Navigating Anti-Racism discussions in the Writing Center

The collaborative piece by Diab, Godbee, Ferrel, and Simpkins lay out a fairly good pedagogical ethos for a difference-responsive writing center. I found the hypotheticals particularly useful, mostly because some of the texts I’ve read on this topic tend to divorce themselves from concrete action such that their ideas are practically unuseable.

Also useful from this text is its warning against the essentialization of student groups. While it’s often necessary for cogency’s sake that some assumptions about a “typical ________” student be made, this can lead to treatment of groups as monolithic. Some pieces, I think, tend to offer a model for “how to help an ESL writer” (or some other “how to”) that can lead to a consultation in which that negotiation takes the forefront. It is surely important to understand where people are coming from and be sensitive to how those identities manifest in their writing. However, no consultation is limited to topics that “typically” affect those groups.

But I mainly want to discuss the situation in which an unequivocally more privileged tutor was put in the position where he had to identify and explain damaging language in a POC consultee’s paper. He let the student know about the problematic connotations of her word choice, but she effectively shut down afterwards. It is clear that she needed more help understanding why, given that the substance of the argument was left unchanged. I wonder how the authors of this article would have advised the tutor to proceed, since they don’t seem to address the aftermath of the tutor’s correction. Given the piece’s message as a whole, I assume they would have suggested that he continue to explain the connotations of that particular word, and how it carries with it a history of discrimination. But how does one avoid rearticulating racial power structures if the student does not seem at all receptive to criticism? In a way, forcing that discussion only reifies the power differentials between the two. But to not have that conversation is to, as the article says, strive for political correctness rather than for actual anti-racist work in the writing center.

Happy with the results, but maybe not with how he got there

I’m thrilled that Martin’s study found results that allowed him to dismiss a harmful stereotype about Asian international students and plagiarism. The way I see it, perceptions like these are intrinsically wound together with other derogatory views of these sorts of students, like, for instance, the idea that Asian students must be STEM students.

With that being said, Martin’s study confused me in other ways. He introduces the idea that students coming from “collectivist” societies may be more prone to plagiarism, and then identifies these “collectivist” societies as South Korea, China, and Japan (and India?). There’s definitely some validity to the idea that these countries (except India) often place greater emphasis on collectivity than individuality. However, he glosses over differences between them with startling flippancy.

First of all, he does not differentiate between Asian-American students and Asian students. This is particularly surprising since he spent so much time discussing this plagiarism issue as an international student problem. He writes: “only one criterion study has established that Asian students are not significantly more likely to plagiarize than their American peers…” (265). Okay, so he must be talking about Asian students that are from Asia, right? Well, I guess not, because while his study simply lists “Asian,” he differentiates between “African Americans” and “Africans.” So, unless there were no Asian Americans in the class (?!), Martin just decided to lump them all together. Is he assuming that Asians raised in the U.S have basically the same academic perceptions of plagiarism as those who grew up actually in Asia? Also, where do South Asian students fit in? I don’t think that they have the same reputation for being as collectivist as other Asian cultures, but he doesn’t address that either.

Also: whoah, why doesn’t he address that 72% of college students could hypothetically have been expelled for an extra credit assignment? Doesn’t this number look obscenely high?

Despite my qualms with this study, I think that it is useful, perhaps, to start discussions about the role of the institution in addressing plagiarism. I found the article that referenced a growth in dishonesty correlated to an economics curriculum to be fascinating. Does course content inform or encourage certain types of academic behavior? And, if Martin is right and “collectivist” society educational systems merely accidentally encourage plagiarism by Western standards, why didn’t that pop up in his study?

North by Northwhy don’t people get the point of a writing center

I found Stephen M. North’s, “The Idea of a Writing Center” very useful, as it provided answers to questions that I’ve received before about the Writing Center at Pomona. For instance, the misconception that the Writing Center is a fully stocked collection of paid copy editors. I’ve definitely had an appointment or two where I had to awkwardly remind a student that, well, “we don’t really do that sort of thing here.” It hasn’t stopped me from helping to fix a problem sentence now and again, but it’s definitely something that I try to be up front about.

 

As North notes, I think that this misunderstanding actually derives from a greater misconception about what writing is. Sure, it’s a process, it’s a dialogue between the composer and intended audience, it’s an internal negotiation, etc. But it’s also extraordinarily structure-reliant, especially argumentative or academic writing. Maybe this part isn’t emphasized enough in high schools, or in introductory writing classrooms, or maybe just in general. I mean, at some point you have to teach mechanics. But for those students who come in with a written draft that “just needs help with grammar,” it is increasingly clear that that’s how they see the process of revision. This gestures towards some other readings we’ve done, specifically the idea that fixing a comma splice or a spelling error actually makes a paper any better (it doesn’t).

 

One issue I potentially had with North’s vision is the idea that tutors are outside the teacher-student relationship. Obviously, as writing partners we shouldn’t be rejecting the opinions of professors outright. But for a center that otherwise purports to meet students where they are, this impartiality rings a little strange. Perhaps I am misunderstanding what he means by “student-advocacy,” but it seems totally valid to help the student understand the terms by which the professor is playing. That surely doesn’t mean devaluing an assignment, but it might mean acknowledging that a professor has a reputation for liking a specific style of writing. I think that as fellow students we should always be “student-advocates,” in a certain sense.

 

 

Winalski’s Response to Professor Comments – Proving Sommers Right?

I found Amanda Winalski’s account of her high school writing experience to be quite familiar. With the exception of one particular English teacher’s class, I felt like I could get away with skimping out on the content of my work and instead relying on my diction and maybe some smooth transitions to get the grades I was looking for. I knew from reading my friends’ writing that my own was (superficially) more impressive. I also had the misfortune of being told that my writing was exemplary for my grade level. Together, these things produced a sense of complacency, perhaps even fear, when it came to critically engaging with my writing style.

It’s definitely the way I wrote when I got to Pomona. To a certain extent it’s still my tendency, unless I go into a project with a very defined argument in mind. I had some definite growing pains in my first semester as a result, which is why Winalski’s account confuses me a little bit. She never collided with reality, even in the upper-division English course she was so apprehensive about. She talks about her “routine,” in which professors would assign papers and she’d spend “hours (days) choosing the exact adjectives and sentence structures that best expressed [her] ideas.” But, even though she acknowledges she was focusing on the wrong things, she was rewarded with As anyway.

This offers a great entry point into a larger discussion of the purpose of grades and what they actually signify. Does an A mean that a student accomplished the task beyond what was expected of them? Or does it indicate excellence? Sommers notes that students aren’t incentivized to revise unless professors provide feedback, but really, it may just be that students aren’t incentivized to revise unless they think they’ll get a better grade because of it. Winalski wasn’t invested in changing her writing until she stopped getting As.

If Winalski had her eureka moment as instantaneously as she makes it seem, that would fit within Sommers’ assertion that written feedback can wrest purpose from the writer. Obviously, she didn’t answer the prompt. But I feel as though she wouldn’t have omitted an entire half of the course in her reflection unless she felt it was less important than what she did end up writing about. But the second she got her feedback, she had a massive realization about her writing and has apparently changed everything.

I guess maybe I just don’t fully buy Winalski’s narrative. She desribes the mechanics of paper-writing as extremely distinguishable from having an argument or purpose, such that she claims she always did the former but forgot to do the latter. But obviously, if she’s writing A papers she must have been articulating at least a semblance of an argument or main idea. As soon as a professor critiques her, she has this aha! moment and now she’s improved as a writer, which I’m not sure is how Sommers envisions professor comments working.

 

 

Mark Gaipa, Authoritarian

Ok, so I had some issues with Gaipa’s piece on “acquiring authority.” The first of which is his definition of it. He writes that authority “is less a characteristic than a relationship that a writer has with other authors, measuring how powerful his or her work affects theirs.” He also mentions that people typically misattribute authority based on other stuff, like an air of confidence, reliability, and trustworthiness.

Ok, maybe his definition is part of what authority “is,” but surely it must be derived from other places as well. According to Gaipa’s definition, a well-written close reading with plausible textual support does not have authority, and it cannot gain it until its writer chooses to completely engage with other scholarship. I question whether that’s the message to give to aspiring writers.

Also, does he mean to suggest that a well-written piece that engages no criticism and a poorly written piece that engages no criticism have equivalent amounts of authority? Unless his definition of authority is different that what it is widely understood to be, Gaipa would say no. Maybe his definition is different, and my qualms are just semantic.

But then he goes on to talk about what he his fellow arbiters of literary criticism at Harvard’s Expository Writing Program(TM?) , and I wonder whether he thinks that this casual factoid he has dropped lends him authority. It’s Harvard. Of course it does.

To be honest, maybe the reason I disliked this article so much is because Gaipa does not seem like a lot of fun to learn from. His tone is consistently patronizing (“I overload them with criticism to simulate the reality of competition in the marketplace of ideas”?!?). He also talks about his students abstractly, mentioning no anecdotes that suggest that he has ever even spoken with the specimens students that he teaches. From what he shared about his classroom, it’s him talking and drawing stick figures on the board while the floundering students cling to his every word.

But hey! I did like some stuff about what Gaipa wrote. I liked the visual representations for how to engage with other scholarship, for instance. Finding space in these discussions can be daunting, so I found the “into the center / away from the center” imagery to be helpful. Especially after struggling through an ID1 research project last year in which I contended with many of the issues that Gaipa articulates, I can appreciate that the advice is coming from someone who knows what he’s doing. The fundamental logic also still makes sense: that engaging well with authority begets authority.

An experiment in meta-first-order thinking / “Good Englishes” & Bizzell

If only we could all write like Elbow want us to. I admit, the idea sounds appealing. We can all just tap into this creative, unrestricted, intuitive headspace and then produce something, or maybe nothing, but if nothing, then productive nothing? I’m skeptical, but we’ll see. Maybe, unfettered by concerns of structure, I’ll just use words that I like. Maybe they’ll even approximate what I mean. So, here’s my attempt at first-order thinking:

Something that did resonate with me was Elbow’s observation that otherwise logical people make silly arguments when they’re asked to “think carefully” about something. That was me. That is me.

What Elbow does not articulate, though I think he’s driving at it, is an expectation for college students to engage with material in ways that they did not in high school. Namely, arguing something because you believe it. I’m not sure where the divergence happened in my education, where my actual intuitive thought split from my understanding of what I was expected to produce in an academic context.

Last semester, I took an ethics class. We spent four months reading some very smart people and discussing the big questions—how to live morally, our obligations to community, etc. On the last day, our professor gave us some tough scenarios, and asked us how we’d respond to them. We made it thirty minutes into discussion before our professor pointed out that we probably should be relying on (or at least consulting) some of the texts we’d read that semester. Quietly, the class had kind of failed to teach anyone about ethics. No one had really incorporated teachings from Aristotle, the Gita, the Bible (etc.) into the way they lived their lives.

This speaks to the tendency Elbow hints at, and the one I know that I fall into all of the time. We were so concerned with embodying the characteristics of philosophical discourse—asking the right questions, delivering the snappy rebuttals, creating the counterpoint-making scenario—that none of us actually did the important part, which was learning to live better.

I think that mostly exhausts my response to the Elbow, so, without concern for a seamless transition, now I’m gonna talk about the Bizzell.

I taught 8th graders this summer. All were high achieving kids from low-income backgrounds, looking at applying to some of the best high schools—both public and private—in the country. But they are FAR removed from the academic discourse community. They’re clever though, and from the reading they’ve done they’ve learned to approximate some of the vocabulary, structural expectations, and general conventions of a version of English that for the most part isn’t what they’re seeing and hearing at home.

What does it mean, though, that we ask them to approximate these standards in order to be attractive to high schools, and later, colleges? At what point does teaching “good writing” become essentially endorsing respectability politics? I wonder if Bizzell’s ideas about a more culturally responsive writing pedagogy could be realized to the extent that my students won’t be asked to code switch so noticeably. This expectation of changing language has implications beyond accessibility as well. It consigns the English that they speak at home, in their communities, and with their friends to an almost anti-intellectual realm.