This is a post about y’all. Not you all, but the word “y’all.” Specifically, it is about the use of y’all in academic and classroom contexts and the use of something called the “performative y’all.”
Now, you likely never heard of the phrase “performative y’all” since it is a concept conceived by my partner in a passing discussion that we had a long time ago. The performative y’all occurs when y’all is used devoid of any cultural context and employed as an attention grabbing marker to highlight the importance of content to follow. In essence, the performative y’all is used as a short-hand form of “hey, everybody, listen up to what is going to follow” or “hey, everybody, look at this.” This use of the performative y’all appears to have grown out of the need to meet Twitter’s character limit. However, my partner identified the use of the performative y’all well before either of us became active users of Twitter. Yes, the performative y’all can be seen habituating Twitter, but my partner first noticed its use in emails and internal listserv messages while we were both in graduate school.
I’ve encountered heavy use of y’all on college football Twitter and I’ve never thought twice about it. However, I’ve noticed increasing use of y’all occurring on the academic side of Twitter. On academic Twitter, y’all serves as a way to draw attention to a post, a link, or an idea. The performative y’all, especially on mediums like Twitter, functions as a manicule in word form. It draws attention to the content. It would be an oversimplification to say that y’all used to draw attention to southern foodways or a weird happening in the south is right, but that saying y’all look at my new book publication, or what I found in the archive, or OMG cute puppies would be wrong. I’m not the word police and that isn’t the reason why I am writing about y’all.
However, I have a lot of concerns with the use of the performative y’all because using it without any social or cultural context also means that its use is devoid of related negative social and cultural perceptions. In effect, utilizing the performative y’all allows the speaker or writer to escape being thought of as the stereotypical dumb Southerner or having other dispersions cast on one’s background or education.
Those of you that know me might be thinking to yourself: Why does Greg Specter care? He isn’t from the South. I believe that the grief one gets for using y’all isn’t about the city listed on one’s birth certificate, but rather on the manifestations of markers tying, in my case, one to the South. More on that below.
Again, you might be thinking to yourself, surely, Greg Specter, you don’t go around using y’all all over the place. Yes, I do; I say y’all a lot, especially in the classroom. When I began graduate school I had a teaching mentor that used y’all a lot in the classroom setting and in personal interactions with me. I don’t know if this individual came from the South, but they did go to school in the South. Not that going to the school in the South means one is going to have an inherent transfer of Southern-ness. Point is my first mentor used it a lot. Like many early-career instructors, I borrowed a lot from this individual and y’all was part of those borrowings.
While the above case certainly influenced my use of y’all, my other exposure to y’all is much more personal. My long-term partner comes from the South. They use y’all a lot. Spend enough time with someone and you will learn and borrow a great deal from them. An increased use of y’all is one thing that I have received as part of my relationship. I’m sure I’ve picked up other phrases, too.
Repeated use of y’all certainly helped. I like to say y’all and especially like to use it in the classroom. I like y’all because it is a gender-neutral plural noun. Y’all demonstrates more personality than saying “all” or “everybody.” Now, my use of y’all occurs in the physical space of the classroom or in email greetings, but it is not something I include in formal documents like assignments and exams.
Since returning to Pennsylvania I’ve been called out for my use of y’all in the classroom setting. In some cases, these instances have been lighthearted, but in other cases they have been murmured mocking that I overheard. These reactions are not ones that I ever encountered during my time at the University of Missouri. The first response that someone might have is that these murmurings against my use of y’all are a sign that students don’t respect me, but I don’t think that is the case. I am not willing to buy into that line of thought since I know of instances where friends and colleagues have been mocked or dismissed for using y’all.
I don’t think my use of y’all would be a problem if I had received my PhD from a school on the West Coast or in the North East. I think for a many of my students, Missouri, being a thousand miles away from the Lehigh Valley, carries enough weight to mark it—and me—as Southern. Now, Missouri is weird; it doesn’t fit easily into categories of north, south, east, or west; but, folks unfamiliar with the state do not necessarily know that. At some level, Missouri’s history as a slave-holding state, a border state, and its role during the Civil War likely colors the associations many have of the state, but I’m not sure how much. Additionally, I’m unsure if the University of Missouri being in the SEC affects the perception of the state or of me. I don’t get the sense that SEC sports are on the radar for many of my students and the people I encounter. For many of the students that I interact with in the classroom, Missouri is a marker of a connection to the South and it colors my use of y’all.
Notice that I did not recount my time in Columbia, Missouri as part of the formative experience in my use of y’all. Columbia, like many college towns, exists in a well-contained bubble that draws in many people without ties to the area.
I will continue to use y’all in the classroom. I’ll certainly use y’all outside of the classroom. However, I do wonder: For users of y’all, like me and a few people are judged for using y’all in the classroom, are we judged for using y’all in other professional spaces? Perhaps judged by people who, unburdened by cultural makers, make frequent use of the performative y’all?