Ph.D student bad @ standard English

I'm a Ph.D student and I'm not proficient at standard English. This really struck me as a problem I need to deal with yesterday I was with a student. We were talking about Democritus and after stumbling over Democritus’ name once or twice in the beginning of our conversation, I told the student that I didn’t know how to pronounce the name. I was unsure how I should stress the ‘e’ in Democritus’ name. I made this disclaimer with the intention that I would not spend any more time embarrassed about the fact that I was a philosophy teacher to didn’t know how to pronounce a famous philosopher’s name correctly. Things didn’t go according to plan because the student reacted a bit funny to me telling them that. She shrugged telling me that didn’t know either. Her tone said, “Don’t worry. It’s fine.” but her face said differently. I sensed that she was worried if this meant that I could help her with the material.

“I’m not good at pronouncing philosophers’ name but I’m good at talking through their concepts,” I said this hoping it would reassure her. We began going over the material. After 20 minutes passed, she looked and me and expressed that she was very thankful that she had talked with me about the material. She understood it better now and it had become more interesting to her. We spend 20 more minutes together. During that time we would go read, analyze Democritus work, and then talk about what we gained from reading his work. In that time, she began to animatedly talk about his work. She developed interesting and nuanced opinions about his work. I left our conversation both proud of her and me.

But this morning I woke up and I thought about how I never really know how to pronounce philosophers’ names.

I’ve been teaching for 2 years. In that time, I have always done the same thing as I did with the student I talked to yesterday. If I don’t know how to pronounce something I tell them I don’t know how to pronounce it. Afterward, my students and I will either make up a nickname for the philosopher or we will ask Google to tell us how to pronounce their name.

Perhaps this wouldn’t be such a problem for me but I have found that I am not proficient at standard English in general. As I told my student, I’m really good at concepts. I can explain difficult concepts in a way that people will understand and I can explain difficult concepts in a way that grabs people’s interest but I don’t always know how to pronounce the names of concepts. I also am not always great at using standard English words and phrases in a sentence. I often feel like I am doing something wrong when I try. In addition, I’m not the best at grammar. I don’t always know when to put an apostrophe or where to put a comma.

So, how did I make it to a Ph.D. program with these problems? Well, I made it here because of my intelligence, grit, determination, God’s favor on me.

It’s very possible to be great at critical thinking, introspection, and other skills necessary to do well in a Ph.D. program and not be good at standard English. I also made it here like this because while my parents impressed upon me that I should become proficient at standard English, my teachers never did. I don’t know if they realized that I had a problem. Maybe they never saw me as someone who would go to grad school so they didn’t put in the effort to make sure that I knew what I needed to know.

I know some people may think that this is why I created Kiss the Sky.

They may think that because I wasn’t proficient at standard English, I sought to write and encouraged others to write in Black English and other modern-day languages. This is not the case though. For one, I’m not necessarily proficient at Black English or other English dialects. I just thought that it might be helpful for people to read in Black English or other English dialects. I thought it might make texts more accessible to people. I also find those languages to be very beautiful. My appreciation of other languages and dialects is a big reason why I created Kiss the Sky.

The whole thing (me not being proficient at standard English) has become a problem or me. I want to be able to help students with their grammar. I want to be able to comment on their grammar when I read their papers. To do this, I have to get better at grammar. I also want to make sure that my students don’t make it to a Ph.D. program like me, without mastering standard English. Mastering standard English is a huge task in general. It’s an even bigger task to work on in a Ph.D. program where there is so much to do all of the time.

People in academia already second guess me a lot because I am a Black woman. They judge me harsher than they do my male/white counterparts. My issues with standard English doesn’t make. I just know some white academic could become aware of my little problem and think that the only reason I’m in their space is because of affirmative action or something.

I don’t think I should change the way I speak. I like that there is bit of Houston, NY, CT, and Milwaukee in the way that I speak. I like that I’ve unconsciously developed a way of speaking that reflects the different communities that I’ve been a part of. I like that I always hold Houston with me because the words and phrases that I use are so Houston.

But I think it would be good if I could show myself and others that I can be proficient at standard English if I need to be. I don’t have to use standard English but it would be good to know it’s grammar and it’s tonal patterns. And I think it would be good to not be embarrassed about it all the damn time. I think about June Jordan’s “Nobody mean more to me than you and the future of Willie Jordan” and I think I shouldn’t be so embarrassed. June Jordan saw so much potential in her student Willie whose “intelligence was outstanding. But he'd wholeheartedly opted for "Standard English" at a rather late age, and the results were stilted and frequently polysyllabic, simply for the sake of having more syllables”. I’d think she see potential in me too. And I think I’m supposed to be here (in academia). And I’m sure that the immigrant colleagues I love who also have trouble speaking and writing in standard English are supposed to be here to. Together, we make up a host of Ph.D. students who don’t speak or write standard English properly. I don’t think we should be ashamed of this though or try to ascribe to whiteness by speaking and writing in standard English. I think there’s another alternative where we remind ourselves and each other that our native languages are valuable but where we also make the effort to master standard English. I don’t know exactly what the alternative looks like but I know it’s possible and that it’s on the tip of my tounge waiting for me to taste it.