Book Review

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MillsThe Elephant in the Classroom: Race and Writing, by Jane Bowman Smith. New York: Hampton P, 2010. 216 pp.

Reviewed by Andi Mills

The Elephant in the Classroom: Race and Writing began as a series of conversations several years ago between a Caucasian professor, Dr. Jane Bowman Smith, Writing Center Director at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C., and her African American colleague Dr. Dorothy Perry Thompson, the second African American in history to receive her Ph.D. in English from the University of South Carolina and coordinator for Winthrop’s African American Studies program at the time of her death in 2002. In an effort to answer the question, “What is it like to be an African American student in a writing class designed by Whites and for Whites?” (1), the two presented together twice at the Conference on College Composition and Communication, the seminal national conference for college writing teachers. The conversation eventually evolved into Smith’s edited collection of 11 essays by scholars from Winthrop, Howard, Rutgers, Francis Marion, El Centro College, Rochester Institute of Technology, Columbia, North Carolina State, and the Universities of Arkansas at Little Rock, Massachusetts, and Akron. Each author brings a unique perspective in examining issues faced by African American students in contemporary academia, particularly in regard to writing. I have a much better understanding of linguistic styles and the challenges they pose in the American system of higher education after reading The Elephant in the Classroom, and I recommend reading it as a first step in continuing this important conversation.

In the first chapter, Smith introduces the 1997 Oakland California Board of Education Resolution 146, which argued that students’ test scores and grades would “be remedied by application of a program featuring African Language Systems principles to move students from the language patterns they bring to school to English proficiency” (15). The intention was to use African American English (AAE) to teach students Standard Written English (SWE) “while respecting and embracing the legitimacy and the richness of the language patterns” (Smith 15, qtd. from Perry and Delpit 147, italics added).According to Smith, a “media frenzy” ensued, causing the public to misinterpret the proposal as a way to teach AAE instead of SWE (16). The Oakland decision is an example of the position that many Americans hold concerning American English: that AAE (i.e., “He be workin’” in AAE and “He is working” in SWE) is poor or incorrect English because it does not follow the patterns, forms and rules of SWE.

Smith contends that while “treating AAE as a stigmatized dialect” might seem to be a problem only in public schools, it is not. In fact, she claims, “. . . students entering college need educated teachers, especially when the freshman writing course is a ‘gatekeeping’ class. Faculty members need to understand the grammar of AAE as well as its rhetoric” (17). In colleges and universities, Smith says, African American students are put at a distinct disadvantage: “On one hand, the students see the ideology of the academic community and the language of academic discourse; on the other, their own language and rhetoric, the strengths of which are ignored, or worse, are seen as ‘ineffective’ or ‘wrong’ by the university” (21).Readers will value Smith’s thorough explanation of the Oakland scenario and the effectiveness with which she connects that incident with her own teaching experiences.

Smith’s opening chapter results in a thematic question for the book: Is it possible for African American students to use this new language – SWE, also known as SAE or Standard American English – for their academic and professional benefit without giving up what they consider their cultural identity? Several scholars contribute to this conversation in the following chapters.

Some scholars also seek to defend African American English, also known as AAL or African American Language. For example, in chapter 6, Richard W. Santana of the Rochester Institute of Technology points out that, “As with any other legitimate form of linguistic communication AAL requires a complex matrix of conceptual, symbolic, figural, and rhetorical systems in order to perform the work of communicating ideas” (Santana 96). In chapter 8, well-known composition scholar Peter Elbow agrees that “African American Language is a full, sophisticated, and rule-governed language – like any other” (137). But he also laments that “‘Black’ language is sometimes more deeply stigmatized than ‘Black’ skin. People who have learned to resist thinking that others are stupid if they have a darker skin, sometimes nevertheless think others are stupid if they speak the language coded Black” (137). Elbow suggests that African American students should be given the same choice that mainstream white students are offered: “to start off serious writing [academic writing] projects using the kind of spoken vernacular language that naturally emerges in freewriting and fast exploratory writing, and wait until the end to get their final drafts into ‘correct writing’ or Edited Written English” (138).

Elbow opened up the concept of expressionism for me. I realized that freewriting was helpful in forming my thoughts and allowing my mind to ride the wave of creativity. When I thought about how I use freewriting in the development of my papers, and tried to imagine myself as a black student, I realized how much easier it would be to just write in the way I think and put the words into SWE at a later point. It would allow my creative thoughts to stampede past the barriers of SWE and come to their natural destination.

This book provided this and many other important insights for me. I never had the experience of being part of a racial minority in a classroom setting. This book made me aware of how difficult it would be if I found myself in that situation and how restrictive it would be for me to write if I felt that I was looked down upon because of my race or culture. I recommend The Elephant in the Classroom to anyone who wants to understand such issues of race and writing.

Andi Mills wrote this review as an undergraduate at Lander University in Greenwood, S.C. Her journey began when she made a life-changing decision to quit high school and get married in the tumultuous year of 1968. She says, “I had a family and, too soon, I found myself in the position of being a single parent with twins to support.” However, she never quit writing and eventually earned her GED. Then, at age 58, Andi lost her sight. With the help of her guide dog Mr. Tibbs (pictured here), she enrolled in college. After four surgeries, Andi regained her vision. Last spring, at the age of 62, she became the oldest graduate from Lander. She has a degree in English with an emphasis in professional writing, and is now pursuing a Master’s degree.

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