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Linguistics and engagement: In class with Anne Charity Hudley

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On the third day of class, Dr. Anne Charity Hudley asked, “How many people consider themselves to be speakers of Southern English?” Two students responded in the affirmative. “How many people have been told they sound like they speak Southern?” Instantaneously, a majority of the students enrolled in the community studies/African American English class shot up their arms.

Ensuing discussion revealed how the term “Southern” could be a euphemism for “country” which could be a euphemism for “undereducated.” The students, it became apparent, all sensed that that they, at isolated or at numerous points, had been tagged with linguistic bias.

According to Charity Hudley, assistant professor of English and linguistics and the inaugural Professor of Community Studies at the College of William & Mary, the goal of the Introduction to Comunity Studies class is to prepare students to be highly effective engagers with communities and the challenges that community members face. During the semester, she will introduce them to various forms of service, to concepts of service learning and volunteerism and to emerging prospects for social entrepreneurship. She also will guide their participation in course-mandated community-engagement research projects. For the professor, however, it is important to begin with an understanding of the roles of language.

“We have very bright students at William and Mary,” she said. “They bring enthusiasm; they come with ideas and they are ready to go, but often they have not had an opportunity to participate in courses that allow them to consider their own cultures and heritages. They need to know and to be comfortable with their own linguistic identities and to integrate their personal, social and academic interests. This course assumes that they will be talking to people as their first point of entry into any community or situation.”

In defining her role regarding her students, Charity Hudley uses the term “continuum.” She sees her place in their lives along the lines of others who have produced in them a passion to make a difference in their worlds—their families, their communities, their former teachers. “I am just continuing an ongoing process,” she said.

To prepare them fully means to help them reassess what it means to speak English and how that affects what it means to be an academic. For many students, the course's themes of African-American English and language variation respresent new ways of thinking about language, she explained, ways that are not any less scholarly or any less rigorous than previous models of language with which students have been presented.

“We have it set up as English as a certain type of language because of the history of who were the writers, who wrote the dictionaries, who wrote the culture, who wrote the society,” Charity Hudley said. “So, the idea is that the lens through which we view the language can be changed once other people are brought to that table. When our students go into a new community, they will have a lot coming at them in terms of language and culture. Trust can be broken despite their intentions. They need to know how to negotiate that in terms of what they bring?”

To suggest that she expects much from her students would be an under-representation. Through their work, she envisions each becoming a navigator of culture as well as a creator of culture. She expects them to come up with better ways of looking at problems: If the previous solutions worked, we would not be here, she tells them. She expects them to pioneer better ways of conducting research about community and about the global issues that resonate with them.

In her own National Science Foundation funded research on attitudes toward language variation, in which students actively participate, Charity Hudley and the students partner with numerous educational entities in an attempt to combine understanding of the language and culture of everyday life toward raising the reading levels of K-12 students. Her forthcoming book, Understanding English Variation in U.S. Schools (Teachers College Press), grew from her own heartfelt longing to advance social justice.

“I have to kind of say that I am an activist because there are some things I really believe in taking action on,” she explained. “In a generalized sense, I’m not so sure that I would make the cut. But I will do anything to help think about the idea that the languages kids bring from their homes should be valued in school. If that is done, it will be a better process for everyone involved. It will be easier for the kids to learn the language of the school, and they will have better feelings toward school and toward achievement. So, am I an activist? Maybe. Am I a language activist? Definitely.”