What does it mean to support Mason’s linguistically diverse students? Teams from the Composition Program and Writing Center are working to address this question.
Mason has the most diverse student population of any four-year college or university in Virginia, with students from over 130 nations and speaking over 80 languages. Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) at the institutional or program levels mostly refer to racial, cultural, and ethnic diversity. Linguistic diversity—the diversity of languages and the variations within one language (e.g. Black English, Chicana English, accented English)—is a significant component of our students’ experiences and our campus culture, yet it is not fully recognized in our discourse and DEI initiatives.
In our everyday lives, language plays a significant role in connecting people to given and chosen identities; for example, commenting on a person’s language is often used as a proxy to say discriminatory things (e.g. racist things) about them. Neglecting this aspect of diversity means that professors and administrators may not “see” how many of our students are experiencing linguistic discrimination and to what extent; specifically, a community of educators committed to DEI and anti-racist pedagogy is left uninformed and unaware of strategies they might use to approach, address, and leverage linguistic diversity in their classrooms and on campus in concert with other campus-wide DEI efforts.
The need for better attention to linguistic diversity across campus has led these two teams to build on writing studies’ scholarship in linguistic justice by April Baker-Bell, Suresh Canagarajah, Laura Greenfield, Asao Inoue, Staci Perryman-Clark, and Vershawn Ashanti Young, among others who have led efforts in investigating how writing spaces can be more inclusive of all students’ language backgrounds and experiences. Linguistic justice is an orientation to language that acknowledges the linguistic truth that standard language is a myth and that privileging some forms of English over others is tied to the racialization of English speakers’ identities and replicates forms of systemic racial oppression.
The Composition Program and Writing Center teams are exploring how writing teachers and writing center consultants might integrate linguistic justice scholarship into their practices–practices that not only address educational inequities created when some students’ language is judged as more appropriate or effective than others’, but also that provide all students with a critical lens through which to think about their own and others’ language practices.
The Composition Program has been formally working on approaches that engage linguistic justice scholarship into its courses since 2019, although faculty in the program have a long history of doing this work. In 2019, Associate Director of Composition for Multilingual Writers Anna Habib formed a working group with Hyunyoung Cho, Lourdes Fernandez, Joan Hwang, Paul Michiels, Esther Namubiru, Nic Nusbaumer, Liz Paul, Tom Polk, Mark Rudnicki, and James Savage, and gathered feedback from faculty about their approaches to language and their support needs. The group developed faculty workshops on language noticing, an approach that has students investigate how other writers use language in written texts so that they can mindfully adapt their own language in similar writing situations, and drafted a language philosophy and aims statement outlining the Composition Program’s support for students’ already-existing linguistic resources and language development. (Pictured above left: Members of the original working group for linguistic justice initiatives. Back row, left to right: Joan Hwang, Tom Polk, Esther Namubiru, Courtney Adams Wooten, and Liz Paul. Front row, left to right: Nic Nusbaumer, Anna Habib, and James Savage.)
As part of an effort to continue this work on a broader scale across the Composition Program, the Stearns Center for Teaching and Learning awarded an Anti-Racist and Inclusive Teaching (ARIT) Grant to the program for 2022-2023 for “Building Anti-Racist Approaches to Language in Composition Courses.” Courtney Adams Wooten, director of the Composition Program, assembled a leadership team bringing together program administrators and previous members of the linguistic justice working group to lead this grant effort: Hyunyoung Cho, Anna Habib, Lisa Lister, Liz Paul, and James Savage.
Currently, around 20 additional faculty from the Fairfax and Mason Korea campuses are engaged in the linguistic justice work supported through this grant with an estimated reach of over 1,500 of their own students at Mason’s Virginia and Mason Korea campuses. These faculty include term faculty, adjunct faculty, and TAs, all of whom have dedicated their scarce time and energy to these efforts: Olivia Ghafoerkhan, Kelby Gibson, Leslie Goetsch, Ariel Goldenthal, Christina Grieco, Paul Haspel, Billy Howell, Joan Hwang, Eunice Kim, Susan Lawrence, M. Reece Mack, Katherine Miscavige, Carol Mitchell, Nic Nusbaumer, Parker O’Connor, Tom Polk, Mark Rudnicki, Catherine Saunders, Sheri Sorvillo, Jennifer Wood, and Alice Wrigglesworth.
This working group is familiarizing themselves with scholarship about anti-racist language practices in writing courses and developing resources that composition faculty can integrate into their classes to support Mason students’ linguistic diversity. Those resources will be integrated into the program once they are developed with hopes that other faculty at Mason who are invested in taking up linguistic justice work in their own classes will find them useful as well.
In the Writing Center, where one-on-one conversations between student writing consultants and student writers are the heart of the work, advancing linguistic justice involves training consultants how to talk about it in their sessions.
Rather than presuming that a session’s focus should be on standardizing a student’s language use, consultants may talk about language standardization and discrimination while helping the writers accomplish their revision goals. Having acknowledged the systems that enable language discrimination, the consultant maintains a focus on the writer’s purpose, audience and goals, and supports the writer as they decide on the language they want to use in their paper.
To prepare consultants for these conversations, the center’s faculty–Director Susan Lawrence, Assistant Director Courtney Massie, and Faculty ESOL Specialist Idée Edalatishams–have made linguistic justice a cornerstone of consultant education.
As in the Composition teams, new consultants read and reflect on scholarship that debunks the myth of standard language and calls attention to the structures and practices that discriminate against speakers and writers of “non-standard” English. To explore a linguistically just consulting practice, the consultants, who are themselves from linguistically diverse backgrounds, participate in workshops that ask them to envision what a linguistically just university might look like, learn strategies for discussing linguistic justice issues with writers, and work through scenarios that invite them to practice having those conversations.
Another aspect of justice is the language used to talk about race and racism. In the wake of 2020’s racial justice uprisings and the creation of Mason’s Anti-Racism and Inclusive Excellence (ARIE) initiative, Massie drafted a guide to writing respectfully about race and racism in response to requests from faculty in other departments.
Led by Massie, the Writing Center team received a grant from the Stearns Center to enlist a group of faculty accountability partners to consult on the guide’s content and eventual implementation. These partners, who include LaNitra Berger (Associate Professor, History and Art History), Richard Craig (Associate Professor, Communications), Kelly Knight (Associate Professor, Forensic Science), and Neesa Ndiaye (PhD student, Educational Psychology), envisioned how the guide might be used by faculty and students and are providing feedback on drafts accordingly. (Pictured right: Mason Writing Center faculty and partners. Back row, left to right: Susan Lawrence, LaNitra Berger, and Richard Craig. Front row, left to right: Kelly Knight, Idée Edalatishams, and Courtney Massie.)
Rather than simply suggesting current and inclusive terminology to use, the guide walks readers through a process for educating themselves about racism in the United States and writing from a place of knowledge and sensitivity. That process includes self-reflection; understanding historical context, key terms, and specific issues relevant to one’s topic; being mindful of power dynamics, especially when writing about racial identities different from one’s own; and using precise language. For example, a student applying to medical school could use this process to craft a personal statement that focuses on their desire to address structural problems underlying racial disparities in healthcare rather than on the desire to “help” marginalized patient populations (a common trope that problematically positions the applicant as “savior”). Ultimately, the guide can help students write about race-related topics in a way that acknowledges racism as a systemic problem and centers the experiences of communities most affected by it.
The grant team will help Massie pilot the guide in spring and fall 2023.
While Composition Program and Writing Center efforts are currently occurring through these two teams, these approaches should eventually reach faculty and students across these programs as linguistic justice resources are developed. Beyond these programs, other Mason faculty, staff, and student supports will hopefully be able to take up the resources these teams develop as they consider anti-racist approaches to students’ language practices in writing spaces across Mason.
If anyone is interested in supporting these efforts, please contact Composition Program Director Courtney Adams Wooten at firstname.lastname@example.org or Writing Center Director Susan Lawrence at email@example.com.
February 27, 2023