Class Matters

It was the mid-eighties. The Department of Education was frantically hiring bilingual teachers in response to the increasing number of Spanish speaking students enrolling in the public schools of New York City. I was one of those new hires. With insufficient teaching experience and inadequate preparation, I found myself one morning in front of a class of thirty-six fifth-graders who had just arrived from the Dominican Republic. I was as disconcerted and lost as the children I was supposed to teach.

Among the many revealing experiences of those days—in a classroom where there were not enough books, chairs or chalk, where I even lacked a curriculum to follow!—I have one recurring memory: I was giving a little speech to my students about the importance of learning English when one of them asked me teasingly: “Maestra, why don’t you teach us what you speak before you teach us English?” He was, of course, referring to the variety of Spanish that I speak: Peninsular Spanish, or Castillian Spanish, with its specific intonation, accent, vocabulary… all of them very strange for him, if at all comprehensible.

That child was expressing, with surprising political astuteness, the double alienation that he faced while listening to me: not only did he need to learn the language of the country to which he had migrated—the language of prestige, power and wealth—but he also had to decipher what that young white woman with college degrees from the ‘madre patria’—an imperialistic and condescending term still in use—was trying to convey to him.

This small incident, which has come back to me several times with slight variations during the twenty years that I have been teaching, contains multiple meanings that only time, conversations and readings have helped me understand. One possible interpretation is that classroom dynamics, just as the dynamics of any other human relation, are marked by power. In the example I have just narrated, a certain amount of resistance to power was manifested through irony and humor. Secondly, the social class, race and gender of the participants are constantly at play in this power relationship. (It is not insignificant that the pointed question was directed to me—the woman who occupied the place of authority in that moment—by a child raised in a markedly patriarchal, ‘machista’ tradition.) Thirdly, certain linguistic terms, such as ‘variance,’ ‘registers’ and ‘codes’ always connote much more than a simple difference in accents.

Many of my students at Queensborough Community College (QCC) are Spanish speakers with profiles that are similar to that child whom I met in my very first teaching experience. However, I no longer hold those simplistic and stereotypical ideas that led me to expound on the importance of learning English in front of a group of students for whom my accent and manner of speech were difficult enough (and somewhat exotic). Now I ask myself some questions that were inspired by the one that the fifth-grader asked me: What is the linguistic variety that I use with my Spanish-speaking students? Is it always the same? Which of the linguistic varieties of Spanish that the students use do I reinforce positively? Which do I disapprove of, consciously or unconsciously? How and when are my ideas about the ‘correct’ use of Spanish manifested in my teaching? How do I respond to my students’ self-deriding ideas about the variety of Spanish that they speak?

Let us take this last question for the sake of argument. When Hispanic students, raised in the United States, refer to their ‘broken Spanish,’ the self-observant and self-critical educator will try to show them the validity, functionality and beauty of all linguistic codes and registers. This is important and desirable, but not sufficient to promote “dialect awareness,” a phrase coined by the socio-linguist Glenn Martínez. “Dialect awareness” aims at raising consciousness about how different dialect varieties structure social relations and, more importantly, why. When we pose those questions—how and why—the language class becomes a site in which power relations are not just played out, as in my anecdote above, but also analyzed with the students; a site in which students become aware of language as an instrument that not only communicates, but also delineates areas of financial exclusion.

Language registers are tagged to social classes in an arbitrary way. In other words, there is nothing inherently good or bad in a dialect except for its association to the social standing of a particular group. And who dictates these associations? Who gets to make decisions about the way we ‘should’ speak? These are crucial aspects in the understanding of language, and they intersect with discussions of social inequality. Having taught in two private universities and in the City University of New York (CUNY), it is my experience that at CUNY, where fifty-three percent of students report a household income of less than $30,000, and seventy-three percent self-identify as students of color, we are more comfortable speaking of cultural and linguistic diversity—something we celebrate—than discussing social disparity.

When we discuss—at workshops, in class—the impact of cultural differences in our teaching, I often wonder why we avoid that fundamental cultural difference that comes with having been born within a particular social group. Yes, it is important for us, educators, to understand our Korean, Sudanese, Colombian or Afghan students’ ideas about time, public speaking or the opposite sex; but, is it not equally important to understand how a student living in financial hardship relates to academic knowledge and intellectual activity?

In trying to explain why some of us might be in favor of the ‘politically neutral’ classroom—a classroom where class disparities are not discussed—the erasure of the term ‘working class’ from public discourse in favor of an ever stretching ‘middle class’ comes to mind; and so does the national outcry provoked by President Obama’s passing mention of ‘wealth redistribution’ during his campaign. He was accused of being a socialist. One more association: soon after Obama was elected, Van Jones, his appointee for the position of Special Advisor for Green Jobs with a special focus on improving vulnerable communities, resigned from his post under mounting pressure for his alleged leftist leanings.

Having been born under a right-wing dictatorship that was succeeded by a democratic socialist government (of the ‘Third Way’ type), I must confess that I do not know which of these two reactions I find more puzzling: the media scandal aroused by the idea of distributing wealth more justly, or the use of the word ‘socialism’ as an insult. In the national imaginary order of the United States, there seems to be an equation between discussing unequal social conditions and being a dangerous agitator.

Going back to the classroom, I would argue that an understanding of one’s own position within the very society one inhabits is a necessary condition for achieving “global awareness,” an important aspect of QCC’s pedagogical mission. If a college education is to bring our students as much self-knowledge as knowledge of the world, talking about social injustice in the United States (and not just in African and Latin American countries) seems unavoidable. Moreover, we cannot expect critical thinking from our students if we do not give them anything critical to think about, and I believe that issues of social inequalities are more critical than the controversy of a smoking ban on campus.

In a hyper-individualized society such as the one we live in, tackling issues of social disparity and financial inequalities with our CUNY students requires making a journey from self-blame (‘I do not achieve my dreams because I don’t try hard enough’) to critical inquiry (‘Do the social, political and historical circumstances in which I live and was born play any role in my difficulties to move forward?’), and, eventually, to collective action (‘What can we do to change the unfavorable circumstances in which I and others are born and raised?’). This type of pedagogical endeavor is what David Fernández Dávalos from Universidad Iberoamericana de Puebla describes as the “social pertinence” of academic life: higher education, he says, must respond to the needs of social reality and be capable of transforming it.

A point of clarification: An academic response to the exigencies of social reality does not mean, here, developing specialized curricula to satisfy the demands of the economy, but this is a matter worthy of a more lengthy discussion.

[A version of this article appeared as “Nuevos hispanismos en Estados Unidos: para una ética del aula” in Nuevos hispanismos interdisciplinarios y trasatlánticos. Julio Ortega (ed.). Madrid/Frankfurt: Vervuert, 2010.]

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