(Published June 20, 2023)
Significant work in rhetoric and composition has been done to connect the value systems surrounding language use to the raced, gendered, and classed structural inequalities that dominate much of life in the United States. This tension is often inscribed in language policy, where how one speaks and writes often becomes a stand-in for who is able to fully access public and social services and resources. However, much of the research on language policy in rhetoric and composition has been focused on exclusive English-only policies or harmful language ideologies in the composition classroom (Flowers, “Resisting”; Perryman-Clark), where the focus has predominantly been on identifying how some linguistic backgrounds, particularly those associated with whiteness, are explicitly valued over others. In the field of Language Policy and Planning, researchers tend to emphasize intentional attempts to maintain or reconstruct minoritized languages (Hornberger and Johnson 276). In this article, we build on these conversations to identify how more covert, perhaps even unintentional, devaluing occurs. We argue that designing inclusive alternatives to these policies is much more than a matter of using inclusive language in policy. To do so, we examine the policies in college admissions regarding the personal statement, a genre that is not just laden with expectations about a student’s academic capabilities but also has larger implications for what types of students can or should “belong” in the university community. By looking at the seemingly inclusive language policies associated with application writing, we are interested in how such policies continue to rhetorically and materially exclude writers who are usually linguistically marginalized.
We identify how policies pertaining to the personal statement reinforce value systems surrounding language use by inequitably regulating a person’s agency within higher education. By policy, we are referring specifically to documents written by institutions such as colleges, universities, and educational businesses that are specifically designed with applicant audiences in mind. Although we understand that each of these organizations likely also has internal policies pertaining to the college admission process, we are interested in the public-facing policies that explicitly seek to regulate a students’ course of action by laying out the steps, rules, or guidelines for composing an acceptable or competitive personal statement (a critical component of one’s application materials).
Much of the work done in language policy and planning (LPP) scholarship, particularly in rhetoric and composition, has focused on how individual actors or organizations challenge or can challenge explicitly repressive language policies on both national and local scales (see Wible, Perryman-Clark, Davila, and Flowers’ work on the Students’ Right To Their Own Language Resolution). Other work has investigated more subtle forms of language policy, such as when the absence of a policy leads to covert rules around language use (Tardy) that are discursively constructed through ideologies about language in a given community (Liddicoat and Taylor-Leech 8). In such cases, the absence of policies in situations where standard language ideology is dominant can lead to regressive, covert language policies. Even inclusive language policies, as we will see in the case of the personal statement, can be superseded by standard language ideology when one accounts for broader rhetorical context. In examining this, we account for how policies can increase the legibility of institutional values, often in ways that reinforce that only some performances of language – and as such, only some types of students – are indeed acceptable and/or desirable. Furthermore, when read in the context of the complexities of college readiness and racial exclusions in the university, these policies construct agency unequally for marginalized students, a difference that manifests, reproduces, and maintains linguistic exclusions.
In this article, we conduct rhetorical analyses of two types of materials: policies on personal statements from undergraduate institutions, as well as third-party sites where students are likely to seek advice and recommendations on writing this genre. Guided by an ecological model of college readiness, we use these materials to demonstrate a two-part argument: first, that the implications for agency are what make these policies discriminatory in practice, although not necessarily in text. Second, we argue that these discriminatory effects materialize through a restructuring of agency for linguistically marginalized applicants by restricting language choices and shoring up a cultural imperative for self-monitoring. We first provide a brief review of some key terms, discuss our methods, and then offer our rhetorical analyses of these policies and the implications this work may have for ongoing efforts to put policy in conversation with linguistic justice.
Grounding the Key Terms: Language Ideologies, Raciolinguistics, and Agency
Research on Language Policy & Planning (LPP) examines language policy as a network of official, codified policies as well as the covert, implicit, and de facto policies that exist in and around them (McCarty 2). These uncodified policies may arise through individual actors’ interpretations of policies (Compton), the material, cultural, and economic constraints around them (Ng, Mirvahedi), or the language ideologies that operate around them (Hornberger and Johnson). This collision between codified and uncodified policy is resolved, and becomes language practice, through writing, speaking, and assessment practices of individual and organizational actors. It then follows that the agency of these individual and organizational actors is a foundational concern for LPP scholarship. As Hornberger and Johnson argue, recent LPP scholarship has been “characterized by a tension between structure and agency” (279). Analysis of policy effects must then include both an understanding of the stages of language planning and the eventual implementation of that language policy as it enters the hands of countless writers and speakers.
Such an examination must consider agency at micro, meso, and macro levels of policy implementation (Glasgow and Bouchard) to draw attention to how local factors such as access to materials and personnel (Ng), economic influences (Mirvahedi), policy interpretation (Compton), language ideologies (Hornberger and Johnson) and official mandates from workplaces and government agencies (Chua and Soo) can support or constrain the agencies of individual people. Because agency is so fragile and so conditional in LPP, and the question at the heart of LPP is “why do individuals opt to use (or cease to use) particular languages and varies for specified functions in different domains?” (Ricento 208), agency is not merely an effect of policy. As the policy is implemented and its many tendrils settle into place, the agentive options left to the individual actors become the real language policy. For example, in Liddicoat’s study of a South Australia school allocating more time to language study, teachers’ agency was restricted by ideology and institutional structures (such as timetables and decision-making structures). As a result, the range of possible policy outcomes was never solely dependent on the teachers’ ideas and planning; it existed at the nexus of those mediating structures and the agency of the teachers.
Because of agency’s prominent role in language policy, we use it as our leverage point for identifying policy’s effects on language ideology. As Katherine Flowers argues, the agency that a language policy envisions for linguistically minoritized groups can serve as an indicator for the language ideologies that the policy relies on (“Resisting,” 78). Language ideology, though, is not just one of many factors that contribute to language policy; policies that merely accommodate non-standard language reinscribe standard language ideologies and stop short of making progress toward large scale linguistic justice (Lee 176). This relationship—how language policies redefine or reinscribe dominant language ideologies—is our focal point for this analysis.
The above-mentioned research projects that shed so much light on agency in language policy rely on ethnographic research to document the effects of intentional language maintenance or recovery projects with specific linguistically marginalized populations (see McCarty) in either specific locations or in a diaspora (e.g. Canagarajah, “Diaspora”). Our focus on college admission brings our attention to an explicitly unbounded population—anyone who is applying for college admission in the United States. Because this population crosses racial, cultural, and linguistic lines, it resists the community boundaries typically drawn by ethnography. While this unboundedness does close off the opportunity to capitalize on the tradition of ethnographic research in LPP, it does provide an opportunity to see how covert language policy can have differential agency implications for different groups.
To explore these various implications, we examine college admission documentation through a raciolinguistic lens, which involves uncovering the “linguistic construction of ethnoracial identities, the role of language in racial and ethnic relations, and the linguistic marginalization of racialized populations across all social domains” (Alim, Rickford, and Ball 6). Raciolinguistics helps to expose how white listeners construct racialized speaking subjects marked by their linguistic deficiencies, even when a white speaker may be lauded for being innovative, creative, or rhetorically savvy when making similar language choices (Flores and Rosa 150). This logic often materializes in the limited discourses of appropriateness, “which communicate that there is an appropriate time and place for different language practices” (Seltzer 148), where a person must determine for themselves (or risk having a regulatory institution do it for them) when their language use is acceptable—or perhaps more concerningly, when their “non-standard” language use will not likely lead to punishment or exclusion (Prendergast). Without attention to the ways language and race are often conflated, we may only treat the symptoms of regressive language ideologies without more fully interrogating what it might look like to pursue linguistic justice, this time with the agency of linguistically minoritized speakers and writers at the forefront.
These racial and agentive implications are, as other LPP researchers have noted, baked into the environment around language use. To explore these agentive possibilities across many different populations, we turn to rhetorical analysis, which allows us to more fully consider the interplay between ideological forces on language and the potential outcome for writers’ navigating the college admission process.
Two questions guided our research:
- What are the implications for agency in language policy?
- What can conversations about agency contribute to the conversation about connecting policy and linguistic social justice?
We analyzed personal statement advice texts published by Amherst College, Howard University, Hamilton College, University of Florida, Vanderbilt University, and Tufts University to explore how they communicate language standards to students. We selected these universities because they were easily accessible and represented a cross-section of different selective colleges—some private colleges (which, through their prestige, affect cultural expectations for what college can, or perhaps should, be), a state university, and a historically Black university. We also took up five unofficial sources: three from college admission consulting organizations (College Essay Advisors, C2 Education, and College Essay Guy) and two from national organizations (USA Today and the College Board), as students may turn to less official sources to fill in gaps left by official sources. These specific texts were found through a Google search for “college essay advice,”—a strategy we expect many students to use—and were selected for appearing near the top of the list of results. Although these texts are pitched as “advice,” they are often the closest a student gets to understanding the judgment process of application reading—and so they serve as a student’s representation of the institution’s reading policy.
Although many studies of language policy rely on critical discourse analysis (Giles, Yazan, and Kelis; Ting; Snyder), we turn to rhetorical analysis for our interpretation. Because of its ability to process large corpora of texts and its attention to power (Huckin 117), CDA has led to foundational work in policy analyses. However, this attention to power is often rather text-forward, concerned primarily with how the text intentionally relates itself to power, not necessarily how a reader’s understanding of themselves in relation to those power structures is rhetorically constructed (Trainor 152). Because rhetorical analysis seeks to reveal how communication is dynamic and ideologically saturated through an attunement to macro-level concepts like power and privilege (Foss, Dingo), it helps us to further uncover the ways in which even seemingly neutral or apolitical policies are intrinsically negotiated, situated, and deeply rhetorical documents.
Given that, we turned to rhetorical analysis to examine how seemingly progressive policies could unintentionally enlist regressive language ideologies, and furthermore, what those ideologies’ effects may be on potential and current applicants. Because language policy and higher education shapes—and is shaped by—so many stakeholders and value systems, rhetorical analysis helps us to parse out how these “complex networks of relationships affect rhetorical meaning” (Dingo 14) while still attending to the very real material outcomes and consequences for writers. By examining and attending to the policies' wording but also the underlying assumptions, ideologies, and sociopolitical contexts that guide the meaning of these documents, rhetorical analysis proved to be a helpful bridge between the texts themselves and in considering the implications for writer agency.
To understand how these texts might be read in the context of the full college application process, we rely on Arnold et al.’s ecological model of college readiness. This model posits that the individual writer is enmeshed in five overlapping, co-constitutive systems that define the terms on which they prepare for, apply for, and ultimately attend college (vii). These systems are:
A student’s immediate social interactions.
A relationship with a family member; the relationship with a guidance counselor; the writing of an essay.
The overlapping combination of microsystem interactions, which may conflict with each other.
A student sorting through the intersecting and conflicting advice from family, guidance counselors (and others) while writing an essay.
The system of policies that a student is not involved in, but that do affect the student.
Language policies in admissions documents; policies creating college readiness programs; budget allocations for school guidance departments.
The system of ideologies that circulate through and around the other systems.
Standard language ideology; the university as white space.
The passage of time; through which students interact with different writing contexts and tasks.
A student becomes exposed to ideas of college readiness in early grades that follow them to their application writing.
Arnold et al.’s description of the college readiness ecology works particularly well alongside rhetorical analysis, because it helps us to map the discursive and ideological surroundings of a writer in college, even if they are not immediately apparent or readily recognizable. However, even though the policy documents that we discuss here are part of the exosystem, the subject of our analysis is the entirety of the ecology, not just one part of it. This is because all of the systems that surround a student determine how agency is constructed in relation to college admission advice documents. We particularly highlight how standard language and raciolinguistic ideologies of the macrosystem contribute to the mixed messages of the mesosystem for linguistically marginalized students. These conflicting messages are difficult to reconcile when the essay advice documents discussed here (representations of part of the exosystem), fail to explicitly name linguistic inclusion as part of university admission policy. As a result, students are left on their own to navigate these competing messages and, because of their individual histories as writers in school, the support systems around them, and the power dynamic inherent in the college admission essay genre, will likely monitor their own language and settle for Standard Academic English.
Policy Analysis: Being Yourself in Personal Statements
To explore this phenomenon, we will begin with the exosystem—the constraints on the university side of the ecology that may lead to the way messages about language materialize on university websites. There are two reasons for discussing the exosystem in this way. First, in order to name the constraints that college admission and communications staff would need to navigate in revising their language policies, we want to discuss the issues that they might face in good faith. Second, discussing the exosystem in this way explains the presence of metagenres, or texts about college admission essay writing that are not sponsored by the universities and that explicitly endorse standard language ideologies.
Next, we have to discuss the constraints faced by an admission team. With enrollments declining (Whitford) and universities closing (Hess), competition for students is as steep as ever. Even before the pandemic, recruiting and enrolling a class that suited various institutional priorities such as class size, academic rigor, net tuition revenue, diversity, athletic talent, balance of majors, etc. was an imprecise art with serious financial and cultural repercussions for universities. As a result, a university’s outward-facing presentation must attempt to rhetorically appeal to many different types of students to attract the enrollments it needs to stay afloat. To manage this problem, universities have to carefully construct an identity or brand through their public-facing materials.
Research on university branding reveals that universities attempt to project images of both prestige and approachability (Rauschnabel et al.). These images are informed by macrosystem ideologies of the ideal university, especially the classed and racialized idea of prestige. Rauschnabel et al. describe prestige as inherently generating exclusivity: “The prestige personality factor represents a university’s overall reputation, perceived successfulness, and snob appeal. A truly prestigious university, like a truly prestigious restaurant, is not for everyone” (3083). In university branding, a university that is prestigious—and thereby worth attending—is one that can afford to turn away those who would not elevate its level of prestige. It is understood that students will be left out. It is not inherently the case that admission staffs individually want to exclude students, but projecting an image of exclusivity is a precondition for developing a brand for a competitive university. Sung and Yang found in a survey of students at a South Korean university that a university’s prestige can be a driving factor for matriculation decisions, even more than a student’s personal opinion of the university (371).
At the same time, universities must project an image of inclusivity to create an appealing campus. Holland and Ford, analyzing the descriptions of ethno-racial diversity on the websites of research universities, found that prestige and ethno-racial diversity have a complex relationship in university marketing. Their analysis found that more selective universities were more likely to prominently display their ethno-racial diversity and downplay their campus’ whiteness: "in order to legitimate their position as the highest quality institutions with the most talented students from all walks of life (Karabel, 2006). Doing so may also appeal to White, upper-class students who want diverse educational experiences that will enhance their cosmopolitan (or global) cultural capital [sic]” or to show potential students of color that they would not be alone. On the other hand, less selective universities “Negotiate with precedents that imply that ethno-racial diversity may be indicative of lower educational quality” and sometimes de-emphasize their campus’ diversity (22).
In both cases, there is an understanding that diversity can disrupt the presumed white space of the university (6). At a non-selective or less-competitive university, accepting too many non-white students would represent the university’s perceived lack of rigor; at a selective university, the “most talented” nonwhite students can fit the upper-class, white habitus of the university without disrupting its power. In both cases, then, universities are both rhetorically and materially disincentivized from explicitly de-centering the university’s whiteness, lest such a move have implications for the university’s perceived prestige because the very thing that makes a university appear prestigious is an unexamined assumption of whiteness.
Universities also need to present sincerity, which Rauschnabel et al. describe as a part of a brand identity that represents friendliness and humanity (3078). Presenting sincerity along with prestige’s inherent exclusions, a university may feel a need to show students that they would be accepted at this university but still on the terms of the university’s white institutional habitus. Across university-published documents examined here, this tension materializes in the form of invocations for students to “be themselves” in their essays. As we explore, this is a vague requirement that does not define which selves are actually acceptable but that does project sincerity alongside other references to a vague standard of correctness by which students must abide to give off the impression of exclusion and, as a result, prestige. Universities do not explicitly state that a multitude of languages might be acceptable in their advice documents; as we have discussed, doing so would destabilize the presumed whiteness and therefore prestige-via-exclusion that a university depends on to bolster its reputation.
It becomes clear when reading these documents that colleges are, in fact, looking for something in particular and some versions of “self” are, in fact, out of bounds: Hamilton encourages students to find someone to read the essay “to catch things [that were] missed” without “[making] it sound like a research paper,” (“College Essay Tips”) while Tufts remarks that “editing is important (spell check people), but… [writers] often lose [their] voice… behind perfect grammar [and] sterile language” (Reynolds) and Howard asks students to “ignore the urge to use ‘how to’ books and websites” while encouraging them to show the essay to teachers and friends for proofreading (15). In each of these instances, the universities seem to acknowledge that Standard Academic English is not an accurate representation of the student’s actual self (and so the essay does not need to be a performance of this English). At the same time, the gestures toward proofreading—Tufts’ invocation of spellcheck, Hamilton’s nebulous “things” that could be “missed,” Howard’s catch-all use of “proofreading”—imply some unknown standard of correctness by which students should abide. If students are not supposed to write in stilted language that is not native to them, but there are unstated mistakes to avoid, they may wonder where exactly the borders are.
This quagmire is exacerbated by the few indications of what sort of rule breaking might in fact be allowed. The University of Florida reports that fragments, contractions, and split infinitives are permitted because the personal statement is not a test in English class (an interesting formulation that gives high school English classes a responsibility to monitor such language), but asks for “no text-lingo, such as “lol” “ttyl” “kk” etc.” (Buchanan). Similarly, CEA indicates that “some mistakes are more damaging than others,” informing students that they can “use contractions where they feel natural,” but that the “personal statement should not read like a string of text messages to your friend, but more like an email to a teacher who knows you very well” because “the person reading your essay is evaluating you” (Semenetz). Both of these sources make it clear, then, that some forms of nonstandard English are not truly permitted in the college application essay, or as CEA puts it, the kind of English that denotes a lack of “professionalism.” The two appeals to text messages also reveal a lack of a broad imagination of what possibly non-prestigious language use might look like, as many of the languages students might bring to this essay are not considered by either source. Still, the documents themselves, written in Standard English, imply that racialized language varieties would probably not be looked upon favorably, as understandings of what counts as “professional language” is generally rooted in a white, middle-class English (Canagarajah, “Place,” 588). In sum, students are told to be themselves, but to follow certain unstated rules around correctness that reflect racialized notions of professional, school-appropriate language.
We argue that this lack of specificity, which is grounded in unchallenged assumptions about what is appropriate for a prestigious university, is what allows other systems throughout the college admissions ecology to create a phantom monolingual policy. With a more explicit policy that decenters white habitus, such ideological implications and implicit constraints would struggle to break through.
Having established the tensions of the exosystem and the macrosystem ideologies that influence them, let us now bring our attention to microsystems, or the direct experiences of a given student. We will start by looking at third-party advice documents, which are able to flourish as a result of this vagueness in university-published documents. In his study of submission letters accompanying articles for publication, John Swales theorizes occluded genres: genres with few publicly available exemplars, a veil of confidentiality around correctness, and no feedback mechanisms (46). Because a writer cannot know what readers expect of them, Swales contends that newcomers to such a genre “may have particular difficulties in matching the expectations of their targeted audiences,” a process that “may produce extra hazards for writers… [crossing] cultural and linguistic boundaries” (47). Because college essay readers, who make admission decisions, hold quite a lot of power in this situation, the occlusion of the genre requires significant caution on the part of the writer. The writer cannot assume that the reader is willing to work through meaning with them, and so they must do everything they can to suss out a clear definition of errors.
In search of answers about the standards of an occluded genre, (such as the hazy correctness standard mentioned above) applicants might turn to metagenres, or writing or speech about genres that “structures understandings of genres themselves” (Colombini 231). In this case study, this means online pieces on college applications published by third parties. These metagenres in the college application essay ecosystem maintain a strict distinction between correctness and voice; Claire Carter, editor of CollegeXpress (a college and scholarship search engine) advises students that “polishing your essay shows that you care about producing high-quality, college-level work. Plus, multiple errors could lower your chances of admission” (quoted in Sawyer). Here, it seems that deviation from the norm could not possibly be constructed as anything other than not caring about producing higher-quality work. Another firm, C2 Education, puts it rather starkly: “When you are submitting a college admission essay, college admission officers expect said essay to be perfect, and if it’s not, THEY WILL JUDGE YOU” (“10 Grammar Mistakes,” emphasis original). Because the outlets publishing these metagenres have no direct connection to particular universities (and, thereby, no need to present themselves as welcoming for the sake of pulling in more applications) the text is much less vague. Although it is difficult to say whether or not these documents accurately reflect the intentions of the university-published sources, both can influence students’ understandings of the genre. More precise and inclusive university-published documentation may dilute the power of these outside pieces.
Let us now turn to a key microsystem interaction: that between the essay writer and the essay reader. Obviously, there is a power dynamic in the reading of a college application essay that tracks with the power dynamic in many school classrooms. A teacher—or in this case, an admission staff member—creates a set of standards by which a student or applicant must abide, without opportunities for negotiation or self-expression that may better facilitate the writer’s meaning getting across. Such a dynamic upends a more typical relationship between writer and reader, in which readers are expected to do some work to meet a reader where they are. This helps us to see that the power dynamic of the evaluation renders “being yourself” impossible because there is always the possibility that one’s self falls outside the “acceptable” definitions of self. The writer has (likely) never met their admissions reader, cannot visit their office hours for extra help, and has no concrete guidance on their expectations. As a result, a student cannot consider what might be permitted in this situation because that question is unanswerable; instead, a student is required to ask what, or rather who, a college might like to see.
The confusion prompted by this question is compounded by a different microsystem interaction: a student’s access to support systems in their schools. Survey data reveal that Black and Latinx students are statistically less likely to have access to college counselors (McDonough 74), and that counselors have time constraints and high caseloads that may make it difficult to work one-on-one with students in large schools (McDonough 70). First-generation students and students without older siblings who have been to college may feel especially unsupported in this context. The lack of explicit guidance from both the advice documents and the student’s high school, along with the high stakes of the writing and the impenetrability of the reader’s preferences, will likely lead the writer to write with caution, where one is hardly writing to truly be themself.
The definition of cautious writing requires us to consider the chronosystem: the movement of a student across time. Arnold et al. argue that the chronosystem is important because the many parts of the ecology do not act unidirectionally on students; a student “produces [their] own development by acting on [their] context” (13). In effect, a student’s previous work in school changes how they understand what is happening around them, and their actions are built on their understanding of the system, not just the system itself. In terms of the context of this study, the chronosystem requires us to remember that the college application essay is not an isolated text; it comes from a writer who has a long history about writing in school. The microsystem interaction between writer and essay reader, then, is constructed in part by the student’s previous experience with writing in school.
Writing development research indicates that writers approach writing tasks as they have understood writing tasks in the past; Dippre and Smith argue that all contexts are inherently dissimilar and writers build context by “making the different similar again” (30). In this act of rendering context meaningful, writers rely on what they already know about writing and the social world. We can then say that a student’s writing history shapes how they perceive a writing task and, as a result, what that writing task becomes for them. Students may then approach the college application essay from very different perspectives, depending on how they understand essay writing and what images of college they have. A student who has always felt that their language has been welcome in school settings may approach the essay attempting to fully express themselves and their ideas, essentially trying to “be themselves,” while a student who has always had to navigate the racialized dynamics of writing in school will approach the question with more questions.
Brad Jacobson’s dissertation study of a Latino writer named Jain offers a clear picture of how task perception may change on raciolinguistic grounds. Jain wrote in a few different genres in college: some school essays, some lab reports, and one piece of journalism. In spite of the genre differences between these texts and his pre-college writing, Jain felt that all of his writing assignments were “like high school” and that he did not see himself as a good writer (243). Jacobson traces Jain’s perception of the writing tasks as “like high school”—in spite of their differences from the literary analysis he had done in high school—to the similarities in feedback he received in each place. Importantly, Jacobson argues that the university’s expectation of linguistic assimilation led to the feedback Jain received; by assuming that students should produce writing to meet racialized standards, instructors replicated the path of circulation that Jain knew from high school, leading to his assumption of similarity (254). For Jain, writing in high school meant writing for racialized standards; without being given a reason to believe otherwise, Jain might see his college application essay as another occasion where writing according to these standards was the only way. For the many writers who understand school writing in this way, the hazy standard of correctness put forward by the advice documents cited here allow these marginalizing understandings of school writing to remain in place.
How do enrollment pressures, language ideologies, a student’s writing history, availability of counseling and other support, and the text of advice documents come together to converge on the writing of a college application essay? We contend that this fragmented and incongruent system, at least in the case of the language politics of the college application essay, is what leads to students reading between the lines become the ones who exclude their own voices from academic spaces, reinscribing historical exclusions around race and education while the institutions themselves offer a seemingly unproblematic mandate to “be yourself.”
These articles frame “being yourself” as everyone’s prerogative when writing a college application essay, but this agency is only truly available (without the pending risk of consequence) to a select group of students. It is in this presentation and revocation of agency that makes the implicit language policy particularly insidious: if a student recognizes themselves as someone who is professional, a model college student in the eyes of an unknown application reader, then they may write on their own terms. But, if they have a shred of doubt that being themselves would put them in an undesirable category in the eyes of an application reader about whom they know nothing, then they best play it safe. Their agency shifts dramatically: it becomes about their capacity to navigate language politics and present themselves in the most acceptable way possible, with no concrete guidance of what that might be. We argue that this self-defined exclusion, although not actually codified in the language of the policy, makes dominant language ideologies even more powerful by becoming part of the writer’s understanding of acceptable language and defining the university as white space.
Of course, many students will recognize the “dance,” which Elijah Anderson defines as a performance in which individual Black people must prove that stereotypes do not apply to them. The dance often materializes as “dressing well and speaking in an educated way” to gain acceptance to white spaces (13), and recognizing a space as asking for the dance can affirm that space as white (Meghji 59–60). Anderson’s theory of white space is rooted in Black studies and does refer specifically to the Black experience in white spaces, and so the application of that theory to non-Black students is then not a precisely equal transposition. We follow Anderson and other scholars of race, language, and performance to note that the connection between language and discrimination for Black Americans exists along particular social and historical axes, as it does for speakers of other racialized and classed dialects—Chicano English, Appalachian English, and Caribbean English, to name just a few—and that the recognition of the university as white space through this admissions discourse will activate those discrete histories in the minds of students from across these populations. For a student unconcerned with their writing fitting in on racial or classed grounds, no such history is activated and agency becomes something very different: permission to use a fuller set of linguistic resources to impress a reader. This unequal sense of agency—that one set of students is always navigating and another is simply expressing—will likely follow these students to the composition classroom. Even if a marginalized student were to meet a welcoming and constructive composition instructor in their first semester who embraces a translingual language ideology, these exclusionary scenes may have already accumulated to a point where students “may conclude that the real problem she faces in this setting is that she is not white” (Anderson 16) and that the agency to draw on a full linguistic repertoire unhindered will never be available to them.
Even as an admissions essay policy may appear linguistically inclusive on the surface, a rhetorical analysis of the many conditions that act on an essay writer reveals that the agencies available to writers of different language backgrounds are not, in fact, the same. Relatedly, this analysis focused on agency helps to uncover whether a policy maintains the appearance of inclusion or whether it is truly working towards linguistic justice.
With that, we do not contend that these admissions policies are intentionally misleading, functioning as some nefarious standard language Trojan horse. Our experience and analysis instead tell us that standard language ideologies are so ingrained in American professional settings and academia that their implications generally go unseen. Put differently, these policies may be genuine attempts to be inclusive, but in effect are held back by larger contexts surrounding language value and use. Examining them from the perspective of essay writers, or those whose agency is directly on the line during the college application process, is a key step in ensuring that these policies are working towards their inclusive goals. The next move towards larger-scale linguistic justice, however, is to actually revise the policy. We would offer a preliminary recommendation for admissions offices to extend the “be yourself” mandate by explicitly acknowledging that multiple languages may be necessary for students to truly be themselves, and that their writing will be more vivid, interesting, and even more “academic” as a result.
Our rhetorical analysis of the college readiness ecology is also intended to explicitly name the forces that act on admissions staff—intense pressure for enrollments, prestige branding, etc.—and the whiteness embedded in these concepts. These are not reasons to stray away from inclusive language policies, but opportunities to be more explicit about the values and goals that drive those policies in the first place. For example, we encourage institutions to lean into the ideal of the cosmopolitan university that openly states acceptance of multiple languages on its application essays because they see inclusion as a core value of the university, not because nonwhite students allow colleges and universities to foster the mirage of a diverse and inclusive class without a genuine commitment towards justice and equity. The potential in this possible pivot also signals that both scholarship on language policy and planning and the policymaking itself must be attendant to the forces that structure policy to navigate institutional priorities and find new, genuinely inclusive ways forward.
We suggest that looking to the implications for agency in policy is one way that scholars interested in access and equity can participate in projects of linguistic social justice. However, though agency is a productive starting point for analyzing the possible effects of language policy, there is no straightforward heuristic for interpreting how agency may be restructured. Looking at the rhetorical surroundings of college admissions reveals that agency cannot be restructured in the text of the policies alone, but by interrogating and rejecting the confluence of other factors that code some language varieties—and, with that, some racial backgrounds—as unprofessional and ill-prepared for higher education. Other contexts may have other associations with language, and so agency and linguistic justice will be constructed differently in those settings. Though policy is just one place to continue examining how language ideologies manifest and are reproduced, we invite all language and writing scholars to further take up agency as a fruitful place to focus efforts on moving beyond linguistic diversity to true linguistic justice.
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