Thursday, May 15, 2008

CCCC Conversations on Diversity

Welcome to the “CCCC Conversations on Diversity”

The CCCC Committee on Diversity is pleased to announce a new blogging series. For the next several months, we will host a forum for CCCC members to broaden our organization’s thinking, talking, and writing about diversity in our profession. Starting on Thursday, May 29, 2008 (in 2 weeks), we will feature blog posts by Guest writers from across the discipline of rhetoric and composition in higher education at

We will begin the series with a Guest blog post by Victor Villaneuva, the Edward R. Meyer Distinguished Professor of Liberal Arts at Washington State University. Guest postings will be open to anyone with internet access who wants to read it, and CCCC/NCTE members will be able to post comments. Everyone can find Victor Villaneuva’s blog post and each new Guest writer’s blog post on the CCCC blog site, bi-weekly (2 times per month), until Thursday, October 16, 2008.

At the risk of interrupting your summer plans, we’d like to ask for your attention over the next few months at a computer screen near you. We would like your help to generate a sustained conversation about the role of diversity in the work we do. Of course, the work of rhetoric and composition has addressed issues of diversity for decades, and each year brings new scholars and perspectives to CCCC. Ultimately, we’d like to think about our Guest writers’ statements, your responses, and the archived blog posts, when our Committee generates a CCCC Position Statement on Diversity this year. We believe that this statement should reflect the contributions of as broad a cross-section of members as possible (see our charge at:

Thanks for reading our first blog post on the CCCC Conversations on Diversity.

Enjoy your summer!

1 comment:

Donald Wolff said...

I certainly cannot improve upon the informative and articulate essays submitted already on the subject of diversity by the featured scholars at this site. So, my interest in this question currently is first, what would a national diversity statement or policy look like? And second, how would its effects be measured? That is, what good would it do? In addition, my interest in “diversity” continues to be how it manifests itself in the prose of college students at small state universities like the one I teach at. What does “diversity” mean in my context? What does it look like in the writing of my students?

The essays by our featured scholars are not only enlightening but they remind me of my primary interest in teaching composition—service. I’ve been teaching developing writers, ESL students, and future teachers for over three decades now. At this point I can measure parts of my life in decades, which is scary enough. At any rate, this is hard work and to keep at it year after year, decade after decade, I have to tell myself I am doing real good for real people. And I’ll tell you that at a small, rural state college, the students make themselves real in powerful and not always self-sustaining ways. Where I teach, I do not have to look far for diversity, in contradistinction to the commonplace image of such institutions and the concomitant stereotypical images of rural students, at least in terms of discourse, if not ethnicity.

I teach at a small rural college (Eastern Oregon University), where most students are first generation and about half are non-traditional age as well. Work I had done in previous programs for what was then called educationally disadvantaged students (as a graduate student at the University of Washington, in a program at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and later in an award-winning program headed by Jody Millward at Santa Barbara City College) had prepared me well for facing the challenges of teaching what are now called at-risk or underprepared students, who constitute the majority of our student population. The research and literacy narratives first offered by Mina Shaughnessy, and then Mike Rose, and later Victor Villaneuva, the lively debate between Peter Elbow and David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky on the nature and function of academic discourse (insofar as it exists), and the insightful linguistic and rhetorical work of Geneva Smitherman, Patricia Bizzell and others, all helped me become conscious of what I teach, to whom, and for what purpose.

Nevertheless, my focus remains intractable—my assignments, and my responses, place a heavy emphasis on the academic dialect, Edited American English (EAE) as Constance Weaver terms it. Students who have not mastered this dialect, which includes not only the mechanical fine points of editing and documentation styles, but a particular way of analysis, are at real disadvantage in my upper division, applied linguistic courses for future teachers. In my FYC courses, I don't expect students to have mastered this form of discourse—I expect them to learn it from my teaching it to them. But by the time a student is a junior or senior, I expect him or her to know how to write academic, analytical prose. Most of the students who get "A’s" in my upper division courses, and the percentage is fairly high, in fact do know how to write edited academic prose. Some of them pick it up very quickly after I explain it to them, show them some examples of "A," "B," and "C" writing from the class, and after they get used to my expectations. Most of the students who earn “B’s” in my upper division classes, have a solid grasp of academic writing but for one reason or another some aspect of their prose is not excellent—sometimes they don't edit carefully or with complete consistency (many mechanical and documentation errors can be stubborn), sometimes they don't develop their ideas much—usually it's a combination of the two or they get so many ideas going that they lose control of the paragraph a bit and it loses coherence and they lose track of some of the grammar. Still, 80% of my students in my applied linguistics course (English 316: Approaches to Grammar) get “A’s” or “B’s.”

The rest struggle quite a bit because they are just not adept at academic writing. But why not? I can't say for sure. Often, they are not used to this kind of writing or they are unwilling to put the work into mastering it. It takes a lot of work to master EAE and the kind of analytical thinking and discursiveness required for excellent academic writing. I tell my students, it takes a world of reading to make a little grammar. But one of the hallmarks of this writing, I believe, is the ability to adopt an "objective" or analytical stance toward the subject. That is difficult to achieve because it seems to require the suspension of the writer's own interests, the writer's own self. This dimension of academic writing is further complicated by the fact that the writer only "seems" to suspend his or her identity in order to produce an "objective," logical discussion of a given subject. But it turns out that unless the writer is fully engaged in the subject—finds a personal dimension in it or knows how to be intellectually engaged—it is very difficult to write effective prose that explores an issue in any depth. This means that the prose demanded in college only looks objective, but actually is a very special form of subjectivity. And it means that many students who attempt a totally objective stance will often not get the results they want because of dissociation.

(We are furthered hindered in teaching this form of writing by the deductive requirement of American and British academic prose, while the rest of the world embraces a more inductive, truly discursive, and often indirect discourse style that leaves lots of room for the personal and regional reflections on the subject of the student essay. The American emphasis on thesis-driven, deductive essay writing runs counter to the way most minds work, which is inductively. Consequently, we end up saying things like, “Write the introduction after you write the body of your paper so you can see what you were getting at.” Meanwhile, from France to the Congo to Thailand, the rest of the world produces wide-ranging essays that surround the subject and invite the reader to participate in the construction of the main ideas. So where is our logical diversity? And what hope is there of convincing our colleagues from across the curriculum to invite such diverse ways of thinking? Little hope, I would say.)

A still bigger problem is the fact that most students like the ones I teach don't see how to engage themselves in writing academically about issues that don't directly affect them. As a result, they try to effect an "objective" stance, which undermines their success. The distance between what they are attempting to write and where their interests really lie is the difference between academic writing and a prose that represents their personal interests, which often comes in "nonstandard" language. As inexperienced writers work their way through these conflicts, they will produce prose marked by errors created by moving back and forth between the two "voices," the personal and the academic. The problem, then, is figuring out a way to keep both in balance until the writers can move between them more or less effortlessly. The problem with the stress I myself put on academic writing as I teach, at both the lower and upper division levels, is that it tends to emphasize the analytical to the exclusion of the personal. The danger is the writer will lose contact with the subject and with his or her own writing. Those students find my courses either boring or too difficult, the former code, I believe, for the latter.

For these reasons, I always include some personal writing about a subject, some options that insist upon the personal. (We shouldn't forget too that some college writers really prefer the analytical mode to the personal. For example, they report that they like writing research papers and dislike writing about personal matters.) I will, for example, have upper division students analyze why Constance Weaver thinks spelling errors are "good," but also ask them what kind of spellers they are and how they account for their ability or inability to spell. Moving back and forth between these modes helps writers see the connections. In theory. Struggling writers, even at the upper division level, continue to report feeling lost with the more analytical writing in response to the Weaver study guides I assign, not to mention feeling a bit lost with the text itself, which is written in the academic style.

I'll never forget one student. She was in a FYC program for educationally disadvantaged students at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She was in the special section I taught for (Edited American) English as a Second Dialect, designed for the “weakest” dialect writers admitted to the university (the least adept at EAE), who were mostly African-American and Latino. It was my job, I was told, to hold them to university standards while addressing the particular writing and reading needs generated by their inexperience with EAE. This student, who went on for an MBA, did very well and after working with me for two quarters was producing "A" work—clear, cogent, concise, correct. I congratulated her and asked her how she liked being an "A" writer. She said she liked the grade fine but hoped to avoid writing in the future because it was too much work.

On the one hand I felt that I had succeeded because she not only produced good writing, as I defined it, but had a clear understanding of what she had to do to produce it, and the latter is the real transferrable skill. On the other hand, I felt that I had failed for my emphasis on academic prose had killed whatever joy she might have had in writing by making it grunt work. I take this as an emblem for a very real danger in stressing academic writing and its concomitant correctness.

Here's another illustrative story. A male, African-American student of mine at the University of Washington, where I taught in another program for educationally disadvantaged students when I was a graduate student, asked me one day if I thought whites where smarter than blacks. He had just read some of the early arguments about the bell curve that claimed that statistically blacks must be intellectually inferior to whites, as attested to by IQ tests and SAT scores where minorities consistently scored lower than whites. I told him I didn't care what the statistics said I had to teach everyone as if he or she could learn to write successful academic prose and that I had had enough success to know that everyone could. The student just wanted to know where he stood and why he was having such a struggle. He was ready and willing to believe he was not intelligent enough.

I have better answers for him now but this case shows the danger not only of emphasizing academic prose stance but of insisting on correctness. I guess this is not news for those reading this blog. The writer begins to associate his or her own way of speaking with incorrectness. In emphasizing the "dialect of power," as Weaver calls it, the power of one's own dialect appears diminished. Furthermore, there is an incredibly strong connection between one's own dialect and one’s individual and social identity. That is, we define ourselves to a very great extent by the language we use. When we ask students to change that dialect for the sake of academic writing, we ask them to change their identity. Asking someone to change his or her identity seems to be asking a lot for an English paper. Students can feel this request beneath their assignments and they find ways to resist, even at the upper division level in college.

It's a serious problem and Constance Weaver's suggestions about teaching the power of dialects and the dialects of power, in Teaching Grammar in Context, are meant to acknowledge it and to find a place in the English or writing curriculum where the problem can be addressed in explicit ways. The dimensions of the problem were certainly highlighted by the Oakland School Board Ebonics controversy. The Board sought to declare Black English Vernacular a separate language because the schools were not able to obtain enough funds in any other way to train teachers to appreciate the students' own dialect(s) while simultaneously moving them toward EAE.

Students often wonder why it so difficult to learn grammar rules. Part of the reason is the rules they operate by to produce their spoken dialect are deeply subconscious and so they are very difficult to change. Part of the reason is also that dialect is intimately connected to an individual's personal and social identity, so that asking someone to change dialects can become a betrayal of one's self and one's social group. That's why the statements of about diversity and students’ rights to their own language are so passionate and why the debate over dialect and grammar is so heated. We even feel this heat in state legislatures seeking not only to ensure a standard dialect, but also how it is taught, in draconian mandates based on dubious research, written not only by legislators wholly ignorant of the socio-economic dimensions of grammar instruction, but also usually advocating a traditional approach to grammar that they readily admit failed to teach grammar or reading to them when they were students. (I’m think of Texas, Florida, Oregon, and California—and that’s just the ones I’ve actually heard about.)

In contrast, in a summer bridge program for economically disadvantaged students, attached to the Oregon Writing Project summer institute for teachers at Eastern, the students “naturally” produced personal, narrative essays, nonetheless marked by a good deal of analysis, in a prose marked by “code-meshing,” a seamless moving back and forth between more or less analytical prose and their home dialects, mostly forms of Chicano English. And these were rising juniors in high school, for the most part. Last summer, a similar group of students produced compelling essays on growing up with a meth-addicted father, living with a racist grandmother who relentlessly bad-mouths the girl’s Latino father, a history of sex abuse by a step-brother, stories of the high school version of spousal abuse, etc.

The modeling of the institute teachers’ own personal writing, which the students witnessed before their own forays into essay writing, had a profound impact on their willingness to be perfectly honest; that is, to behave like real writers. It turned out that, as high school students, they were hungry for the opportunity to be perfectly frank; the subjects they were permitted to finally write about without fear of censorship were real and immediate. I learned much more about the sexual mores and the disastrous home lives of our most vulnerable teenagers than, as a father of a teenage girl, I ever wanted to know. But their writing was raw, enlightening, painfully honest, engaged, fluent, well-developed, remarkable, self-aware (in terms of code-meshing), memorable. In other words, great writing by most standards.

Is this what we mean by “diversity”? If so, what is our responsibility to these students in terms of enabling them to continue successfully at college? Should they or should they not soon be asked to move their writing into a more conventional form, toward EAE? Should we risk “indoctrinating” them in this discourse? Do they not only have a right to their own dialect diacritically marked by their cultural and linguistic codes, but also have a right to the discourse style that obtains in the university and which, more or less, ensures their success in college? How is this change to be effected? If it is not to be sought, what should we tell these students who then receive “D’s” or “F’s” in their General Education courses when they employ the nonstandard dialect we give them “A’s” and “B’s” for in FYC? How should these questions be framed in terms of a diversity policy? Is that what we are really after?

I raise these questions because my impression is most of our profession, as far as I can tell, avoids them. That is, convinced that no univocal academic discourse exists, we have given up—we no longer hold ourselves responsible for teaching the compositional abilities that might ensure student success—the efficacy of which even I admit is difficult to prove. Consequently, we abandon any pretense to teaching “service” courses. Well, I don’t like the term “service courses” either. However, I must admit that I dedicated my professional career to empowering students by giving them access to the dialect of power that obtains in university culture, insofar as I could identify it.

In over three decades of teaching, did I move the majority of my students in that direction? I believe so. Can I prove it? Certainly anecdotally, on the one hand, and also reflectively—by looking back over several thousand students and ten of thousands of graded pages—on the other. In that time, I thought of the hard, endless composition work I did in terms of service—it was my contribution to social mobility. Or I can demonstrate it through an assessment of course outcomes—I can show stakeholders exactly what my students have learned, in fairly indisputable ways, insofar as outcomes assessment is indisputable.

Is it a good thing to move students toward an academic style? On the one hand, isn’t it precisely the direction opposite of diversity? On the other, aren’t these analytical traits, including EAE, clearly present in the writing of all our featured scholars on this blog? Don’t we want our students to move in the direction of the discourse evidenced by our most articulate writers? Our journals present a wide range of intellectual and ideological diversity. But where’s the stylistic diversity? Are any articles published in a dialect other than EAE, with proper MLA documentation? Don’t get me wrong. My favorite features of our profession’s discourse are cogency, adept editing, and the fluid integration of the writer’s own voice with “outside” sources. I’m even thrilled when my students can consistently document their sources. Thrilled I tell you.

My sense is that having given up the pretense of service, many (how many?) in Composition Studies have instead dedicated themselves to consciousness raising, to an explicitly ideological approach to teaching composition—or the advocating of the dissolution of teach First-Year Composition, altogether. (I admit my own approach is no less ideological, just less explicitly so.) Is this the premise for the profession’s embracing of “diversity”? We haven’t reached agreement on this, have we?

What exactly do we mean by a diversity statement or policy? What might be its actual effects? How will we judge its efficacy? If the policy on students’ right to their own language is any indication, then the diversity policy will largely be inefficacious. If the truth be told, I doubt we can reach general agreement on what a diversity policy should look like, if by that we mean a policy advocating a certain approach to the issue in the FYC composition classrooms across the nation. Is that even what we are trying to do? What exactly are we trying to do with words?

I haven’t seen any actual consequence of the policy on students’ right to their own language—I haven’t seen any actual policies instituted in any FYC programs that reflect the national statement. Part of the reason, I believe, is that we don’t know what we mean by saying students’ have a right to their own language and part of the reason for that is we have not honestly addressed the conflict between the power of dialects and the dialects of power. We seldom address the taboo subject of grammar. It’s all well and good to say grammar is the least of our worries, but that carries no weight in WAC outreach. The fact we are right—that grammar should be a tertiary interest—carries no weight with our colleagues in History and Psychology. I would add that professionally we have not bridged the gaps among Research I institutions, state universities, community colleges, and K-12. Not by a long shot and it is with the latter groups that the issue of diversity and the issues of teaching writing find their most robust reification.

(The notable exception is the WPA Outcomes Statement, which seems to indicate some consensus about moving students toward an academic style with clearly delineated process, analytical, documentation, and editing traits. But how do we want to align the policy on diversity with the WPA Outcomes Statement?)

So I would recommend, for what it is worth, that the profession’s policy on diversity focus on the research of its practitioners, as opposed to attempting to enact a far-reaching policy for FYC students to be implemented in composition programs nationally. That is, I would recommend that the diversity policy focus on encouraging continued research in this field and perhaps name some salient areas of specific concern for continued research. Such a policy statement by our professional organization would support and focus the work of graduate programs nationally—and the results could be monitored by surveying the number of courses and articles and dissertations. It would acknowledge the important work that has been done, as in the examples in this blog from our featured scholars. It would encourage more of it. It would privilege such work and thus help young scholars show future employers that their work is valued on a national scale. I believe that is something we could all agree on. Common ground, yes?

Yours in writing,
Donald Wolff
Professor of English
Chair, Division of Arts and Letters
Eastern Oregon University

CCCC Annual Convention

2009 Convention logo

March 11-14, 2009
San Francisco, CA