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Scrutinizing Language is a Form of Classism

Equity, Inclusion and Social Justice Socioeconomic and Class Issues in Higher Education
November 6, 2018 Sonja Ardoin, Ph.D. Appalachian State University

We use language almost every minute of the day.  It shows up in our thoughts, body language, conversations, and emails.  We use it to facilitate departmental meetings, craft trainings for students and colleagues, write office and campus policy, and construct research, theory, and assessments for the field.  Language is everywhere.  And it is one of the ways classism shows up readily in higher education and student affairs.

Language—including acquisition, word choice, and accent—is classed behavior and is considered a form of capital that we possess as part of our social class identity (Yosso, 2005).  While we all have forms of linguistic capital, some forms are valued or privileged in certain contexts.  Higher education is an example: middle and upper class forms of linguistic capital are preferred and often expected in university settings.  This is why people from poor and working class backgrounds often feel forced to use certain tones and word choices in the academy that sharply contrast with those of their background, which makes them hyper aware of and very deliberate about their communication choices at work or with colleagues (Haney, 2016).

Some of the research and writing I have conducted speaks to how higher education jargon (e.g., words, terms, and phrases specific to a field or context) and acronyms are forms of knowledge and language that create in-groups and out-groups within higher education based on social class and other dimensions of identity.  We expect people—students, families, colleagues—to come to our institutions knowing the general language of the field and even the particular language of our campuses.  This is the “hidden curriculum” which presumes folks attended, or graduated from, college and have some familiarity with the systems of higher education and how to navigate them.  It is also the way we communicate who belongs … and who doesn’t.

In addition to the jargon and acronyms, we also tend to harbor expectations that people in higher education and student affairs will use and understand what I like to call “GRE words,” or larger, more complex words that people often associate with being educated or professional.  For example, you could talk fostering altruistic behavior or you could call it developing selflessness; you could describe someone as impetuous or simply say they are hotheaded; you could inform someone that you need to ruminate further on the conversation or you could tell them you need time to think.  All of these examples say the same thing but the former versions are generally considered more “highbrow” or “academic” than the latter versions and, thus, the former are considered the “smarter” words.

Even with three degrees and over 12 years as a higher education employee, I still find myself facing language barriers and tensions rooted in classism in the academy.  I was reminded of this recently when I submitted a book chapter and received feedback from the editor that it was frowned upon to use the word “folks,” which I was instructed was not a word appropriate for academic writing.  The alterative term of “individuals” I used in some places did not suffice either.  That was also considered too informal.  I was directed to use the word “people” instead, as it was deemed the appropriately formal and professional term for the publication.

That feedback stung a bit.  Not because I was told to strengthen my draft chapter (it certainly needed a lot of work), but because I was being informed, yet again, that my preferred and familiar word choice, and thus language and voice, was not good enough.  Too low brow.  Unprofessional.  The feedback was ironic, really, because I was writing about how social class and classism show up in student affairs, and here it was showing up in the process!  And, for the record, I still do not understand why individuals is deemed an informal word while people is seen as a formal one.

Yet, I too fall into the trap of using “GRE words” and scrutinizing language.  Twice this semester students in a class I teach have stopped me to ask me the definition of words I used (e.g., minutiae).  This is a sign that I needed to check my own language use and word choice.  I am also aware of language when I am writing and a word pops into my head and onto the page and I stop and think: “Where did that word come from?  Do I even know what that word means?”  Then, I turn to Google to check if I can define it and, resultingly, contemplate if I should use a word that I had to Google to ensure I was applying correctly.  But, I feel pressured to use fancier words (e.g., my example above about folks vs. people), even though my goals are to write in ways that are more equitable and push back against classism in the academy.  I also find myself suggesting that students shift some of their language—and perhaps voice—in their own writing, asking them to refrain from use contractions, for example, because I have been trained to believe that is unacceptable.  So, here I am perpetuating some of the very classist language scrutinization pieces that infuriate me.

Some people would say that part of being a “professional” is knowing your context and code-switching (e.g., changing word choice, tone, or language) to suit the audience.  I am conflicted by that.  I know I engage in that behavior and I can see the benefits of it.  And, I do not believe we should have to conform to middle and upper class expectations of language in order to do our jobs well.  Why is it such a challenge to be a good scholar-practitioner of higher education and still “sound” like myself?  (hint: classism and other -isms).

This is something that will continue to trouble me and fuel my research and practice in the field.

I hope it troubles you some too.  And I offer you some things to reflect on:

  • Who gets to decide what language is “appropriate” or formal enough?
  • How and why have you scrutinized your own or others’ language at work?
  • When, and in what ways, do you notice yourself and others code-switching?
  • How might language be viewed as a form of classism?


Haney, T. J. (2016). ‘We’re all middle-class here’: Privilege and the denial of class inequality inthe Canadian professoriate. In A.L. Hurst & S.K. Nenga (Eds.), Working in class: Recognizing how social class shapes our academic work (pp. 141-156). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Yosso, T. (2005). Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of communitycultural wealth. Race Ethnicity and Education, 8 (1), 69-91.

Sonja Ardoin, Ph.D. is a learner, educator, facilitator, and author.  Currently serving as an Assistant Professor of Student Affairs Administration at Appalachian State University, Sonja is a proud Cajun, first gen to PhD, and scholar-practitioner.  She serves with organizations such as NASPA, LeaderShape, and AFLV and enjoys traveling, dancing, reading, writing, sports, laughing, and spending time with people she loves. Learn more about Sonja at www.sonjaardoin.com.