By Inés Vañó García
Writing is a fundamental part of our academic life. As graduate students we write on a daily basis, in my case a veces en español, otras en English, and on some occasions using my entire linguistic repertoire, like I am doing ahora mismo. Sí, I am aware that some readers will have to put in an extra effort, but, it’s worth it. As instructors, we tend to assign writing assignments (low and high stakes), sin a veces ni siquiera cuestionarnos what linguistic implications we are asking and requiring from our students. It doesn’t really matter what subject and/or discipline we teach, the reality is that la mayoría de nuestrxs estudiantes are not monolingual in English y, además, they are not familiar with the so-called “lenguaje académico/estándard.”
A pesar de mi incredulidad en las gráficas y encuestas, and this one from Fall 2018 is not an exception, estos números pueden dar una idea general to the public not familiar with our student body at CUNY. According to this, aproximadamente el 35% of our students are born outside los Estados Unidos, and más de 168 different languages are spoken within our institution. Sin embargo, how does this information affect nuestras prácticas pedagógicas? How do we deal with the linguistic backgrounds that our students bring to el aula? How much do we know about el background lingüístico de nuestrxs estudiantes? And, ¿cómo lo incorporamos in our daily teaching and learning practices?
Continuing the conversation about questioning language hegemony in our pedagogical practices, check out this sharp and insightful post by Dhipinder Walia, me gustaría añadir some estrategias and sugerencias que pueden ser implemented en nuestras prácticas (gracias to the TLC workshop attendees last fall):
- Students’ linguistic background: at the beginning of the semester, ask your students to write about their linguistic background. Esta puede ser una oportunidad perfecta to get to know your students, conocer sus experiencias personales y su linguistic background. Sometimes, it may feel that you don’t have time to include this in your very complicated and busy curriculum, however, as an introductory first day/week assignment, you can easily relate this assignment con la disciplina/topic que estés impartiendo with the purpose of becoming familiar with your students’ lived experiences.
- Students may not be familiar con la posibilidad de utilizar their whole linguistic repertoire, so remember to model this in your assignments. One way to do this could be by giving them instructions while modeling at the same time. Por ejemplo, this is how I introduced the low-stakes writing assignments en mi clase de Heritage Spanish:
“Durante el semestre tendrán que escribir varios blog posts, individually as well as in group, para reflexionar tanto sobre las lecturas como los diferentes assignments del proyecto final. El objetivo principal of this writing is to reflect on your work, learning process and to ask questions. Recuerden que you are going to be able to receive feedback from your classmates. You will be graded based on clarity and depth of content.”
Even the previous assignment could be modeled with your own personal linguistic background! Thus, los estudiantes también tienen la oportunidad de conocer a su teacher/instructor. Besides serving as a model for the intended purposes, structure and organization, al mismo tiempo, it is a point of entry to share personal information about yourself, and your students get to know un poco más sobre ti.
Be as transparent as possible and explain the language(s) of any assigned material. Even if we think that nuestras instrucciones are crystal clear, double-check with your students, and make sure to have space and tiempo para explicar what is expected from them. Most writing assignments are not specific about the language, but even if they are, there is a tendency to believe that the “academic” or “standard” version of la lengua en cuestion must be used (sip, uso de comillas on purpose). Isn’t this a general expectation from university students? Make sure to spend time in class to discuss and question what this means y las consecuencias de seguir este ideal imaginario of any language. Entre estas conversaciones, el assessment es fundamental so students are active participants in deciding what is going to be valued and its worth.
Remember that cualquier assignment, tanto escrito como oral, could have multiple audiences, beside yourself. One way to question and broaden our linguistic practices could be to open your assignments to possible public(s) fuera del aula. Los estudiantes tendrán que adaptar y reconfigurar their linguistic repertoire dependiendo del público al que se dirigen. Let’s also experiment, think and consider that estos escenarios could be more than imagined and fictitious – they could really happen!
These strategies (low-stakes assignments) are simplemente the beginning. Lo más importante es to keep the question siempre presente, all the time! It’s imperative to question our linguistic practices dentro de nuestra prácticas pedagógicas. And yes, while I am writing (and reviewing) this, I want to tinker and change things. I do wonder how readers are going to react to my intentional linguistic choices for writing this piece. I keep going back and looking over my spelling, my deliberate choice of vocabulary and my intended syntax, and thinking about the normativity that constantemente nos gobierna, forma parte de nosotrxs de forma intrínseca. Por otro lado, the need for more public writing that performs our linguistic experiences es urgentemente necesario in order to include it in our teaching and learning practices, why not start here?
Inés Vañó García is a Ph.D. candidate in Latin American, Iberian, and Latino Cultures (LAILaC) at the Graduate Center and a Fellow at the TLC. Inés has taught language and linguistics classes at CUNY, most recently at Brooklyn College (Fall 2019) and at LaGuardia Community College as part of the Mellon CUNY Humanities Alliance (2017-2019).