The Benefits of Code Meshing in Academic Writing

Olivia Dimond, Assistant Arts & Leisure Editor

I could write this article the way I write my others, bending to the rules of the powerful Associated Press (whomever and wherever they are). Ou peut-être, pour m’amuser, je peux essayer d’écrire tout cet article en français et utiliser mon GEC dans « la réalité »*. Or maybe, standing on the edge of a precipice, staring down into the wide-gaping cliff below, I could jump, write like a novel, falling down, weightless, cushioning my fall with dialogue and extended metaphors.

TL;DR: I have a lot of ways to communicate, and so do you.

As one of the Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) Day events this year, “Black Languages Matter: Code Meshing and Multilingual Poetry” asked participants to reflect on the different codes they use in everyday life and how they use them in academia specifically. A “code” is a linguistic idea that refers to languages, dialects, and vernacular that make up everyday speech. When you “code switch,” you alter how you present your language in order to meet the confines of a specific situation; an example would be choosing to not use contractions in academic writing because they are considered informal.

Code meshing, however, encourages interweaving your codes, especially when writing. Neisha-Anne Green, director of the Academic Student Services Writing Center at American University, joined Bates Assistant Director of Writing Stephanie Wade; Bates students Elyana Al-Konsul ‘22, Sarah “Raph” Raphael ‘21, and Martha Reyes ‘23; alumna Alexandria Onuoha ‘20; and Lewiston High School teacher Patty MacKinnon in running a workshop introducing code meshing and its place in linguistic justice

Green is originally from Barbados, where she grew up speaking the local Bajan dialect and learning the Queen’s English at school. When she moved to Yonkers, N.Y., she found herself being penalized for writing the word “color” with a ‘u,’ since that is not included in American English. She began to learn African-American vernacular, but that, too, was not accepted in the academic writing involved in studying for her bachelor’s in professional writing at Lehman College.

Now, when Green teaches code meshing, she asks her students to make a concept map with their different codes, providing examples of words for each one. When they turn in their maps, she slashes out one of everyone’s codes, and someone always says this felt like she was taking away a piece of their identity.

“Standard academic English is fluid as hell. It’s always evolving…So how can you tell me there is no space in academia for all of my Englishes? Why should I always have to contort myself and fix myself to your definition of ‘good writing?’” she said.

Wade asked workshoppers to reflect on their relationship to both their ancestors and their neighbors in short writing prompts: “When you listen to your ancestors/neighbors, what do you feel/smell/taste/touch/see? When you listen to your ancestors/neighbors, what do you learn? When you listen to your ancestors/neighbors, what do you want to know more about? When you listen to your ancestors/neighbors, what do you become?”

Participants had the option of sharing their reflections in the Zoom chat feature and were encouraged to use all of their codes in the process. Not only do my distant ancestors come from France, but many of our Lewiston neighbors come from French-speaking parts of the world, so I worked some French into my responses.

After reflecting on our neighbors, MacKinnon introduced pre-recorded videos made by her English Language Learners students, in which they recited original, code-meshing poetry. Following two prompts, students wove their native languages and cultural identities into the poems, reflecting on where they come from and the stereotypes they face. Al-Konsul, Raphael, Reyes, and Onuoha then shared what it was like to work with the students and help them bring their poems to life.

Language and grammar are powerful tools of oppression that often go unnoticed, particularly in academia. In her book “Schooling America: How the Public Schools Meet the Nation’s Changing Needs,” Patricia Graham argues that the public school system exists as it does today because it created an easy way to assimilate and Americanize immigrants in the early twentieth century.

The normalization of code meshing in academic writing helps to break down the colonialism of language and also allows writers to experiment with the limits of a genre that is often considered dense and hard to read. So next time you sit down to write a paper, why not throw in some of your other codes?

*English Translation: “Or maybe, for fun, I can try writing this whole article in French and use my GEC in “reality”