Thanks to The Ling Space for such a great overview of my work on African-American language, culture, and education policy.
I grew up in Varina, Virginia, a rural area zoned for agriculture just east of Richmond. My local affiliations and dedication to my community are the driving force behind my most fundamental interests as an academic. My grandmother, who was also from Varina, VA and lived her adult life in Charles City, VA, thought that the College of William and Mary should educate more African-American students—especially the ones who lived near the College. She didn’t live to see that dream to fruition, but I can. To maintain the integrity of her vision, my goal is to be successful as a scholar and as a faculty member in a way that is universal yet respects my grandmother’s localness of vision. Such work honors the integrity and dreams of others like my grandmother who were never afforded in a position to become scholars and researchers.
The College of William & Mary is just 45 minutes down the road from Varina, where my parents still live. I am from a historically multiracial background (African American,Native American, and White), but in many senses, in Virginia, the one-drop rule still persists, and I am proud to be African American. In this book and in the academic narrative, I represent the prep school to professor experience. I attended St. Catherine’s School in Richmond, VA for thirteen years and I had an early interest in studying linguistics and in being a college professor and administrator. I was granted early admission to Harvard College and found myself surrounded by supportive faculty and students. In many ways, this book is a product of my Harvard experience and the time over three years that my undergraduate professor, Calvert Watkins took in helping me write my honors thesis and developing as a scholar. My master’s thesis at Harvard explored the idiolect of Bessie Smith—the ways in which her individual language and signing style changed over time. I gained a great introduction to African-American language and culture in the South that was the very important start to the work that I’m doing today.
Yet, at Harvard, no one in my department told me about the Mellon-Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program until it was too late for me to apply. From then on, I found many of the fellowships and grants that I earned on my own and that process is described in this text. My family has always been very important to me, and my grandparents were strong role models. I am an example of what can be accomplished in the third generation of African-American scholars. My father taught at Columbia and my mother did research with a Nobel-Prize winning professor as a first year student at Vanderbilt. My brother, sister, and I have all worked with leaders in our respective fields: My advisor was William Labov at the University of Pennsylvania, my brother’s was Nell Painter at Princeton, and my sister’s was Deborah McDowell at the University of Virginia. My research on the language and culture of high achieving underrepresented students form the underpinnings of this book.
At the University of Pennsylvania, in the doctoral program in linguistics, I began studying in earnest how discrimination based on language and culture led to educational inequalities. I also became very interested in the transition from high school to college and undergraduate research through my work with The Center for Africana Studies Summer Institute for Pre-Freshmen and the Penn McNair Scholars Program. This book got started at the University of Pennsylvania in these summer programs. At the time, I thought my interests in linguistics and supporting underrepresented students in undergraduate research were somewhat unrelated but now I see how they overlap and I’m glad for it!
I am now associate professor of English and Education at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, where I am jointly appointed to the School of Education and the departments of English. I am also affiliated with the programs of linguistics and Africana Studies. I’m director of the Linguistics Laboratory and the inaugural William & Mary Professor of Community Studies. I direct the William & Mary Scholars Program and co-direct the William & Mary Scholars Undergraduate Research Experience (WMSURE).
With support from the DuPont Fund and the SCHEV College and Career Initiative, I work with admissions, development, and do a considerable amount of community outreach to students who I hope to see at WM and other universities in 10 to 15 years. I want to be successful in the present, but my sights are set on the next generation and the generations after that.
Here’s my main research focus: the quest to educate non-Standard English speaking students from marginalized backgrounds has been a primary driving force behind both the multicultural education movement and the development of the field of sociolinguistics. These two perspectives, however, have not joined together as well as they could to address issues of language variation in multicultural education. Thus, I write at the critical juncture of sociolinguistics and multicultural education. My working premises supposes that only with an understanding of the principles and patterns of language variation in speech and writing can the multicultural education movement fully address why children from non-Standard English speaking backgrounds often have difficulty achieving in schools.
Children innately know their language is not bad or wrong. Their families and neighbors speak the way that they do. But when they get to school, they are often told that they are incorrect and “speak bad English” and therefore they are not as smart as other students. While recognizing the fact that literary language is crucial to academic success, we are working on ways to help children learn the standard language without teaching them their own cultures are bad. At the same time, we must work to include knowledge of all languages and cultures into what is taught, recognizing that all linguistic and literary traditions are just as valuable, not just the ones that are maintained in U.S. schools today.
My desire as director of the William and Mary Scholars Program was to build a program for students that would serve as a national model for nurturing the academic potential of high achieving students from diverse backgrounds. As my career progressed, I saw the direct need to engage secondary and postsecondary English educators together in conversation. To do so, I have been a lead researcher on the Virginia Capstone English Project, the Senior English Seminar Academy, and the College & Career Readiness Initiative, statewide projects funded by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia to align secondary and postsecondary English education goals. I have also worked with secondary English education students and doctoral students at the College of William & Mary on many of the same topics and themes that are covered in this book. The story we are now writing is our own.
I have accepted an offer to be the North Hall Endowed Chair in the Linguistics of African America and Director of Undergraduate Research at UC Santa Barbara effective July 1st, 2017. I will be responsible for coordinating and overseeing undergraduate research programs for over 20,000 undergraduates at the first Minority-Serving Institution that is also a member of the Association of American Universities. I will also be working in particular to enrich the experiences of UCSB’s over 900 African-American students. I’ll be accepting graduate students with interests in African-American language, culture, and justice to UCSB Linguistics and UCSB Department of Black Studies. Virginia and William & Mary will always be a place that we consider home. California here we come. I’m ready to learn.
Photo of Prof. Charity Hudley by Christine Fulgham