Saint Mary's University Writing Centre

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“Standard English” and New Racism

Below are several responses from senior and/or second (and beyond) tutors at the centre to Laura Greenfield‘s article “The ‘Standard English’ Fairy Tale: A Rhetorical Analysis of Racist Pedagogies and Commonplace Assumptions about Language Diversity” from Writing Centers and the New Racism (2011). Please join in the conversation in the comments section below.


Vander Taveres, Linguistics, Second year tutor

This is an interesting article in the field of Sociolinguistics. I have to agree with the author that a spoken and a written form of the same language can be quite different. Perhaps English and French are the best examples for this claim if considering Indo-European languages (and it’s ironic that these two languages are the ‘official’ languages in Canada!). I believe it is important to mention that our written form of English is dictated by different groups of institutions. For instance, in universities, we write the X way, while on Facebook, we write the Y way. In the context of universities, which is the one we are working within, we are all required to use proper syntax, spelling and punctuation. Although this can be taken as a good thing for it allows all members of the university community to read one another’s work under the same standards, this type of regulation is what, in most cases, contributes to differentiating, constantly, the written form from the spoken form. In reality, not everybody speaks the same language that they write.

We should remember that verbal communication can be effective without proper syntax. If someone asks me “When you gonna go?”, I know precisely that what this person is saying is “When are you going to go?”, and I’m perfectly capable of understanding that. However, under standards established by institutions, this person may not be seen as an effective communicator for he or she is going against the expected norm. However, I do have to disagree with some of the claims in this reading.

We know that, structure-wise, for example, the third-person singular form of the present tense in English is constructed by adding, normally, an -s to the end of the verb. In the case of the Hawaiian Creole, mentioned by the author, this construction is not necessary in writing or in speech in order to be taken as proper. And that’s why we have varieties. This also goes for singular nouns: daughter is singular; therefore, it is used with singular determiners (a daughter, the daughter, one daughter, some daughter) while daughters is plural and will take everything else. Varieties serve for us to be aware that our way of speaking is not universal when we’re out of the area where our language is spoken. But this doesn’t mean that, under set patterns by institutions, this variety will be considered the local norm (and I mean in writing when speaking of universities).

Unfortunately, English does not have a language body officially established to monitor and deal with these differences (for instance, the Goethe Institute which monitors German or Camões Institute which monitors Portuguese). Another point is the double-negative construction. If you are saying “I don’t have nothing,” syntax-wise this means you then do have something, while in everyday semantics I do know what one would mean by that. However, none of what I have previously mentioned is used to say that racism does not exist in institutions (and not only in language, but in other several forms) because it does exist. I believe that the issue of racism presented in the reading goes beyond only “discourse” and race. It’s language, race, place of birth (ethnicity) and physical appearance all intertwined. As for the academic language we teach at Saint Mary’s, I think we’re far from reaching the “ideal point” that the author presents, especially when I think of all the…assignments and the technical, systematic and standardised form of writing that is expected of all students in order to pass the course and be considered successful in the outside work world.


Alaa El-Attar, Biology, Second year tutor

Greenfield points out a very interesting topic about racism based on language. She mentions how many people have the assumption that some languages are considered to be “better” than others. Personally, I never thought about this issue, and after reading this article, I realized that I do have some unconscious racist assumptions about language. Back home, I am told that I am ‘more successful’ and ‘more educated’ than most of my relatives just because I speak standard English fluently. This proves that many people who speak different languages have the assumption that standard English is superior, while their own language and accents when speaking in English are inferior. Greenfield mentions how success in life is based on speaking “correctly,” as though there is only one way a person should learn how to speak. Honestly, throughout high school, I was told that standard English is the “best” form of English that must be learned. Furthermore, Greenfield states, “We may, for example, have witnessed a person being ridiculed for what a listener describes as her ‘broken’ English” (35). This statement is convincing because I have witnessed a friend being ridiculed because of her “broken” English, and even worse, she apologized for her “mistake” (assuming that she has done something wrong). Nevertheless, racism has it’s many forms that are not only based on color and ethnicity, but also the accents and languages that are spoken amongst different people from different parts of the world. I really enjoyed reading this article because it addressed a very important topic about racism that we, as tutors, should try to avoid while tutoring students.


Lindsey Carmichael, PhD, Genetics, Senior tutor

Greenfield’s paper is interesting, and the idea that we judge languages because of inherent racism is very troubling. I found the information on the evolution and relationships of languages fascinating, and I agree with the thesis that all languages are of equivalent validity. The concern I have, though, is that many professors don’t share this view. I would love it if instructors would focus on clarity of expression in any written accent, deducting marks only when grammar and syntax interfere with meaning, but until they do, it seems like it’s part of our obligation to help students cope with the standards they’re going to be graded on, no matter how unfair they may be. Tom Chivers (“Grammar Tribe” article) made that argument as well – that as long as students are being graded on “standard English,” we should support them in learning it (provided we all agree what it is, which clearly we don’t). This argument is one that Greenfield condemns, however, for perpetuating the problem. I also clicked through from Chivers’ article to the Harper’s piece by David Foster Wallace. In addition to supporting many of Greenfield’s points, it reminded me strongly of My Fair Lady’s premise that the dialect we choose to use reflects the group to which we claim ownership (but without the catchy dance tunes). His argument that people who can only speak “standard English” are just as disadvantages as anyone else who can only speak a single dialect is very interesting. His comments on “Academic English” which he distinguishes from “standard English” are also worth reading.


Greenfield, L. (2011). “The ‘Standard English’ Fairy Tale: A Rhetorical Analysis of Racist Pedagogies and Commonplace Assumptions about Language Diversity” in Writing Centers and the New Racism: A Call for Sustainable Dialogue and Change. Laura Greenfield and Karen Rowan, ed. Logan, Utah, Utah State University Press, p. 33-60.


Bruffee and North – What is a writing centre?

The following commentary is a response to two articles: The Idea of a Writing Centre” (Stephen North, 2001) and “Peer tutoring and the ‘Conversation of Mankind’” (Kenneth Bruffee, 2001). At the Saint Mary’s Writing Centre, tutors are assigned weekly readings and are required, as part of their training, to respond to the readings in a google doc. Tutors are then asked to respond to each others’ responses, and a conversation ensues. We’d like to extend this conversation to and with you, especially with other writing centre practitioners.


Mandy Lapointe, BA Hons, Religious Studies (SMU); MA candidate, Religious Studies (SMU)

First year writing tutor


“The Idea of a Writing Centre” Stephen M. North

Expressing his utter dissatisfaction with the overall image of “the idea” of a writing centre, North uses a number of different examples to illustrate his frustration with ignorance about what writing centres actually do, how they operate, and what they offer to the student writer. North highlights the misconception that writing centres are not for the well-rounded and average writer, but for those “others,” or “impossible” students, who pander to the “fix-it shop image” of the centre, where the main focus need be grammar and punctuation, rather than stylistic thought process. Speaking to what the idea of a writing centre should not be, North identifies two qualifying terms in which writing centres should be concerning themselves with: 1) writing is most usefully viewed as a process, and 2) writing curricula needs to be student-centreed. In this way, North is proclaiming very adamantly that writing centres define themselves in terms of the writer it serves, not the writing. The writing centre should seek to produce better writers, not better writing. Therefore, by motivating engagement of the student in the process of the writing, the tutor fosters organic growth and development of the writing skills, which will in turn permeate throughout the students overall skillset. As a writing tutor then, your responsibility is to act as a participant-observer, always changing depending on the student writer; not employing static rules derived from generalized models, but beginning with where the student is and moving with the student as they grow. As a new employee to the Saint Mary’s Writing Centre, I feel this article presented me with a clear idea of what writing centres should be concerning themselves with – the student and the process of writing, rather than simply editing student’s work, and focusing on grammar and punctuation. In addition, it also stressed the importance of cooperation of the university professors with “the idea” of the writing centre, which I found refreshing and somewhat eye-opening. In order for the writing centre to be fully recognized and used to its full potential, it requires the understanding of all parties involved; the student, the tutor, and the faculty.

“Peer Tutoring and the ‘Conversation of Mankind’“ Kenneth A. Bruffee

Bruffee suggests that peer tutoring as a practice has the potential to challenge traditional classroom learning. Using Michael Oakeshott’s essay on literature in education, he argues that human conversation and reflective thought processes are intimately linked, where the conversation is the public source of learning, and the reflection is the private, creating a cyclical learning process. In doing so, Bruffee also points to the important implications this has on the writing process claiming, “if thought is internalized conversation, then writing is internalized conversation re-externalized.” (7) Therefore, as tutors, our task must involve engaging students in these conversations, as much as we require them to be involved in the writing process. We must ensure the learning conversations we are having are collaborative learning processes, and are similar to the ways in which we want students to write. In doing so, however, Bruffee claims it requires more than selecting “good students” as peer tutors, but having tutors well-trained in the course of study (13). In order to reap the full benefit of peer tutoring, it must be centred on collaborative academic learning, where both students receive genuine educational and personal development. One of the main reasons I wanted to take a position at the Saint Mary’s Writing Centre as a tutor was exactly this reason. As a tutor, I knew I would not only be able to help other students with the process of their thought and writing, but also supplement my own academic development. As a graduate student, the learning process still feels as it is just beginning, and throughout my academic career I hope to always maintain a level of collaborative learning. Therefore, I agree with Bruffee’s argument that peer tutoring has the ability to challenge the traditional learning of the classroom setting. I look forward to working in this type of setting, and I hope to learn a lot about myself and my writing in the process.


North, S.N. (2001). “The Idea of a Writing Centre” from The Allyn and Bacon guide to writing center theory and practice. Robert W. Barnett & Jacob S. Blumner, eds. Allyn and Bacon, Needhman Heights, MA

Bruffee, K.A. (2001). “Peer tutoring and the ‘Conversation of Mankind'” from The Allyn and Bacon guide to writing center theory and practice. Robert W. Barnett & Jacob S. Blumner, eds. Allyn and Bacon, Needhman Heights, MA