Tag Archives: “the idiom of the people”

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.