Thursday, August 21, 2008

Learning about Racial “Diversity” & College Composition

Introductory Bio

Haivan V. Hoang is Assistant Professor of English and Director of the Writing Center at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Her ethnographic work on Vietnamese-American rhetorical identities has been widely recognized for its insight into Asian American identity and literacy. Her presentations and publications have addressed important contemporary issues related to Asian American identity, including cultural memory in rhetorical performances and language politics. Her dissertation, "To Come Together and Create a Movement: Solidarity Rhetoric in the Vietnamese American Coalition (VAC)," won the James Berlin Outstanding Dissertation Award in 2005.

Her current book project, Rewriting Injury: Asian American Rhetoric and Campus Racial Politics, explores the ways Asian American students in post-1960s California have used extracurricular rhetorical spaces to intervene in school racial politics centered on a "rhetoric of injury." The study counterposes two historical moments in Asian American
education: the early 1970's identification of injury and claim to language, whether to a bilingual-bicultural education in Lau v. Nichols or alternative student newspapers among Asian American student activists, and the early 2000's adaptation of the rhetoric of injury in the context of what one compositionist has called "diversity fatigue." In addition to her scholarship, Hoang's undergraduate and graduate teaching focuses on rhetoric, race, and politics. She has been an active member of many departmental and university committees at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and the Ohio State University. She is a former member of the CCCC Committee on Diversity and has been the co-chair of the Asian/Asian American Caucus since 2005.

Blog Entry

It was with a little apprehension that, over two years ago, I decided to teach a graduate course called Writing and Race. The course was an effort on my part to address the meaning of racial “diversity” in my research and teaching.

Why I Proposed to Teach Writing and Race
The impetus for the course was, in fact, my research. I hoped that teaching a course on Writing and Race would help me get past a snag in my writing. At the time, I was beginning the introduction to my book on Asian American college students and their activist rhetoric; the manuscript tentatively titled, Rewriting Injury: Asian American Rhetoric and Campus Racial Politics, is still in the works. The book, through historiography and ethnography, explores political texts produced by Asian American students: alternative news publications, student club’ constitutions, conversations in club meetings, and other activist rhetoric. In short, my purpose is to call attention to Asian American students’ activist rhetoric in extracurricular spaces and to mine these texts for broader lessons about rhetoric, campus racial politics, and higher education.

But then there was this snag: How could I introduce the project in a compelling way to composition faculty, especially those who neither self-identify as Asian/Asian American nor teach students who themselves are identified as such? I worried that readers would ask me a dreaded though fair question, What does this have to do with college composition? or Quite frankly, why do Asian American students’ activist rhetorics matter to my understanding of writing or writing pedagogy?

I soon realized that, in order to explain what compositionists can gain from my book on Asian American students’ activist rhetoric, I needed to step back and address an even bigger question. How have racial politics and college composition informed one another since the 1960s, and why should compositionists be asking this question?

Teaching a graduate seminar on Writing and Race was a way to explore this question in more depth, but I had a few concerns. To what extent could I account for the complex and contradictory history of race in America? How could I maintain intellectual vigor when trying to teach race scholarship from several disciplines? How would I facilitate class discussions if they were to get heated—or even worse, grow silent? How willing would I be to negotiate viewpoints that I hold dear? I decided to take the plunge because I wanted to further understand how racial politics and composition studies have been intertwined and believe that this is important for graduate students entering the field. Even with the good work that composition scholars have contributed on race as a concept or on racialized writers, we still need to do much more to clarify the ways race figures into our teaching, scholarship, and service.

I believe that’s partly why Joyce Middleton and her colleagues on the CCCC Committee on Diversity kindly invited us all to reflect on everyday strategies for responding to campus diversity. So, I share here a bit about the Writing and Race course in the hope that readers can draw on these ideas when addressing “diversity” in your respective teaching and research efforts.

Composing the Writing and Race Syllabus
I began preparing by defining my terms. Writing is a social art, the practice of crafting language in order to engage with one another; writing is informed by and informs how we understand reality. Race, as Michael Omi and Howard Winant explain in Racial Formation in the United States, “is a concept which signifies and symbolizes social conflicts and interests by referring to different types of human bodies” (55). Our understanding of race shifts as a result of “racial projects,” which are “simultaneously an interpretation, representation, or explanation of racial dynamics, and an effort to reorganize and redistribute resources along particular racial lines” (56). In the class, this would be our starting point.

Then, I generated a list of “racial projects” since the 1960s that also involved conceptualizations of writing, student writers, composition pedagogy, and disciplinary histories of college composition. The list was wide and varied, and so were the participants within these “projects.” Consider how the following “projects” evidence the complex ways our discipline intersects with racial politics:

  • the selection of English as the language of early college composition requirements and university courses in general;
  • school segregation for racial minority children;
  • writing education at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs);
  • extracurricular literacy practices in African American women’s literary clubs;
  • the legitimation of Black English through 1960s and 70s sociolinguistic research;
  • debates over Chinese American, linguistic minority students’ civil rights in the 1974 case Lau v. Nichols;
  • prejudice against speakers and writers of Black English, particularly in the Ann Arbor Black English case and in the mid-1990s Ebonics controversy in Oakland;
  • the introduction of “basic writing,” specifically following CUNY’s 1970 adoption of an open admissions policy, and a subsequent racializing of basic writers;
  • CCCC statements, including Students’ Right to Their Own Language and the National Language Policy;
  • the argument to validate codeswitching among speakers and writers of, for example, Black English, Hawai‘i Pidgin, Spanish, and more;
  • critiques of multicultural pedagogy and related assumptions about authenticity;
  • debates over the ways race has or has not been addressed in the context of process approaches to teaching writing;
  • historical recovery of racial minority writers and writing teachers;
  • recognition of the absence of linguistic diversity from composition studies and exploring the complicated relationship between ethnicity and race;
  • arguments for and refutations against movements to make English the official national language;
  • burgeoning research on World Englishes;
  • inquiry into whiteness and the implications of whiteness studies on composition pedagogy; and
  • the inclusion of racial minority writers and writing teachers in histories of college composition.

Surely, there must be more, but this was a start. I composed the syllabus, ordering the required readings (listed below--see hyperlink) under the following headings:

  1. Introduction to Racial Formation & College Composition
  2. From the Late-1960s and Early-1970s “Social Turn” to the Post-Civil Rights Movement
    “Retreat from Race”
  3. Ethnicity, Language Difference, and Language Politics
  4. Critical Race Theory, Whiteness Studies, and a Critique of Rights Rhetoric
  5. Reflections & Looking Forward…

Students in the class would write weekly questions and comments on our discussion board; contribute to discussion; and propose, draft, and revise a final essay. In the end, I was appreciative of the students, who were smart, collaborative, and questioning. Their talk and their writing about the readings yielded important insights and fresh points of departure.

What I Learned about Racial “Diversity” and College Writing
Racial “diversity” is surely complex; it is the accumulation of past and present racial projects, including those I glimpsed above. So I present just a few of the thoughts-in-progress that emerged from our class in response to the question, How have racial politics and college composition informed one another since the 1960s, and why should compositionists be asking this question?

Racial minority students prior to the 1950s and 60s were scarcely visible in histories of college composition and, for that matter, mainstream American universities. Not until the Third World Liberation Front strikes for ethnic studies and “self-determination” and universities’ subsequent adoptions of “multiculturalism” and “diversity” did racial minority students become systematically visible in higher education (through admissions data, new courses, new student support services, and so on). In spite of the critiques against university commitments to diversity—even valid ones—I am encouraged that the institutionalization of “diversity” provides an opening to name and discuss issues concerning racial minorities on college campuses.

The climate of civil rights activism, as disciplinary narratives tell us, was a turning point for college composition. It is common knowledge among compositionists that, in 1974, CCCC issued the position statement Students’ Right to Their Own Language. The statement was a response to the ways criticism of dialect difference could mask racist approaches (even if inadvertent) to language education.

But this historical moment of the 1960s and 70s also hummed with related racial projects in language education that need to be understood in concert. We might read the Third World Liberation Front strikes for ethnic studies alongside the introduction of “basic writing” at CUNY. We might read Lau v. Nichols and its impact on Chinese American students alongside discourse about Black English. And then, shifting to the late 1970s onward, we might read interest in process approaches to pedagogy alongside historical recovery projects that attend to ethnic/cultural heritages that inform writing practices in the present. We might read calls to recognize world Englishes and linguistic diversity (like those by fellow blogger Paul Kei Matsuda) alongside critical race theorists’ play with genre.

Knitting these racial projects together, we are faced with abundant evidence that indeed race matters in the teaching of college writing. How does it matter? SRTOL begins to answer this question by revealing how disregard for dialect difference can mask uneasiness with racial difference. As a result, compositionists and other researchers of language have attempted to validate linguistic difference by documenting different dialect/language systems and historicizing (and thus valuing) the ethnic/cultural heritages that inform writing practices in the present. Indeed, we require further study into the relationship between ethnic heritage and racial politics, which becomes especially important in light of the changing nature of Englishes across nations.

And there is still more work to do. We need a deeper understanding of the ways racial “diversity” takes shape on college campuses and thus produces students rhetorical imperatives. For me, it is important to study Asian American students’ activist rhetoric because their performances and the conditions that call for their performances cue the dynamic relationship between racial politics and composing practices (even if extracurricular).

The inquiry into racial “diversity” should, I hope, continue for some time. With this reflection, I mean to suggest that I address diversity –whether in my scholarship or my teaching—by seeking deeper understanding of what racial difference means and how it impacts the teaching and learning of writing.

See the syllabus at

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Why Do We Really Need the Word, "Diversity"?

Introductory Bio

A long-time anti-racism activist and educator, Frankie Condon is Associate Professor of English and Coordinator of the Writing Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Prior to her arrival at UNL, Frankie directed writing centers at St. Cloud State University, Siena College, and, as a graduate student, at the State University of New York. Frankie has been involved in anti-racism through networks such as the Dismantling Racism Project in Albany, New York, and the Community Anti-Racism Education Initiative in St. Cloud, Minnesota. She has also led numerous anti-racism workshops for community members and college faculty across the Midwest and is co-facilitator of the International Writing Center Association (IWCA) Special Interest Group on Antiracist Activism. Frankie's recent publications include the co-authored book, The Everyday Writing Center: A Community of Practice, which includes the chapter "Everyday Racism: Anti-Racism Work and Writing Center Practice" (2007) and "Beyond the Known: Writing Centers and the Work of Anti-Racism" in the Writing Center Journal (2007). Recently, Frankie has delivered several keynote addresses on anti-racism, which are part of a larger book project on identity, subjectivity, and the teaching of writing one-with-one.

Blog Entry

“I know, I know. We all hate the word diversity,” says the keynote speaker who is encouraging the group of us gathered for this regional conference to get and stay organized. I lean back. Maybe she’s feeling like the word harangues her, I think. Or maybe she’s just tired of hearing it. Or maybe she’s speaking to its inadequacies. My eyes are still on the podium, but now I’ve left the building. I’m wandering through past-times: my childhood as a white kid in a multi-racial family, all of us stuck in love and rage; my activism with the Dismantling Racism Project back in Albany during graduate school; the Community Anti-Racism Education Initiative I worked with in Minnesota; the years of mourning and fighting and celebrating like mad; all the talking and the writing; all the pointless commiseration and transformative communion of anti-racism work. The word doesn’t do my memory justice.

But no, I don’t hate the word “diversity.” Then again, I don’t try very often to “address diversity” in my teaching, scholarship, and service unless I’m writing something that people will have to vote on or agree to (like giving my writing center more money so we can do work that truly needs to be done).

Diversity is a fast-word. It’s a word that’s all about efficiency. Diversity stands in when saying what we really mean would take too long or when folks would like to feel good, but not be called upon to care too much or to care beyond the demands of professionalism or the bounds of civility. Diversity is the sign on the door of a room filled with boxes, stuffed with crates: lost and found objects, the detritus of institutional initiatives of all sorts: recruit more rural kids – no, wait, more city kids; retain more students of color; produce an articulation agreement with a school in Beijing or Budapest; be accommodating to fundamentalist Christian Republicans. Diversity is the entrance to a room stacked with books from Jossey-Bass that made the rounds of administrative and faculty offices and now, discarded, have found their final resting place; old student papers in response to well-intentioned assignments; “Teach Tolerance” stickers still on their sheets; “Safe Space” signs removed from office and dormitory doors as occupants depart.

Every institution has to have a Diversity Room with a door. It helps with sorting. Where does this idea go? Oh, just inside that door, in the Diversity Room. And you can walk past the door and feel good that it’s there. It’s good for all of us that we work in places with rooms like that, with doors that close. Diversity closes. Diversity encloses.

Okay, so I don’t hate the word. I need it sometimes, I admit. But it’s not a word that drives my teaching, writing or service. That work -- or what drives the work -- gathers at the threshold of the term, “diversity:” the history, the materiality, of lived conditions within, through, and under racism, homophobia, sexism, classism, ableism, ageism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism – these drive the work. Irritatingly, perhaps, I want to change the terms of the question. I want to respond to the question, “How do you address the work of anti-oppression in your scholarship, teaching, and service?”

So much of my work, whether in the classroom, the writing center, my writing, or my services to department and institution seems to me now to have been and still to be wrestling with the social and rhetorical production of indifference and exploring the conditions for individual and collective care. How is it, I wonder, and in whose service is any one of us conscripted to do the labor of remembering and forgetting, contrasting, aligning, identifying, appropriating, lying, composing and belonging? I wonder these things because the cultivated performances and performance limits of comfort, generosity and hospitality among and between those who take on these forms of labor within particular communities of meaning-making and practice produces, I think, an expansive and cultivated everyday sort of indifference -- to oppression.

To teach, write, and serve with these questions and this belief at the heart of my praxis, more than demanding a particular set of practices or a particular content, requires of me a mindscape capable of evolving, of learning, of humility and of playing with care. If creating the conditions in which care rather than indifference is cultivated and valued, I cannot begin with the premise that my students or my colleagues are already or irremediably indifferent. Rather, I am challenged to remember, recognize, and acknowledge the difficult and contested terrain on which all of our subject positions and subjectivities are predicated. I am challenged to sustain a mindfulness of the mutability and partiality of theoretical knowledge in accounting for the lived conditions that produce experiential knowledge – my own and that of my students and colleagues. I have to be persistent in my search for the plentiful coordinating conjunction between us: the me-and, us-and, white-and, straight-and, middle class-and—and so on. I’m searching for the -ands not as an act of artifice and denial but as an active, ongoing acknowledgement of simultaneous materiality and fallaciousness of scripted or socially constructed identities and their associated performances. The -and in teaching, learning, writing, and serving is concomitantly an act of identification and dis-identification, an acknowledgment of the complex ways in which privilege and disenfranchisement, freedom and oppression are distributed, limited, enforced, conditionally offered and liberally withdrawn. The -and is not an attribute nor can it be possessed. The -and is about remembering without denying the memory of others, knowing and coming to know without foreclosing what others know or how others come to know. The -and is about seeing oneself reflected in the gaze of the other, listening to the ways one might be named by the other without believing or insisting that the other is or ought to be you and without pretending to be them. It’s a way of becoming I keep reaching for, missing, and reaching for again. The -and, for me, is an ongoing effort to acknowledge the transitive conditions of identity and to stretch toward transgression of what is given and received in and through identity formation.

I want and I hope I can teach writing in a classroom or a class located in the writing center, be a writer, be a colleague who resists absorbing or appropriating difference and who works and teaches for a “nonviolative relation to the Other” (see Drucilla Cornell, The Philosophy of the Limit, 1992). I want and I hope I can teach, write, be, and become in ways that “test the limits of vision and remembrance,” that “mind the aporia between seeing and knowing ‘everything’ or ‘nothing’” (Kyo Maclear, “The Limits of Vision: Hiroshima Mon Amour and the Subversion of Representation,” Routledge 2003). I want and I hope I can teach, write, and serve toward a just and ethical community in which hope coexists with and, indeed, depends upon questioning, reflection, the recognition of contradiction, the acknowledgement of complicity, mourning, celebration, and the embrace of wonderment. But to address any or all of these pedagogical goals (or life goals), I have to (and I’m always learning this the hard way) teach with a pressing recognition of the inherent impossibility of accomplishing them (at least in any measurable sense such that they could be checked off the individual or institutional to-do list). So really the goal is not finality, not winning by individually being the one who finally embodies and enacts a perfected anti-oppressive stance and successfully performs that finitude in any professional setting, but to teach, write, serve, or play such that the learning attending these goals continues and such that the work can also continue.

I really don’t hate the word, “diversity.” And I’m pragmatic enough, I guess, to think that institutions and organizations really do need the word. We – that’s the institutional “we” as opposed to the collective “we compositionists” or “we teachers” or we activists” – we need the word “diversity” and we need statements of principle about “diversity” because the word enables otherwise lumbering, somnambulant institutions to move, to shift even if just a little bit. We need the word because some significant number of our stakeholders are doing risky justice work in service of real need; we need the word to give them protection and legitimacy – to give them cover. We need the word because however facile we may find its typical deployment “diversity” continues to assert the importance of justice. The word whispers the names of those conditions it is so often now used to conceal or efface: racism, homophobia, sexism, classism, ableism, ageism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism. And in that whisper “diversity” acknowledges the reality that they are with us, that we are with them, that we do them and that there is, therefore work to be done.

CCCC Annual Convention

2009 Convention logo

March 11-14, 2009
San Francisco, CA