18 March 2006

The Legitimate Professorial Voice of Authority

Liliana Porter, Please Don't Move

Yesterday, in my course on American Immigration, I tried a pedagogical technique I used to use quite often at Sadistic College but not so much now at Cold City U., whose students strike me as much more utilitarian. Instead of beginning with the reading, or showing a video, I started a relaxed conversation, sitting astride the desk at the head of the classroom in a casual slouch. We were studying comparative 19th century Irish and Jewish immigration to the United States, and unsure of whether they had actually completed the reading, and sensing a low in the classroom energy, I posed a series of (seemingly) spontaneous questions regarding our mental and media images of classic American immigration (babushkas, the Statue of Liberty rising over New York harbour, that sort of thing), and how we bring these images to bear upon contemporary immigrants.

The point of my questioning was to guide my students through thinking whether or not these specific immigration streams from the 19th century, which were highly successful and served as models of assimilative processes for most other European immigrants (as well as being viciously applied to historic US minority communities), could be broadly used to understand today’s immigrants/New Americans, and if not, what kind of rhetorical violence was being committed. Now, of course I didn’t phrase it this way, but that was the gist. It is important to understand the classroom milieu here at Cold City U. The classroom is wildly, chaotically, joyously diverse: New Americans from Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Asia (for many of whom English is a second or third language) sit next to long-resident “Old” Americans— white, Black, Latina/o, and Asian American, of varying ages and immigration generations but all confidently anglophone. This shift in student constituency I am still trying to figure out, after teaching the children of privilege for four years, but the energy these students bring to the university is vibrant and alive in a way that classrooms at Sadistic College never were, plowed under as they were by ennui and smug self-satisfaction. My new students are strivers, which can pose other problems, but they could never be described as disinterested.

Given the high percentage of New Americans in the class, this conversational tactic triggered an incredible amount of talking, which even surprised me. Students who had spent the entire semester quiet as church mice were now gabbing like they were on the Oprah show. And invariably, the conversation turned towards anti-immigrant sentiment, and the similarities and differences between American nativism of the 19th and 21st centuries. One of my formerly quiet students, speaking in a beautifully accented African English, focused on recent legislative efforts in the states of Minnesota and North Dakota to bar professors and teaching assistants with accented English (i.e. immigrants or “foreigners”) from university classrooms. North Dakota I could understand, but Minnesota was a surprise, given the progressive history of the state. Then again, Minnesota, like Cold City, is a gateway for new immigration, and if there is anything my course wishes to instill, it is the notion of cyclical patterns in American immigration history, which obviously includes nativism and fear of the immigrant.

My student’s critique of these proposed laws was that they discriminate against immigrants (New Americans), which was then countered by native anglophone students (Old Americans) saying that their difficulty in understanding heavily accented professors affected their performance in class. The conversation, blissfully, never got tense (this isn’t California, after all), but it did lead me to ponder, and work through a little with my students, language, accent, access, and authority.

The authority in question here is the power of the professor, some of whose primary projections are language and voice. Invariably, this is how many of us demonstrate to our students our qualifications to lead the course, to sit behind the oaken desk, to evaluate their performance and command respect. I am, quite clearly, not unaware of the uneven distribution of this professorial authority grounded in classifications of race, gender, and sexuality. But these conundrums co-exist alongside the empowerment our language brings us. Following Spivak, the subaltern ceases to exist when it can speak. Similarly, I would argue that for those of us disempowered by society and its institutions, including the university, we are not completely and utterly disempowered, for we have language and voice: we can represent our conditions, which is an aspect of power itself, the descriptive voice, the critical position.

But coming down from these lofty theoretical heights, there is a growing debate, somewhat sub rosa but present nonetheless, over the role and placement of non-native anglophone professors in the university classroom. In this debate, professors and administrators are caught between two important institutional principles: cultural diversity versus student desires. It is an unenviable choice with no clear path to victory. There seems to be wide agreement that comprehension is crucial to the classroom atmosphere, and on the face of it this argument seems strong. But it also gives me pause. Comprehensible to whom? After all, anglophone North Americans speak (although less and less) a variety of Englishes (or Americanisms or Canadianisms) with differences in intonation, vernacular, and pitch. Moreover, anglophones from our sister white settler colonies, like Australia and South Africa, as well as from the linguistic “homeland,” the United Kingdom, speak wildly disparate Englishes inflected by class, region, and education. Yet, my impression is that complaints against accented instructors tend to focus on professors or teaching assistants who are racially thought of as other.

I have blogged before on language here, in connection with the concept of passing, which seems relevant as well to this conversation, for what is language other than a way in which to perform our various personae? I also am reminded in this debate of the intriguing work of Donald L. Rubin at the University of Georgia, whose work is discussed in a Chron article on the North Dakota situation and teaching, accents, and comprehensibility. Rubin conducts an experiment where a speech is recorded by a white American native anglophone and then played for students before a static image of either a white man or an Asian man. Students were then queried about their comprehension. Rubin’s work consistently showed a greater lack of comprehension when the image of the Asian professor was displayed, even though the recorded speech was identical. Rubin is quoted in the article, saying:

“‘Students who expect that nonnative instructors will be poor instructors and unintelligible speakers can listen to what we know to be the most Standard English speech and the most well-formed lecture, and yet experience some difficulties in comprehension,’ Mr. Rubin says. ‘All the pronunciation improvement in the world,’ he says, ‘will not by itself halt the problem of students’ dropping classes or complaining about their instructors' language.’”

So, in other words, and contrary to the best intentions of both administrators and well-meaning professors attempting to recognize and assist with students’ potential comprehension problems, language incomprehensibility is innately tied up with race and visual perception. The voice of authority is deeply and inextricably embodied, and that body apparently, for American students, seems to be the white body.

For me, language and language politics have always been particularly acute. Arguably, for Latinas/os and LGBT folks alike, language and self-identification are central to how we understand ourselves collectively, Latinas/os through Spanish/Spanglish/Caló and LGBT folks through vernacular and patois. Like many US Latinas/os, I was raised in a bilingual atmosphere but with unilingual intentions. Immigrants and disempowered populations (like Chicanas/os) recognize deeply (and contrary to the fears of reactionary critics) the value of “speaking the language.” While surrounded by Spanish and easily fluent in its complicated sound systems, I felt (and continue to feel) most comfortable in English: the language of my dreams, my fears, my hopes, my complaints, my self. Language, and the mastery of language, was the principle route I took out of Northeast LA and into Prestigious Eastern U., and then into the larger anglophone world. Being able to speak and write English well empowered me, and was the engine of my academic and socio-economic “success.” And, like many US Latinas/os, I had a reunion with Spanish as an adult, free of the bonds of the horrible and viciously racist anti-Mexican attitudes of Los Angeles as well as having a new willingness to take up again the language I had, as a teenager, associated with poverty, disempowerment, and exploitation. The mechanism of this re-acquaintance was Mr. Gordo, and the constant exposure to Spanish in my domestic quotidian with him. What started out as a mild interest became obligatoire as I traveled with him through Venezuela and Spain, and needed to communicate more complicated needs and desires other than “yes” or “no.”

Liliana Porter, Two of Them/Dos de ellos

And these initial experiences of incomprehensibility in Spanish retaught me the perceptions of non-native speakers by native speakers. I can’t tell you how frustrating it was, on our first trip to Caracas, to sit through dinner parties and social gatherings and not be spoken to, to be perceived as lacking intelligence as well as language ability. To be considered a child. This, of course, is the daily experience of non-native anglophones in the USA. Mr. Gordo, whose employ brings him into contact with native anglophones everyday, has told me the most hair-raising stories of anglophone Americans questioning everything he does, indeed his very right to hold his job or be in the USA, due to his accent. If anything, Mr. Gordo’s malicious experiences speak to my childhood knowledge of disempowerment: to be noticed as different is to be exploited, or at the very least treated differently. Our common experiences together reinforce this point. To be able to speak up in English, loud and clear, assures you good service in commercial establishments, the following of procedures and explanations in government offices, and a greater share of what one is due. To be accented is to be dismissed, most of the time, out of hand.

One conclusion of Rubin’s work is that Americans are not good listeners. They turn off when they hear speech that they consider different, or are confronted by a body (or perception of body) that they do not expect to be literate. In the USA, this perception is inextricably bound up in our collective and traumatic racial histories, and as such are also then at play with the embodied professor at the head of the classroom. In an attempt to pour oil on the waters of my heated but civil classroom discussion, I reminded my students that English, as we know it, is a global language, and that in fact there is no right or wrong way of speaking it. That what we consider “our” language actually exists on a global plane, and this cosmopolitanism is reflected in the myriad and beautiful ways that English is spoken. In other words, what I was trying to communicate to them, in some ways, was that, as members of a diverse and global linguistic family, we need to learn better how to listen, and relish the differences instead of rejecting them whole cloth. This is what it means to inhabit the house of difference.

Liliana Porter, Blue With Them (The Cast)

I have chosen the work of Argentinean-New York artist Liliana Porter to illustrate this post, for her work so often examines the nature of dialogue, of communality, and of the collective, through the use of inanimate objects from popular culture. It seemed apropos to the laudable goal of emerging from our parochial cave and imagining ourselves as a global linguistic family, inside and outside of the classroom. What does it mean to have a dialogue/¿Podemos tener los diálogos entre nosotros? What does it mean to live in a polyglot society? How can we initiate conversation from equality, from multi-locationality and not narcissism? These are issues we struggle with, and will continue to struggle with, as teachers and professors and instructors and students and citizens everyday.


Frank said...

I think part of the antipathy of anglophone students to non-native speaking professors is the the classes said professors teach. Perhaps I'm just talking out of my ass, because I don't have statistics to back me up, but non-native speaking professors, particularly professors from Asia (both East and South) are more heavily concentrated in scientific and technical subjects, such as biology, medicine, physics, mathematics, etc. These subjects are, at least in terms of perception, considered "hard." Most students, particularly those who are only taking the course for gen-ed credit or who are just starting out in the major, already don't know what the hell is going on. They're inundated with terminology they've never even heard of, material they don't get, concepts they can't fathom. Instead of realizing that they simply aren't trying hard enough or that it just takes time or that they have no aptitude for the subject, they use the professor's accent as a scapegoat for their own difficulties.

Also, I think a lot of people are just damn lazy. Even if the professor is perfectly understandable once you get used to them, some people just hear "accent" and tune out and don't bother even to try. I had the most darling religion teacher; he was Chinese and had a very pronounced accent, but he was perfectly understandable. People in my class, though, didn't bother listening and, when it came to bite them on the ass, complained they couldn't understand him anyway, so it wasn't their fault. It was insulting; he was a very non-confrontational man to begin with and probably, unfortunately, used to it, but I found myself having to restrain myself from kicking some ignorant people's asses.

Anyway, while I'm sure there is a racial component, some of the complaining is just a product of student denial and laziness. But there are probably some cases where professors are hard to understand and adversely impact student achievement. So it's a complicated issue.

Keguro said...

A comment and mild complaint.

After years of being told how British I sound, I'm always more than faintly amused when Americans complain they can't understand my accent, perhaps mediated by my queer black body. Though, one would have thought the queerness would explain the faux-colonial accent. It was especially funny in Pittsburgh, hardly a bastion of articulate speech.

African-accented English? Leave alone the (very obvious) differences between regional speech (in Kenya along, it's fairly easy to distinguish between 25 or so ethnic groups based on their English), it's fairly easy to distinguish between accents from, say, East Africa, West Africa, and Southern Africa. Mild complain, though. Perhaps I simply grow tired of being told I'm from Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa, or whatever country my (usually American) interlocutor can remember from that long-ago glance at an Atlas.

Anonymous said...

I think your reference to Rubin makes the point I would make otherwise. As a white woman with a "british" accent (not even), I get told it makes me sound smart and authoritative and that I should use that to my advantage in the classroom; similarly, the privelege accorded to other European accents when they come in white packages (see Keguro's comment). It is the *conjunction* of accent and the racially or sexually different body that both makes the accent in question so indecipherable AND vulnerable to discrimination. Or makes the discrimination nominally acceptable.

Finally, after overhearing/ eavesdropping on a couple undergrad conversations bemoaning the teachers they can't understand, students are more than willing to assume that their science prof/TA will have a problem accent, based on name alone, *without ever setting foot in the classroom*. I don't know how much of this is left over from mid/late 90s anxiety about the Asian hordes overwhelming the US with their technological superiority.

M. Simon said...

I think it is encouraging that 71% of third generation Hispanics speak no Spanish.

This is a problem that will be solved with time.

Still one must admit that, especially if a subject is hard, a teacher who was good with understandable explanations in English would be prized.