Statement on Language, Power, and Action1
Conference on College Composition and Communication
This statement is informed by the assumption that language, power, and action are interconnected. As teachers, scholars, and administrators of writing, our goals in composing this statement are to increase understanding about how power operates in, around, and through language; to recognize the power writing instructors have to build on students’ languaging practices; to spark continued conversation about the need for linguistic access and equity in our scholarship and teaching; and to cultivate more conscientious, responsible, and socially just ways to engage with language.
With these goals in mind, we’ve divided this statement into two main sections. The first, Threshold Concepts, explains relevant tenets of language in action. Based on current research in linguistics, writing, and rhetoric, this section sets the foundation for our thinking about the connections among language, power, and action. The second section, Recommendations for Praxis, provides research-based guidelines for instructors, administrators, and researchers. Thus, this statement serves not only as an explanation of principles but also as a heuristic for more justice-centered practices.
1. Language is inherently connected to action and to power.
The Black Lives Matter movement started with Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi’s powerful words for action against anti-Black racism. Both Eric Garner and George Floyd pleaded “I can’t breathe” when the police officers brutally killed them. Their words were their final attempts at survival and, to put it bluntly, at persuasion. Even though these last rhetorical moments did not save Garner’s and Floyd’s lives, their words, along with the final words of other Black people killed by police, powerfully moved the nation. Their words led to action, and those actions were demonstrations of the power of people incensed. After Floyd’s death, protests took place in at least 140 cities around the country and even abroad. The New York Times called it the largest movement in US history. The names and stories of many others, such as Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland, and Tony McDade, have been crucial to sustaining awareness and promoting accountability for police brutality.
2. Languaging is inherently connected to our identities and cultures.
We use language to index our values, identities, and community memberships (e.g., racial, ethnic, linguistic, professional, and other sociocultural identities and relations). But beyond spoken word or alphabetic text, we make meaning and perform our identities through our bodily (e.g., sign language, gesture, movement, eye gaze) and other symbolic resources (e.g., clothing, hair, makeup). Also importantly, because we use our language to construct, negotiate, and make sense of meaning, identities, and power, language is also embodied action—we do things through and with language. For instance, a marching does not begin until someone communicates (through their walking, chanting, and holding the placard or other signs), followed by uptake by others.
3. Language-in-use (or Discourse) involves negotiation, often within asymmetrical power relations.
Language is tied to who is doing language and what that doing means given the sociocultural, political, and historical context. We often change the way we use language, depending on the situation, including, but not limited to, who we are talking to, what relation we have with that person, what we want to accomplish, and how we want to come across. In other words, the rhetorical situation informs such negotiation, which is shaped by the power dynamics of those involved and the larger power structure. Those with less perceived social and cultural power and/or privilege may be expected to defer to the norms of more privileged groups.
4. Language is alive and always changing.
This means language is fluid and heterogeneous with multiple norms, and is always shaped by the particular historical and political context. The use of they as a singular pronoun has increased in recent years in large part because nonbinary and trans people2 have fought for this usage in contexts of social power. Now, they as a singular pronoun is recognized by the OED. We, as language users, take up, experiment with, and change language through our daily use, yet the power of standardization still remains as a dominant force, guiding and shaping how language use is perceived and evaluated.
5. Language is always an incomplete representation of reality.
Since the interpretation of symbols is contextual, there is no such thing as perfect representation through language, which is why there is always something “lost in translation” when working across languages, dialects, and/or registers.
Recommendations for Praxis
Course Design and Instructional Practices
I. Goals, Outcomes, and Expectations
A. Make explicit links between language, (in)justice, and access. Recognize the role of language in antiracism and other anti-oppression work. Model these links in the classroom and discuss how they affect power/privilege dynamics, especially classroom dynamics.
B. Promote a critical social and rhetorical view of language (as opposed to a prescriptivist, privileged, bigoted, and/or standard view) that recognizes how language varies according to the rhetorical situation, including audience/community, purpose, genre, etc. Avoid “one-size-fits-all” conceptions of “good writing.”
C. Create classroom structures and norms that promote inclusion and support practices that work toward equity and that recognize power/privilege dynamics (e.g., transparency around what we do and why, community agreements for interaction in the classroom, assessment models that value labor and growth).
II. Content (topics, materials, assignments)
A. Include representation of diverse linguistic identities, communities, and everyday experiences in course materials and assignments.
B. Promote a critical view of language and power (i.e., Critical Language Awareness), including a deep understanding of the harmful role that prescriptivism/standard language ideology can play at school and in society.
C. Adopt a broad view of literacy that includes visual, multimodal, embodied, and other non-alphabetic ways of knowing.
D. Teach and encourage use of rhetorical text/social (reading/listening) engagement skills, with close attention to inclusion/exclusion and other power dynamics.
E. Create and sustain opportunities for students to draw on their full linguistic repertoires, including a range of varieties/dialects, codes, styles, and modalities, including those that have historically been stigmatized/marginalized in the academy. This includes opportunities for code-meshing/translanguaging.
F. Design assignments that encourage students to make informed linguistic choices and to take rhetorical risks. Pair these assignments with evaluative practices that privilege these decisions.
G. Be transparent about the assumptions and expectations for course activities and assignments, using accessible language and examples.
III. Feedback, Grading, and Assessment
A. Align feedback/grading practices with a commitment to linguistic and social justice (i.e., recognize that simply changing course content is not enough).
B. Prioritize equity through transparency in rubrics, labor-based grading, and other similar assessment tools and practices.
C. Recognize that feedback is relational and not (just) transactional, and use feedback to strengthen relationships with and among students, and to promote peer engagement and self-assessment among writers.
D. Orient feedback/assessment practices in a commitment to student agency, cultural rhetorical sovereignty, and growth, rather than a deficiency model—especially when it comes to students from linguistically marginalized backgrounds.
Programmatic and Institutional Actions
I. Programmatic Decisions
A. Bring a critical lens, informed by the threshold concepts outlined above, to programmatic and institutional conversations about professional standards, accreditation, course evaluations, and learning outcomes.
B. Invite students from a variety of backgrounds into the process of crafting language-related policies, curricula, and assessment decisions so as to better meet student needs and goals.
C. Use models such as Directed Self-Placement to support students in making informed choices about course selection, resource use, etc.
D. Promote cocurricular and extracurricular opportunities that integrate and draw on linguistic diversity, and cultivate critical language awareness for the entire academic community.
II. Institutional Policies and Resources
A. For programs/institutions that offer special course sections, policies, or resources for multilingual (and/or multidialectal) writers: Make sure these offerings are asset-based and integrative, rather than remedial or punitive in nature (See CCCC Statement on Second Language Writing and Multilingual Writers).
B. Design faculty development and outreach initiatives that promote critical engagement with linguistic diversity, tied to other institutional commitments to DEIA, antiracism, global citizenship, etc.
C. Recruit, support, and retain faculty, staff, and administrators from diverse linguistic/dialectical/cultural backgrounds, and use evaluation and promotion criteria and procedures that value linguistic justice and equity work.
D. Gather feedback and other data about the experiences, needs, and goals of students and faculty/staff from linguistically marginalized backgrounds, in order to inform decision making.
E. Practice accessible and inclusive language use in the classroom, across the campus, and in the larger community.
F. Offer resources and incentives for faculty/staff engagement in language learning and professional development opportunities (e.g., anti-oppression workshops).
Scholarship: Take active steps to make scholarship more accessible.
A. Model inclusive, accessible language with students, colleagues, and community members.
B. Seek out publication venues that are publicly available (e.g., open-access journals, institutional repositories) where possible.
C. Advocate for valuing a variety of publication types in review and promotion, including creative writing, public genres, multimodal work, etc.
D. Recognize and reward multilingual and multidialectal scholarship.
E. Promote linguistic equity in scholarly editing and peer review practices (see, for example, section 5 of the antiracism guidelines by Cagle, Eble, Gonzales and others).
- We would like to acknowledge and bring attention to the work of scholars who have come before us. See the CCCC statement This Ain’t Another Statement! This is a DEMAND for Black Linguistic Justice!
- See, for example, “What’s in a Pronoun? An Awful Lot, Say Transgender Activists.” Also, see organizations such as Transgender Women of Color at Stonewall, Sylvia Rivera Law Project, National Center for Transgender Equality, and Digital Transgender Archive.
This statement was generously created by the Task Force Draft of CCCC Position Statement on Language, Power, and Action. The members of this task force included:
Ana Milena Ribero
This position statement may be printed, copied, and disseminated without permission from NCTE.