John Wesley White, Ph.D.

Words Matter.

I am an Associate Professor of literacy, secondary English methods, and content area reading at the University of North Florida. My research interests focus on language uses (discourse processes) and their connections to power, to metacognition, to social justice, and to access to and success in formal academic settings such as schools. Though it is important to teach students the linguistic “codes of power” (Delpit, ), we must also value the rich discursive styles they bring with them to the classroom. Speaking and writing effectively is dependent upon contexts.┬áTo this end, I research and teach about culturally-effective ways to code-switch and code-mesh.

In my work I also promote the notion that educators need to adopt a much broacher view of “what counts” as legitimate literature, language, speaking, and writing in the English Language Arts (ELA) classroom. The traditional English cannon and the corporately-produced mass ELA curricula by which it is taught are far too limited in content, scope, style, and in representing the experiences and ideologies of a true world culture. If we as In short, if English educators are to reach and engage today’s secondary students in the ELA curricula and foster a new generation of readers, we must embrace new literature, new literacies, and new technologies.

My teaching includes undergraduate and graduate courses focused on secondary English methods and reading and writing across the content areas. I also work with graduate students on independent study projects, and serve on dissertation committees.

Conceptual Foundation/Philosophy: Critical literacy and the New Literacy Studies (NLS) posit that different peoples and cultures (even within one language system) use language and literacies in different ways; these different “ways with words” should not be hierarchically valued as one form is not inherently superior to others. Similarly, these theorists show that the meaning of any communication event–whether it be via a text, direct communication, or even nonverbal communication–is dependent upon social contexts and the relationships between communicants. An unread text or an unheard utterance has no meaning; meaning is created only through the interaction of text and reader or speaker and listener.

Furthermore, sociolinguistics (Vygotsky) and cognitive linguistics shows that language is not just the means of communicating ideas through the written or spoken word. Rather, language provides the structure for cognition and identity; actual physical structures in our brains develop around and are closely tied to the development and use of language (see neural pathways, “binding”, Lakoff). How we use language affects what we know and how we know it; it affects the communities into which we are allowed entry and the degree to which we are allowed to participate in such communities; it affects our identity and how we come to see ourselves and our respective places in the world.

Influenced by this collected body of research, I believe that teachers in general (and English teachers in particular) should respect and even celebrate the dynamic and myriad forms of communication and discourse in our society and in our schools. Silencing non-academic forms of discourse in schools (rather than respecting them and using them for learning) is tantamount to silencing students’ cultures and identities. Teachers and literacy experts thus have a responsibility both to examine and to value a multitude of literacies; they should learn about and teach their students to use appropriate forms of literacy for specific settings and purposes. In short, teachers have a responsibility to use students’ discursive styles as an entrance into and a bridge for teaching them to “code-switch,” the conscious or unconscious adaptation of the manner in which one speaks for specific contexts and audiences. Students certainly need to learn to use the “codes of power” of dominant society. But this must be done carefully and with respect for their own valuable and culturally-imbued discursive styles.

On a broader level, this same area of research highlights the importance or rhetoric in public discourse. The ways we use language in major socioeconomic and political discourses influences the tone, structure, and possible outcomes of these discussions. Language can both expand discourse but, more problematically, it can limit both how we discuss issues and possible solutions to problems. We therefore need to examine how language usage is imbued with issues of power. In schools, we need to teach students to be critically literate so that they are aware of how language affects them and how their lives are affected by language.

Personal: A native of North Carolina, I have also lived in Georgia, Texas, and Vermont (briefly). I spent the 12 years prior to coming to UNF (2008) in Denver and Boulder, Colorado. When not working, my hobbies include spending time with my wife and 16 month old son (Desmond), sailing, traveling, reading (mostly about sailing), and playing with our brindle hound dog, Lula Mae.

Happy Easter copy

Foundations and Secondary Education
College of Education and Human Services
University of North Florida
1 UNF Drive
Jacksonville, Florida 32224

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