Thesis Christ: Understanding the Use of Language

Linguistics Major Max Teaford explores inclusion through speech in the classroom

Image Courtesy of Max Teaford

This week, the Quest had the opportunity to sit down with Spring/Fall senior Max Teaford to discuss their thesis studying language in a Reed classroom. Teaford is a linguistics major and is currently working on the final touches of their thesis. 

The goal of the research was to attempt to find patterns of speech that act as markers of either inclusion or discriminatory practices of language. They analyze a single Humanities 110 class’s language during several weeks of conference, seeking to understand how participants can build identity and community through their speech. 

It is common in college settings such as Reed to find students (especially in Humanities 110 conferences) using overly complex or academic language, or other elitist speech patterns, Teaford said. This way of speaking is also called Standard Language Ideology. It is defined as essentially the belief that there exists a ‘correct’ way of speaking English. It is often associated with predominantly academic or white spaces (often one and the same). Teaford ventured to understand how Standard Language Ideology appears in academic settings, specifically Humanities 110 conferences, and if that process was discriminating against people that use different dialects in that class. For example, people who use African American Vernacular English (AAVE) may be at a disadvantage in a setting that prioritizes so-called “correct” language.

Teaford pointed out that Reed’s role in various problematic systemic issues is a reality that extends into the classroom. His thesis asks how Reed’s mostly white, mostly wealthy context manifests in students’ language.

This is what Teaford was looking for, but it wasn’t what he found. In observing the Humanities 110 course, they found that a central goal of the conference they studied was the in-class pursuit of social justice, which was accomplished through interrogating and criticizing faculty, course curricula, and academia.

The takeaway from their thesis research for Teaford was the “somewhat cliché” concept of student autonomy in the classroom. Teaford emphasized that their thesis is a great example of how much power students have in the classroom to check their professors as well as reprioritize the goals of a class. Faced with a problematic curriculum taught by majority white professors, Reed students rose above expectations. 

Teaford’s thesis advisor, Associate Professor of Linguistics Kara Becker, pushed them to think more deeply about language as it relates to Reed as a community. Their original concept concerned how language operates in classrooms where English is being taught as a foreign language, but they were steered away from that idea by Becker. They became interested in student led education and how that plays out at Reed.

Teaford also pointed to his peers as inspiration for his thesis. He shouted out Theo Matthee-O’Brien, a previous Reed student who dedicated their thesis to an exploration of Reed’s role in upholding elitism, racism, and capitalism. This critical thinking about how Reed operates as a community in part prompted Teaford’s thinking about how speech and language play a role in that story.

Their professional experiences have also contributed to Teaford’s interest in language and education. Teaford spent several years between high school and Reed teaching English overseas, and he now teaches in Portland to immigrants. He has continued, just this past summer teaching a ninth grade math class over Zoom. 

Teaford plans on taking a much-needed break following graduation, but eventually is interested in continuing a career in education, possibly teaching high school. Their hope is that their thesis inspires current and future Reed social science students to dive into locally relevant research that aims to more deeply understand the processes that occur on campus.

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Mark Hoffman
Mark Hoffman
1 year ago

Go Max!

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