Tips for Faculty Teaching African American Languages and Literature

PALS is excited to welcome a guest post by Carly Overfelt. Overfelt writes about the mistakes that white people can make when teaching African American languages and literature and provides information about how to do this better in the classroom.

Several weeks ago, a news story circulated on Twitter about a high school student who was upset by her teacher’s lesson on “African American Vernacular English” in preparation to read Their Eyes Were Watching God. According to the story, the lesson made her feel that her teacher was assuming that all African Americans speak ungrammatical/incorrect English, and she complained to her mother. The screenshot did look bad, especially out of context. What made it worse was that the way it was reported used language that supported the idea that African American language is indeed “incorrect” English. A statement by the teacher’s association did help answer some questions, but this “springboard to academic English” style curriculum is controversial, even with the context.

I’m not here to weigh in on that particular lesson. What matters to me is that the student was harmed. My goal is to share some tips here that might help prevent similar harm to students in the classrooms I am familiar with, like general education literature courses in college. I’m writing this as a white person for other white people, especially white faculty who teach African American texts (literature, film, music) and have no training in linguistics. Ideally, your institution will hire more people of color to teach those texts and also devote resources to professional development in the area of linguistic diversity and linguistic justice. Until then, this post may be helpful.

What you do in your classroom, of course, depends on your goals and learning outcomes. I have written this series of tips assuming that at least one of your goals is to show students that the language associated with a text like Their Eyes are Watching God is unjustly (and with real consequences) categorized in our society as “lazy” or “incorrect,” while it is actually as valid, complex, and innovative as any other English they may encounter in the study of American literature.

Decenter Yourself 

Decentering yourself is probably the first rule for white faculty teaching African American Literature anyway, but it is important enough to state outright here again. You are bringing your own linguistic and cultural background to the classroom, and part of your job as you raise the topic of language is to not use your own language background as the “norm” and default to which all other language patterns are compared. How can you decenter yourself?

  • Center your students’ languages/Englishes. You can do this by beginning with an activity that asks them questions about their languages/Englishes to first establish that linguistic diversity is here and it’s ok. This works for every student. There is no student who texts the same way they write, and speaks in class in the same way they talk to their mom on the phone, etc.
  • Center Black writers. African American writers are already dealing with these issues of language and power much better and more efficiently than you can, so start there. If you’re preparing students for a longer text, try beginning with something short, like a poem, and talk through it with your students. One great choice might be “Finna,” a new poem by Nate Marshall, or maybe the segment of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, where she describes meeting a therapist whom she had only spoken to on the phone before (18). Guide students through unpacking stereotypes our society associates with particular types of speaking and what is at stake. 
  • Center scholars. As much as possible, let the technical information (like syntactic structures, phonological patterns) about African American Language come from voices who study that and who are practiced in explaining it for educational purposes. As much as possible, these should be voices who identify as speakers of the language, or who identify as part of the Black community. For example, you can have your students watch Talking Black in America. You can also refer to trusted texts like The Oxford Handbook of African American Language.
    • Why even introduce the more technical linguistic information? I’m not saying you should or should not, but introducing some of the core features can help students understand that it is systematic. For example, when students learn the “rules” behind the distribution of zero copula (the optional omission of so-called “linking verbs” in some contexts), it might counter their notions that the language is “random” or “lazy.” 
    • What was so bad about the chart from the Fresno story, then? It showed that the language is rule-governed and what the patterns were, right? Context is key. I don’t know the dynamics of the room in that instance, but if you’re a white teacher in a predominantly white class, using a chart like that could make African American students feel like they are being studied like an object, and being flattened, whether or not they identify with the linguistic patterns portrayed. Because of the visual rhetoric and the terminology, that particular chart is not something I would personally use.
    • Avoid the idea of “translation” and don’t have students “translate.” This centers more privileged varieties of English as normative and African American Language as a foreign outlier (the thing that must be made legible). Just use resources that already include Standard American English (whatever that is) paraphrases if you’re wanting students to see meanings they might not catch. Even after reading about the context and learning outcomes for the translation exercise that offended the Fresno student, I still would not use that technique in my college literature classroom, as I don’t think the outcomes are worth the harm that they could cause students. If students who have command of the language have self-expressed interest in explaining aspects of it to other students, I think that could be valuable and empowering, but that’s different. If students who identify as speakers decide to use words like “translation” to talk about their Englishes, then of course let them, and ask them questions about why they chose that word. You and your whole class will learn.

Let the Literature Speak for Itself

Don’t make the mistake of assuming that the dialogue spoken by Black characters in African American literature is somehow a real-world transcript of African American English, as described by linguists. It is a literary creation for a specific purpose and should not be taken too literally in most cases. That is, “In what way does the author imagine African American speech, and what seems to be at stake?” is probably a better question for your classroom discussion than, “Is this an authentic/realistic depiction of the variety we know of as African American English?” I’ve written and given talks about this, and I’d love to have separate conversations with folks about this approach, if/when they’d like.

Disrupt Labels

State over and over again that categories like “African American Language” or “Southern English” or “Standard English” are labels for ideas, and that they do not capture reality. That means that just because there is something linguists call “African American Language” or “African American English” does not mean all African Americans speak that way. Many do not. Your African American students may not use those features, or may not identify with what you’re describing at all. And many who do use some features, do not use others. And probably some features are used that are not yet observed by any linguist. That’s ok, and that’s how language works.

Don’t Make Assumptions about your Students’ Language Attitudes

Remember that your students who use the stigmatized features of African American Language often feel negatively about them in certain ways and see “Standard English” (whatever that means) as superior for classroom and other purposes. Your Black students are not sitting around waiting for you to realize that their language is valid, and then feeling proud of how woke you are when you do. It’s more complicated than that. Some of them have mixed or negative attitudes about their own speech or the speech of their families. It makes me sad and I wish they did not, but it’s not about how I feel or what I want. Don’t argue with students or position yourself as the expert on their language (“You should love your language! I will teach you how beautiful it is!”). Rather, if they express negative attitudes, ask them questions about how they feel and why, and how it relates to the texts you’ve been reading by African American authors who grapple with this. Give them space to think and talk it out if they feel comfortable doing so; your whole class will learn, including you.

Do Not Say or Use the “N Word”

Do not under any circumstances use/say/pronounce/articulate/write the N word. The time period of the literary piece does not make it okay. The fact that you’ve heard people say it or sing it does not make it okay. This word has a complex place in American society and a complex relationship with African American linguistic culture. If you don’t understand why you should not go near this word, or you don’t understand how to teach certain texts without it, listen to Koritha Mitchell’s piece for the C19 podcast about this.   

Educate Yourself

One key take-away from Koritha Mitchell’s podcast episode, especially for white people, is to “do the work.” Do the work to educate yourself on what language actually is and how it works. If you believe in the white supremacist ideology of Standard English, you will not be able to help using euphemisms and coded language that undermine any point you are making. You need to get right with yourself first. Educating yourself on these issues is a process, and is never complete. I am only able to offer these tips because I have, myself, made many mistakes and I am still learning. You can refer to any of the resources and texts I’ve already mentioned, and here are a few more good entry-level, popular-audience resources you can check out:

Articulate While Black: Barack Obama, Language and Race (2012) 
H. Samy Alim and Geneva Smitherman

Vocal Fries Podcast: Interview with Nicole Holliday

Spoken Soul: The Story of Black English (2000)
John Russell Rickford and Russell John Rickford
(This text increasingly feels dated but still does a great job hitting a range of important topics, including literary texts, for a lay audience.)  

Bio:

Carly Overfelt is the Multilingual and Intercultural Program Coordinator at Gustavus Adolphus College, where she is a tutor, advisor, and instructor for the international and multilingual students. She also regularly offers faculty development and campus programming around issues of linguistic diversity and linguistic justice. Before her work at Gustavus, she got her Ph.D. in English from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where she specialized in linguistic approaches to literature, and taught composition and general education literature courses. 

Cookbooks Not Novels

I have kept a running list of things students have called novels: plays, essays, articles, both primary and secondary sources of all sorts, poems, textbooks, memoirs, and cookbooks. Given how often I teach cookbooks in the scope of the American Literary tradition I have perhaps encountered this term-swapping with “cookbooks” at a disproportionate rate.

Before I write another word, I want to scream “NO this is not another ‘arrogant teacher complaining that students can’t write’ vent piece.” (I also want to warn you dear readers that I take pictures of my dog with my reading material. It’s a thing.)

Yes, I need to hold myself accountable and admit that a few years ago I was at that haughty place. Looking back on my own processing of this phenomena, my reactions followed a pattern that happened to mirror the stages of grief.

Denial: These are honest mistakes, or typos. No one would call a cookbook a novel on purpose.

Anger: How can students not know the difference between a cookbook and a novel?? Why didn’t anyone warn me about this sooner!? This. Is. Annoying.

Bargaining: If y’all consistently call them cookbooks in your papers I will bring donuts!

Depression: I’m a failure of a teacher. The education system is yet again failing us. I am really bad at my job, what else am I messing up?

Acceptance: Ok, so from now on sometimes folks will call cookbooks novels. This is a part of the literary landscape. That’s how language is now.

It took me a while to transition from teaching the difference between the genres (and ‘marking mistakes’) to actually going to the source and asking my students *why* this was happening. My students told me and turns out there is a reason why.

Many had the experience in high school where books are divided into two categories: fictitious novels and nonfiction novels. I don’t take it to be the case that high school teachers (or librarians) used these categories. Yet for whatever reason, it has stuck with many students as their truth for how to discuss book-objects. Nonfiction novels are basically any book that isn’t fiction—and book is also loosely understood, too. For students coming out of this classification system, of course a cookbook is a novel. I get that. I also regret not asking years sooner.

Even if their genre is undefined, cookbooks are great sites for teaching theory. Ten examples in no order! They are unfamiliar enough as a genre that they make an interesting place to learn, or practice, close reading. The economy of language (and ingredients) is not the only reason why cookbooks are a Marxist field day for discussions of material conditions, production, and power. Heck, it is impossible to have a full discussion about spices without a Postcolonial lens. All waves of Feminism and Critical Race Theory emerge when we ask who is doing what, in domestic and public spheres. The questions of who does what, where, why, how also insist we engage with Queer Theory, debates on Authorship (and imagined communities of readers or eaters). And for die hard rhetoricians, cookbooks are all about Burkeian equipment for living, and proverbs.

In terms of their potential for assignments, I’ve used cookbooks as the catalyst text for all sorts of projects, such as: Poems from the point of view of an ingredient; Twine choose your own adventure games about the global movement of food (like potatoes); Infographics on the history of a food/food adjacent commodity (like horses); Traditional Papers doing literary analysis and/or close reading of cookbooks; Podcasts exploring an idea from a cookbook as the idea exists in our communities.

In teaching American protest literature, I favor including cookbooks on the syllabus for many reasons. A big reason is that cookbooks easily open the conversation for material conditions in texts to investigate biases we might bring to texts (see Greg Spector’s prior post). For example, the combination of Julia Turshen’s cookbook Feed the Resistance, John Lewis’ collaborative text March, and the cult-classic, genre bending book Foxfire. John Lewis’ graphic novel series, March, (in collaboration with Aydin and Powell) takes us through Lewis’s resistance in the American South through the violence and complexity of fear and hope in the civil rights movement. He also takes us through his food memories starting at a young age, and move into dangerous food spaces (like lunch counters), and spaces for food that hold hope and action (like the restaurants and homes that fed members of the resistance).

I am the kind of instructor who does the thing of bringing in food for the last day of class, and I tend to ask my students what kind of food they would like. In a semester where I taught the above-mentioned texts (in combination with Birth of a Nation—and a guest visits from speakers like, Akila McConnell, on history of the stereotypes around fried chicken), students wanted fried chicken for their last class. So, I brought enough fried chicken to feed 25 twenty-somethings—with at least 100 packets of hot sauce—to class. The chicken had cooled by the time it got to them—a consideration students hadn’t made and were not too pleased with. Despite our shared knowledge of frying being a way to preserve chicken, and that they weren’t eating spoiled food, many noted that they didn’t vote for cold fried chicken.

That led to a conversation about the temperature of fried chicken in many of the texts we were reading. During the freedom rides people didn’t bring thermal lunch boxes to keep their chicken warm. It was suggested putting hot sauce on the chicken—while some students laughed at the idea of NOT putting hot sauce on the as-is chicken. Unanimously, the class agreed that hot sauce greatly improves room temperature chicken. And voila, here is an opportunity for experiential knowledge to bring to March—as well as identifying how food traditions like fried chicken are weaponized in coded language for racial stereotypes. It is one thing to read the history about why certain food stereotypes developed. It is another thing to experience the food (the food that has become rhetorically weaponized) in a set of sensory conditions that are historically different from their daily sensory experience.

We have a pedagogical responsibility to encourage the use of terms with their corresponding objects. Yes. Then we shouldn’t abide calling cookbooks novels. However, is there anything we can do with a cookbook that we can’t do with a novel? Or the other way around?

When we juxtapose cookbooks with literature, we don’t have to use cookbooks as a historical guide to better understand the things happening in literature—anymore than we should use literature only to historically emplace cookbooks. We can study food as a cultural object, as we can with literature or film. Why not read cookbooks as the evidence of the storytelling that has literally fed us, mind, body, and soul? And from what I understand about the canon, “novels” end up there because they feed us in similar ways.

To recap (and reframe) some of the Pros and Cons for calling a cookbook a “novel,”:

Pros:
1) Who cares what students are calling the material as long as they’re reading it.
2) Calling a “cookbook” a “novel” allows broad understandings of reading.
3) Cookbooks-as-novels are great sites for doing theory. They can illustrate how to bridge the gap between doing theory in the classroom and in everyday life.
4) We can also benefit from cross-genre and interdisciplinary perspectives.
5) Cookbooks and novels both create imagined communities.
6) Cookbook-novels also let us introduce genre theory.
7) Is the term “cookbook” really that accurate anyway? When we say “cookbook” do we mean a collection of recipes, or a book about cooking? What about novels and non-fiction novels that have recipes in them and cookbooks filled with creative non-fiction or poetry-proper?

Cons:
1) Words matter, and the issue of calling objects by the noun they are matters.
2) Calling everything a “novel” is indicative of something learned before students get to my college classroom. In the way that many of us aim to have students “unlearn” the five-paragraph essay, we have a responsibility to teach students how different texts fit into different genres.
3) Moreover, we want to give students the benefit of knowing what to call texts in different classification systems so that they can better engage with the critical conversation about those genres.
4) When students use “novel” instead of “cookbook” when pointing to a cookbook, it makes me question their comprehension of the material.

Trying to look at the pros and cons from an objective point of view immediately shows me three things. First, one list clearly wins over the other. Next, the cons list is more about me. It indicates teacher-frustrations, whereas the pros list has an uncanny resemblance to many intended “learning outcomes” for literature classrooms.

With compassion fatigue as high as it is for students and faculty alike, it is important to give students aesthetic, critical and practical tools to manage that fatigue. Of course, that opens the can of worms about the role of emotional labor in the literature classroom and how those affective demands hit humanities departments where it hurts. Until we solve those big systemic questions, we all have the responsibility to ask ourselves what should be teaching in the American Literature classroom while the world literally burns. I suggest adding a cookbook. Feed The Resistance is a favorite of mine.

My classroom needs both cookbooks and literature. I think I am ok if “novel” sometimes slips from one to the other. I still want students to know the words specific to different genres. But I also want the flexibility to do work on cookbooks that we would do on novels. In Feed the Resistance, the recipes take budget, audience, and culture into account, and it also gives a step by step guide for ‘getting involved’—without overwhelming yourself. I like a text that teaches one of my intended learning outcomes: learn to use effective communication to take care of yourself and others, while maintaining a focus on community in critical thinking. Novels teach that learning outcome a good part of the time, but I trust cookbooks to do that consistently.

Bio:

Darcy Mullen is a Postdoctoral Marion L. Brittain Fellow, teaching about food and media literacy at Georgia Institute of Technology. Publications include articles exploring the use of “local” as a tool for mapping food movements, the politics of place in tourism, the Anthropocene, and pedagogy studies. She is currently teaching community engaged courses linking poetics and food systems in urban agriculture. She tweets pictures of what she reads (#bookselfies with #souphound: @FarmsWatson). For more about her, visit her website, www.storiesofsoil.com, where she blogs about dirt, books and art.