Microaggression or Neglect?

The following statement, advancing the idea that students have a “right to their own language” was adopted in 1972 by the Conference on College Composition and Communication:

We affirm the students’ right to their own patterns and varieties of language — the dialects of their nurture or whatever dialects in which they find their own identity and style. Language scholars long ago denied that the myth of a standard American dialect has any validity. The claim that any one dialect is unacceptable amounts to an attempt of one social group to exert its dominance over another. Such a claim leads to false advice for speakers and writers, and immoral advice for humans. A nation proud of its diverse heritage and its cultural and racial variety will preserve its heritage of dialects. We affirm strongly that teachers must have the experiences and training that will enable them to respect diversity and uphold the right of students to their own language.

It means that, as far as the world’s largest professional organization for researching and teaching composition is concerned, students have a “right” to speak and write the way they want, according to their own cultures.

A student who comes to college and says things like “I ain’t done” has a right to use that phrase because in the student’s culture that is how people speak. Now, if the student has a right to speak that way, should the teacher correct the student or not? With this way of thinking, we cannot even say we are “correcting” the student, since according to this idea, there is no “correct” way of speaking.

From a purely linguistic standpoint, this is true. But linguistics tells us how language works, not what forms we ought to use in certain social contexts. Unfortunately, this idea from linguistics is being used to attack teaching students how to write and speak for an academic or business audience.

Now add to that subversive idea the concept of “microaggression.” A microaggression occurs when someone in a position of power (like a teacher) makes a seemingly innocuous but ultimately hurtful comment or action – it is a comment that makes the person feel demeaned or marginalized. For example, correcting a student who says, “I ain’t done,” telling them that it should be “I’m not finished,” is a micraggression because the student could feel demeaned by being corrected. 

Thus, if a teacher corrects a student and the student feels embarrassed, the teacher has engaged in a microaggression against the student.

That is exactly what allegedly happened at UCLA recently. As reported by Inside Higher Education, about 25 members of UCLA Call 2 Action: Graduate Students of Color staged a sit-in during a second-level dissertation preparation course.

The group had several complaints, chiefly that correcting minority students’ grammar and spelling constitute “microaggressions” which they defined as “seemingly innocuous but ultimately hurtful comments or actions.” In other words, Ph.D. students were complaining that their professor, Val Rust, had the audacity to correct their spelling and grammar and to give them grammar lessons. “They complained that a “barrage of questions by white colleagues and the grammar ‘lessons’ by the professor have contributed to a hostile class climate.”

Let me repeat that. Students who had been accepted into a Ph.D. program objected to being corrected on their papers and dissertations. This takes politically correct hypersensitivity to a new, stratospheric level.

If this were only a single episode at UCLA, that would be one thing, but in fact we now have academic journal articles such as “The Linguistic Re-Turn: The Moral and Practical Implications of ‘Language’ in Curriculum Studies” by Aria Razfar. arguing that correcting grammar is a microaggression. Razfar equates the correcting of grammar with “Colored-Only” signs, and declares that “official and unofficial polices about language can never be neutral or benign and are inextricably linked to the social struggle of dominated populations for sovereignty and self-determination.”

With such backing, it seems likely that the attack on instructors who still have the nerve to correct bad writing will become more intense.

Since being adopted by college composition instructors, these ideas have trickled down from our universities to our grade schools. It makes professors and teachers fear trouble lest they be accused of imposing arbitrary language standards, particularly on minority students.

We’ll leave aside the difficulties with the entirely subjective concept of feeling “marginalized.” I want to focus, rather, on the fact that if we accept correcting a person’s grammar of spelling as an instance of microaggression, English composition professors might as well just hang up their hats and universities might as well stop requiring English composition.

The very teaching of English composition amounts to a stream of microaggressions. If we accept that students have “a right to their own language” and that correcting them is an affront, there is pretty much nothing for a composition professor to do. Any criticism, no matter how necessary and politely delivered it might be, is an act that can lead to trouble.

The logical implication is that we should stop correcting students completely. That would result in an education where students are made aware that information actually exists out there, but they won’t be held responsible for actually knowing the information, or getting it right.

Those who think I am being ridiculous, that things will never go so far, have obviously never been a college teacher. We already have students who think they should get an A for just showing up – some, for just signing up.

This is exactly the tool many students are looking for to make simply signing up for a class sufficient to pass it. Who wants to argue that you are not really offended, or that you are not really being marginalized? Certainly not university administrators, who want to solve the problem in such a way that the student continues to spend their money at the university.

The only solution is for universities to attack this head-on and tell their students, “You have to learn to write and speak this way, no matter what, because that is what you have to do to graduate from our university.” We need to tell students that this is not an arbitrary choice on the part of university professors or administration, but that we are trying to teach them the way English is being used by academics and business people.

If you want to be successful in a certain area, you have to learn how to use the language the way it is being used within that area. And more, administrators need to let professors know that they’re not going to get in trouble for committing any “microaggressions” like correcting spelling, grammar, and syntax to bring students’ writing in line with the standards of academic and business writing.

If universities don’t insist that their students learn how to write and speak well, businesses will figure out a way to fix the problem themselves.

Businesses have no problem telling their employees, “You have to learn to write and speak this way, no matter what, if you want to continue working here.” And as this CNBC article shows, businesses have about had it with the fact that college graduates do not have even basic writing skills.

For those English professors who think it is important to learn to write and speak Standard American English, who think that it is important to know and understand grammar and write well-crafted sentences, there will soon be plenty of jobs – as consultants teaching writing to corporate employees. Proper English will matter then, and fretting about the possibility of hurting feelings due to the “microaggression” of correcting poor English will not.