Inviting and Embracing Cultural Conflict in Writing and in the Classroom

According to Tom Fox, “Basic Writing as Cultural Conflict,” the language of academia and the language of students are often in conflict because of classroom deficit theories.  Assuming and writing in the voice of academia “reduces writing to a set of discrete skills to be acquired.”  Placed between these two very strong, equally dominant, conflicting languages that a student owns, a teacher’s teaching is often deduced by exhaustion to just teaching “skills.”  I’ve operated more than once under the assumption that this battle between academic achievement and real life is continuous and constant, and sometimes I want to take a break.  As a teacher I call a truce in this sometimes violent conflict with grammar worksheets and drills, hoping (but sensing otherwise) that students will acquire some academic language skills, which will eventually lead to achievement and less conflict.  But really it’s just a break where deficit theories and practices prevail through subversive, guerilla warfare.  I might even argue that a teacher’s heightened awareness of this conflict can lead an even more casualty because after identifying the conflict, explicitly, students and teachers are often left with questions about how to give peace a chance.  
Further, Fox suggests that this conflict not only exists in the classroom, but manifests itself as dissonance in a student’s head.  For some students “[s]uccess in school means joining the opposition, threatening their identity.”  A language conflict, where both sides are seemingly so different and caught up in contrast, “neither [language] community allows [students] to move easily from one to the other; these oppositions are socially enforced.”  I would even venture to say that the conflict is reinforced inside, maybe by the teacher, as well as outside the classroom, maybe by the students peers and others in the cultural community.
So is there an instructional place where conflict can be constructive?  Ball and Muhammad imply that simply understanding and teaching to teachers a “broadened understanding of and respect for language variation” can “overcome zero tolerance” and “welcome language diversity” in our classrooms.  But is simply “welcoming diversity” an answer or just a more complex, overlapping plural conflict?  Once I said “esa,” (the female form) of “ese” (meaning homeboy or homegirl) from around the way way back in the day, during class and a student responded with “what?! you’re a scrap.”  I didn’t know it, but I guess to him I was. I was talking like “a scrap.”  And come to think of it, I did useta kick it, for a quick minute, with some vatos locos back in the day.  Instead of inviting language diversity (my own) into the classroom, I alienated him because “esa” and “ese” are forbidden adversarial terms in his cultural language community.  Let’s just say I’m a little more careful with my own vernacular now.  Fox seems to introduce a way to create some plurality into the classroom by explicitly teaching the students and teachers an “interpretative” understanding of language.  He suggests going beyond understanding.  Teachers should “understand the cultural forces that shape their students and understanding how their students are accommodating, resisting, or reproducing these forces, the same tasks facing the students.”  I might go even further than inviting, and interpreting.  I might teach my students to interpret this conflict, or cognitive and lingual dissonance, within themselves and their peers.  And the conflict, wages on . . . .

2 comments for “Inviting and Embracing Cultural Conflict in Writing and in the Classroom

  1. mcalou
    June 10, 2009 at 10:14 am

    I had to learn what rhetoric was to understand what you are saying. We use language to persuade, to think, and to express ourselves. Our language is in some sense our identity. So what you are saying about dissonance and respect all speak to the fact that as teachers we need to be aware that there are two types of language: academic language and vernacular. I think what you are saying is that we need to bridge the gap between academic and vernacular language. I agree with you!

  2. mbond
    June 11, 2009 at 1:04 pm

    This response is based on the argument in Fox’s article that deficit theories pit a student’s cultural language against academic language. Student’s who speak non-standard dialects can perceive a conflict between their own multilingual, heteroglossic vernacular and the rigid, demanding, judgemental voice of academia. Thus, worksheets and behaviorial issues manifest as guerilla warfare in this conflict. Why not acknowledge, openly, this confict in the classroom? Can we use conflict constructively for classroom writing activities?

Leave a Reply