Linguistic Stereotypes in Academic Discourse

This month we published a new edition of Understanding Language Use in the Classroom by Susan J. Behrens, which now includes teaching materials for college educators. In this post Susan reveals what we can expect from the new edition.

My latest project with the wonderful team at Multilingual Matters is an updated and expanded edition of my 2014 book Understanding Language Use in the Classroom: A Linguistic Guide for College Educators. The original text was my way of offering teachers in higher education accessible lessons in the ways language works, a kind of Linguistics 101 in question and answer format about all aspects of language, especially academic discourse. I think a lot about the intersection of linguistics and pedagogy because I am a linguist, and I direct the teaching and learning center at Marymount Manhattan College. Long ago I saw how linguistics and pedagogy fit together, and most of my work involves making connections between the two.

Feedback I received from many readers of the original text asked me how they could use the material directly with their students, as lessons and assignments. With this new edition, Understanding Language Use in the Classroom: Including Teaching Materials for College Educators, I take on linguistic stereotypes often found in the media. We are all rather susceptible to the many ubiquitous but unchallenged images about language and language users in the media and popular culture (for a taste of language snarkiness and snobbery, check out “Word Crimes” by Weird Al Yankovic). In 2016, I worked with students to examine how Instagram, Facebook, and other social media sites depict accents and dialects. We also found in popular culture plenty of statements that men and women “speak different languages.” My students found numerous examples of young women being criticized for using vocal fry and up talk. We considered what goes into the perception of a “gay voice.” And we tackled the assumptions that our very hometown, New York City, is the center of linguistic rudeness.

Why study stereotypes? Public perception and popular impressions of language – whether or not accurate, and often magnified by media – can set into motion, as well as reinforce, bias against groups of people. Nuances and complexities, not a stereotype’s strengths, are lost when we make grand claims about language use and language users, their grammar, accents, and dialects.

The additional material in this book – which takes it into the digital realm with PowerPoint slides, images, and URL links – offers lesson plans and instructor guidance material. Each lesson is connected to a chapter in the original book and extends that chapter, encouraging more exploration, more hands-on linguistic investigation. The pedagogical material is not just for linguistics classes. I wanted to make it adaptable to various audiences and class schedules, and I have included suggestions for customizing the lessons, including assignments that can be both in-class activities and research projects.

The original material is still there: a discussion of academic discourse and its role in higher education, the “conversations” about all levels of language, as well as sample worksheets, references and other resources. Since my work on linguistics for educators is ongoing, I have also updated the book with discussions about research conducted since 2014.

Every step of the process (for both editions) has been made exciting and smooth thanks to the Multilingual Matters team: Tommi, Anna, Sarah, Laura, Elinor, and Flo. Since the first book came out, I also got to meet some of these folks when they traveled to the US for conferences. Thanks for all the good chats, especially about Moomins.

Susan J. Behrens, Marymount Manhattan College

For more information about this book please see our website. If you found this interesting, you might also like Developing Intercultural Perspectives on Language Use by Troy McConachy.

Author Susan J. Behrens on how she came to write her book

This month we have published Susan J. Behrens’ latest book Understanding Language Use in the Classroom. Here, Susan talks a bit more about the writing and publishing process.

Understanding Language Use in the ClassroomI am very excited that Multilingual Matters has published Understanding Language Use in the Classroom. Since I submitted the final draft in October of 2013, they have been taking good care of the manuscript, the cover art and all the pre-publication steps.

The message of the book is that teachers in higher education can benefit from more overt awareness of language, both its grammatical structure and its cultural applications. When I originally thought about writing this book, I used a working title of Linguistics 101 for Professors. Colleagues in the field, usually not in the composition or English literature world, countered with “….BUT! I personally don’t need this, right?” In fact, I argue that better awareness of language can help make all of us better teachers. This is especially true of those who teach First Year Composition (FYC), for they work directly with new college students who are trying to adapt to more rigorous language demands. But language is a medium of learning in all classrooms.

We are all familiar now with the Writing Across the Curriculum movement. The underlying philosophy is that writing is at the heart of all learning, no matter the discipline being studied. Further, one or two semesters of First Year Composition do not suffice, and such courses rarely engage with discipline-specific ways language is used to construct arguments. Research shows that FYC often fails to instill transferable skills that students can draw upon in other classrooms. Yet it is the most commonly-required course awaiting first year college students. Those FYC instructors need to understand the language demands awaiting students post-FYC, and other college educators should be more conversant (and transparent) in the ways language is used in their own disciplines.

While waiting for the book to appear, I kept busy spreading the book’s message. I presented on material I gathered from focus groups with college students and teachers about what they consider “college-level English.” This took me to the American Association for Applied Linguistics conference in Portland, Oregon, where I was thrilled to finally meet some of the Multilingual Matters folks: Tommi, Laura and Kim. I organized a small symposium at Marymount Manhattan, my home institution, called Bridging the Gap, which brought together high school and college writing teachers to have conversations about easing the transition from high school to college for students. And I am preparing for a book party at Marymount, where I will also debut a documentary I produced and directed called The Three Rs: An Exploration on the Nature of Academic Language.

Every step in the book process has been exciting and made so smooth by the Multilingual Matters team. I thank them for their care, support, and great work. I can’t wait to pitch a new project so I can continue to work with Tommi, Anna, Kim, Sarah, Laura, Elinor, and Angharad.

For more information about Susan’s book please see our website.