Reviewed by Eric James Stephens, Clemson University (email@example.com)
Chair: John Duffy, University of Notre Dame
Speakers: Asao Inoue, University of Washington—Tacoma, “Writing Assessment as an Antiracist Practice”
Staci Perryman-Clark, Western Michigan University, “Racial Profiling and a WPA’s Strategy for Institutional Change: A Call for Action”
Victor Villanueva, Washington State University, “Not All That New: Visual Rhetorics and the Latina or Latino Student”
This conference was my second time attending Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC), with my first experience in 2014 in Indianapolis. During my first visit, I was making the transition from literature to rhetoric and writing, which meant I knew few people, either literally or intellectually, from the field. Since then, as I completed my coursework for my master’s degree and entered into my first year as a doctoral student, I became much more familiar with the writers and thinkers in my now home field of study. With Victor Villanueva’s (1993) Bootstraps: From an American Academic of Color as somewhat of a defining book for my thinking, I made a point to attend his panel to hear him speak. He, and the rest of the panel, did not disappoint.
With standing room only, Asao Inoue began the session with experiences in his writing classrooms. It didn’t take long for Inoue to problematize writing assessment as a racist practice, even at one point claiming that the traditional A, B, C, D, F grading system is, itself, racist (While he did not go into grading system specifically, he did plug his 2015 book for those interested, Antiracist Writing Assessment Ecologies.) Listening to Inoue share stories about students of different races come to a new awareness of diversity encouraged my own self-reflection about how I participate in my own classroom as an instructor.
The common thread with each story Inoue told provided a working example of what other writing instructors can and should do in their own classrooms. With his students, Inoue would examine what it meant to have “good writing” and the implications of racism within each criterion (e.g., assignment descriptions from his presentation). It’s easy to look at the whole and claim institutional racism. Implicit racism is a double-edged sword of sorts—it can be easily identifiable to those who see it, but to those who don’t, it is simply chalked up to people “unhappy with the world” or people “looking for things to complain about.” Rather than focusing on implicit racism, Inoue’s students studied traditional writing assessment guides for explicit racism in the institution and classroom.
By examining the words and the rubrics themselves, students and instructors can begin to see the dominant white male discourse overlaying the cultural, social, and linguistic sources of judging a piece of writing. What makes this practice antiracist exactly? How can instructors teach their students to interrogate dominant discourses? From the beginning of a course, we need to talk to our students about problematizing writing assessment so that we can eventually create an antiracist writing assessment practice with them. This may be hard for some, myself included, being able to open a dialogue about the roots and implications of writing assessment, but it’s worth it, isn’t it? Using antiracist writing assessment does more than improve writing; it improves the individual.
Where Inoue’s presentation made me want to be a better writing instructor, Staci Perryman-Clark’s presentation made me want to be a better person. With matching conviction and passion, Perryman-Clark shared her experiences as a new writing program administrator of color who oversees primarily white first-year writing teaching assistants and part-time instructors. As part of a new pilot program at Western Michigan University to promote retention, students on track to receive a C or lower have the option to enroll in a different writing-intensive first-year writing course. One of the initial requirements was a recommendation from the student’s instructor to drop the initial course in order to enroll in the pilot program. Issues of racial profiling ensued.
Once the referred students began working with full-time faculty, it became apparent that they were chosen for reasons other than issues with language. Most of the students were minorities or English language learners who were not necessarily struggling with the writing course. Perryman-Clark argued that the first-year writing teaching assistants and part-time instructors used the pilot program to “dump” the students who they deemed unworthy of their time or second chances. In a world and environment where white students receive second chances over and over and over again, Perryman-Clark saw another frustrating example of students of color being denied those second chances due to racial prejudice.
While the majority of first-year writing teaching assistants and part-time instructors were white females and the majority of referred students were students of color, it does not necessarily mean that the racial profiling was intentional. This does not, however, make it any less disturbing. While the pilot study is only in its first year, with another year of funding approved, I believe this is an excellent opportunity for Perryman-Clark and her institution to not only produce antiracist and linguistic diversity in writing program administrator (WPA) policy statements, but also further study of racial profiling in academia. How this study is to be framed is in the more than capable hands of Perryman-Clark. One thing is absolutely certain: her presentation made me rethink how I see my own students of color. I saw where I was doing well. I saw where I was guilty. I saw where I needed to improve in order to become an antiracist writing instructor and person.
Although Victor Villanueva’s presentation did not directly call attention to antiracist classroom practices, as the title of the panel would suggest, his analysis of colonizing rhetorics showed me just how Eurocentric and colonized I am as a person. With historical and contextual examples of flawed Eurocentric theories and stories, Villanueva brought the multiplicities of histories of rhetorics to the surface. He showed examples of visual and verbal rhetorics from Mesoamerica, Central, and South America that, upon close examination, debunked anthropological theories—past and current. The purpose of his presentation was to show how “ancient rhetorics of the Western Hemisphere might offer Latina and Latino students a way into the discourse of the academy and conversely affect the ways we discuss visual rhetorics in the classroom.”
I may not have been the intended primary audience for the presentation, but I left questioning my own history. Two explicit examples from his presentation show what I mean. First, he shared a simple slide that read, “Until the lions have their own historians, tales of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” More than one history of rhetoric exists. One is not necessarily more important than the other, but what is important is that we are aware of those histories, those rhetorics. The other example seemed to break out of his scripted storytelling, but he questioned why we in the United States call Europe “The West” when it is east of us, and why we call China, Japan, and India “The Far East” when it is west of us. Our culture is so embedded in one history and one rhetoric that we can’t even label things in a way that makes geographic sense.
After listening to each of the three speakers, I left with two impressions/recommendations for myself and other new/experienced presenters. First, don’t just read a paper; instead, perform it. We tell our students all the time: show, don’t tell. When it comes time to present our own research, we seem to forget that. Second, care about what you do. Aside from the topic at hand, Inoue, Perryman-Clark, and Villanueva all share a common attribute: they love what they do. I attended the panel because I wanted to hear Villanueva speak, and next year both Inoue and Perryman-Clark are on my list of must-see panelists.
Inoue, Asao B. (2015). Antiracist writing assessment ecologies: Teaching and assessing writing for a socially just future. Fort Collins, CO: The WAC Clearinghouse.
Villanueva, Victor, Jr. (1993). Bootstraps: From an American academic of color. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.