little better. With our social justice paradigm, as we hope to make our institutions more inclusive, let’s also sow back into the communities that have historically been under-researched through our research and our academic endeavors.
This is possible. There’s funding for it. Sometimes, we just need the goodwill and the intentionally to do that work. Let’s make this a bi-directional thing. It’s not just people aspiring and aligning with the status quo, but let’s shift the status quo to be more inclusive of folks who haven’t historically been present.
Carrie Gillon: Okay. Well, thank you so much for this conversation.
Megan Figueroa: Amazing. Yes.
Carrie Gillon: It was great.
Megan Figueroa: I can’t wait for our listeners to hear. We always leave them with one final message – don’t be an asshole.
Carrie Gillon: Don’t be an asshole.
Jamaal Muwwakkil: Don’t be an asshole. [Laughter]
Megan Figueroa: Thank you so much, Jamaal.
Carrie Gillon: Yeah, thank you.
Jamaal Muwwakkil: Thank you all. Take care!
Carrie Gillon: We have one patron to thank, and that’s Alice Harrigan.
Megan Figueroa: Thank you so much.
Carrie Gillon: Thank you.
Megan Figueroa: Every time it’s such a delight.
Carrie Gillon: Yes, it is.
Carrie Gillon: The Vocal Fries podcast is produced by me, Carrie Gillon, for Halftone Audio. Theme music by Nick Granum. You can find us on Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram @VocalFriesPod. You can email us at email@example.com and our website is vocalfriespod.com.