Not Just Words: Two Faculty Members Promote Social Justice While Teaching Communications

Dr. Carlos de Cuba and Dr. Laura Spinu

Committed to making social change through linguistic justice, Dr. Carlos de Cuba and Dr. Laura Spinu of Kingsborough Community College’s speech communication program quickly got to work when they discovered a crisis of deficit thinking in the field of communication.

“Our work started with small observations of discriminatory language in public-speaking textbooks and an existing course description espousing deficit views of language variation,” explained Spinu.

Linguistic discrimination often flies under the radar both in academia and the general public. While the field of linguistics concluded a half century ago that all languages and dialects are equally rule-based and valid, many instructors view students whose language doesn’t conform to the so-called “standard” language, such as regional dialects or non-native accented speech, as having a linguistic deficit.

How we treat language variation in classrooms can have profound effects on students. When linguistic variation is devalued, students are more likely to be placed in special, less rigorous programs, focusing on such “problems” as accent variation and use of “improper English,” limiting their access to classes where they can stretch their academic muscles. In addition, this type of thinking can lead to instructors having lower expectations for students, which can lead to self-fulfilling prophecies, reducing the likelihood the students will persist in earning a college degree.

“As linguists, we have the responsibility to address these issues through reexamining course materials and bringing awareness to all disciplines, particularly those outside of the field of linguistics,” noted Spinu. This past January, the two, along with colleague Dr. Poppy Slocum of LaGuardia Community College, presented a paper titled “Taking action for positive change in faculty and student attitudes toward language variation” in a session called “Critical Issues in Linguistics” at the Linguistic Society of America’s (LSA) 96th annual meeting. The paper, which was chosen as one of the highlights of the second day of the conference, offered a number of easily reproducible activities aimed at countering language discrimination in the classroom and beyond.

“We are working to eliminate linguistic discrimination from our shared teaching materials, syllabi and curriculum within our own departments,” said Spinu, who along with de Cuba joined her department’s curriculum committee to advocate for linguistically responsible course content.

With a goal of flipping the conversation to “a glass half full,” Spinu rewrote a course that was originally intended as an accent reduction course to be a course in phonetic analysis. With the support of a Research in the Classroom grant, the students in the class recorded speech samples from approximately 150 of their campus peers and analyzed their productions in order to pursue various research questions. More than half of these students then presented their work at CUNY’s 4th Biennial Language, Society, and Culture Conference.

De Cuba created a new “Introduction to Linguistics” course, which starts this spring, highlighting issues of language diversity and raising students’ language awareness. For the past two years, he has run a Faculty Interest Group (FIG) to discuss and encourage the implementation of linguistically sensitive pedagogies regarding language at the College. “Many participants come in with limited knowledge about linguistic discrimination and become staunch advocates for embracing linguistic diversity in the classroom,” shared de Cuba. One case in point: Three participants joined Spinu, Slocum, and de Cuba to run a workshop on linguistic discrimination in the classroom at the 2021 CUNY Faculty Diversity and Inclusion Conference. “Since coming to Kingsborough, I’ve been impressed by how reflective our faculty are about their teaching and by their commitment to bringing equity to their classrooms,” remarked de Cuba.

They feel that textbooks are a major tool for change and reaching a larger audience and advocate to make publishers aware of problematic areas in their books. “A MacMillan representative who attended one of our presentations made a commitment to remove content that treated language variation as errors, including a list of “commonly mispronounced words” that really just reflected different dialectal variations,” de Cuba shared.

While not the pioneers of this type of work, Spinu and de Cuba continue to purposely examine myths about language, with the goal of creating classrooms that are inclusive and welcome all varieties of speech. Their work is described in more detail in a chapter from a volume entitled “Decolonizing Linguistics” (edited by Anne Charity Hudley, Christine Mallinson, and Mary Bucholtz), forthcoming at the Oxford University Press.