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How White Can You Write? A University Wants To Know!

January 13, 2019

(image via Wikimedia)

This is one of those issues where some people will choose a side based on politics and stick with it, no matter what facts come out later.  I usually avoid such sensitive topics, but this subject matter involves writing, so I want to be familiar with it, even if I don’t form an opinion yet.

A prominent university in the United States is having a seminar for faculty in February about grading standards.  The university’s webpage with the names of the seminar and sessions has gotten some minor media attention, even though the page doesn’t provide many details.

Let’s start with the title of the entire seminar:

Grading Ain’t Just Grading- Rethinking Writing Assessment Ecologies Towards Antiracist Ends

First of all, putting the word ain’t in the title probably triggers the grammar Nazis, but I’m sure that was the point.  If you’re going to trigger somebody, trigger a Nazi.  Since there statistically aren’t any Nazis in the United States, trigger a grammar Nazi.  I have to admit, I kind of like grammar Nazis (and you can read about that here).

“Rethinking writing assessments” is okay because educators should always rethink how they do things.  It doesn’t mean they need to constantly change, but it’s okay to rethink.

And then there’s “toward antiracist ends.”  Here’s where things get potentially controversial, and maybe the university wants it that way.  After all, it’s combined one of the most polarizing topics (race) with one of the most boring (grading standards).

Then there’s one of the sessions:

“Plenary Session: The Language Standards That Kill Our Students: Grading Ain’t Just Grading

This plenary will argue against the use of conventional standards in college courses that grade student writing by single standards.   (The presenter) will discuss the ways that White language supremacy is perpetuated in college classrooms despite the better intentions of faculty, particularly through the practices of grading writing.”

Grading writing is difficult because there’s no objective way to do it (except with grammar… kind of).  Using the term “White language supremacy” makes me think the facilitator is looking to be controversial.  I might be wrong, but I’m guessing the session is in danger of focusing more on the White than the actual grading.

I’ve heard the argument that the current (White… with a capital W) language standards put certain demographic groups at a disadvantage.  Maybe that’s true.  There is a place for that discussion, and college is an ideal place for these conversations.  On the other hand, a student looking for a good/job needs to use those language standards, and it would be irresponsible for a university to deviate from those standards (if that’s the university’s intention).

Higher education in the United States isn’t cheap.  If students graduate with a bunch of debt and can’t get a job (and it seems sometimes college makes their prospects worse), then the only people who have benefited from the education are the universities (who got paid) and the government (who can profit off the debt or use it as a political tool).

Maybe I’m making too much of this.  All I have to form my opinion is what I’ve read on the university’s own website.  The seminar hasn’t even happened yet.  Maybe there will be some honest discussions among the faculty and they can figure out how to help struggling students without messing with language standards.

I’m all for helping students.  When I was in college, I worked 20-30 hours a week, took a little debt, got a decent job after I graduated, and paid off that debt in two years (The good news is that I never had to walk 20 miles uphill in the snow both ways).  I missed most of the partying and the protesting in college, but at least I put myself in a position to be a young professional with no debt.

Now I’m in my 50s and grouchy and see some of today’s colleges as institutions that make their students unemployable.  Maybe that’s too harsh, but seminars like this seem to confirm my opinion.  But I admit I could be wrong.

Normally people wouldn’t care about discussions about grading standards at a university.  Seminars like that are probably really boring.  Throw race into it, though, and everything changes, and people take their predictable sides.  As a writer, I’m more interested in how the faculty wants to change their grading process.  Unfortunately, most people will want to focus on the other stuff.

Here’s my cop-out analysis.  I’m not going to form my opinion until I know more (if I ever do).  Maybe the university will release a transcript or video of the sessions.  Until that happens (or I learn more), I’m done.

10 Comments
  1. I think, as a college professor in English that teaches mostly minority students, it’s an important conversation to have. My experience has been that it’s not about letting people write “white”, “black”, “red”, or “yellow” (here my quote and comma placement are correct according to APA format but incorrect in MLA); rather it is an awareness of how race, or, more appropriately, inequality plays a role in limiting success for minorities. The inequality of schools in the U.S., a pervasive problem involving how schools are districted (think real estate), took over after Brown v. Education to maintain segregation in the U.S. Still today in the U.S., zip code determines how long you will live, what race you are, what education you will have, and what diseases you will get. It even determines if you will spend crib to cradle locked up.

    I agree with you that grading writing is subjective, even when it comes to grammar.
    Though I am an English teacher, I am not an expert on grammar, in part, because linguistics is not my focus. Literary analysis and critiquing culture were. I had one grammar class in college, had to retake it because a C is a fail in graduate school. I retook it and got a B-. The professor felt sorry for me, probably, but he was white and I was white. Would he do the same for an African American student, or would he say “dumb kids can’t write”? I think he would have failed the woman or the minority student in most cases.

    Remember that standard spelling is an artificial construction that happens with Webster and company. Shakespeare spelled his name two different ways. Who decided we should have it? Privileged folks.

    I base my guess on this: in the sixteen years I have been an English professor, I have learned that our profession is very intolerant of minorities. How many Asian English professors do you see or African American that teach English? They exist, but what do they teach? Asian American literature or African American literature. They may teach “world” literature because it is assumed they are “other” and can teach “everything else” that does not really matter. They may do ESL, if they are Asian or minority, but rarely will be find a minority teaching outside of their racial literature.

    I ask you to harken back to feminism for a moment. The French feminists argued that the language (French and especially English) was sexist. “He” often excluded women, so the push was a language of their own. Writers like Virginia Woolf took it in a different direction, pointing out that “why were there no good women writers in history?” Well, it turns out that there were many great women writers for centuries. They were simply excluded. American feminists took up this cause and what was known as the American literary canon, all white men except Emily Dickinson, and pushed the canon to collapse.

    It turns out that many white, male American writers were far less popular than women writers like Mary Jane Holmes and EDEN Southworth. Even phenomenal writers like Zora Neale Hurston were pushed out of the Harlem Renaissance because many worried that her “folk tales” would make people look down on Black people. She died in miserable poverty. We discovered so many great women and minority writers. White men, white language was not better; rather, speaking and writing white determined who got to pee on what fire hydrant. That usually meant white, “educated” men or Black men that could pass and write as well as the Whites (write like Whites).

    No one is arguing that we get rid of good standards of writing, but what I think they want to do in this conference is bring the discussion of white language to the table and include a diversity of opinion. I think that is a good thing.

    As you know, there are major differences between genres of writing. Though standard English may be important in business and professional writing, do we really need it in creative writing? I think not. The same could be said for speech. I always told my speech classes that if they spoke standard English they would sound too weird and artificial. I told them to speak slowly and clearly, not to worry about their “accent” because we all have accents. If you watch old movies, the actresses sound artificial because they “enunciated.” Some white kids did not think they had accents. That is because their accents were privileged and therefore invisible to them (listen to the nighttime news).

    I can push this further in two ways. First, there is no standard grammar, really. I got this from a linguist at the University of Rochester, the guy whose class I failed. If you asked him about grammar rules, he would burst out laughing. He said comma usage is where you pause for breath. There are no static rules. If you think about it, it makes sense. I find journalistic writing to be just awful. They don’t know their singulars from their plurals. The writing strikes me as awful, but they write in a way that most want to read, at the level of a 12-year old. Academics have their own standard, so do medical doctors, and children’s authors write differently than memoirists. I have read novels that use no punctuation, and I have seen others that are fine with fragments.

    Then there is what we used to call “Black English” (which may offend some now), but actually if you study African American speaking and writing, it has more predictable tendencies because that is how all language develops. For example, “I be late for the bus” and I late for the bus” are used in different contexts. Now, I forget exactly. I am recalling from memory. I believe the first means that I am late for the bus now. The second is that I am always late for the bus. I could have these mixed up. The point is that the non-standard English of today is the standard English of tomorrow if we let language develop naturally. The only exception I can think of is the Korean alphabet and writing, which is the only language that was scientifically created. The Korean alphabet is very easy to learn (the language, those darn verb endings are a nightmare).

    All and all, grammar Nazis try to make order out of a chaotic written world, and I do appreciate you guys at times. You are needed, but I do think that language, especially artistically, needs to have freedom, but not too much. We need standards, but we want everyone to play a role in creating them. Language needs to breath and grow.

    But what do I know, I just teach at the community college with my third-tier PhD? I am not allowed to pee on the good fire hydrants. 🙂

    • Aaaarrgh! I appreciate comments that are longer than my blog posts, but I never know how to respond to them.

      I’d disagree with the linguist who said there are no comma rules except for pauses. There are a bunch of (almost) consistent comma rules, and writers should know them. Some of the rules are even (almost) logical.

      As for the other stuff, college is great for discussions like that. My concern is that messing with writing standards in one college might mess up job opportunities for those students when they are are competing with others who were taught to write “white” (that’s the university’s term, not mine) at another school.

      Which students will get hired? We know the answer, and so what happens after that?

      • An answer to that may be that colleges and businesses do have relationships, and often we educate one another, so I don’t think standards will change that much, but when businesses and schools work together, they may make some changes. My point is that writing styles, even among varied employers vary widely. A nursing major learns little in writing in MLA format, but they may benefit from tech writing. Most writing programs teach MLA English formatting, but most employers do not use these. Often, English majors think they will learn about creative writing, but they don’t (maybe one or two courses), so styles vary widely anyway. I think the key is learning to adapt.

        As to several approaches to learning grammar rules, yes, there are manuals, but these can vary also (the Oxford comma, for example), so his point scientifically is that comma usage varies according to time.

        • “I think the key is learning to adapt.”-

          I agree with you about that. For example, my wife and I disagree about the Oxford comma. I was taught one rule, but she was taught another rule. Her employer uses the rule she was taught, so if I worked for her employer, I’d easily adapt because (they’d be paying me and) I’d been taught the logic behind the Oxford comma in school.

          If students had never been taught about the Oxford comma, however, they would be very confused (and the employer would be very annoyed).

  2. I remember when schools and universities were focused on education and not social engineering as the former was considered significantly more important than the latter when preparing young people for the world of work…..I guess times have changed

    • I think there’s always been a debate about the purpose of higher education (at least as long as I’ve been aware):

      Is it supposed to prepare you for a better job, or is it for enlightenment and exposure to a variety of ideas (like social engineering)?

      Of course, the ideal answer is both. But if the enlightenment conflicts with the ability to get a job (as this writing seminar MIGHT do), I’ll choose the job preparation education over enlightenment.

      • I am not sure that enlightenment can really be ‘taught’ if one is not looking for it; really I think it’s something we search for when we are ready. As for exposure to ideas, yes, I think that students should be exposed to all sorts of thinking but then be allowed to make their own judgments…..that doesn’t seem to be the case with this seminar.
        I agree – job preparation is essential, enlightenment will come when the student is ready :O)

  3. Considering that this whole debate about whether a writing is too white or not happens in English, which is a language created by the white people, formalized by the white people, and spread across the world by the white people, to be spoken by the societies dominated by the white people, I would think the answer is kind of obvious. The only way to really avoid writing white is to write in another language, like Chinese, Farsi, Swahili.

    • I wonder if anybody will bring that up during the seminars.

      If so, how will the facilitator respond? Would it lead to a polite intellectual discussion or to a shouting match with lots of name calling?

      • I’m leaning towards the latter. Even if the facilitator responds politely, the seminar will attract a few people who won’t.
        Which is why, probably, no one will bring that up during the seminars.

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