Reconsidering “Conventions”

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I have long used the word “conventions” in my classrooms to describe the loosely agreed upon ways of doing things with words across the disciplines, pointing out to students that such conventions are not hard and fast rules or regulations. To my way of thinking, using the term “conventions” avoided the skill and drill, rule-governed attitudes toward teaching writing that I had encountered, and resisted, in my early teaching career and allowed me and my students to see these conventions as malleable and as things we could accept, reject, or reshape.

Au contraire! As I have learned from studying antiracist pedagogies and listening to many colleagues and scholars of color (huge and ongoing thanks to all!), I see how my assumptions about the malleability and usefulness of “conventions” have been silently embedded in the discourse of standardized English. Even though my focus has always been on student choice, that focus did not necessarily reveal how those choices are themselves constrained by standardization. Always.

Engaging this realization left me looking for how to offer students sound advice about how to make choices, how to understand the range of choices available to them, and how to question that range while also choosing from it—or changing it. I was very grateful to pick up the February 2021 issue of CCC and read “Communal Justicing: Writing Assessment, Disciplinary Infrastructure, and the Case for Critical Language Awareness ” by Anne Ruggles Gere and her colleagues at the University of Michigan. More specifically, I was delighted to find this group tackling the subject of “conventions” head on in an analysis and proposed revision of the conventions section in the Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing:

With its implications of “usual” and “commonly accepted,” the discourse of “conventions” justifies and reinforces standard language ideologies, recirculating the idea that Standardized English is unchanging, invariant, neutral, and correct. . . . (392)

Building on the work of scholars who have taken up questions of social justice, racial justice, and inequity in writing studies and in writing program policies, Gere and her colleagues call for increased attention to language-level study in general and to critical language awareness in particular as a means of drawing attention “to the structural nature of injustice” in writing studies and writing assessment and “identifying structural opportunities for responding to them.” As one step toward this goal, Gere and her colleagues use insights from critical language awareness to examine—and to revise—the Framework’s conventions section. For instance, here is the title and first sentence of the original version of the section:

Developing Knowledge of Conventions. Conventions are the formal rules and informal guidelines that define what is considered to be correct (or appropriate) in a piece of writing.

And here is the proposed revision:

Developing Critical Language Awareness. Critical language awareness is the ability to reflect on the language expectations in a given context or of a given audience and make thoughtful, informed language choices. (395)

What I like so much about this revision is its shift from guidelines that set boundaries on students to choices that students make—an important and empowering shift in agency.

As the authors point out, “critical language awareness prepares students to carefully negotiate demanding respect for their own language, and ‘to make sound linguistic choices related to their own empowerment and not the maintenance of someone else’s power.’” They continue, “Critical language awareness prepares students, along with teachers, to participate in communal justicing,” which can begin by communally recognizing the structural injustices embedded in writing studies and then go on to address and revise those injustices.

I have written before about the need—yes!—to value and to teach the Students’ Right to Their Own Language, all the while realizing that simply respecting students’ languages is only a small first step toward addressing linguistic injustice, as the authors of this essay make clear. Their revision of the Framework takes a step toward important and practical policy change, and they are quick to point to others who are moving well beyond SRTOL—noting the work of Stacey Perryman-Clark, among others, who has written compellingly about her Afrocentric first-year writing class and its focus on critical language awareness and on how to get things done in the academy and elsewhere.

I am not doing justice to this thoroughly researched and clearly presented argument, which I hope you will read. It has given me so much to think about and so many ideas about ways that I can learn more about communal justicing—and join in practicing it.

Image Credit: "Type" by vpickering, used under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.