Corpus linguistics, cosmopolitan English, and the trickiness of academic “communities”

Over the summer, I had an idea about how word processors (or other proofreading-focused software) could use corpus linguistics — rather than an (arbitrary) racist, classist, imperialist logic that privileges certain sets of conventions. I thought this might allow for a more capacious selection process when the writer was making a decision about which public(s) she invokes as she writes.

My idea was this: the program would come pre-loaded with a bunch of different corpi. Depending on the piece’s audience, the author could select the corpus that they wanted to use. The word processor would draw the author’s attention to the places where language that they used was in contrast to the most common usages in the corpus.

Put more simply, my word processor wouldn’t (necessarily) do this:

A screen shot of my Microsoft Word word processor with sentences that say "He don't go there anymore," and "She see it," and "He been trying," and which underlines pieces of the sentences with a green squiggly line, indicating that these are errors.
This picture is a little blurry, but you might be able to make out that MS Word is putting a green squiggly line underneath verbs that don’t “agree,” according to the conventions of Standard Edited English. The green squiggly lines are communicating that this language is wrong, rather than indicating the larger truth: that language is constructed within social, political, and historical contexts.

In Suresh Canagarajah’s “Multilingual Writers and the Academic Community: Towards a Critical Relationship,” he points out to the community of practitioners of English for Academic Purposes (EAP) the fact that discourse is socially constructed, that genres are living rather than fixed, and that very uneven power dynamics mediate what gets acknowledged and what gets labeled as an error, as incoherent, as insufficient. This would be partly acknowledged by this imaginary corpus-based word processor I wanted to will into existence.

But when dreaming of a corpus-based word processor that would be less fixated on tracking and flagging “errors” (i.e. violations of the conventions of the language of power), I still wasn’t acknowledging that a corpus, itself, is a social construction.

Which texts would we choose? Who decides?

In the case of the COCA (Corpus of Contemporary American English), there are millions of spoken and written texts (you can see what they are here). But even with millions of texts, do we go on majority rule? In this case, doesn’t the language of power still persist, and still perpetuate the status quo?

Let’s say that we were going to make a corpus for Comp scholars to consult when they were writing journal articles, and so we loaded in all of the journal articles that were ever written for a Comp Rhet journal which could tell us something about how well (or not) we were adhering to certain conventions.

Deciding on what constitutes a field’s journals is a political choice.

What gets in to a journal (and what doesn’t) directly reflects the habitus of the reviewers.

And, finally, a corpus-based processor would argue, invisibly, that the language of a field of academic practitioners is based on its history. It would not open up sufficient spaces for the language of the future.

Those the green squiggly lines would still be showing up to manage what was new, and to keep that status quo exactly where it is.

Back to the drawing board…

Anti-racism, graduate education, and Cosmopolitan English

Early in the morning after our nation elected Donald Trump as our president, I watched this short video by David Billings: an anti-racist activist at the Anti-Racist Alliance.

I was so particularly struck by this quote:

There is not one field of study in these United States where you cannot earn the highest degree that this nation has to offer — the PhD — that requires you to have a mastery of this country’s race construct and its impact on the citizenry today. That’s sick, when we can graduate doctors, we can graduate lobbyists, we can graduate social workers, we can graduate teachers…and they never learn what the construct of the nation is.

How true.

How resonant with my experiences as a graduate student interested in the intersections between faculty development, translingualism, and technology.

How often, as a result, our neglect feels benign rather than vivid. How often it arrives unannounced in the organizational and institutional cultures we create and reproduce. In our coded language about “motivation” and “rigor” and “high expectations” and “academic aptitude.” In our research and methodological assumptions. In our either / or thinking. In our fear of open conflict.

How easy it is for me: a white, college-educated, middle class, cis-gendered, able-bodied, urban American — a progressive one, even, who is dedicated to public education, who is trying to learn how to organize, who is seeking out what to do other than reading and writing — to neglect the sickness right in front of me. To feel timid. To not bring up anti-oppression, to fail to center it.

Catherine Prendergast calls race “the absent presence” in Writing Studies. We talk about the politics of remediation, about assessment and curricular design, about teaching. We talk about training faculty. We take (or design) graduate classes and practica.

But how often do these things structure themselves explicitly around our deep histories of white supremacy and oppression? How often are our syllabi or our classes or our programs “inclusive” of difference instead of responsive to difference? When is difference allowed to transform sick systems rather than merely propping them up?

I worry about this decentering, the absence of this presence, in my own work: both in the work I do as a faculty developer, and in the work I’m doing to prepare myself to write a dissertation. As I’ve been reading Xiaoye You’s excellent book, Cosmopolitan English and Transliteracy, I’ve been so struck by his idea about the porous boundaries of language. Our histories have caused us to demarcate the way that we communicate: by nation (or nationlessness: “non-native” speakers), by ethnicity, by constructed identities. These things make us ignore the “margin of error” — the way that languages actually work. We sublimate porousness. We call it an exception to the rule, when in fact, it is the rule that we simply ignore.

And at the exact same time that we should be pointing to the constructedness of these (linguistic, or otherwise) identities, how do we also acknowledge the violence of their material effects?

Because while it is critical to “shake loose the confines of the bounded perspective to nation, culture, and language,” we can’t approach this task by continuing to be wildly neglectful of the histories of race and racism that have shaped (and that continue to shape) so much of our work (107). We can’t do this work without accounting for, without fully understanding, white supremacy. Until anti-oppression is centered in our field, in our graduate programs, rather than the province of “the race person” or “the disability person,” might there be a dangerous flattening effect that results from pursuing a less bounded approach to language?