“The way Chaucer utilizes language to convey the complex sentiments of love and sex in conjunction with natural metaphors that are typically connotated with a certain sensualness … ”
I stared at my classmate, confused. I didn’t understand what they were saying, even though they were speaking in English — at least I thought it was English. But why was it so convoluted? Wasn’t this Readings in “English Poetry l”? I looked around the seminar table; people were nodding in agreement, scribbling down notes. When my classmate finished their response, my professor smiled. He understood. He replied and everyone chuckled. Did he say some sort of inside joke? I wondered. It’s only the third class. I thought that I would come to class that day to unravel Chaucer’s poetry. I didn’t realize that I would have to unpack what my classmates were saying.
English is my first language. I was born and raised in Miami, Florida. My parents immigrated from Caracas, Venezuela before Hugo Chavez was elected as president in 1998. My little brother and I juggled Spanglish at home until my parents discovered that we had speech issues, and they decided that it was easier to teach us one language instead of two. Since English was the language taught in my K-12 Lutheran school, that’s what we learned.
Although most of the students in my high school were Latino, speaking Spanish was discouraged. None of the teachers — except for the Spanish teacher — could understand. It was kept in the hallways, never to cross the classroom door. The students who could proficiently speak English succeeded in classes because they could articulate their thoughts well. Those who couldn’t sat towards the back against the wall, silent.
The demographics at Yale are different, but the interactions in seminars are all too similar. Students look at their professors as they exchange phrases and thoughts in “seminar English,” a dialect that surpasses understanding, sprinkled with words chosen from a thesaurus and a jargon list. I’m not the first person to write an article about how this type of English inhibits discussion and excludes certain voices. In February this year, Tiya Proctor-Floyd ’24 wrote an opinion piece about how Yale “epitomizes the way that language is used to decide whose voice gets to be heard, and then, whose is taken seriously.” In her seminars, when she spoke in African American Vernacular English, or AAVE — the dialect that she was “born and raised in” — her comments were “cut out” and “set aside.” It wasn’t the standard American English that her classmates were used to. But seminar English goes a step further. It doesn’t just decide whose voices are heard — it also rewards those who are fluent in it and silences those who aren’t.
Seminars typically tackle complex topics or works, and their discussion-based format is meant to make them clearer. The discussion shouldn’t be complicated, but it often is. And this doesn’t just happen in English classes. In separate conversations with an economics major and a history major, they noted that the seminar atmosphere would shift to something like an interview between the student and the teacher. “I can’t disagree or agree because I can’t understand what [my classmate] said,” my friend told me. “And even if I did [understand what they meant], I couldn’t say it the way [they] said it.” The result is repetitive, stale conversation dominated by a few students and the teacher.
Yale strives to promote the “free exchange of ideas in an ethical, interdependent and diverse community.” Exchanging ideas should be simple, but even asking questions seems to be a difficult feat for students. Most teachers leave space for questions, but there doesn’t seem to be enough time to answer or clarify certain things. And some students even deny that they’re confused. They don’t admit their confusion out of some sort of fear that their raised hand would halt class discussion and negatively reflect on their capabilities. What if they’re the only one who’s not getting it? What would that say? What would their friends, parents — Jesus, what would God think? But if more students admitted when they were confused, conversations might flow more easily. Last fall, I met a student who used the word “esoteric” to punctuate his thoughts. I had never heard that word before. When I asked him what it meant during class, he shrugged. “Doesn’t it mean ethereal?” he asked. Our classmates were apparently confused too. We looked it up: his definition wasn’t close. It was a funny moment — and one that became an inside joke in class — but it was also a revealing one. By asking a simple question, we reached a mutual understanding. And we learned a new word in the process.
If we really want to hear what our classmates have to say and think, we can’t just listen to what we’re saying. We need to become aware of how we’re saying it. If there’s a thought that’s confusing, we need to ask questions when others won’t. Seminar discussion shouldn’t feel like another language distribution credit to fulfill. Let’s keep it simple.