by Phip Ross
Two observations from the Lincoln Journal Star newspaper in the past seven days make me want to be alert to how language is used to label and narrow our understanding of one another. Tell me what you think.
Last week in the advice column by Amy Dickinson—I do read this on occasion after finishing the crossword puzzle, of course—she was advising a university student who had formerly attended a community college. The student was frustrated by a lack of attention from a former peer at the community college where he had assisted her.
He wanted a date; it wasn’t happening.
Amy suggested to “confused” that now that he was at a “full-time school” he could find other fish in the sea. I felt compelled to, yes, write her. I corrected her by saying that many community college students, albeit fewer than at four-year schools, attend college full time. I added that I believed her reference suggests a blind spot where a biased, classist condescension lurks toward community colleges and those who attend.
I think this point matters, and I hope you agree, because we need to confront the stigma about community colleges that says they are second-rate institutions. These are where, after all, more students with lower socioeconomic status and minority backgrounds may start their college. It may also follow that community colleges are where instructors of lesser quality come to squat. Attending or working at one of these is accepting a lower place in the rung of the social order. Right? Who would come here?
A student this fall, Jayd from Scottsbluff, asked why I work at SCC, as if I could go anywhere. I hope that by the end of that first class of the term, or soon thereafter, he believed and understood my answer. I am proud of my work even though society often pinches its nose in my direction.
The short answer, which I’m pretty sure I fumbled through, was “the students.” Look around my classes and one can find a diversity of people I thrive in working with. They, like me in some ways, I think, are underdogs: folks who are in an unending uphill climb through life. As a middle class white guy who had/has many privileges, I struggle plenty still. I see in them my own struggle and am engaged in the craft of teaching them and learning from them. It doesn’t come easy for me, but I accept the challenge, part of which is learning to understand differences in us, too.
One of my favorite songs by John Prine is “You Got Gold.” The refrain is “You got gold/gold inside of you/ Well I got some/gold inside me too.” We got gold in these here schools. People gold.
As an instructor, I would contend that while we may work for less money, we contribute more. No one would argue that community college is part of the “ivory tower” that represents a university. And I’m fine with that. Amy Dickinson can have that. We do what we do because it is meaningful work. At times, the most meaningful I can imagine. Can I get an “Amen”?
Finally, the second way I saw language being used comes from a letter written by an observant reader who took special note of a headline, “Royals sign autistic player.” Carol of Lincoln suggests that we all have many attributes, but we lead with the easiest and perhaps the most unfair one. In this case it was autism as the first word to describe a young man. She recommends using “person-first language” which she explains is prioritizing the person first and the attribute of note second. Instead of “Royals sign autistic player,” the headline might read “Royals sign El-Abour, autistic player.” It’s a small change. One might call it inconsequential. I appreciate her point.
Language use is often subtle but powerful in the ways it moves perceptions of how we see one another and the institutions that we identify with (or not). This discussion is a rhetorically appropriate topic. It’s also a political and social commentary we as educators need to engage in with one another and our communities. I’m not suggesting we all need to agree, however.
A previous NDEC blog discusses stereotype threat, which heightens one’s awareness of a negative stereotype to the point where the individual performs at those expectations. I contend that the observations in this post also have an educational impact we must pay attention to if we want to keep finding gold.
An English teacher at Southeast Community College, Phip Ross is a teacher, writer, activist, and musician. To contact Phip, please email firstname.lastname@example.org