Anti-racism, graduate education, and Cosmopolitan English

Early in the morning after our nation elected Donald Trump as our president, I watched this short video by David Billings: an anti-racist activist at the Anti-Racist Alliance.

I was so particularly struck by this quote:

There is not one field of study in these United States where you cannot earn the highest degree that this nation has to offer — the PhD — that requires you to have a mastery of this country’s race construct and its impact on the citizenry today. That’s sick, when we can graduate doctors, we can graduate lobbyists, we can graduate social workers, we can graduate teachers…and they never learn what the construct of the nation is.

How true.

How resonant with my experiences as a graduate student interested in the intersections between faculty development, translingualism, and technology.

How often, as a result, our neglect feels benign rather than vivid. How often it arrives unannounced in the organizational and institutional cultures we create and reproduce. In our coded language about “motivation” and “rigor” and “high expectations” and “academic aptitude.” In our research and methodological assumptions. In our either / or thinking. In our fear of open conflict.

How easy it is for me: a white, college-educated, middle class, cis-gendered, able-bodied, urban American — a progressive one, even, who is dedicated to public education, who is trying to learn how to organize, who is seeking out what to do other than reading and writing — to neglect the sickness right in front of me. To feel timid. To not bring up anti-oppression, to fail to center it.

Catherine Prendergast calls race “the absent presence” in Writing Studies. We talk about the politics of remediation, about assessment and curricular design, about teaching. We talk about training faculty. We take (or design) graduate classes and practica.

But how often do these things structure themselves explicitly around our deep histories of white supremacy and oppression? How often are our syllabi or our classes or our programs “inclusive” of difference instead of responsive to difference? When is difference allowed to transform sick systems rather than merely propping them up?

I worry about this decentering, the absence of this presence, in my own work: both in the work I do as a faculty developer, and in the work I’m doing to prepare myself to write a dissertation. As I’ve been reading Xiaoye You’s excellent book, Cosmopolitan English and Transliteracy, I’ve been so struck by his idea about the porous boundaries of language. Our histories have caused us to demarcate the way that we communicate: by nation (or nationlessness: “non-native” speakers), by ethnicity, by constructed identities. These things make us ignore the “margin of error” — the way that languages actually work. We sublimate porousness. We call it an exception to the rule, when in fact, it is the rule that we simply ignore.

And at the exact same time that we should be pointing to the constructedness of these (linguistic, or otherwise) identities, how do we also acknowledge the violence of their material effects?

Because while it is critical to “shake loose the confines of the bounded perspective to nation, culture, and language,” we can’t approach this task by continuing to be wildly neglectful of the histories of race and racism that have shaped (and that continue to shape) so much of our work (107). We can’t do this work without accounting for, without fully understanding, white supremacy. Until anti-oppression is centered in our field, in our graduate programs, rather than the province of “the race person” or “the disability person,” might there be a dangerous flattening effect that results from pursuing a less bounded approach to language?

Post-Watson thoughts: translingual pedagogies and reciprocal recognitions

At the beginning of my Orals process, one of my sub-lists focused on the divide between L2 and translingualism. I started with the L2 letter. I read Canagarajah’s reply. I read some of the “defining translingualism” texts in our field (like the Horner, Lu, Royster, and Trimbur piece and the Lu and Horner piece). I read outside of our field (like Jenkins’ work on English as a Lingua Franca, and Garcia and Seltzer’s work on translanguaging, and Flores’ and Rosa’s work on appropriacy).

And I tried to wrap my head around some of the push back. I’m going to paint in very broad strokes here, but just to distill some of it: (1) translingualism ignores students’ interest in learning the English of power; (2) translingualism isn’t practical; (3) translingualism (in Comp Rhet) doesn’t have any, or enough, “concrete” strategies aside from code-meshing; (4) translingualism encourages linguistic tourism and reifies linguistic fixedness.**

After reading, and after attending this year’s Watson conference on mobility work in composition, I think I’m starting to figure out my own place in this debate — at least, my position right now. I want to reflect on that here.

Translingualism has been described as an orientation to language rather than a set of prescriptive methods for teaching it. As a former language teacher, a current teacher educator, and a current Comp teacher, this orientation feels so urgent. But so do strategies. Especially strategies that involve more than just our students.

I’ve been thinking about that inescapable paradox that Eli Goldblatt raised in his keynote address on the last day of the conference: how can we acknowledge the undeniable social fact of difference and its very real and life-threatening material effects while exposing the lies that carefully crafted those social facts in the first place? And I keep coming back to the complication — the violence, really — of placing disproportionate individual “responsibility” for navigating these social facts of difference back on the students whose “difference” is marked without asking for a complementary effort from faculty.

But at Watson, I thought a lot about the contradiction of selling some of the proffered translingual strategies to students in class (i.e. code-meshing, translanguaging, research projects in cross-cultural comp sections) while, in our very own professional spaces, rooms full of people (including myself!) used what I think a lot of people might recognize as the academic discourses of power to communicate with one another. This discourse is, of course, shifting and imaginary. We were, of course, code-meshing: we do all the time. And yet, I don’t know that other people reading our work would recognize our code meshing as such. At least, not in the way that we point out the code-meshing our students are doing in our own paper presentations.

I believe Nelson Flores’ idea that students’ actual practices are, in part, what an audience hears them say or reads them write. A few weeks ago at the Graduate Center, Flores used the bilingualism of Tim Kaine and Julian Castro to illustrate this point. They both speak Spanish. Kaine’s bilingualism is lauded and Castro’s criticized because Castro is “expected” to speak “perfect” Spanish while Kaine can get by with much less because he is white. What actually matters is how much power an audience has to make determinations about whether a speech act failed or succeeded. What the gatekeepers are able to hear and read often has much more to do with the gatekeepers than it does the speaker/writer. What are we doing to help those gatekeepers (whether they’re faculty or students who will eventually be faculty) to listen and to understand their own situatedness and what they think that they’re hearing and reading?

The strategies that Victor Villanueva outlines in his description of a Basic Writing Across the Curriculum program get closer to addressing the issues that I’ve had with pedagogies that primarily pivot around individual student language practices: so, code-meshing, or literacy / linguistic narratives, or cross-cultural composition sections, especially when the numbers of “marked” and “unmarked” students are disparate.

Villanueva describes the tension between what we’re called to do as instructors of writing (assimilate and enculturate) and what we (and many disciplines, of course — not just ours) believe that we should be doing: fostering critical consciousness. A program at his institution called CLASP (Critical Literacies Achievement Success Program) addresses this problem by “[operating] from Fanon’s ‘reciprocal recognitions,” that whatever the students don’t know about how professors operate, the professors are equally ignorant of how these ‘New Students’ operate” (105). The program mandates (and prepares students for) office hour visits. It trains tutors at the Writing Center in “grammars of the dominant dialects of the students who participate in CLASP,” and shows them “the workings of contrastive rhetoric” (105). The program also trains faculty in how to read and engage with student writing in a way that helps them to become “conscious of the conventions-as-conventions” — conventions as ideologically constructed, as motivated, rather than as hard evidence of “good” or “poor” writing (106).

I like this practice because it’s really about mutual listening. It asks both students and professors to consider how “deficient” or “proficient” subjects and codified linguistic codes are constructed (and emphasizes their constructedness). It assumes that professors and writing center consultants need to learn things, too. So, instead of putting the burden back on (already marginalized) students, the burden of inventing the university and of laying bare its institutional logics is distributed.

To add to this idea, I’m wondering if a curriculum that uses critical cosmopolitanism or critical race theory to interrogate the university and its knowledge-making practices themselves (rather than any one student’s individual practices) in order to investigate who gets labeled as a “language learner” or a “remedial writer” or “deficient” or “proficient” — and who does not — could make for an interesting object of investigation across multiple disciplines.

Could rhetoric classes teach students how to do rhetorical analyses of university spaces, of university marketing materials, of strategic plans, of policies, while professors also learn (in a practicum? a pilot?) about contrastive rhetorics, about rhetorical listening, about reading and responding to student writing? Could anthropology classes consider models of schools and schooling comparatively across cultures and places? Could historians consider histories of remediation, histories of honors colleges, histories of austerity and public funding? Could business classes think about the organization of university management structures, tenure and promotion processes, ethics? Can we teach each other, and learn what we don’t know?

If I think back to some of my most productive moments as a Comp teacher, they revolved around pulling back the curtain and letting students in on how the university works. They often don’t know. I didn’t, and still don’t know, so much about these things. I look at them directly a lot more than the average graduate student does, and I still find them mystifying. And yet, if we don’t know what we don’t know, then how can we know how institutions work on us, or how we work on or in them? Are we continuing to obscure institutional practices by focusing so exclusively on individual ones?
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**Here’s my extremely brief reply to these critiques:
(1) The uncritical reproduction of the English of power doesn’t empower anyone: it just upholds the legacy and effects of white supremacy.
(2) Dismantling systemic oppression is hard. We often confuse “hard” and “not practical.”
(3) Yeah, that’s a good point. I want more strategies too.
(4) Yes, in some cases. Translingual pedagogy, like all pedagogy, is context-dependent.