TaxProf Blog op-ed: Policing Grammar and Diction in the Multicultural Law School Classroom, by Dan Subotnik (Touro):
How should a faculty member react when a student keeps saying AKS instead of ASK?
A little background. At an AALS session in early January, Socio-Economic Pedagogy and Implicit Bias, a presenter was lamenting that, Afros aside, black women are sometimes constrained by employers in choosing hair styles. The braided hair that she was wearing, she pointed out, can be deeply rooted in black traditions, which would make interference with such hair choice both patriarchal and racially supremacist.
This illustration of implicit bias led me to a thought having nothing to do with hair. So I, a white man, ventured to explain to the panel that because I think that grammar is crucial to in-person and written communications, and because bad grammar can be taken as a sign of an inadequate education, I make it my business to correct it in class. (“I have went” and “between he and I” are not all that uncommon Long Islandisms.) Similarly, although in this case only in private, I advise individual students that their diction might hold them back in the future, and I offer to help in that regard.
I further told the panel that last semester a good Chinese American student was happy take up my offer, and she and I have spent a number of productive hours working together. A good black student similarly expressed appreciation of my offer to work on AKS and AKSED.
I followed up this prologue with the obvious question: Was it wrong for me to rush in where others fear to tread? Two black panel members firmly said yes, that many students of color are already insecure about their status in law school and that self-consciousness about their diction might serve to undermine needed self-confidence. To ensure that foreign born individuals feel at home in this country, they pointed out, the law already protects use of accented English. After some further thought, the panelists came back with the suggestion that it might be OK If I announced to all at the beginning of the semester that I considered grammar and diction to be essential for professional success. That way no student might feel individually picked on by me. This, of course, wouldn’t solve the entire problem of a white man addressing the racial or cultural issue.
What might account for a rebuke that was totally unexpected? It is true that a critique on my part could conceivably hurt some students in the short term. But in the long term it could only help students who might otherwise flub a job interview. How then to explain why my comment drew such an instant rebuke? At the risk of further presumptuousness on my part, I would like to suggest that for a variety of reasons African American faculty have been given, and in many cases have taken on, the mantle of Protector of Students of Color In such an environment, however beneficial my commentary may have been, I was trespassing on their territory. This conclusion stems from a focus on issues of race over many years and on the reaction of a black member of the audience who suggested that, on the subject of my intent, the panelists should have given me the benefit of the doubt.
Query: Is it appropriate and helpful to think the worst of each other when we cross racial lines in our discourse with students?