Students' Experiences Studying African American English

African American English, or AAE, is one of the most heavily researched varieties of English. Studies of AAE played a central role in the development of sociolinguistics, and thus feature prominently in many college-level linguistics curricula. Despite the importance of AAE, however, negative stereotypes and stigmatization of this language variety remain widespread. Such stigmatization is grounded in anti-Black racism and ideologies of White supremacy rather than in empirical linguistic fact (Flores & Rosa, 2015; Lippi-Green, 1997; Rickford, 1999; Rickford & Rickford, 2000; Smitherman, 1995). Despite widespread consensus on these facts among linguists persistently negative attitudes toward AAE among have been documented for decades among Americans of many different racialized identities (see for example Blake & Cutler, 2003; Bündgens-Kosten, 2009; Hoover, 1978; Hoover et al., 1996). Such negative views can even be found on display in ostensibly progressive academic publications at times (see for example Johnson, 2015, and the insightful response by Brown & Dixson, 2016).

Research on African American English has endeavored to explicitly combat such stigmatization. Labov described the “logic of nonstandard English” (1969) while Hoover pointed out the growing recognition of “Black English” as “systematic” and “rule-governed” (1978, p. 65). Today, scholars regularly deploy such work to counter racist narratives of Black linguistic deficiency among college students (Dunstan et al., 2015) and among educators (see for example Baker-Bell, 2020; Fogel & Ehri, 2006; Godley & Minicci, 2008; Reaser et al., 2014). There are now textbooks on African American English (Green, 2002) and on its applications in educational contexts (Charity Hudley & Mallinson, 2011); these both reflect and strengthen the increasing incorporation of AAE into higher education.

As more and more discussions of AAE take place in college classrooms, it is important to examine the outcomes of this vital work and students' experiences in these courses. To date, the most thorough multi-site study of college AAE coursework is probably that of Weldon (2012), who used surveys to illuminate the pedagogy and experiences of nearly 50 college faculty teaching about AAE across the United States. SESAAME sought to build on Weldon's important work by exploring college coursework on AAE from the perspectives of individual students, with a focus on how such coursework might (re)shape students’ beliefs about race and racism.

Key finding #1: Enrolled students understood the seriousness of racism. Students' ideas about the seriousness of racism in the U.S., measured using an item from the color-blind racial attitudes scale or COBRA (Neville et al., 2000), demonstrated high and stable student ratings of the seriousness of racism. At the institution which generated the largest number of matched pre- and post-course surveys, there was a statistically significant increase in students' perceptions of the seriousness of racism, t(15)=1.775, p<.05, one-tailed.

Key finding #2: Conversations about language can create opportunities for recognizing, discussing, and critically analyzing racism. Students discussed racism as interpersonal prejudice mediated by language (e.g., when watching videos depicting linguistic discrimination), but also as a set of broader systemic and structural phenomena tied to unequal power relations in public discourse, judicial systems, and mass media.

Key finding #3: Surprisingly, there was no systematic shift in the ways that students defined racism following their participation in courses with AAE content. This was true across public and private institutions, 4-year and 2-year institutions, and Minority-Serving Institutions as well as Predominantly White institutions.

Key finding #4: Students appreciated instructors who were knowledgeable but also instructors who decentered their own intellectual authority. For instance, numerous participants described the opportunity to learn from specific, highly knowledgeable instructors as one of the major factors motivating their course enrollment. At the same time, participants also identified moments when their instructors showed vulnerability and created opportunities for students to engage in their own sensemaking. As one interviewee remarked, "I was really happy that [our instructor] was willing to, kind of delve into it with us, you know it wasn't like this...really formal like ‘Oh this blah blah blah blah blah, this is what it is,’ you know, it's like, ‘Well I don't really know all that much about this but this is what I found,’ and [they] kind of shared it with us and let us interpret in different ways.”

Data collection for SESAAME was unfunded. However, subsequent analyses of de-identified data were made possible by a generous grant from Southern Methodist University's Summer Research Intensive program.