Writing the Language of a Feminist Classroom

Christine Mallinson and Anne H. Charity Hudley believe language has the power to create inclusive, powerful classrooms.

Charity Hudley and Mallinson—professor of Linguistics at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and professor of Language, Literacy and Culture at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), respectively—have forged a unique partnership in their academic worlds. They collaborated to build the Valuable Voices app for middle to high school English teachers, tailored to help them understand how school language can create racial, cultural and gender inequalities in the classroom and how those perpetuate throughout a student’s education. The free app also provides strategies on how to disrupt this system to create high performing classrooms where all voices are valued. Perhaps even more uniquely, however, they collaboration rests on a foundation of women-led, biracial, multicultural, multilingual and multiethnic feminist research.

Ms. spoke with Charity Hudley and Mallinson about linguistic agency, empowering forms of classroom communication, gender pronouns and more.

Charity Hudley (left) and Mallinson.

How does the Valuable Voices app serve as a framework for empowering female teachers?

Charity Hudley: We have taken a very compassionate look in thinking about teachers in particular, especially with relation to their gender and their identity. Teachers are usually women and some are mixed in the principal pool but once you get to government policy it becomes increasingly male. Current government research reports 24 percent of teachers are men, while 48 percent of principals and 87 percent of superintendents are men. Teachers are not the brokers of the educational structure but are actually trying to sort it out along with the students. Sometimes they’re being told to give tests and to teach a certain way based on the Department of Education that does not resonate for them, and students are not succeeding.

I think our work serves to empower women’s voices in the educational context, moving them away from a text or what is given to them as a model and placing them at the center of knowledge as being important researchers and scholars themselves. Teachers are the experts in their classrooms and need to lead the research into best practices. Empowering teacher voices will help us and others motivate changes in the educational system and not just put the burden on the individual educator.

Mallinson: One of the things we talk about in our work is the burden of communication. On whose back should the burden of reaching across the communication aisle be placed? In a lot of ways that communication is squarely on student shoulders to figure out, “What does the school culture look like? How are these people communicating here? I guess I have to assimilate. I guess I have to adjust my linguistic and cultural patterns to suit the test, to suit the disciplinary culture.” Instead, we feel the burden of communication needs to be shared.

How does the app help female teachers, who are largely white women, reach their very diverse female student body?

Charity Hudley: School settings and leaders are overwhelmingly white. If you think of the kids that go to school, well over 80 percent of people they see in positions of authority are white and female. Meanwhile you have this incredibly diverse student population. We spend a lot of time thinking about how language plays a role. Language is a strong mechanism for how we relate to each other and express our culture.

Mallinson: Teachers need to understand the ways they are communicating and how they might be taking for granted certain aspects of communication. It is important to understand how language can help make a welcoming environment to students of all backgrounds. That teachers are coming in and viewing multiple ways of communicating as a strength, as a resource –  that is the goal, rather than implicitly setting up a culture where there is only one way of communicating, only one way to be right.

Charity Hudley: Teachers may not quite realize that the way that they talk just comes assumed as school culture or classroom culture, but what that is really talking about is white female teacher talk. When we call it classroom talk it makes it seem that kids who aren’t talking that way or don’t relate to that specific type of linguistic culture are the outliers, not that they are the ones in these classrooms and are a growing demographic. We have never had that layer of education either for teachers or students to say, ‘The problem here is still rooted in a gender and racial segregation issue.’ We have never had a system to learn from each other about what our norms are, what our values are, how we speak to different groups. We have to be intentional about how we create systems of power through language in schools. We need one that is inclusive of how others talk, what they value, what they care about.

How do you help both female and male students understand and use the language of inclusion in terms of culture and sexism?  Why is it important to learn to speak to women of all cultures regardless of a person’s gender identity?

Charity Hudley: We have to get away from this myth, especially in the business world, that the goal is to use standard English in every situation. To be successful you have to engage with a variety of people and be able to care for those who speak different varieties of English, be that in the legal system, in the medical system, if you work in a shop or own one, and so forth. This idea that there is only one way of people speaking, if you are in a business, it is going to mess with your profit. We need to see these different language varieties as being competitive in a global market. That is why the U.S. struggles sometimes because we don’t take advantage of the multilingualism that is already here and see that as an asset. We have seen women, even well-meaning women, tell other women how to communicate, how to control their voice. It isn’t about being a woman. It is about this whole notion of power. Whatever comes out of a woman’s mouth is going to be seen as negative by someone. Fixing a small linguistic detail is not going to change the overall gender situation. A lot of women have not realized that and so they still keep commenting on girls’ language in ways that is kind of harmful, because it is giving broader, restrictive messages about what is an acceptable way to speak.

Mallinson: Many students in my classes report on being criticized or policed about their language at home. With our daughters more so than our boys, we often tell them how to talk to be perceived as being smart, how not talk to not be perceived as not smart. A lot of times this message is coming from moms and other women. We want to be aware that when we preemptively send our girls messages that their language is wrong, it can cause them to shut down. We want to make sure that we are not perpetuating these micro-aggressions with each other, with our daughters and students.

Charity Hudley: Who are you changing your language for and why? That is a key question. By saying don’t raise your voice at the end of a sentence, or don’t say certain words because they sound too feminineinstead, really interrogate the reason why. Interrogate people as to what they are saying with these critiques. Who is it that you are trying to appease? Get them reflecting within a more critical model of feminism about what is going on there.

While women make up more than half of college students, gender biases still exist in the classroom. Two of the exercises in the app discuss linguistic bullying and speaking up in college. Why are these important to address early on, and why are they important for students and teachers to understand and model?

Mallinson: One of the reasons we targeted high schools is because these issues are often covered in college but not in high schools. In college there are more close readings of books, and students are more likely to be asked to write autobiographical pieces about themselves and who they are and their point of view. In high school there is less of an emphasis on preparing students to write from their own voices or to do close readings about difficult topics. Students are being expected to come to college being able to have these conversations, to understand different pronouns, and to be linguistically inclusivebut these issues are not often talked about in high school. We bring that to the attention of high school teachers and encourage them to provide opportunities for students to write and speak in their own voices and explore their own linguistic diversity.

Charity Hudley: There are people on campuses who are actively trying to silence other voices. To go up against someone who is going against women’s rights or someone who is talking over youthat takes practice. We want high school educators to help girls get that practice before they get to college. College educators care about their students and about learning, but they don’t always have the skills to help students manage the transition.

Mallinson: In addition to practicing how to speak up, it is important to practice how to listen for places where there are gender and language biases. If you are not clued in and there are demands made on you for how to assimilate the way that you talk or what you’re trying to say, you may not realize it or know how to respond. Training to pay attention to language is an important mechanism as well as learning how to use it as a vehicle for making the change you want to make. This a crucial skill that has to be taught and practiced.

How is the movement towards choosing your pronouns an example of linguistic agency and the resistance that comes from changing the standard?

Charity Hudley: You get to choose your pronounsyou don’t have to let someone else tell you what your pronouns are. It is not just about the language or the individual words, it is about all the things that you can push forward or control through language. Our model is not just for students who speak a different language or a different variety but for everyone, because what we know about the way the world is organizedsegregation is still the name of the game. You have to disrupt that intentionally in an educational model by thinking about preparing teachers and students to speak to people with whom they haven’t communicated that much. It has to go past sentiment and down to the phonological and grammatical level.

Mallinson: I wrote a chapter on linguistic strategies that feminist activists have used in the United Statesfor instance, for accomplishing the ability to choose your own pronoun or the ability to use the word “Ms.” The word was picked up by Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Pittman Hughes in 1961, and they used that word as the title for their magazine. So, we have this attention to language as part of U.S. feminism. I think people realized a long time ago that language was a gatekeeper to control people and to control women, but also that we could free the way we talked about ourselves through language. For instance, by not defining ourselves necessarily only as Miss or Mrs., if we didn’t necessarily signal out of the gate who we were in terms of our marital statusand remember, only a few decades back, that meant whether you could vote, drive a car, or own propertyif we could free ourselves from some of those constraints, then we could move more freely in society. There is a similar argument being used with pronouns today. Let’s take it a step further and say, we don’t necessarily have to be defined by gender anymore with the language we use. One option is to use “they”it is already part of the English language and it is gender neutral, so let’s use it. Terms of address, pronouns and how we address ourselves are all important.

What does feminism mean to you in terms of the work that you do?

Mallinson: Feminism for me means getting all women’s voices in the room, hearing all the different perspectives and then coming away with this shared understanding that has been informed by all of these individual points of view. That is the collaboration that I think is a hallmark of feminist views on how we advance learning and knowledgethat ethos, that spirit of everyone working together.

Charity Hudley: My feminism is very intersectional with race and gender. Feminism for me is about not being afraid. It’s about taking away all of these little hitswhether they be aggressive or slight, and whether they come from the state or the president or a well-meaning other woman about what you should say, how you should dress, how you should look. It’s about taking away the element of you must do this because if you don’t there is a hidden boogie man that is going to come get you and destroy your career or your life. Feminism for me has been about eradicating all those fears so that people can just be who they are.

Catalina Sofia Dansberger Duque is a interviewer, writer and speaker. She focuses on people who have chosen to breathe life into challenging situations and live a life filled with love, joy and passion despite overwhelming stereotypes. Catalina contributes to Huffington Post, UpWorthy and Gay Family Trips, among others.

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