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FINDING PEDAGOGICAL RATIONALE
AMONG HYSTERICAL DEBATE


By Elaine Ray


John Rickford's name wasn't on the media's A-list when the ebonics controversy first erupted last December. When the Oakland School Board resolved to recognize the form of speech used by many African American students, politicians and celebrities provided the initial sound bites. But the debate reached such a hysterical pitch, the media realized it needed more thoughtful analysis. In stepped Rickford, an award-winning linguistics professor and scholar at Stanford.

Rickford did what members of the Oakland School Board had failed to do: offer a pedagogical rationale for using ebonics to teach standard English. For a few delirious weeks he appeared on several nationally broadcast programs, was quoted and published in major newspapers and testified before a Senate subcommittee. Although the furor has abated, Rickford, 48, continues to reflect on the frenzy and its fallout.

“The thing that was good about ebonics was that it brought to the fore a linguistic issue with educational and political implications,” Rickford says. “What was kind of bothersome about the way it was handled in the press is that those educational issues never received their full attention.”

This year, during a sabbatical as a fellow at the university’s Humanities Center, Rickford will finish a book on African American Vernacular English (AAVE), the more academic term for ebonics or black English. In addition to that book, which he is co-authoring with another linguist, Rickford is writing a general-interest book on the ebonics debate with his son Russell, a journalist. And he will teach a new seminar on the ebonics controversy in the master of liberal arts program this winter and a sociolinguistics course in his department spring quarter.

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JANUARY/FEBRUARY 1998

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