Whoever “The People” Are

In Adam Banks’s smart and energizing Digital Griots, he argues that as teachers and scholars of the academy, and as public intellectuals, we must “teach, politic, build, act, plan, in the idiom of the people—whoever ‘the people’ are in the settings in which we hope to work. And one must teach the idiom—not just the language practices but the ways of seeing the world, the ways of being in the world, the values, attitudes, knowledge, needs, hopes, joys, and contributions of a people as expressed through their language” (49). My experiences as a new teacher of FYC this spring have, in some ways, led me to similar conclusions. I want to work harder to meet my students on common ground, and then build roads together to travel elsewhere. I want my students to feel like the work they do in my course has actual value, purpose and function in their lives away from the classroom. And I don’t ever want to dismiss my students’ everyday cultural and literacy practices as meaningless or lesser than those of the academy, falling into the trap of the “‘back in the day’ narrative” as Banks aptly terms it (87). (Indeed, I’m often surprised at the extent to which my students seem to have already bought into this narrative about themselves—I suppose it’s hard not to internalize the stories that others tell about you over and over again.)

And yet, at the same time, Banks implicitly calls attention through his language to the fundamental challenge of this position: “whoever ‘the people’ are in the settings in which we hope to work” (49). Whoever indeed. Because who are my students, really, and is there really one “idiom” through which I can hope to reach them all? What are these common “ways of seeing the world” and “ways of being in the world” (49)?

Hey, students: who are you?

These questions are obviously especially complicated in the face of a diverse student body. And yet it seems to me that they are not really any easier to answer on a much less diverse campus like UD, for a number of reasons.

Like others in this class who are thinking through Banks via teaching, I want to put some pressure on the idea of “teaching in the idiom of the people” in the context of a very white and relatively affluent student population. One reason Banks rightfully sees it as so important to teach African American students/community members “in the idiom of the people” is that black home/community discourses have historically, in the school system (and elsewhere), been marked by difference, oppressed and repressed, abused and devalued. Banks’s stance is a response to institutionalized racism, to a system of power that simply refuses to hear certain voices.

But when we’re talking about affluent white students with college-educated parents, their home “idiom” likely is the privileged discursive mode of the academy (and elsewhere). It seems to me that such students (and I absolutely include myself as one of them) need, more than reinforcing this discourse, to experience its disruptions. To listen to voices that are not ours, and seek understanding on someone else’s terms. To recognize that to feel only mildly uncomfortable speaking the language of the academy is already to speak the language of power.

As a white person teaching mostly white people, I’m not at all sure how to facilitate this. I know I need to get more comfortable being uncomfortable in the classroom. I want to work on it, but so far that’s about all I’ve got.

5 thoughts on “Whoever “The People” Are”

  1. Kiley,

    A thoughtful post. I sympathize and agree with everything you say, but let me also trouble it a bit—hopefully, without getting into much trouble myself.

    I was a first-generation college student from a white, working-class family. I don’t think that my elite and tony college (Haverford) did a particularly good job of reaching out to students like myself. (In part, I suspect, because my “difference” was not particularly visible or understood, to either the college or to me.) And yet . . . I felt that Haverford opened up a different world of discourse, and a different world, to me. I am grateful to it.

    And so, what I’m trying to say, I think, is that we need not only to be willing to reach out to diverse voices, but also to be clear about what we feel we have to offer them. Yes, the language of the academy is a language of power—but it can also be a language of criticism, reflection, resistance. Or at least that’s what I took from it.


  2. Kiley–This post is great, particularly what seems to be your central question: “…who are my students, really, and is there really one “idiom” through which I can hope to reach them all?” This is such an important point and one that (I would argue) may actually be impossible to answer definitively. I’ve already commented to some extent about parts of this issue on Janel’s post, but I think its crucial never to assume anything–as Joe suggests–about our students based on how they present themselves (visually, verbally, behaviorally, etc.), but instead help them get comfortable using the tools by which to analyze (and claim ownership) of certain discourses that may or may not be their own.

  3. Kiley,

    I love the idea of teaching “disruptions” that you discuss here. Disruptions are the things, after all, which can jolt us into thinking and reasoning in a different way than the dominant discourse of our own ideologies.

    I guess an answer to your question, then, about facilitating this is to consider what sorts of ways that disruptions altered your own ideology. (Yes, I’m answering with questions). Did this happen through reading? Discussion? Reading and then discussion? Creating a project about something culturally unfamiliar to you?

    I know that disruptions in my own ideologies have come through discussion of texts/images/videos that make me uncomfortable.

  4. Kiley: I particularly like your observation that “Indeed, I’m often surprised at the extent to which my students seem to have already bought into this narrative about themselves—I suppose it’s hard not to internalize the stories that others tell about you over and over again.” I’m astounded by how (dare I say it), *hegemonic* my students can get on each other, as if all their prior teachers had been the Late Capitalist Discourse Police (named Strunk and White). This was particularly true with my English majors last semester–they are so hard on their own voices and habits when they fall outside the academic that I spend a good deal of my time (and my office hours) telling them that they can make their own discursive choices and are real people who can say things. It (might) help that I (hopefully) perform an only semi-hegemonic discourse myself–when I’m not writing, my speech is marked with weird artifacts of being the middle-class kid in a working-class neighborhood. If a teacher can sound like me, maybe it helps. Or maybe it just makes my discourse style hegemonic. Also, I replicate this hegemonic discourse on myself, falling into the same trap.

    Hegemonic discourses are sticky.

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