Wednesday, May 5, 2010

End of semester blues

In the semester just ended, I taught a section of Linguistic Anthropology. An ever-present theme in this course is the concept of linguist relativism: the idea that all human languages are equally good at being human languages, even those we often devalue or disparage, like African American Vernacular English (AAVE, or Ebonics). Complementing this is the idea that languages may have quite different ways of expressing some concept, but that this says nothing about the cognitive capacity of speakers.

So, when I put the following question on the last test, I fully expected it to be a throwaway, a sure couple of percentage points for everyone:
TRUE or FALSE:  When Ebonics (AAVE) speakers say Mary pen for Standard English Mary's pen, they are demonstrating their lack of the concept of possession.
Imagine my surprise when I found that only 67% of the students answered (correctly) "false," while 33% answered (incorrectly) "true."

This is after spending 15 weeks with a professor whose entire research life has been spent investigating, analyzing, writing about, and teaching about "non-standard" languages. A professor whose interest in these languages was jump-started back in the late 1970s by Bill Labov's classic article "The Logic of Non-Standard English," which should have killed these ideas, but obviously didn't.

Another question, this one also a presumed freebie:
According to your professor, the decision to call vernacular forms of language, such as Ebonics or creoles, a "language" or a "dialect" is based primarily on:  (a) science  (b) linguistics  (c) logic  (d) politics.
The correct answer is (d). In this same class, only 39% answered correctly; 61% were incorrect. All those who answered incorrectly chose (b). Again, this after repeated iterations of Max Weinreich's classic aphorism: "A language is a dialect with an army and navy." Plus a discussion of the brouhaha surrounding the Oakland (California) School Board's attempt to designate Ebonics a "language" for educational purposes (the African American community of Oakland does not have its own army and navy).

This same question, with slightly different answer choices, was on the final test in my other class, an introduction to linguistics for English and English Education majors. In this class, 83% gave the correct answer (politics); only 17% were incorrect.

What does all this mean? Are English majors "smarter" than Anthropology majors (and by "smarter" I mean only better at living up to the expectations of professors, nothing more)? I don't think so, generally, but the performance of the Anthropology majors in my class this semester, with a few exceptions, was certainly disappointing. For example, despite my constant needling, threats at testing (some carried out), talking about their importance, etc., they refused to commit to memory the required symbols of the International Phonetic Alphabet. Of course, this was true of some in the English linguistics class as well.

Overall, it was a somewhat frustrating semester.
Labov, W. 1972. Language in the Inner City: Studies in the Black English Vernacular. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. Pages 201-240.


  1. As an English major who's taken your class (I was a graduate student by then, though), I can say that these concepts weren't entirely new to me. I came to your class with a lot of prejudices that I didn't realize I had, and I left with a more confident and less biased view of people. Given that, it still wasn't terribly difficult for me to assimilate what you were saying. It wasn't too different from discussions of the "other" in literature and the way that various groups over time have been put into a "less than" category.

    The study of literature is really a study of people, so all I can say is that perhaps English majors have the benefit of having been taught literature for years in K-12 (where they probably took an interest in the subject), whereas anthropology is a subject that isn't taught as its own discipline until college (this was my experience anyway). Before then, it's mixed up with social studies/history (which is notoriously mangled in schools). The recurring themes of literature very well might be ingrained in English majors early in college, but the recurring anthropology concepts might still be new.

    That's the only theory I can come up with. What do you suppose are the motivations of most anthropology students? What do they expect to do with their degrees?

    P.S. Are you planning to post about the AZ situation regarding teachers?

  2. I might, but it's so depressing...

  3. I was in this class. I can honestly say I was confused on what to expect for the first exam and focused entirely on the wrong ideas. But after the first test I think most people got a better idea of what to expect.

    Your class was the hardest class I've taken in college to date. But you know what else? I have used the information in real conversations and everything I've learned has been relevant to all my other classes. You're an awesome prof, and I think a lot of the people in that class were lazy.

  4. Mommy Bewley, thanks so much for this. These kinds of messages are few and far between but they make my day!


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