An Anti-Racist Writing Classroom

The way I teach writing is racist.

That is a hard sentences to write, and an even harder statement to reverse, but I’m going to try. 

I’m an adjunct English instructor at a community college. What that means is that I work hard for my students for low pay and no voice into how writing gets taught except in my own classroom. And for the past several years, I have taught Composition only online and only in an 8-week format instead of the normal 16-week semesters. Honestly, the class I teach is not the best for our student population who tend to do better with in-person classes. I also think it is unreasonable to ask anyone to truly learn anything about writing in eight short weeks. But the college didn’t ask me when they created online and shorter courses in attempt to boost retention. The class that I teach works well for some students, but many others struggle. That being said, I loved creating an online course for my students that focused on learning about writing and the process of writing rather than being too focused on the end product — or at least, that is what I thought I’d been doing. But after a summer of reflection, I think my good intentions and the realities are very different. 

This summer I also challenged myself to learn how to become an anti-racist educator, so I read a book called Anti-Racist Writing Assessment Ecologies by Asao Inoue. It was about as much fun to read as it sounds (it was very dense). I definitely had to brush up on my Marx and Foucault, but I learned a lot, and learned that I have a lot of work to do.  I also felt a bit disheartened because, like everything else in this world, what I love to do is steeped in system racism, a fact I am only now discovering.

There is a lot of pedagogy to unpack in this post, so sit tight.

One of Inoue’s main arguments is that what composition courses have traditionally taught students is to inhabit the “white” way of writing, which is not to be confused with the “right” way of writing. In order to understand this, we need to ask some fundamental questions. Who gets to decide what language is deemed proper or professional? Why is one “English” considered better than another? Why is African American Vernacular English (Ebonics) considered unprofessional even though it is governed by grammatical rules and does not hinder communication in anyway? 

The short answer: white supremacy.

As an example of why language is steeped in racism, Inoue explains, “Black people are not discriminated against because some speak a variety of Ebonics — rather, I argue, Ebonics is stigmatized because it is spoken primarily by Black people.”

Inoue calls the “white” way of writing a “white racial habitus” because it informs the entire way we see the world and not just the way we write. He spends a lot of time in his book (to the point of redundancy) making sure we understand this fundamental point. He also makes sure to emphasize that being cognizant and aware of these racial differences in language does not mean that we just ignore teaching what he calls the “dominant discourse.” We should teach students how to use the grammar and punctuation rules of Academic English, but we should also recognize where Academic English originates and why it might be harder for some students to write in that English.

Now, his book is not focused on the way we teach writing, necessarily, but on the way we assess writing. When students arrive in our classrooms, they do not arrive with the same set of language experiences. I very often have multilingual students and a fair number of Black students whose primary “English” is African-American Vernacular. When we judge all students by the same English standards, that creates equality, but not equity. 

Paul Kuttner @ CulturalOrganizing.org

According to Inoue, “This project (to assess everyone by standards of the same discourse, the same English) is an inherently racist project.” 

However, I think many teachers, myself included would balk at this statement. How are we meant to assess mastery of writing skills if not to judge everyone by the same standard? Though the idea that grades should be based on the “one right way to write” is changing in the composition field with a focus on end-of-semester portfolios that mark growth, most writing teachers are still focused on the end product — the final draft — to show evidence of how skillful a student’s writing has become. But there have been many studies that show focusing on the end product does not truly show evidence of learning, nor does it capture how much effort went into that writing product. But how do we then determine an A paper from a C paper? Inoue’s short answer — we don’t. Our focus should be less on comparing students to the dominant discourse and more on helping students think like writers. We should disconnect quality of writing from grades that can have larger effects on a student’s academic career and life. 

Inoue proposes a different way: instead of assessing students on the quality of their work, he grades on the labor involved in that work. Inoue explains, “Our most important asset is the labor we do now, the effort we expend on rhetoric, not our nature gifts, or our racial habitus. Adjusting our assessment systems to favor labor over the gifts of racial habitus sets up assessment ecologies that are by their nature more ethical and fairer to all.” The focus here is on the process of writing rather than the product of writing. He is suggesting that we grade students based on their effort and not their product.

But how do you capture and assess labor? Inoue requires students to complete labor journals explaining what they did and then reflecting on that labor, whether it be reading, drafting, critiquing, or writing. His students end up writing A LOT, perhaps more than in a conventionally graded course.  At first it seems downright backwards to grade students based on quantity rather than quality, until Inoue gets into the details of how he performs his assessments. Just because he is not grading for quality, doesn’t mean his feedback isn’t focused on quality. He explains, “The white racial habitus is not a standard by which students must write up to or be judged against, but is understood as a direction everyone heads toward at their own pace and in their own ways. Most important, it is the heading toward, the movement, the ‘flow of becoming,’ that is the basis of measuring and grading in antiracist writing assessment ecologies. Because ecologies are fundamentally about change, movement, and actions, judgments about student labor (the engine of movement and change) might best be used to determine things like grades and define expectations for work.” His course is focused on molding writers, and having them go through the moves that real writers make, without penalizing them for taking risks and possibly failing in a writing endeavor because it is those failures and mistakes that are required for learning. These days, students are so focused on grades (because we have taught them to focus on these markers), that actual learning is not deemed as important. If I had it my way, we wouldn’t grade students at all, but in a world focused on competition that seems like a naive dream.

Another part of Inoue’s work that intrigued me is that he had his students create their own rubric for how their work would be judged. Not only is this a great learning opportunity, but it gives students agency. However, I am unsure how to make this work in a short, online format. The students appreciate having clear guidelines of my expectations in the form of a rubric, but it would be much more powerful for them to collectively create their own. 

Inoue never states that his particular way of teaching is the only way to create an anti-racist classroom; it is simply the way he has come up with. I am eager to figure out how to create a labor-based grading system in my classroom, but I know that what I come up with will likely fall short because of the constraints I must work within. For example, Inoue based this book on one experimental semester of an upper-class writing course. I teach the basic writing course for first-year students. Inoue uses much of his class time to discuss and peel back the why’s of writing with his students. I’m not sure I can recreate that in an asynchronous online format. But this book does at least give me a place to start my thinking. I also like his pedagogy because not only is it anti-racist but will actually enhance learning.

However, for teaching writing to become an anti-racist endeavor, this movement must go further than with my classroom alone. Later this semester, I am slated to talk with a few other instructors about this book and anti-racist teaching in general. I hope that will garner some much needed discussion about this topic. Teaching and teaching in higher ed specifically can be a very solitary endeavor for an adjunct. I rarely get to see or talk with other colleagues, so books have become my teachers, but I would love to learn from other teachers too. So, if you are a teacher (or not) and interested in anti-racist teaching, read the book (it’s free) and discuss it with me.

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