Antiracism and Racial Justice in the Teaching of Writing

Antiracism and Racial Justice in the Teaching of Writing, Zoom workshop

Event date: January 22, 2021

With Dr. Karen Keaton Jackson, Dr. Carmen Kynard, and Dr. Alexandria Lockett

From Colloquium Co-organizers Diana Newby & Ami Yoon: A Note about the Event

Our colloquium’s inaugural event in the fall of 2020 was on “Antiracist Pedagogies in Literary Studies,” focusing on teaching literature in ways that would work toward eradicating racist disciplinary practices and habits of mind. To launch the spring 2020 semester, our companion event on “Antiracist Pedagogies in Writing Studies” sought to focus on the intimately related topic of how we teach and support students’ writing, both in and beyond the classroom.

Our hope for this event was to both create space and provide a touchpoint for increased dialogue among various institutional sites at Columbia University where literacy instruction and support are taking place, some with antiracism initiatives already underway. Such sites include the English and Comparative Literature department, the undergraduate University Writing Program, the Columbia College Writing Center, and the Writing Studio in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

Some of our framing questions for the event were as follows:

In what ways is racism reproduced in our students’ writing and in the ways we teach and respond to students’ writing? Where and how can writing instructors and writing center consultants intervene in students’ writing practices, as well as revise our own pedagogical practices, to identify and dismantle forms of racism? How can we work together both within and across the spaces of literacy instruction to create pedagogies of racial justice? What are some teaching principles and practices that can empower all of our students, but particularly our students of color, as writers of many different Englishes?

Although these questions are not new, they remain perennially relevant and urgent. They draw on a long tradition of crucial work by many scholars in composition studies, such as Geneva Smitherman, Asao Inoue, Victor Villanueva, and Vershawn Ashanti Young, to name only a few. Equally, these questions take inspiration from the work of the panelists for our event: Dr. Karen Keaton Jackson, Dr. Carmen Kynard, and Dr. Alexandria Lockett

Over the course of the panel presentations and ensuing discussion, recapitulated below, we found that our initial questions were attended, nuanced, and extended by other provocations for thinking that our invited speakers raised in their panel discussions. How do specific contexts—of race, gender, ethnic or national identity; or of institutional or political or social situations—demand particularized approaches to enabling racial justice in education? How do we inhabit hostile spaces in endeavoring to make changes? In working across differences, what are the points of commonality that are available for fostering and enhancing affirmative sociality?—among students, among students and teachers and staff, among teachers? How can traction be sustained among teachers without generalizing or reducing the differential commitments of individual instructors? 

As our panelists spoke to three different sets of approaches toward both defining and pursuing antiracism and racial justice in teaching and supporting students’ writing, this event was also an encouraging opportunity to reflect upon the sheer variety of ways in which such aspirations might be translated into action. 

As usual, the content below has been edited for clarity and length.

From Dr. Karen Keaton Jackson (North Carolina Central University): On the Affects of Student Writing and the Writing Center Experience

I’m going to be speaking about the HBCU (historically Black colleges and universities) Writing Center context, and how our Writing Studio at North Carolina Central University is an active site of racial justice. HBCUs are a type of minority-serving institutions (MSIs), but created specifically to educate Black Americans; only HBCUs and tribal colleges were institutions  set up specifically to educate a particular group. Other MSIs gain their designations based on enrollment each year. But that doesn’t mean that the institution itself changes to better serve that minority demographic; at HBCUs, however, our POC students are our priority.

This HBCU context makes culturally relevant the focus of helping a particular group of students—that context is very much established, and critical to who we are. We tend to have higher numbers of students from lower economic backgrounds or who are first-generation college students, but such statistics and demographics have nothing to do with our students’ capabilities and brilliance. Many of our students could have gone to Ivy League institutions, but they chose to go to an HBCU. Their choices relate to questions of access and exposure, rather than anything about innate capacities.

3 strategies for Writing Studio success

Strategy 1: Frontline workers

We have an administrative assistant. I advocated for this position, notwithstanding budget cuts, in a very intentional way. All students go through her to make an appointment, by either calling or coming into our space to set up an appointment. We ask questions such as when assignments are due, and the assistant matches the students intentionally with specific consultants. This person being our frontline worker is key. We like her to be the initial touchpoint, because some students don’t know what they need.

The other frontline workers are our consultants. We emphasize having diverse staff members. You have to be intentional in prioritizing diversity among consultants, and reach out to student organizations, campus partners, or different departments to gain that diversity. 

Strategy 2: A community-driven approach

We are constantly in conversation with each other about how to help students. We have Human Resources do training with us at the start of each year, and we have a Quality Service Initiative training for taking us through customer service topics, such as good workplace communication or defusing a situation. Additionally, we do training with Student Disability Services, getting tips for interacting with students facing challenges. Since it is a collective responsibility, we need to come together to have those conversations, and we have made some curricular changes as a result.

Strategy 3: Session approach

Mainstream practices discourage required visits. But our reality is that that is how we got our regulars, and now we can’t get them to leave! We benefit from this approach greatly. Also, mainstream practice recommends a minimalist approach, that is, not telling students what to do. We started this way in our sessions, but some of our students needed a mix. This had nothing to do with their ability level, but because of their previous contexts and experiences, they just didn’t know certain things, and they needed this hybrid approach.

From Dr. Carmen Kynard (Texas Christian University): On Antiracism in Classroom Practices

I’m coming to you from Fort Worth, Texas. Here on Wichita land, I am committed to undoing white settler colonialism in the ways I work, speak, and act as part of my acknowledgement of this land and the Wichita People. I am among those whose lived reality sits at the intersection of what I call intertwined abominations—kidnapped from one land, and forced to labor on stolen land—and I commit to taking up the work of dismantling white supremacy and white settler logic in classrooms.

Anticolonialism and antiracism must always be intertwined and co-forming. I begin this way to reach toward more than the performative slogans and cut-and-paste declarations and acknowledgments that are being posted everywhere, especially on syllabi, in the vein of giving a land acknowledgement before moving straight into styles and policies framed from white settler frameworks.

I have been at Texas Christian University for two years now, and when I moved from teaching at John Jay College and the Grad Center at CUNY to TCU, I was asked a lot about the differences. But CUNY and TCU are not so different. There is a culture shock, but—and this is part of what I want to stress about white settler colonization—what strikes me more is that CUNY and TCU are so similar.

Locating and Defining Antiracist Pedagogies

I identify as a Black feminist educator and dreamer, and as such I understand that classrooms committed to antiracism require, above all else, imagination—imagination and joy. So I would like to lay out some definitions of how I see antiracist teaching for college classrooms.

Antiracism is a stance and praxis that deliberately and actively rejects a white supremacist status quo—in all its iterations—for teaching and being in schools and institutions. It uses this rejection as energy to reach and move towards insurgent and creative alternatives. And I see pedagogy as a deeply intellectual and theoretical project (as opposed to a set of standards, learning outcomes, common syllabi, or classroom lesson plans) where we can intervene in college classroom spaces—geographies that do the day-to-day, minute-to-minute work of maintaining institutional oppressions. Pedagogies, then, refer to the deliberately planned series of actions and counter-literacies that move a group towards political contest and intervention.

In my field of composition studies, far too many claim antiracist pedagogies almost solely as an expression of approaches to assessment, which is itself always already a hopelessly white, eugenicist, and neoliberalism regime. It is often as if all you need is the right rubric, and you can lay claim to having achieved an antiracist classroom. It baffles me that so many think achieving such a thing is so easy, when the academy stigmatizes teaching in the first place. When I first started teaching on the tenure track, I was told that I focus on students too much, that I focus on teaching too much, even at teaching colleges. The whole role of teaching is stigmatized.

Given this stigmatization of teaching, given the academy that seeks to sanitize itself from the knowledge-making of marginalized bodies while sitting upon stolen lands, given post-slavery conditions that rest on structures made by slavery, antiracist teaching is an ongoing project, and therein lies the beauty, the difficulty and the joy. For me, antiracist teaching has to be fundamentally connected to educational sites that are committed to theories of decolonization, scholarship on contemporary Black Studies, theories that are centered on the eradication of antiblackness, political trajectories that embrace intersectionality, transformations that have been made possible by queer and trans critique, and the legacies of work by feminists of color. Otherwise, we are just repackaging whiteness and ignoring the work that has already been done.

Ongoing questions for guiding our work in classrooms

I would ask you…

    • How does it look? Who is it narrating to? College syllabi tend to look like bureaucratic forms. Learning objectives all sound the same, like they’re cut and pasted from the same machine. Syllabi seem only to worry about university policy, and read like the warranty limits of a technical device, telling you more about classroom behavior than about what we are going to learn.
    • For too many of us, we focus our syllabi on multiracial and radical texts that we will assign. But we have already muted those voices of their potential to alter the way we think and talk in classrooms by the ways we present them within the white affect of our syllabus instruction.
    • How else is your white affect incorporated into your classrooms? I am tired of excuses I hear about why people cannot alter something as basic as the language they provide regarding a semester’s education, while willingly imagining that we can provide liberatory literacy. There are risks we are going to have to start to take.
    • And how do you articulate it to students? Can you get real and do what you say you do, and say why you do it that way?
    • From my syllabus [editors’ note: excerpted, here, for length]: As hip-hop teaches us, always stay fly! You do not give up who you are to be an academic writer; on the contrary, you take who you are even more seriously. I got called into my Chair’s office because she was offended by my writing such things on my syllabus, as inappropriate to teach to our student population—and this was at a New York City college that is 80% Black and Latinx. I have never gotten in trouble over the texts that I assign my students—but I’m always getting in trouble for my pedagogy, and especially for my Black language, even with tenure. My Chair wanted me to revise my syllabus, so I did change it: I made the part that offended her bigger, and I put it in a quotation box in fluorescent green. I also made a video with just those words, to a 50 Cent beat. And I ask my students, in their writing, to put some stank in it, and I explain what that means, and why I am asking it of them. Now, I had to fight just for that quote. So, what are you fighting for in your classrooms, and who are you fighting for?
    • I am specific in asking about making and building and doing, not writing—too much college learning centers the western essay, an alphabetic text, from the place of Aristotelian logic, when that is not even the place where most of the planet traces its ontological and intellectual roots. We might assign radical readings, but we kill their impact by resting on the default whiteness in the very kind of assignments and assessment scales that we set.
    • Students in my classes start the class with a topic, based on whatever the content of the class is, but they end with their own interests. Instead of asking ourselves how students can make their work stronger, or looking for what is missing, we might focus on what is already there. What are the students telling you about what they are learning, what they can do and build?
    • Finally, a question inspired by some of my students: How do your students direct the form, style, and content of the work they do in your classrooms, as the condition of the Black and brown presence there?

From Dr. Alexandria L. Lockett (Spelman College): On Equity in Teaching Writing

My approach to this presentation—for which the other presentations have set up well, because I’m going to talk about the ends of all this—is about the conclusions and outcomes of an antiracist praxis.

I want to begin by discussing what I mean by this now all-over-the-place word equity, and define knowledge equity. There are a number of interrelated factors that make up what I consider to be the goal of equity: knowledge for all. That might seem obvious, but right now, amid a pandemic, civil unrest, and catastrophic climate issues, we really should start asking what education even means. What does it mean to teach? How does the inquiry about that enterprise enable us to start asking deeper questions, like What is knowledge? What is information? How are we engaging with knowledge and information?

I see antiracism as just one part of the broader enterprise of creating a condition in which we can say that we provide knowledge for all.

Actionable practices

  1. Identify and address anti-Black and colonial attitudes towards Self and Education.
  2. Provide opportunities for students to explore their lived experiences, culture, agency.
    • E.g. Free-writing prompts about lived experiences, which can be telling about students’ relationships to literacy and culture.
      You can adapt these prompts to your particular students and contexts! For example, maybe your students are mostly Appalachian students, not Black students, and that context can shape your assignments. Sometimes, a lot of students are shocked by what they learn over the course of these free-writing activities.
    • I connect free-writing exercises to discussions about voice and agency, so that students can cultivate their sense of voice. This leads into a writing activity about active/passive voice—I want my students to name agents, name actions, as this is critical to the work of empowering students.
    • Be clear and concise about your expectations from students.
  3. Maximize student access to course resources and beyond.
    • E.g. Having an automated course management system, including needs assessment exercises, so that students can pursue their work with flexibility of time. This also transfers the burden from the instructor to students, with work that they can manage on their own accounts.
    • Leverage open-education resources.
  4. Implement equitable evaluation practices.
    • I provide students with an abridged syllabus and a contract for grading. I go back to kind of old-school rhetorical assessments that evaluate factors such as invention, discovery, arrangement, and delivery, but everything is measurable and about actions.
    • I also provide templates for assignments, with examples, so that students aren’t confused about what they can do.

From the Q&A

Q. Dr. Jackson, how did Student Disability Services provide some of the training you spoke of? And what is your perspective on pay equity and fair wages for recruiting and keeping a diverse staff?

KJ: Regarding pay and equity—that’s interesting in my space, because I directed the Writing Center for 14 years without a set budget! It was a challenge every year. The pay I gave the consultants was always less than what I wanted to. Indeed, for tutoring sessions, every single session is different and you have to be fully engaged with everyone 100% of the time, and that is not something to undervalue.

As for Disability Services training, that’s something that came up as we encountered students who seemed to be having difficulty. I called up Disability Services to see if the student’s name was on their list, and it grew from that to training sessions. Very surface-level, overall, but an officer came and went through some of the common disabilities, especially ones that are common on campus but not easily visible (e.g. dyslexia, ADHD, processing information). Sometimes students do not want to admit that they have struggles. The Disability Services officer highlighted some of the key alert things to look for. It was helpful, and I think it was one of my graduate students in Special Ed who alerted me to this issue—so I’m learning from my consultants, too.

Q. Dr. Jackson (and all), what was in place, structurally, in your institution to make it an expectation that faculty across departments should participate in a conversation about writing? Besides writing emails to your personal connections, what was in place to make such conversation possible?

KJ: At one point, I was directing first-year writing and running the Writing Studio, so then I could bring those spaces together. Being in marginal spaces is taxing, but people also give you trust, which helped in making conversations happen. For writing across the curriculum, we do have a graduation requirement that asks students to take a writing-intensive course at some point. Not all departments are invested in the same way, but I could get people to come to at least one meeting a year to talk about writing. At first, there was a lot of pointing fingers, but it was helpful to hold that conversation and to recognize our collective responsibility. Some of it, I had control over; some of it, because of the writing-intensive component, I pressed on that.

AL: For a project with Wikipedia and addressing epistemic injustice, I took note of available grants and places on campus invested in change, and put such resources together to hold Wikipedia editing sessions. I’m not talking about Wikipedia solely in a laudatory way. On one hand, it’s a useful tool in teaching digital literacy, because it’s a socio-technological space. On the other hand, it also raises the problem of underrepresented knowledge. On Wikipedia, a porn star’s page has more content than a Black woman scientist’s; that tells you who is editing. Some of the knowledge represented on Wikipedia is clearly a problem, and the investment in expanding editorial diversity is critical.

CK: About navigating difficult terrains and multiple facets of that—faculty resistance, student resistance, etc.: expect it! And I am good at having a posse of folk who will challenge me, push me. Right now, that is a group of graduate students. Graduate students these days are some of the most vocal and politically charged and activist group of students I’ve ever worked with. I welcome that. There is then that aspect of sharpening yourself. The other aspect is letting the student work do what it does! I remember one of the first digital projects I received, which went viral! It was a website called PrettyforaBlackGirl. That kind of work, that kind of work that people didn’t think possible at a college, I had nothing to do with that. The student did what she had to do.

I’ve also been hearing about the way people talk about white undergraduate students and the resistance to expect there, or resistance from students of color who are not interested in my paradigms, or resistance from students of color who have been fully colonized in their thinking. I expect students to be like, no—we just dig into all of that. That’s part of the work. Wherever the students get to because of that is another thing. It’s called me to a new charge.

These days, the first assignment for my students is to read the syllabus and to write me back. I ask: what is it going to take for you to do this work with me, in this class? Students have a range of answers. White students, more recently, have been saying: I am trying to be a white ally. I am trying to be an activist, alongside students of color but without taking over. I want to learn this, but I don’t want to talk over the other students, I don’t want to offend people. This was at TCU. No one had ever prepared me for how many white students would say this to me, for white students who wanted radical praxis. So I say to them: some of you don’t have role models for that kind of practice, and the only thing we can do in this class is to keep talking about it. And then we have a collective conversation and talk about such concerns. I would say, it’s about not seeing students in one swoop.

The politics and the desires for a world that these students want to see are more complicated than the question of what pedagogy matches them.

Q. All of you have alluded to honoring and centering multiple Englishes. But there is tension over the idea of one standard English. Are there things that have worked at your institutions for changing the perception about the one standard English? Especially with international students who raise the question?

AL: Some students want a template, or the professional, depersonal accomplishment of the essay. This conflict that you identify in your questions is related to how explicit you are about the economics and discourse diversity of students’ lives. The key thing is to dig into the epistemologies of standardized knowledge in their lives. Who taught you that a resume should be only one page, that there is only one way to do the research essay?

One exercise I do is to ask students to write in a way that they think is scholarly. It really opens up what they think about what is intellectual and what is clear.

CK: I think the idea of welcoming multiple languages in a classroom is very difficult, because students don’t believe you. You can tell them that all you want, but how many of them are going to turn in writing that’s bilingual? Yet it takes more work to do something to muck it up than it does to make it into standardized English.

One of the first things I do in every class is to collect some kind of writing from them and give it feedback. I answer it back as a reader, not as a teacher. How you respond on that first assignment is going to set the tone for things you will do and not do. Students are not necessarily going to trust all this openness and egalitarianism that you’re espousing unless they see it on the ground. The way you respond to the student on that first piece of writing sets the tone for the rest of the semester and any kind of experimentation they do or don’t do.

I don’t make assignments things that are artifacts only for my eyes. Not in the pretending sense of let’s write a letter to an insurance agent, but like my student who made that presentation for people beyond my classroom, public things. If you’re in a History class and you expect your students to produce writing that sounds like it comes from a History PhD, but the students are not trying to be History PhDs, what is that kind of writing going to do for them? Making real life opportunities is important.

There is the element of violence to consider. I have students who are routinely told that they don’t belong here, that they can’t do this kind of work. I don’t ask myself how I can prepare a student for producing writing for a faculty member’s approval. I don’t set the focus of my students’ literate imagination to that. That’s violence.

Your students are reading you all the time. Any contradictions that you have, they are reading that as well. I have students who write beautiful standard English and get As and they call it bullshit. But I can also have students write about what they care about and also get As.

KJ: For me, having the open dialogue is critical. Letting my students know off the bat that we are willing to discuss these things, that’s where I start.

I know that students are going to go into other people’s classes and it is a question: am I doing the students a disservice if I don’t teach them a skillset that they still need in this world, outside my classroom? This is where context makes a big difference, again. Students at my college could have gone to Ivy League schools, but for reasons of access and exposure, did not. But they will go on to enter very successful spaces. With such students, then, if they come into my space very brilliant but not knowing what a sentence fragment is, what choices do we make? How do I best prepare them for when they leave my space? In all these things, I think keeping it real with the students is key.

AL: I find that grammatical instruction is a big area for having those open conversations. We discuss active voice and how it foregrounds the writer and whatever agents the writer is trying to focus on, rather than the western colonial perspective of the nominal. We examine Black English and how it complicates their assumption about grammar. For example, the sentence “He be trippin. You can open up the space and time possibilities of parts of speech with the students—that the difference between active and passive voice is not a merely grammatical difference, but about dynamism and the conveying of truth. There’s a philosophical aspect of grammar that can be taught through simple, but complex representations of reality.

Q. Given how the academic essay centers white learning, how can we change assignments so that we can prepare students for academia at the same time that we prepare them to subvert its control over what knowledge is and looks like?

KJ: That is my million-dollar question that I have yet to figure out! I think offering a variety of writing assignments is key—having some traditional parts and some non-traditional parts. I ask students to argue a case for a target group, and they tailor it to their major or research interests. I had a young Black man, a music major, who wrote about the need for more Black male teachers. And then he said that when he saw the statistics for how few Black male teachers were in the classroom, that it resonated with him. The young man is a middle school band teacher now. The traditional component of this assignment was the argument and graded format, but the non-traditional part was that they were free to choose their topic.

AL: The writing requirement of your college and who’s administrating that requirement makes a difference. Things that raise a red flag for me: “best practices,” and the demand for quantity (e.g. demanding four essays per semester). I think the very administration of writing practices is racist. If you are bound to a number and type of assignments, that’s not necessarily going to improve students’ writing. We have to confront white western epistemologies that are so structural and embedded. The types of assignments we require should be reassessed, across the board.

Q. How do you manage tensions across classrooms? The tension between the antiracist, agency-encouraging pedagogies you employ in your classroom and the pedagogies they encounter in other courses?

CK: Well, students self-select. What happens is, students are also studenting. I can almost tell which students told which students to take my class, each semester. Instructors have reputations among students, and they share that knowledge. I’m real clear about how I’m not going to teach grammar in my classroom, and if the student wants that, they have all the other instructors who can give them that. Students are self-selecting to be in your classroom—they know what they’re going to be doing there. That’s part of the work, also. They are very savvy. Some of my students are activists, filing lawsuits and such. And for the students who come into my classroom knowing what they can expect from me, I have a responsibility to that. I had students who came to me because they knew that I had the reputation of being the only first-year writing professor who talked about sexual assault on college campuses. I didn’t know those students before. The challenge to myself is to make sure that I continue showing up for my students that way, and that challenge is something deeper than trying to give students writing classes.

Author profile

Ami is a PhD candidate in the Department of English & Comparative Literature, specializing in American literature. Her research sits at the intersection of nineteenth-century literature, history of science, and environmental studies, with a particular focus on poetry and poetics. A current Lead Teaching Fellow with the Center for Teaching & Learning, she has taught classes in Columbia's undergraduate college as well as in its School of Professional Studies.

Author profile

Diana is a PhD candidate in the Department of English & Comparative Literature. Her teaching and research interests include the Victorian novel, histories of science and medicine, studies of the environment, and theories of gender and sexuality. She has taught literature and writing classes at Columbia University, Barnard College, and Mills College, and she is currently a Senior Lead Teaching Fellow at Columbia's Center for Teaching & Learning.

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