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Composition Forum 44, Summer 2020

Embracing the Perpetual ‘But’ in Raciolinguistic Justice Work: When Idealism Meets Practice

Nicole Gonzales Howell, Kate Navickas, Rachael Shapiro, Shawna Shapiro, and Missy Watson

Abstract: This multimedia article shares five short video-recorded stories that highlight specific moments of struggling to practice antiracist and linguistic justice values within different disciplinary situations: giving feedback on student writing, training tutors in the writing center, working with pre-service teachers, debating learning objectives in department committees, and responding to prescriptivist attitudes from colleagues. This praxis-driven work responds to Inoue’s 2019 CCCC Chair’s Address and his calls to confront white language supremacy by providing vulnerable accounts of the intellectual, interpersonal, emotional and pedagogical labors and challenges involved in fighting for raciolinguistic justice. Teachers and administrators may find the video stories and accompanying reflections useful when developing pedagogical approaches, designing professional development workshops, or reimagining departmental policy-making and curriculum development.

We believe that many writing teachers are grappling, like we are, with how to translate into practice our ideals for better supporting linguistically diverse students and promoting racial and linguistic justice. In his CCCC 2019 chair’s address, How Do We Language So People Stop Killing Each Other, or What Do We Do About White Language Supremacy?, Asao Inoue called on compositionists to confront the ways our language work might “maintain White supremacy, even as we fight against it in other ways” (353). Inoue urged us, white scholars in particular, not to “sit on [our] hands, with love in [our] hearts, but stillness in [our] bodies” (355). Inoue’s call echoes the work of other teacher-scholars in the field who have advocated for more socially just and anti-racist pedagogies for language-minoritized students (e.g., Canagarajah Literacy, Resisting, Translingual Practice; Lee; Horner and Tetreault; Smitherman et al.; Young and Martinez).

But this work isn’t easy or tidy. We recognize that “Standard English” and “Academic Discourse” are neither neutral nor benign: they are shaped by—and inevitably perpetuate—racism and other forms of oppression (Inoue Writing Assessment, Labor-Based Contracts; Lippi-Green; Baker-Bell; Gilyard; Young). Underlying these discriminatory structures and attitudes are multi-faceted ideologies that posit some language varieties—in particular “Standard English,” which itself is a social construction (e.g., Lippi-Green; Greenfield)—as superior to others (Watson and Shapiro). Within standard language ideology, as within other monolingualist ideologies, “standard” language is seen as appropriate, logical, clear, and accessible to any language user—particularly in academic settings. Writers whose work is read as “non-standard” are then deemed to be inferior (i.e., inappropriate, unclear, unintelligent, and or lacking in work ethic). Yet, we’re also in the business of teaching (and using) these so-called “standard” varieties—we get paid to do so. A commitment to raciolinguistic justice, then, means that we wrestle with questions like: How do we effectively and steadily channel critical awareness of linguistic injustice into our work? How do we decide when, how, and how much to push against societal and institutional systems that maintain this injustice? And how might we best negotiate the inevitable falters and failures that result from our work within these systems?

Fighting racial and linguistic injustice is messy and inevitably incomplete work, particularly because, as one clever adage says, “Racism isn’t the shark in the ocean; it’s the water.” When we teach writing classes, step into the writing center, mentor graduate students, and collaborate with colleagues, our experiences remind us that racism can’t be isolated—it’s not confined to any one practice, attitude, or person that we can so straightforwardly detach from larger societal and institutional structures and then adequately deconstruct and abolish in our classrooms. Thus, as we continue to promote racial and linguistic justice, we have found ourselves faced with a tension between our ideals and our day-to-day realities. These concerns are not new—particularly to scholar-practitioners working to enact critical, social justice, and anti-racist pedagogies. Every move we make toward racial and linguistic justice requires careful consideration of yet another challenge or contradiction—this is what we’re referring to as the perpetual “but” in our title. Thus, more accounts of this messy work are needed.

This article explores the everyday challenges and perpetual “but”s of working toward raciolinguistic justice within the constraints of institutional systems, societal racism, and other barriers. While, as co-authors, the five of us come from different, though overlapping, scholarly and pedagogical orientations—critical and feminist pedagogies, critical race theory, second language writing, translingual approaches to writing, and more—we use the term “raciolinguistic justice” to represent our shared goal of subverting racism’s hold on language use in the classroom and beyond. A raciolinguistic perspective acknowledges that when we deal with language, especially the policing of language, we’re dealing also with racialized issues. Borrowing from Nelson Flores and Jonathan Rosa, a raciolinguistic framework “refocuses our theory of social change away from the modification of the linguistic behaviors of racialized populations toward a dismantling of the white supremacy that permeates mainstream institutions” (637). In other words, students and their perceived linguistic deficits are not and were never the problem that needs to be resolved; the real problem is systemic structures and uninformed and discriminatory attitudes about language difference. As we illustrate through our stories later in this article, fighting for raciolinguistic justice includes identifying and pushing back against monolingualist ideologies, including and especially standard language ideology.

We share our stories in a multimedia format, an intentional divergence from the typical scholarly article, as a way to diversify disciplinary norms of meaning-making. In this endeavor, then, we follow in the footsteps of scholars like Aja Martinez and Malea Powell et al. who have advocated for storytelling and Alexandra Hidalgo who has advocated for feminist filmmaking and memoir as critical methodology in our field (see Cámara Retórica and Pixelating the Self: Digital Feminist Memoirs). We believe that our social justice ideals can, at times, prevent us from self-reflexively, honestly, and vulnerably sharing such difficult stories. That is, the perceived pressure to be “radical enough” may lead some to remain silent about our pedagogical attempts and our uncertainties about them in fear that our efforts will be seen as failing. Yet, in sharing our struggles and shortcomings, we hope to open up more space for growth and for a larger discussion around the practices of enacting raciolinguistic justice. Likewise, we see this messy and vulnerable portrayal as part of a feminist approach to scholarship—an opportunity for readers to situate themselves within the vision of raciolinguistic justice work, even as they struggle with their own paradoxes and imperfections. In sharing moments where we have questions rather than answers and where we’ve found struggle more than success, we hope to call in those who, like us, want to be allies and advocates for linguistic diversity in higher education, despite the perpetual “but.”

In what follows, each author shares a short video-recorded story (with subtitles and transcripts available) that highlights struggles in practicing our anti-racist and linguistic justice values within five common situations: working with students on their writing, training tutors in the writing center, working with pre-service teachers, responding to prescriptivist attitudes from colleagues, and debating learning objectives in department committees. Each video is followed by a brief summary, critical questions, and reflections. We conclude by naming two aspirations intended to support others as they struggle through raciolinguistic justice work within their own contexts.

Five Stories of Engaging the Perpetual “But” in Racioinguistic Justice Work

The snapshots we share below offer a window into what this work looks like in small moments wherein we draw from experience and disciplinary expertise, and may still not get it right. Thus, we offer these stories not as templates for how to respond, but as illustrations of how messy, insufficient, and emotionally laborious this rhetorical work can be. The challenge, we argue implicitly and explicitly, is worthwhile and necessary nevertheless. We imagine the videos might be useful for others as they reflect on their own pedagogies, as well as when designing professional development workshops or when reimagining departmental policy-making and curriculum development. Click on any of the titles in the image below to find a particular story of struggle in raciolinguistic justice work, unresolved questions that arise from the perpetual “but” we find in such work, and our individual critical reflections on the unresolved tensions that arise.

Wheel-shaped navigation menu to each of the five stories below.

Please use the navigation wheel to be taken directly to the stories addressing the topics below.

Missy’s Challenge to Give Feedback on Language Differences in Student Writing

Written Version of Missy’s Narrative

Missy’s Summary of Narrative

Missy shares two examples representing some of the challenges she faces when giving feedback on student writing, especially given the dominance of standard language ideology and the prospective risks of deviating from linguistic norms. The first example demonstrates how futile it can sometimes feel to contest standardized English when this variety is so often settled on by students after they’ve carefully considered various linguistic choices and their consequences. The second example highlights the difficulty of teachers resisting error-correction practices when providing sentence-level feedback to graduate thesis writers.

Missy’s story raises the following questions:

  • How should composition teachers address students’ wishes to conform to standardized conventions? When the choice appears to students as either conform to standardized conventions or risk facing material consequences, what choice are we really offering?

  • How should language difference be treated in high-stakes writing such as theses and published writing? If we continue to edit out differences in public writing, how can we expect for visible language difference to become the norm?

  • If we are able to push students, even slightly, to adopt some critical and anti-racist views of language, do we call that success? How might we move beyond making incremental changes in students’ language attitudes?

Missy’s Critical Reflection

As my story shows, the extent to which I am successful in applying my pedagogical ideals when providing feedback on student writing varies significantly depending on the rhetorical situation, including the student’s identity, my relationship with the student, the student’s immediate needs and goals, the genre and purpose of the student’s writing, as well as the stage of the writing process in which the student is working. Additional constraints such as time, mode of feedback (e.g., in person or in writing), limited resources, external pressures, and those unyielding and undeniably racist language ideologies greatly moderate the hopes and realities I aim to balance as a compositionist seeking raciolinguistic justice. In the case of the undergraduate student in my story, the writer’s purpose, her personal goals, and (likely) the various pressures in our institution and society writ large led her to elect for the standardized variety; I don’t blame her for choosing the linguistic option that holds more cultural capital, and I certainly would never try to persuade an already well-informed student to contest linguistic norms just because of my own linguistic ideals. But I do wish we would have hashed out her reasoning more.

And I can’t stop wondering how and where I might better work to build the sort of conditions needed for writers to feel like it's a desirable option to draw on and include a fuller range of their linguistic repertoires in academic writing. In the case of my editing of my graduate students’ thesis, my pedagogical ideals were tempered by the high-stakes genre, intense time constraints, and the students’ goals. While working with this student on his thesis, I came to know his plan to pursue a Ph.D. and his habit of writing highly theoretical and academic prose. And yet, I suspect that these aren’t the only reasons I shifted into error correction. My own hang-ups with institutional pressure, real or not, certainly played a part. Perhaps some would say I’m beating myself up unnecessarily—that most of us still edit highly academic genres like theses and research articles in similar ways as I did. But I keep questioning what good I’m doing in the long run by continuing to edit out difference in academic writing.

These two examples aren’t isolated cases. Indeed, a majority of final drafts that both undergraduate and graduate students write in my classes, quite frankly, still at least appear as unidirectional monolingualist products modeled after standardized English. But enforcing the visible manifestations of code-meshing isn’t the answer (Schreiber and Watson). While products that appear monolingualist are perhaps not ideal for seeking linguistic pluralism in the academy and beyond, I take some comfort knowing they still represent a translingual literacy and pedagogical process (Canagarajah Literacy). Even in the case of my graduate student mentioned in my narrative, we met multiple times during earlier stages of the writing process, we carved out some time to grapple with issues of raciolinguistic (in)justice and, together, we questioned the extent to which we as writers with differing backgrounds and positionalities find those norms welcome and useful. So, yes, his and other students’ final “products” may mirror SE (much like my own writing) and do not reveal the critical work and translingual labors underlying them. And, yes, not every student is able to fully tease out the roots and harms of white language supremacy in the course of one or two semesters. But students move forward, I hope, with critical language perspectives and practices that do (and will continue to) impact them (and others around them) in important and more socially just ways. Indeed, I find some encouragement when considering that every student I have encountered in my classes (grad and undergrad alike) has left with the knowledge that monolingualist ideologies work in some ways to empower but in many more ways to oppress.

Raising awareness, I remind myself, is no small feat and no minor accomplishment. And this is part of why, for me and for now, I try to come to terms with the ongoing dominance of SE and with student writing that reads as SE, so long as I aim to raise raciolinguistic awareness and to negotiate language difference in translingual ways with students. And, yet, to complicate this optimism, I offer another “but”: The graduate student in my narrative, over a post-graduation celebratory lunch, confided that he’s leaning toward not pursuing a Ph.D. after all—that who he is and what he cares about just doesn’t belong in academia and that his energies are better spent elsewhere, like in Haiti. So this (already very aware) student’s awareness may be raised, but he and his awareness were never the problem. Raising awareness may be valuable in the context of our classrooms, but systemic transformation takes place far beyond our students, their writing, and these walls. Indeed, as LGBTQIA activist and poet Minnie Bruce Pratt notes, “I see teaching as worth-while, but not decisive in building a liberated world. Because it’s happening within the confines of the academy, which is a very restricted space for everybody” (Navickas 52). Will we continue to “sit on our hands” so long as our asses stay seated in academia? How might we work outside of our classrooms and institutions to challenge raciolinguistic injustice?

Kate’s Attempts to Address Tutor Attitudes towards Multilingual Writers in the Writing Center

Written Version of Kate’s Narrative

Kate’s Summary

In this story, Kate shares a dramatized pedagogical conversation with writing center tutors about how to support linguistic diversity with multilingual writers in tutoring sessions. After reading Laura Greenfield’s “The Standard English Fairytale,” the tutors and Kate struggle to understand what it means to both value linguistic diversity and support language acquisition in practice.

Kate’s story raises the following questions:

  • How can we help tutors or TAs to see language diversity as positive, rather than as a deficit or problem?

  • How can writing centers both support language learning and avoid language subordination? When does supporting language learning cross the line into promoting Standard English ideology? And, how can we help tutors recognize this line?

  • When is the explicit teaching of English syntax, conventions, and mechanics necessary and useful in tutoring sessions?

Kate’s Critical Reflection

In this story, the tutors and I struggle to determine how to best help language learners in ways that also support raciolinguistic justice. Specifically, we struggle with whether or not responding to writing issues at the sentence-level is another form of privileging and teaching racist, monolingualist and standard language ideologies. I worry about whether or not we’re enacting monolingualism and insisting on Standard English or if we’re simply offering writers clarity in expectations for standardized written English, as an aspect of language acquisition. For example, when tutors or I ask a multilingual writer what they mean by using “This” at the beginning of a sentence or why the subject appears at the end of their dense and complicated sentence, are these moments when we are forcing them into a privileged standard English? I like to believe that we’re encouraging writers to be more specific, to be clear in their meaning, and to help audiences better understand their points; however, I also know that our ideas of “clarity” and “specificity” are rooted in the privileged writing of the academy. Similarly, I worry that when the tutor’s first language is English and they come from a privileged background, whatever help they give the writer is likely to be coming from a monolingualist view of language.

Even though I am aware of the challenges to the writing center directive to focus on “higher order concerns,” as an administrator who is inevitably reading but always feeling like an outsider in second language writing scholarship, I still fall back on this easy distinction (lower/higher order concerns) as a way of reminding tutors that their main aim is fostering a productive conversation with the writer about their work. I take serious arguments to reconsider and attend to so-called “lower-order concerns,” especially for multilingual writers (Cox; Nakamaru; Myers) and also for writers from less privileged backgrounds and educations (Salem). Michelle Cox persuasively argues that multilingual graduate writers can learn from “noticing” sentence-level language choices, especially because of the high stakes nature of their writing (147, 152), whereas Lori Salem claims that focusing on higher-order concerns over lower-order concerns should not be treated as a policy, but instead should be an aspect of a differentiated pedagogy, where tutors pick strategies appropriate to each writer’s individual needs (162-63). In other words, the lower/higher order division is an oversimplification that ignores the needs of multilingual and marginalized writers as well as the textual location of where “higher” order thinking occurs in our writing (at every level of writing, including sentences, lexis, and syntax).

In my story, though, my response to still focus on higher order concerns is localized; that is, I am reacting to the underlying refrain I hear in the comments of tutors in that staff meeting—that international students are a problem, multilingual writers are deficient, and the solution is to edit. Many of the undergraduate students who are eager to be tutors tell me that they love editing, they love working at the sentence-level, and they have a lot of experience editing their peers’ writing. Of course, I see these claims as likely representing various (sometimes limited) understandings of what “editing” means, but I also believe that tutor training is necessary precisely because the instincts of practiced writers to edit are not instincts at all; they are socially constructed practices based on racialized ideologies deeming “error-free” standardized English as superior. For many new tutors, the idea of tutoring as prioritizing (or, even paying attention to, in some cases) the ideas, argument, organization and clarity of a writer’s work (generally thought of as higher-order concerns) is a completely new, sometimes unbelievable and untrustworthy, idea.

Tutoring in ways that prioritize content and foster a writer’s agency thus means unlearning many years of implicit and explicit training as editors. Indeed, in the long-run, I aim for Nakamaru’s pedagogical goal of “de -center[ing] the tutors and engag[ing] them in a process of inquiry to raise awareness about the relationship of prior educational and language experiences and the strengths and needs of a student writer” (107). In tutor training, I hope to facilitate an evolution of tutor thinking—not always, but often—from the belief that tutoring is editing, to the better-but-not-perfect belief that tutoring should focus on higher order concerns. Even more preferable would be tutors selecting an appropriate focus for sessions that are based on the complex whole person and rhetorical situation they’re working with and that resonates with writing center, composition, and second language writing theory. However, I also understand that tutors are learning, too, and must come to this more complicated understanding of the work of tutoring as they are able to. Thus, while I do work to complicate the lower- vs. higher-order divide in tutoring pedagogy, as my story shows, my responses and tutors’ pedagogies are also a work in process.

Rachael’s Story: Mentoring Pre-service Teachers in Multilingual Social Justice Pedagogy

Written Version of Rachael’s Narrative

Rachael’s Summary

Rachael’s story features a moment in her literacy studies class for preservice elementary school teachers when a student writes in their teaching philosophy that she will not correct grammar in the writing of students of color. Given that this document might be sent to potential future employers, Rachael has to weigh her raciolinguistic justice pedagogy with her role as a mentor to her students.

Rachael’s story raises the following questions:

  • How do we balance professionalization with more radical language politics?

  • When does “correction” of grammar stigmatize language difference and index the ideologies of colonization, racism, and monolingualism?

  • How do we negotiate a need to change the system with a need to mentor students in their job seeking?

Rachael’s Critical Reflection

I have long believed that language and literacy education can be violent when it amplifies already oppressive attitudes and practices, but that it can be liberatory when emphasizing critical reflection, active learning, and coalition-building. In preparing pre-service early childhood and K-5 teachers to teach writing, I strive not just to writing pedagogy but also to demystify the role of power in shaping ideas about what good language and good writing looks like. For instance, as a class, we interrogate our own ideologies around language and literacy and where they came from; I ask my students to be critical about the judgements they make about their students’ writing, and how such judgements may unwittingly commit microaggressions or serve oppressive structures like academic tracking or systemic racism in other forms. A new generation of early childhood and elementary school teachers who are prepared to welcome and support linguistic variation as a resource, I believe, could truly help reform literacy education from a site of social violence into a space for epistemic empowerment.

When responding to the student in my story who “would not correct grammar” for her students of color, I commented:

I totally empathize with this sentiment, but many people, including students of color, will question this, saying that not to teach standardized English will hurt students down the road. How will you respond to this question? Can you teach standardized English while at the same time not stigmatizing other varieties?

I raised the point that administrators who read her teaching philosophy might find the idea abhorrent or irresponsible, grounds to deny an interview. I let the student know that her statement was risky, but I ultimately raised questions for her to think about, rather than offering advice on what she should do. My hope is that, through my curriculum, my students will help to interrupt the many seemingly small and insignificant moments of harmful standard language ideology that can permeate a classroom from day to day and year to year, and which disproportionately affect students of color, international students, and new and long-term learners of English. But they can’t do that if they never make it into their own classrooms.

In some ways, then, my responsibility is to help students as writers and as preservice teachers to navigate complicated political landscapes where standard language ideology and other monolingualist ideologies may dominate. Yet, I cannot in good faith direct my students to temper their language or politics for what Brooke Schreiber and Dorothy Wordon have described as the “nameless, faceless people” in positions of power whose conservative values may bear negative material consequences for grades, job prospects, etc. In doing so, I would become what Vershawn Ashanti Young referred to in the Q&A of a keynote address as a “proxy racist,” invoking the very ideologies I hope my pedagogy will contest (Young and Condon). Rather, I chose (and would again) to raise the concern for a complicated audience and invite my student to a longer discussion around the issue at a later date.

For me, teaching students to “be rhetorical” with when and how they integrate language difference or radical language politics is not enough. While some scholars argue for relegating more radical language approaches to the realms of expressive writing (see Wang), such moves to appease gatekeeping audiences may reify monolingualist ideologies as we maintain its prominence and value through our own linguistic labor (Horner and Alvarez). At the same time, we can and should help students reach their professional goals. We can recognize that we have responsibility for our language choices and attitudes, but we still have to engage the substance and histories of the codes of power. Thus, I will continue to unveil and interrogate the politics of standard language ideology with my students, doing my best to help them become teachers who will work toward raciolinguistic justice for the generations to come.

Nicole’s Negotiation of Standards in Student Learning Outcomes

Written Version of Nicole’s Narrative

Nicole’s Summary

Nicole, a Chicana academic, shares a story about working with her department’s curriculum committee to draft student learning outcomes for an entry-level college writing course. While the committee had already held several meetings to discuss their values and desires for student learning, when she received the “first draft” of the new outcomes there was one outcome that surprisingly upheld the valuing of the conventions of so-called Standard Edited English. Nicole’s story includes the emotional and intellectual toll of working through her embodied response to the committee and the ultimate decision to eliminate it.

Nicole’s Story raises the following questions:

  • What role do student learning outcomes have in re-conceptualizing and realizing raciolinguistic justice?

  • How do we make room in our departments and across higher education for interrogating the foregrounding of standard language ideology in student learning outcomes? And how do we assess student learning outcomes in a raciolinguistically just and mindful way?

  • Who advocates for raciolinguistic students in your department? Are these issues primarily raised and managed by faculty of color or the same person consistently, and if so, how do we address the emotional and intellectual toll it takes?

Nicole’s Critical Reflection

Who cries over student learning outcomes? I recognize that this isn’t work that should feel so exhausting and emotionally tolling. But what comes with it, for me in particular, is a lifetime of combating racial oppression. The story I told was a moment where I anticipated the difficult task of negotiating, yet again, racial inequalities with people who, despite being well intentioned, often do not see what I see or feel what I feel. In that moment, I was not merely working through some objective version of intellectual ability; additionally, I was coming to terms with, as Inoue so bravely puts it,“my own striving for the dominant English” which “started with an impulse not to be poor, not to be seen as stupid, not to be brown, not to be in the outer dikes of the US. I thought I wanted to be White” (Labor-Based, 14). Like Inoue, I have prospered by approximating white habitus closely. My parents were assimilationists for good and not so good reasons, and they chose not to teach me or my sisters Spanish despite being bilingual themselves. And as Inoue further points out, “to be colonized brings with it some benefits of the colonizer, if you can struggle through the colonizing. And yet, there are losses with those gains: cultural, linguistic, emotional” (37). Thus, the perpetual “but” for me, as a Chicana, is different than for my peers. I know firsthand the trauma of severing the connection between language and identity. I am often made aware of my audiences’ perceptions of my English-monolingual “Mexicaness,” through sometimes subtle and sometimes not so subtle ways. Unlike my white co-authors, my experiences navigating white language supremacy are more embodied and pervasive across my life. My brown skin has always been an issue—often coupled with judgements of my language, especially in institutionalized spaces. And so, when I’m crying over something as seemingly insignificant as learning outcomes, I’m really responding to a lifetime of racism and language discrimination against myself and others in and outside of the university.

Thus, my emotionally and intellectually driven response to a learning outcome—that upholds not only a racist ideal but also an unachievable one for many people—was warranted but not one that most of my colleagues would experience. It has been well documented that faculty of color are often burdened with more emotional labor than our white colleagues (e.g., Gutiérrez y Muhs et al.). Instead of attending to my many other responsibilities, my time was spent researching more learning outcomes, crying, talking, practicing, and preparing for my meeting. The day I received the drafted learning outcomes, I reached out to a very close friend in my field and asked for advice. Fortunately, she had recently revised outcomes for a similar course and was able to provide me with some options that did not focus on grammar but rather acknowledged the power of diverse grammars and languages. More importantly, however, she was able to help me work through and practice responding to potentially hostile or contested responses while also offering her support and care. And, again, while the committee was quick to discuss and ultimately omit the learning outcome focused on grammar proficiency, the experience left me wondering and worried about what would happen if I wasn’t there. This mode of operation begs the questions: How can I sustain the workload of signing up for and committing to every major and often minor committee appointment? What more should...can...I be doing? These questions are actually symptoms of a larger, more insidious problem for faculty that do this kind of raciolinguistic work, especially as it relates to writing program administration. Acknowledging the importance of taking into consideration the embodied experiences of faculty of color, specifically in WPA work, is not new but it is woefully underrepresented in the field. As Collin Craig and Staci Perryman-Clark expose in Troubling the Boundaries, our bodies and the experiences marked by our histories are typically not considered within the boundaries of WPA. Thus, WPAs of color face a much larger workload, having to muster the time, emotions, and intellect needed to make space for their own diverse positionalities and the situated needs of the diverse students they represent.

Ultimately, to do raciolinguistic justice work, especially as a scholar of color, is to live with the paradox of having the privilege to inform social change, while also bearing the burden of the labor involved in making social change. What I am now understanding, in ways inaccessible to me previously, is that both my embodied personal and professional experiences deeply inform my teaching and administrative practices. I’ve come to acknowledge how unproductive the dichotomy between idealism and pragmatism can be, especially when such separation further prevents us from recognizing the invisible labor and deep anxiety produced by academic settings, especially for faculty and students of color. And, as my story demonstrates, while I am committed to working to disrupt white language supremacy, I regularly experience emotional dissonance in my work and in my daily life.

Shawna’s Response to Prescriptivist Attitudes in a Faculty Search

Written Version of Shawna’s Narrative

Shawna’s Summary

In this story, Shawna responds separately to two colleagues who suggest that a faculty member might not be a good fit to teach writing at their institution, because the candidate’s cover letter has grammatical (or proofreading) errors. She is able to convince her dean (one of the two) that the concerns about the cover letter are not a reason to dismiss the candidate, but she is left wondering whether this candidate would encounter obstacles in the position, because of the elitist linguistic attitudes of other colleagues.

Shawna’s story raises the following questions:

  • What (if anything) does the presence of errors or typos in a (current or future) colleague’s writing actually indicate about them?

  • How might we respond to highly prescriptivist comments and attitudes among colleagues, which might lead them to dismiss people and ideas simply based on what they see as “poor writing”?

  • How might we work in the long term to broaden our colleagues’ attitudes about “good writing,” so they focus more on what is said than on how it is presented and so that they see how their perceptions are deeply rooted in monolingualist ideologies?

Shawna’s Critical Reflection

Underlying this story are a number of ideological questions that we don’t often talk about openly, but that drive our teaching, curricula, and even hiring practices: What is good writing? Who deserves (or is able) to teach writing? I work at an elite (and often elitist) institution, which I suspect is the sort of institutional context where these prescriptivist ideologies are particularly prevalent. While the writer in this case was not a person of color, my other colleagues’ conceptions of “appropriateness,” which informed their reaction to their cover letter, have been shaped by ideologies of race, as well as class, language, and ability (Rosa and Flores).

This story is not the only example in which I have had to “defend’ a job candidate whose writing was read by other colleagues as an indicator of poor thinking or teaching ability. As Bethany Davila explains, many educators see “standard English” (which they usually equate to “error-free” writing) as “normal, natural, non-interfering, and widely accessible” (abstract; see also Watson and Shapiro). If this is the case, then a student or colleague whose writing is read as “non-standard” (“not normal,” in other words) may be judged to be of “sub-par” intelligence or work ethic. Indeed, I have (we all have, probably) read comments written from colleagues on students’ papers that felt like a punch in the gut—comments that caused students to question whether they belong at our institutions, or in the academy as a whole. These ideologies also shape how faculty see themselves as writers: Although nearly all of my faculty colleagues are required to teach first-year writing, many of them have told me that they don’t think their own writing is “good enough” for them to be effective as writing teachers.

These issues are particularly fraught for me in my position as a WPA whose work includes faculty development. Because I want colleagues to feel comfortable approaching me to talk through pedagogical questions, I don’t always know when and how to challenge their prescriptivist attitudes. I will suggest that they remember that the work of multilingual and/or first-generation writers will likely have a “written accent” (Leki; Zawacki and Habib). Yet I am afraid to push too hard—and I rarely challenge the elitism embedded in how my colleagues think and talk about writing at my institution. Am I copping out, or just playing the long game?

Here is what I wanted to say to my dean, when she asked me why I didn’t think errors in a cover letter were a reason to dismiss a candidate for a faculty position: I wanted to ask her how it is that we say our institution cares about equity and inclusion, and yet don’t seem to question our ideologies about language and writing. I wanted to point out that these elitist ideas about what defines “good” writing make many of our students feel alienated in the classroom—particularly first-generation students. I wanted to confront her with what seemed to me to be a salient disjuncture between our ideals and our day-to-day practices.

Yet I worried that this was the wrong time for that larger conversation. My immediate goal in this exchange was to convince my Dean to give us the go-ahead to make an offer. And I was worried that opening up a larger conversation in that moment—and in the limited format of an email exchange—might not be effective. I also worried about potential repercussions for the applicant: Would this exchange—rather than the candidate’s excellent qualifications—be what the Dean had forefront in her mind if and when she worked with this new colleague? I came away from this experience more deeply committed to working with colleagues in the long-term to challenge some of the beliefs that underlie our assumptions about good writing. But I’m not even sure quite what that looks like, beyond bringing up this issue when possible in my individual and small group conversations with other faculty. I have been in conversation with folks in our diversity, equity, and inclusion office about the issue, and they may bring it up in recruitment/hiring workshops.

I also came away from this interaction with a suspicion that I will probably have to have some potentially uncomfortable conversations with my new colleague about our institution’s elitist culture and the assumptions faculty (and likely students as well) may make about their writing. I don’t feel great about the prospect of having those conversations, but I imagine that it is more respectful (and more effective) to be transparent about the issue than to pretend that it does not exist. As Lisa Delpit points out, “being told explicitly the rules of [the culture of power] makes acquiring power easier” (281). This doesn’t mean I see my colleague or their writing as the problem, but I would be remiss not to talk openly with them about the issues that have been raised about their writing. And this work does not start or end with conversations with colleagues most at risk of judgment based on their writing. Delpit reminds us that students are not the only “ onus of change” for her work: Teachers—particularly those with greater privilege and status—must engage in “political work” at our institutions, including “agitat[ing] for change [and] pushing gate-keepers to open their doors to a variety of styles and codes” (292).

Thus, in conversations I may have to have with this and other colleagues whose writing is unfairly judged, I hope to share my ideals for how I would like our institution to function—my vision for what a more linguistically just institution might look like. But in the short-term, we will have to talk through strategies for making sure that perceptions of their writing—particularly in high-stakes situations—don’t become a hindrance to their success. That may mean more time and energy from both me and my new colleague, and could complicate their adjustment to our institution.

Aspirations for Imperfect Raciolinguistic Justice Work

We started this essay by reflecting on Inoue’s CCCC Chair’s Address—his critique of white composition teachers who “sit on their hands, with love in their hearts, but stillness in their bodies”(355). Throughout, we have shared pedagogical and administrative glimpses of our attempts at moving towards more raciolinguistically just actions. Collectively, these stories reframe this work not simply as a move from stillness to action, but as an acknowledgment of what this ongoing intellectual, interpersonal, emotional and pedagogical labor involves. The small pedagogical and administrative glimpses we share have big consequences, and they illustrate that there are no hard-and-fast rules for how to enact widespread change. Thus, we must carefully forge our own situated paths forward as we combat harmful language politics in support of language-minoritized students (and students of color in particular). We hope that by documenting our own messy attempts and reflections, we are inviting a larger conversation to map our processes and define our labors in specific situations more explicitly. We conclude with two aspirations that guide our own work—engaging the perpetual “but” and balancing self-reflection, self-compassion, and tenacity.

Engaging the Perpetual “But”

Engaging the perpetual “but,” for us, essentially means acknowledging, teasing out, and embracing the many gray areas of raciolinguistic justice work. Because each rhetorical situation is different, because we work within inherently racist institutions, because harmful attitudes about language and race are unlikely to be dismantled on a large scale any time soon, because we are committed to honoring students’ and colleagues’ agencies, and because we remain steadfast in our pursuit to combat harmful language ideologies, this work requires a willingness to engage the many “buts” we uncover as effectively and ethically as we can. In the stories we shared, various “buts” emerged:

We invite students to combat monolingualist ideologies, but we recognize the risks of doing so in their writing and honor their choices to master and match standardized English and academic discourse for their own professional and personal purposes.

We shoot for systemic transformation, but we find ourselves in our daily practices struggling to push against the structures of our institutions and settling instead for raising awareness.

We encourage writing tutors and teachers to honor our students’ language differences, but we recognize they’re struggling to come to grips with what to do in practice, especially in cases where the student writer may still benefit from English language development.

We emphasize to new teachers the violence of standard language ideology, but we feel alarmed when teachers assume this means to instead ignore language issues in student writing altogether.

We remain committed to pushing back against colleagues’ language attitudes through committee and other interpersonal work, but we don’t always have the time and can’t always afford the emotional labor, especially when we're the only voice of color in such settings.

We each aim for raciolinguistic justice, but we don’t always have the answers, strategies, ethos, and ideal circumstances needed to do so as effectively as we’d like. And, then, we push some more toward our aims anyway.

While engaging the many “buts” we encounter calls for situated understandings and responses, it’s at least safe to acknowledge that the nuances and complexities of raciolinguistic justice work require that we support, honor, and respect student and colleague perspectives and agencies, allowing space for people to engage with ideas that we’ve all come to in our own time. Likewise, we support, honor, and respect the anger and rage that rightly comes from students and scholars, including ourselves, and especially from any person who faces discrimination and injustices. As we are reminded from Audre Lorde, anger is a justified reaction that can be used to forge motivation and connections that move us forward. Engaging the perpetual “but” allows us to recognize the full complexity of taking on the legacy of white supremacy, including embracing the realm of emotional responses that we and others bring to this work. Learning about and trying to confront injustice is a difficult process, sometimes a traumatic one; our interactions with students, teachers, and colleagues are but small moments in a trajectory of coming to critical consciousness.

We push ourselves and others toward raciolinguistic justice, but we also aim to avoid categorizing and dismissing students, colleagues, and even our own actions as “not radical enough” or “too radical” for our tastes, as an “insider” of disciplinary areas of inquiry or “outsiders”—efforts to resist binary thinking. We came to this project struggling with the assumption that we either are successfully fighting raciolinguistic justice in our work or we are not, that we either are enacting radical antiracist teaching and administration or we are not. That we are either “sitting on our hands” or acting. Indeed, such binary thinking erases the complexity and nuance of applying values to specific contexts and situations. Even worse, it can keep us silent about such complications in our efforts to be on the “right” side and, thus, unnecessarily combative toward colleagues fighting a similar fight but on their own terms. In our own experiences, for instance, Missy, Rachael, and Shawna’s research agendas are centered on translingualism and second language writing; Nicole and Kate, on the other hand, draw from this scholarship but have built expertise in other areas. Plus, they both have to negotiate the demands of non-tenure track faculty whose research efforts hold less (and even no) weight in securing their employment. Kate often wonders if this lack of disciplinary expertise makes her efforts at raciolinguistic justice ungrounded, suspicious, or not good enough. But such efforts are needed no matter folks’ disciplinary background. One rationale for sharing such vulnerabilities, then, is to engage other scholars who may not be well acquainted with research on fighting linguistic and racial injustice but who are interested in joining efforts to do so. Ultimately, we remind ourselves, everyone’s efforts towards raciolinguistic justice remain important—we are all needed and we all begin from where we begin. Thus, while we’re no less vigilant in how we approach and advocate for this work, we try to use the fact that we’re all differently situated, invested, and knowledgeable to our advantage, as opposed to rationalizing or judging each other.

In an effort to make good use of our different knowledges and approaches to knowledge making, we co-authors spent several hours together at the start of this collaboration revealing, listening to, and writing about our situated trials, testing approaches to dealing with the challenges we face, and layering our shared narratives with analyses of our own positionalities. For instance, while we all seek to be anti-racist, Nicole, as the only woman of color of the group, brings with her and intentionally shared her own lived experiences with racism. Such perspectives played a role in shaping this article, including our choice to centralize narrative and to decentralize literature review. But as the pressures of deadlines emerged in later phases of this project, Nicole’s voice became noticeably quieter. When asked why, Nicole offered several complicated reasons, including the fact that her job security does not depend on publications, and thus, at times she needed to step back and prioritize other responsibilities. But she also emphasized how much she grapples with internalized self-doubt in her academic writing, which further influenced her decision to defer more to group members’ suggestions during later drafting stages. This was an issue that, if addressed by the group earlier (and if additional time was allocated to it) could have very well led to a different article. Upon reflection, we realized we were not successful in maintaining consistent space for accounting for her approaches to writing and knowledge making. And, importantly, while Nicole’s reasons may be deemed circumstantial rather than racialized, Nicole stressed that her anxiety and quieting was undeniably connected to feeling like an outsider to white academic discourse, a discourse the other members of the group have more experience with and a racialized connection to. This was an inescapable power dynamic given the racial makeup of the group. Further, since basing knowledge-making practices from a particular position is not structurally valorized to begin with, we must be all the more mindful of these complexities in our raciolinguistic justice work. As this simplified example shows, even careful efforts to work across racialized differences and to honor diverse knowledges and practices can still perpetuate racialized hierarchies and white language norms. We thus, together, continue to learn these lessons and keep trying harder.

Balancing Self-Reflection, Self-Compassion, and Tenacity

While engaging the perpetual “but” is, as we see it, essential for sustaining ethical and effective approaches to supporting raciolinguistic justice in the classroom, at our institutions and beyond, these “buts” are not an excuse to avoid the difficult challenges of critical self-reflection and doing the hard work of acting against racism and monolingualist ideologies. Critical reflection most importantly involves the need for both unrelenting honesty and deep self-compassion, as we acknowledge the sites in which our best efforts (or even our favorite assignments and activities) may still validate white academic discourse. Inoue wrote of the hurt involved in “exposing your racial wounds” and the need to “sit in discomfort” (353, 359). One reviewer of this article noted how hard we (coauthors) are on ourselves, especially as women “in the trenches.” Rather than guilt-tripping our readers or wallowing in the inevitableness of our complicity in (white) institutions and structures, we hope to reframe such endeavors as a collective responsibility to vulnerability and growth. This reframing further calls us to foreground self-compassion, so that we can come to see our inevitable doubts, missteps, and lingering questions as part of our process. Striving for honesty in our critical self-reflections involves radical humility—being willing to acknowledge when we inevitably make mistakes. Striving for compassion in our self-reflections means we come to see these uncertainties and contextual challenges as part of our process worth sharing rather than silencing.

One way we motivate and follow through with our commitment to self-reflection and self-compassion is by reminding ourselves of the examples of activists who have been radically honest about their failures and struggles to do social justice work. Just one example comes from Lisa Albrecht, who reflects on her emotions and positionality throughout her activism:

When I hit this point of anger, I know I have to stop, take a deep breath, and remember Che's message about love. I am not any better than my white sisters and brothers. By virtue of living in white America, I am also racist. Blowing off steam is necessary for me, and that is why I share this with you. It's part of my journey as a white person, and I hope it might help other white people grappling with what to do about racism. (401)

We find that we learn most from scholars who, like Albrecht, openly and honestly reflect on their challenges, mixed feelings, and missteps in applying critical and anti-racist pedagogies. And we understand this as an emotionally and professionally vulnerable process that ultimately benefits us, our students, our institutions, and our disciplines.

Building in processing time for self-reflection and self-compassion requires us to be patient yet tenacious about enacting change. We thus strive to “play the long game”—after all, we are trying to change the ocean, not capture the shark. One strategy that helps us balance self-reflection, self-compassion, and tenacity is to seek collaborations and build communities of allies. As the proverbial "they" says, “if you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.” Although we regularly find ourselves the lone compositionist, rhetorician, translingual scholar, or second language writing specialist in our institution, or even alone in our work against the machine of white language supremacy in the university, we strive to locate pockets of support to sustain us as we continue to resist monolingualism and advocate for linguistic differences. We could not have written this article alone. We came together to write this article, in part, as a way to unite with our colleagues across a multifaceted discipline and share our shortcomings, our research-based practices, our theorized approaches, and our hopes. Due to the nature of our shared stories and the bodies attached to them, collaborating together on this piece of scholarship has required risk-taking and careful reflection on how to represent those involved. Frankly, this project has terrified us a bit! But it’s the sort of work we ourselves have yearned for.

Doing this critical reflection work together, we believe, helps to encourage honest investigation and assessment of our own choices in difficult moments. Collaborating in this way further invites self-compassion, allyship, and coalition-building. Indeed, we hope readers may find solidarity in knowing that others struggle in similar ways and may feel reinvigorated to face these challenges together. We remain optimistic about our collective commitments to engaging the complexities of raciolinguistic justice work.

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