Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)


College of Humanities and Social Sciences



Thesis Sponsor/Dissertation Chair/Project Chair

Emily Cheng

Committee Member

Melinda Knight

Committee Member

Laura Nicosia


Minorities--Education (Higher)--United States, Minority college students--United States, English language--Rhetoric--Study and teaching--United States


“I will no longer be made to feel ashamed about existing. I will have my voice... 1 will overcome the tradition of silence.” — Gloria E. Anzaldua. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza

Gloria Anzaldua’s Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza describes the acculturation process as violent and cruel, effectively muting the voices of minority groups to keep them and their experiences marginalized. This description sparks many questions about the experience of minority groups in higher education, especially concerning language: are marginalized cultures able to keep their ethnic identities present in higher education composition? Furthermore, should there be space for cultural identity in academia?

The poet Ernestine Johnson explained the notion of “talking white” in her spoken word poem, “The Average Black Girl" (2014). Johnson shares her experience of learning to “talk white” in order to succeed. Johnson’s poem portrays issues African Americans experience in higher education, concerning their language and cultural identity. In 1996, the Oakland Ebonics Resolution caused controversy and debate over the legitimacy of Ebonics, which is now referred to as African American Vernacular English, or AAVE (Perry and Delpit xi). Despite the heated discussions, writing reform in urban English Language Arts classrooms does not reflect implications of the Oakland Ebonics Resolution.

Smitherman, the noted linguist and educational activist for African Americans, and other prominent scholars, such Lisa Delpit and Theresa Perry, have continued the sociolinguistic studies caused by the Ebonics movement, yet this work has not been reflected in American classrooms. Considering Peter Elbow's influential work in the field of composition, which contributed to the explosion of student-centered instruction, it seems troubling that a connection between cultural identity and writing voice has not been adequately addressed in the field of writing studies for urban education. A quick study of graduation statistics will reveal that not all ethnic groups are receiving equal opportunities. These statistics reveal African American students from urban communities continue to drop out of higher education at a much higher rate than white students (“Fast Facts”).

Horace Mann, the educational reformer, wrote in the 1800s about the power and duty of education: he stated, “Education then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of men, the balance-wheel of the social machinery” (16). If education is meant to be an equalizer, why are there still marginalized students in higher education? Furthermore, since this was the goal of education in the 1800s, why hasn't there been more reform present in the 21st century? In order for progress to be consistent, the debates surrounding composition, writing voice, and cultural identity must be continued. This conversation should also be augmented with a focus on digital rhetoric to acknowledge shifting tides in composition, due to the technological advancements of our time. Chapter One explores the failings of American school systems to properly serve African American students by excluding AAVE in classrooms. Additionally, Chapter Two analyzes possibilities for inclusion of AAVE through the study of digital rhetoric, which presents different types of discourse through digital media.

Examining the assumptions surrounding writing instruction and student voices in higher education will ideally create more value for all student writing voices, not just the ones who fit in the mold of traditional academic voice. This examination will be especially revealing for African American students, who continue to be left behind in schools, due to the hegemonic structures built into educational systems. Ideally, writing instruction needs to transform to include all types of writing voices, including those influenced by cultural identity, such as African American Vernacular English.

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