Reflecting on the symposium: Our plenary speakers

It has been over a week since we wrapped up our Crow symposium, and we can’t stop thinking about the great conversations that took place. Our keynote speakers, Dr. Susan Conrad and Dr. Shondel Nero, both explored potential changes to writing instruction: the former by integrating it more into Engineering coursework, and the latter by engaging the vernacular rather than standard concepts of English. Their research presents us with the opportunity to transform and adapt pedagogical strategies to better suit the needs of students and challenge the thinking of instructors.

Plenary 1: Dr. Susan Conrad

In “Improving Writing Instruction in Engineering through Interdisciplinary Collaboration,” Dr. Conrad focused on the gap in writing style between Engineering students and practitioners and ways to address that gap without completely changing the curriculum. Her research has found that students write long, complex sentences thinking that makes them sound smart. By contrast, practitioners write simple and concise reports, which are easy for clients to skim and understand. Additionally, students tend to use superfluous terms, whereas practitioners are very careful about certainty and quantification due to the real-world implications of absolute, immeasurable language.

Dr. Conrad traced the differences between student writing methods and practitioner writing methods back to three instructor conventions. The first is for English faculty to have a formulaic set of rules for producing good writing, while practitioners rely on the development of judgement. The second convention is for writing instructors to give students more room for self-expression and independence, whereas practitioners function within tighter constraints. Lastly, instructors view writing as a series of style choices, but practitioners see writing as a form-follows-function process.

Dr. Conrad is working to address this gap in writing style (though she wished for a different term!) by collaborating with practitioners and Engineering faculty to determine best pedagogical practices. To achieve this goal, Dr. Conrad and her colleagues have created a website for their study, including materials to help students develop writing practices that more directly correspond to their field. By more closely matching practitioners’ work, Civil Engineering students will be better prepared for the workforce. We thoroughly enjoyed Dr. Conrad’s presentation and look forward to seeing future impacts of her project.

Plenary 2: Dr. Shondel Nero

Dr. Nero’s presentation, “Engaging Vernacular Englishes through Literature in the Writing Classroom: Paradoxes, Pedagogy, Possibilities,” addressed the dichotomy between “standard” language and the equally important but often ignored vernacular and urged for the rethinking of language awareness.

Working in applied linguistics and English as a Second Language (ESL), Dr. Nero witnessed the way the ideology of standard language produced educational inequality. For instance, a student from her native country of Guyana, in which English is the official language, was placed in an ESL class despite his proficiency in English.

From these experiences, Dr. Nero raised questions about the validity of standard language with academia. Who gets to decide who is a native speaker? Why are all non-standard dialects considered “deformed” despite the great prevalence of multilingual speakers within American society and the fact that most multilingual speakers in classrooms are born in the US? Language is an ever changing medium in which everyone has an accent, so why the shame in using vernacular speech in the classroom?

Dr. Nero’s answer to these questions started with exposing the myths surrounding standard language and vernacular language. The myth of standard language is supported by the beliefs that there can only be one superior language which remains fixed and unchanging and is devoid of accents. These beliefs work alongside the anglo assumption that knowing only the English language is enough. In contrast, the myth of the vernacular is that it is a “deformed” version of the standard, lacking in grammatical structure, and spoken only by the uneducated or so-called lower classes.

To dispel these erroneous assumptions and shift academic attitudes away from language awareness and toward Critical Multilingual Awareness (CMLA), Dr. Nero has worked to foster greater acceptance of linguistic diversity among educators through workshops and the use of linguistically informed teaching material. She described ways to help teachers learn about different cultures so they could be more culturally responsive, and modeled an activity which included listening to vernacular literature then discussing the literary elements—figurative language, multiple layers of performance—which we can ignore if we focus on the differences between the vernacular and the “standard” language typically identified with literature.

Surprisingly, students were reluctant at first to engage the vernacular in classroom assignments. However, by challenge the assumption that learning in classroom should only take place in “standard” English, the language attitudes of students and instructors became more receptive and student writing showed greater linguistic awareness. Dr. Nero’s presentation demonstrated that by embracing and learning from the vernacular academics can obtain a culturally responsive pedagogy and a more inclusive attitudes toward multilingual and multiethnic students.

In addition to our keynote speakers, there were many other presenters that we would like to highlight, and we got some great feedback about the Crow web interface, too. Our next few posts will cover the various topics and offer more takeaways from our 2018 symposium.

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