Carol M. Highsmith’s “America,” Library of Congress/public domain via Raw Pixel
I—Samantha—vividly remember one of my first appointments as a writing consultant, where a scene played out that would repeat itself weekly in the years I worked there. A student brought in a rough draft of an argumentative essay and, as I skimmed for what needed to be worked on, I said, “Oh, hey, just so you know, you’ll have to take out all these contractions later.”
The student—a young Black man—tilted his head in confusion. “Why?”
“It’s not ‘proper’ English. You hafta write like your professors talk—like, it’s gotta sound fancy and detached, like an academic book.”
“Huh? But I thought it was most important to be clear, an’ I have a hard time understanding people who talk like that.”
“Yeah, I know,” I replied, “That ain’t how I talk, either. But it’s somethin’ you’ve gotta mimic to earn good grades. Basically, you’ve gotta write like a rich white guy.”
“Code-switching” refers to when someone switches between dialects (or languages) to facilitate communication. In the sociology of education, a well-researched form of dialect code-switching is when Black students must switch between African American Vernacular English (AAVE) and so-called mainstream American English. Mainstream American English is, of course, white English. However, it’s a specific kind of white English. The ideal English in schools is one with certain rules baked into it, like using “proper” contractions (e.g., “isn’t” instead of “ain’t”) and pronouncing all the syllables in a word (e.g., “really cool” instead of “real cool”). Essentially, it’s a specific, racially coded class dialect.
Sarah and I are both particularly sensitive to that class connotation. We have mutually followed an uncommon path, from small towns in the rural Midwest into classical music (voice and piccolo, respectively), and then into academia. It is on this common path that we’ve both felt the social pressure to “talk proper”—or, should I say, “speak properly”—beaten into us. While we are both white, our natural ruralisms require that we code-switch, too. We must abandon both any lingering accent (Southern, Appalachian and rural accents in general are viewed as less intelligent and unprofessional, no matter what words you use) and the phrasings that feel most natural to us in the name of blending in. While not identical to the unique Black experience, the concept of code-switching can still be usefully applied to other socially devalued identities and language, such as ruralisms, in the academy.
Rural stereotypes of being uneducated, backward, uncultured and unintelligent are inherently at odds with an academic identity. This creates an obvious dilemma for rural academics, who must either constantly defend their qualifications or just try to blend in—meaning they must code-switch. For example, both Sarah and I have changed how we speak, dropping phrases like “how’s come” and carefully enunciating the syllables of every word. We’ve also both had experiences where we downplayed practical knowledge around tools, cars or home repair. That hands-on knowledge flagged us as different, culminating most notably in a fellow academic asking if Sarah was “a tradesperson” for owning and knowing how to use a tool kit. Even successful code-switching creates problems, though. When we do pass, our coworkers may begin to openly bemoan the “idiocy” of rural Americans without pausing to consider that their coworker may be from a rural area. The implication is clear: people like us are not native to this environment, and we must apologize for and rise above our “humble” origins to fit in.
There are costs to engaging in this kind of code-switching. For some Black Americans, being forced to learn mainstream English at school leads to them looking down on AAVE. The same can be said for many rural academics, who learn to view their old dialect and homes as unrefined and inferior. Being unable to speak naturally at school also harms students’ sense of belonging, makes them vulnerable to stereotype threat and plays into impostor syndrome, a rampant problem for many academics who feel they are not actually good or smart enough for their position. Then, when at home, we become marked as others if we cannot code-switch back to our rural dialects effectively enough.
However, it is not just rural (or formerly rural) academics who suffer the consequences of being forced to code-switch. It is important to consider how all rural Americans are alienated when rural knowledge, intelligence and language are devalued. Skepticism toward intellectuals is widespread in rural, blue-collar America, and it does not encourage bread breaking when academics treat rural language as inferior. How are we to bridge the gaps between “real-world” knowledge and the importance of research when we refuse to listen to rural language without scoffing? How can we effectively communicate when we insist on speaking so pompously, flexing our vocabulary and class with every sentence, rather than focusing on comprehensibility?
As the academy continues to struggle with making diverse voices feel like they belong, we need to have a real, honest conversation about how we demand everyone talk. Being informed and intelligent are not attributes at odds with rural identities, yet the language we’re all forced to use perpetuates that stereotype. Not only does this alienate academics from rural areas, but, more importantly, it alienates most of the country from the academy. It is time we stop worrying about contractions and start focusing on actually communicating effectively to all, allowing rural and academic codes to mesh together into a more natural dialect for all involved.