Voices: The Academic Standard for English

Maximillian Lisowski

The academic standard for English has set limits on self-expression for students who may speak differently, so should it be altered to promote diversity and equity?

Language is one of the most important tools we have as students. Without it, we would not be able to share experiences, collaborate, advocate or express ourselves. While there are “correct” ways to use our language within academia, there are considerations with the idea of making academic writing more lenient. Leniency in academic writing promotes individuals’ identity, culture, and style, which creates a ripple effect of more genuine speech and writing.  

That is why the Writing and Media Center has been making efforts to acknowledge and inform students about self-expression through their Speaker Series: Language and Communication Justice during the 2021-22 school year. The Writing and Media Center’s goal is to encourage students to write genuinely by encouraging the use of their own writing styles.

According to Lucia Suarez, the director of U.S. Latino/a Studies at Iowa State University, the academic standard is meant to prepare students to communicate effectively beyond graduation, not suppress an individual’s cultural identity that could be seen through communication. However, with our current academic standard, writing has always been bound by proper punctuation, spelling and proper English containing unnecessary embellishments that can take away from genuine expression. 

Jordan Brooks, the director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and director of Multicultural Student Success, shared his thoughts on genuine expression, saying that professionalism and our academic standard are damaging students’ ability to express themselves effectively and on a deep, personal level.

This comes in the form of code-switching. By definition, it is the practice of altering between two or more languages or varieties of language within conversation, which can severely impact authentic expression if it becomes a habit. Often people may find themselves searching for the “right way to write, speak or act,” Brooks said. Many minorities may feel the need to speak a certain way to get a job or interact in a different way to express themselves to someone they do not know on a personal level. Brooks believes this is dangerous because it affects the authenticity of one’s speech and decreases the value of the interaction. 

“Code-switching being authentic is a process,” Brooks said. “There’s no one right way to be authentic.”

But if code-switching is used improperly, one could find themselves stuck in a way of communicating that is not true to oneself.

Instead, Brooks urges people to code-match rather than code-switch. Code-matching would allow individuals to have deeper, more meaningful conversations, especially when it comes to discussions over culture, and allows for a more empathetic conversation. It is the equivalent of matching someone’s energy, but you do not sacrifice your true self.

Suarez agrees with this notion, saying that language needs to be matched based on the setting you find yourself in.

“As a teacher, I’m going to give you the tools to have both. I’m not going to deny you one when you’re in the classroom in a university setting. [But] we need to teach you the academic or the more ‘correct’ language,” Suarez said, for students to use in their professional careers. 

While this may be seen as contradictory to genuine expression, according to Suarez, language is alive. There is no proper way to write, but there are styles that are more common in the workplace so that work is done in the most efficient manner. On the other hand, Brooks believes expression should be wholly your own as it will draw people closer to you—even in the workplace.

Not only can cultural identity and expression be stifled by having to write a certain way, but professionalism can also restrict the physical expression of yourself. Brooks discussed how he used to have dreadlocks which were meaningful and spiritual. The dreadlocks became part of his identity and another way to express himself to the world. Unfortunately, he got rid of them because they contradicted professionalism. Maybe the standard in the professional world should allow cultural expression in this way so that people feel more at ease with themselves because they do not have to conform to any rules.

Verbally, Brooks and Suarez agree that everyone should talk the way they normally do when conversing with others. Vernacular should be embraced when conversing with others because it reveals a lot about someone’s background. Brooks shared his take on cultural identity and how one’s language defines their culture. 

“Language is a powerful tool,” Brooks said.

Language can be used to advocate for one’s beliefs and share personal experiences with one another on deep levels. That is why when people often try to oppress minorities, speech is the first freedom that is trying to be taken from them. Brooks also mentioned that authentic expression is not limited to speech and writing.

“[Expression] has to do with your body language, word choice and being true to who you are,” Brooks said.

Being completely true in who you are and what you are shows your personality and leads to more meaningful discussions about culture. In turn, this will also make others who you speak with feel more comfortable with sharing their own stories and cultural backgrounds.

The academic standard in English allowing different writing styles could help students express themselves in meaningful ways rather than being defined by one form of it. More diverse expression and communication will differentiate people from one another and reveal a newfound uniqueness in people where we otherwise wouldn’t. 

The student body at Iowa State is diverse, so the academic standard for English should allow all forms of writing and expression to be acknowledged. Etymology is not static but rather dynamic, and the standard should follow.