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Features of African American English (AAE) narrative styles are often used in college writing. Students may employ these features not only in narrative assignments but also in argumentative papers and other genres. For example, students may use styles known as circumlocution or topic association. These styles are characterized by implied rather than explicitly stated claims, topic connections, and transitions. Students may also use AAE rhetorical patterns such as call-response and repetition to engage readers. As a student in a study by Dr. Bonnie Williams-Farrier described AAE narrative styles in academic work, “you just use your mind more when you read it” (p. 421)
Stephanie Boone Mosher provides an example of a student paper that uses these organizational features of African American English in the article Ideology, Expectation, and Evaluation in the journal Pedagogy.
It is essential to make room for African American English organizational styles in academic writing as we teach and grade it. For example, composition professor Carmen Kynard teaches her students the difference between using skillz and mere basic skills in writing. Below you’ll find examples of how to respond to student writing in ways that make room for African American English styles, as well as examples of how not to respond.
How to Respond to Organizational Styles
Responses to organizational styles in student writing can emphasize their strategic decisions in ways that honor students’ right to their own language.
Here is an example from college writing instructor Stacey (a pseudonym):
Not sure if this was purposeful, but the pacing of your narrative slows down, just as [topics of paper] slow down. Nice stylistic move.
This comment indicates how students can make strategic linguistic choices based on their intended messages. The following comment solicits whether an implicit transition between topics is intentional on the part of the student writer. This comment also encourages students to think about the possibilities of different organizational styles:
I noticed you transitioned from topic x to topic y without explicitly connecting the two topics. Is this type of implicit transition the style you’re going for or would you like to spell out this connection for your audience? What rationale do you see for each style?
How Not to Respond to Organizational Styles
Responses to student writing that only value linear styles characteristic of Standard English overlook the value of alternative organizational styles and can penalize students for their language background. Terms such as the following can show bias against African American English organizational styles:
- clear / unclear
- readable / not readable
- focused / unfocused
- get to/stick to the point
These terms emphasize linguistic conformity without necessarily explaining what makes an organizational style “clear” or “confusing” to you as the professor. If you are going to grade papers based on whether they follow a particular organizational pattern, it’s better to describe that pattern as objectively as possible rather than to use subjective terms like “clear,” which will almost certainly mean different things to different students:
Transitions imply, rather than spell out, connections between topics. Instead, use transitional phrases to explicitly connect topics.
However, note that this example still values linguistic conformity and that the models under “How to Respond” more closely align with students’ right to their own language.
See Sample Papers with Feedback for more examples of how to respond and how not to respond.
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