Open Letter: Unlearning White Supremacy in Writing
We write to Macalester Instructors as some of the writing tutors at the Macalester Academic Excellence (MAX) Center. As peer tutors, we know intimately the myriad ways to teach writing at this college. We read comments, we listen to students’ stories, we hand out tissues and encourage them when academic writing becomes a source of pain and stress. With the full-time writing counselors, we also meet weekly to discuss writing pedagogy to inform our own tutoring practices. We understand the seriousness of our words, actions, and interactions with the students we see at MAX Center, and we want to make sure that we center harm reduction and anti-racism in our work with them. We do this as students in community with other students, and because those of us who are BIPOC and tutors of international students have had first-hand experience of harmful writing pedagogy. We believe the MAX Center should not be a place where students feel stigmatized because of their writing abilitynor a place where instructors can offload the writing work of teaching.
Because we are aware of the emotional and intellectual damage caused by implicit bias and linguistic racism, we wanted to share our perspective on what we see at MAX Center after putting away the red pen. While it is uncomfortable to confront the racism embedded in its writing pedagogy, the reality is that we all exist in an education system that upholds white language supremacy, devaluing and causing harm to multilingual and BIPOC writers. . We hope that by reading and internalizing the content of this letter, instructors can recognize these harmful patterns in their own practices and use the resources we provide to reimagine what writing in the classroom can and should be.
When we talk about white language supremacy, we mean the perpetuation of white American language conventions, or Dominant Academic English (DAE), as the preferred and standard speech in educational institutions. We use the term DAE to refer to a set of uncodified, inconsistent, and elusive written conventions and accents offered as an “equal opportunity” tool for student advancement. No one can quite define what they mean by “standard English”, because English is a living language whose constant evolution resists codification and standardization. The function of white language supremacy is to permanently designate certain people’s communication as inferior. However these individuals (BIPOC and international students in this case) communicate, their words are subject to scrutiny from the distorted gaze of a white supremacist system. Even if the DAE were a definable standard, forcing students to conform to it would be a brutal extermination of linguistic diversity that harms student learning and writing.
As writing tutors, we notice patterns of white language supremacy during our appointments with students who come to the MAX Center. These approaches to teaching writing show our community’s failure to recognize the values of internationalism and learning that Macalester so proudly upholds. We see students who are sent by their instructors to the MAX Center in an effort to have their writing and language “fixed”. They are told to correct their written accent in hopes of mastering DAE, even though many of them are relatively new to the English environment and have limited experience of American academic writing. Students are discouraged from expressing their ideas in a different source language or in sentences that do not sound like they are “native” speakers. As writing tutors, we also notice the bias built into the feedback that instructors provide to students. Rather than providing content feedback, instructors assess whether students have conformed to a narrow idea of “quality”. However, scholarship showed that fussing over grammar and phrasing is not the most effective way to improve students’ writing.
Additionally, in their fringe comments, instructors use words such as “awk,” “poor wording,” and “unrefined” to describe student work without providing concrete guidance; such vague and derogatory comments often lead to further confusion. We also recognize that demeaning and unsympathetic language teachers use towards BIPOC and international students, questioning their experience and abilities as different from those of white American students. Many international and BIPOC students also receive discriminatory compliments such as “your English is so good” and “you are so articulate” which implicitly doubt students’ ability to succeed. These examples show the lack of kindness and respect shown by instructors towards BIPOC and international students.
When instructors prioritize AED in their students’ writing, those students are harmed, both academically and emotionally. Instructors offer harsh and unspecific comments, deficient responses that undermine the confidence of students who might already be worried about their academic preparation and English proficiency.
Unnecessary emphasis on minor grammatical structures distracts students from more important writing skills. As writing tutors, we’ve seen how this can make students so focused on small-scale grammatical accuracy that they’re distracted from more important elements of the writing process. Fundamental writing skills, such as structuring and argumentation, are left out. If instructors aim to make their students better writers, this is ineffective pedagogy.
Additionally, multilingual students, especially international ones, must spend more time on each assignment, ensuring their grammar meets an elusive sense of “correction”. When instructors only provide feedback on the grammar of the assignment, students are demotivated; they become less academically engaged and open to future learning.
But these errors are not due to negligence or lack of effort on the part of the students; on the contrary, they are usual and may persist for multilingual writers even after instructor comments and editing. Indeed, instructors who comment harshly or note grammatical errors punish multilingual writers for errors that are only part of human cognition.
Our goal is for instructors to reinvent their teaching, changing these harmful practices. Individual actions alone cannot remove white language supremacy, just as they cannot erase the stain of white supremacy from academia. However, many Macalester instructors are already taking helpful steps that can improve students’ writing and learning experiences.
- Ending Grammar-Based Scoring. The key learning outcome of homework should not be for students to be proficient in white English grammar, particularly because that is probably not one of the learning outcomes of your program. This writing assessment is not reflected in all contexts outside of the classroom. While fluency and understanding of sentences is important for expressing ideas, there are many ways to make sense of language that falls outside the realm of White English conventions. If you can understand what a student means to communicate, they have used the language successfully.
- Consider alternative rating systems. Two examples already adopted on the Mac are non-grading, which focuses on iterative feedback and improvement rather than single grades; and portfolio grading, which allows students to constantly revise their work throughout the semester based on ongoing feedback and learning. Both of these practices are more accurate reflections of the writing and learning processes, and they encourage students to respond to feedback instead of putting the work away once they see their grade.
- Use clear and concise instructions. As students, we find that the prompts sometimes seem confusing to sound harsh and “academic”. This trend places unnecessary pressure and stress on students, especially those whose first language is not English. When writing prompts, think about how clearly you have expressed the purpose of the assignment. If you received this prompt as an undergraduate student, would you know what to do? What are the objectives of the assignment and how can you communicate them simply and effectively to your students?
- Do not confuse student work with student value. We all submitted work that did not reflect our best efforts or full potential. In addition, we have all submitted work for which we have put considerable effort and which did not turn out as we hoped. Mistakes and outright failures are part of being human and ultimately make us better learners. Also, a person doesn’t need to meet a work standard to deserve kindness and respect.
- Think about how you provide feedback. When offering feedback, be kind and constructive. Give clear and culturally accessible feedback to the student. Avoid idiomatic language. If you find yourself writing a one-word reaction on a student’s paper, make sure you have a justifiable basis for that feedback. If still valid, expand on this comment by explaining your reaction to the student’s article.
- Continue to learn about the pedagogy of anti-oppressive writing. Ask your colleagues what they are doing in their classrooms to challenge white language supremacy. Many of them are already practicing exceptional forms of anti-oppressive writing pedagogy. There are also many articles on the pedagogy of anti-racist writing on the Series Center website to support your unlearning.
List of undersigned: