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


DrD said...

I thought your blog readers might be interested in this teaching position currently offered by Kutztown University of PA:

Tenure-Track Position in Ethnic American Literature

Kutztown University of Pennsylvania enrolls approximately 10,000 students in graduate and undergraduate programs. The University is located in the borough of Kutztown in a charming rural setting, and is within 20 minutes driving time of the diverse metropolitan areas Allentown/Bethlehem and Reading, and within 60 minutes of the Philadelphia metropolitan area. The University is very interested in hiring employees who have had extensive experience with diverse populations.

The English Department of Kutztown University of Pennsylvania invites applications for a tenure-track Assistant Professor position in Ethnic American Literature to begin August 2009. Specializations can include but are not limited to African American Literature, Native American Literature, Asian American Literature, and Latino/a American Literature. Ph.D. preferred; ABD considered with completion of Ph.D. before the start of the second year.

A strong applicant will be an effective teacher, a scholar with a committed research agenda, and a colleague ready to participate in department and university service. The 4/4 teaching load will include literature and composition, with opportunities to develop and teach upper-division classes and occasional graduate courses. Three years of college-level teaching experience required. Successful interview and demonstration of teaching abilities required.

Send a letter of application, vita, three current letters of reference, and all official college-level transcripts to: Joanne Emge, Ethnic American Literature Faculty Search Committee, 241 Lytle Hall, English Department, Kutztown University, Kutztown, PA 19530. Only complete application packets will be considered. Review of applications will begin November 7, 2008, for MLA interviews and will continue until the position is filled. For more information on our programs, visit our website at

Kutztown University of Pennsylvania is an Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity employer and actively solicits applications from women and minority candidates. Kutztown University of Pennsylvania is a member of the State System of Higher Education.

Anonymous said...

What does race have to do with writing? As a graduate student in Haivan's "Writing and Race" class, I entered, as most people in the U.S. might, with the perception that the class would involve a call for acceptance of diverse bodies in a writing classroom. To me, mere acceptance of those physically marked "Other," then, meant "diversity." As a graduate student, I was capable of questioning the powers that dictated "who" was allowed in my classroom, but until Haivan's class, I was incapable of questioning or envisioning "how" my writing classroom would have to change in order to account for the voices entering. In my mind, writing was separate from the bodies that wrote, so the writing classroom I envisioned was a normative, Standard English using classroom. I had never been given the historical background to question the institutions that made Standard English the language of power. Haivan's class, with its focus on the intersections between bodies and language, pedagogy and national policy, helped me question any talk of "diversity" that didn't account for linguistic diversity as well. I learned that accepting "diverse" students isn't enough. We need to accept the languages that narrate the experiences of those marked diverse, while also situating them in relation to the language of power to challenge normative views of language. We need to teach students, both those marked as "diverse" and those marked "normative" the ways that the various languages and literacies they work within position them in the power structure. Thanks, Haivan.

I've been lucky as a graduate student to be able to translate what I learn in Rhet/Comp classes into various aspects of my teaching. For instance, I was a member of the Diversity Committee in the Writing Program for several years, where we pondered many of the questions brought to light in this blog--whether diversity is even a useful word to use, when identity formation is relational and shifting, and how to help "white/heterosexual/male/able" students realize that they too are implicated by diversity without erasing power differentials. After intense debates, we developed pedagogies that engaged diversity--both linguistic and bodily--while also addressing power. Although I brought many of the materials we generated to my own classroom, the work we did was never fully disseminated because of the fear that it might be "misused" by new teachers that may not have thought in depth about diversity as many of us had, through Haivan's class and through the committee's debates. The next year, the Diversity Committee was given a one hour block to do a workshop on diversity for new teaching associates, which started valuable conversations that still continue, but I think more is necessary. Sustained opportunities to discuss and expand our notions of diversity (we spent a year developing curriculum in the diversity committee) need to be provided to all writing teachers, whether they hail as rhet/comp, MFA, English Lit, ESL, or otherwise, so that thoughtful, potentially powerful pedagogies such as those we created can be trusted in the hands of the well-meaning teachers that work in our writing programs. Diversity is not optional, as we are all implicated by the power differentials that label some as diverse and some as normative. As such, we need more than an hour to teach our teachers how to teach our increasingly diverse (linguistically and otherwise) population of student writers. Perhaps, through sustained efforts--in graduate classes, in graduate student committees, in teacher training programs, and in our own classrooms with our undergrads-- we as a nation will learn to actually listen to the stories circulating in our increasingly diverse and interconnected world in whatever form they may take.

A. Engelson

Phil the essay tutor said...

Race will be a sensitive issue for a long time still, but I wonder if, as a result of teaching the course, you felt that your worries had been exaggerated, and that people were pretty comfortable and even excited to discuss these issues. Thanks...

CCCC Annual Convention

2009 Convention logo

March 11-14, 2009
San Francisco, CA