Toward an Anti-Racist, Translingual Writing Center

Dr. Karen-Elizabeth Moroski is the Co-Curricular Programs Coordinator for Writing and Languages at Penn State University, University Park Campus. Her research interests span affective neuroscience, trauma studies, queer theory, and writing studies—really, she loves the intersections of critical theory and embodiment. Karen’s particularly interested in how Writing Centers can work to engage/combat/heal the lives writers live before, during, and after their writing process: can we heal trauma through writing? She’s an Associate Editor for WAC Clearinghouse, serves on Executive Board for the Mid-Atlantic Writing Center Association, and was recently appointed to co-lead the first-ever International Writing Center Association Digital Content Team. Residing in Pine Grove Mills, PA, with her wife and their badly-behaved cats (Tag and Samoa), Karen loves riding her bike and singing out of tune.

 

Before I Begin…
I’d like to own that much of this post is a narration of a person journey wherein my experience is what’s being centered—though the issues challenging me throughout the post are areas of scholarship (and, yes, life) that can and should be centered in their own right whenever possible. I am conscious that this blog post may feel like “Here’s a white person explaining their whiteness, and how they’re challenging themselves to change”—and maybe it is that, in a way—but my pedagogical and intentional reason for crafting my post this way is to show an evolution of thought, self-reflection, and to model the type of calling out that more white academics and administrators need to do with ourselves and with one another.

I’m writing with full acknowledgement that my whiteness, my privilege, and my context have shaped how I interpret, express, and address the information I’m sharing—and that it’s scholars of color, not white allies or accomplices, who have done the most powerful and productive work on pushing the fields of rhetoric, composition, and writing center studies towards anti-racism and equity. (And I’ve included endnote references throughout to share moments of connection with my musings here today and the scholarship that informs them, as a blog post isn’t perhaps the best genre to go full-on, MLA8 in-text on ya’ll.)

Dr. Karen-Elizabeth Moroski

I’m grateful to scholars like Vershawn Ashante Young,[i] Suresh Canagarajah,[ii] Asao Inoue,[iii] Aja Martinez,[iv] bell hooks,[v] and others who have given again and again the opportunity for white academics to learn from their work and to then act upon that learning. I write that sentence while wishing that the academy did not require scholars of color to write about and defend the dignity of their identities so that we could use their scholarship as teaching tools. That said, again, I want to express gratitude that it is work many scholars of color have done and continue doing as that work has challenged and engaged an entire field of study.

I am a work in progress; the writing center where I hang my hat is a work in progress; we hope to keep learning more and doing better, and we wish we were faster at that process.

Let’s Get To It, Then.
I’ve been thinking a lot about translingualism and writing centers. I’ve been wondering what I mean (or should mean) when I say translingual, and I’ve been wondering how the answers to this question shape how I write about it, how I ask my tutors to engage with it, and how our writing center can explain its investment in translingual pedagogy to the university community. I’m wondering, too, how my context as a white academic person shapes these questions and their answers. At Penn State, we’ve been working on a grant proposal to create a Scholar in Residence for Translingual Learning and Tutoring, seeking to unite our language and writing tutoring programs to more effectively serve translingual writers—and over time, our writing center administration’s definition of translingualism has shifted from solely focusing on global languages and global Englishes to a wider, more equitable lens that embraces domestic Englishes, too.

Let me tell you a story. It’s not a new story, probably, and it’s a story about white people learning something that people of color have already known and been saying for a long time, and it’s the honest narrative of how our writing center administration got to where we are on this topic. It’s a story that’s perhaps worth being shared in its transparency, since it will show an evolution of thought and the linking of two ideas we hadn’t linked before with regards to how we brand or share our pedagogy.

A year and a half ago when I joined the staff at Penn State, we began discussing ways to bring our language and writing tutoring programs closer together. Our learning center doesn’t have an ESL or translingual specialist on staff, and I asserted that those positions would include knowledge and expertise that I can’t pretend to have (I currently coordinate both programs). The seed was planted, then, that we should find a way to bring that expertise into Penn State Learning through the creation of a position (or two) that would support language tutoring and translingualism across our programs, as well as serve as an in-house ESL or TESOL expert. We began collaborating with other units on our campus to undertake the visionwork for our proposal, hoping to get the most representative picture possible of what was needed, and by whom, and in what ways, for this position to be both meaningful and sustainable. As you can imagine with many cooks in the kitchen, many narratives and answers abounded.

As we continued this quest to secure funding for an expert in translingualism to join our Learning Center staff, we noticed that much of the university buy-in has come from programs that serve international students and speakers of global Englishes—those dialects that emerge when non-English languages, structures, and dialects meld with English itself.[vi] This makes sense: these collaborators want to help the students who comprise their raison d’être, and that’s their focus. Our original goal had been to find ways to unite our language tutoring programming and our writing tutoring programming to promote conversation partner space, casual translation work, and a more developed sense of what our faculty senate has called “Global Citizenship.” We’d been thinking of translingualism specifically as a consciousness that allows flexibility amongst English and non-English languages—but we hadn’t yet complicated our definition of what we meant by “English.” Is there really only one English?

Though we have long believed in students’ rights to their own language,[vii] we had not approached that pedagogy in a directly anti-racist way at our writing center. This is all hard to admit, as I’d like to think of myself as someone who sees clearly, acts with equity, makes strides towards justice, and knows better. But in the past year, I’ve uncovered a blind spot of my own – a subconscious and insidious casual belief that writers’ personal voices (particularly when writing in dialect) were probably separate from academic prose, even if I found a writer’s authenticity effective, clear, and whole.

I think my own assumption had been that there was authentic writing in dialect, and then there was academic prose—and that while both should be acceptable in a tutorial and in most coursework papers, only one really signified the language of the academy. But language is a colonizer—I know that—I know that—so how couldn’t I see the trap I’d fallen into? Without realizing, I had embodied a version of what Dr. Vay has called “the proxy racist,” where though I didn’t grade my students’ work or encourage tutorials that prepared papers for “someone else, who is racist, even though we’re not,” I still saw a separation between the embrace of global and domestic Englishes (of which I would have described myself as enthusiastically supportive) and embracing the language of the academy. I had, in my own pedagogy and in my own classroom and (now) to my horror, perceived domestic Englishes as valid, valuable, whole—yet separate, yet equal. I feel the hideous weight of those words now. The ugliness of that thinking, despite its misguided best intentions. Even as I type the words, I reel from them.

I will say it again: I see now how ugly, insidious, and racialized that thinking has been. I am calling it out in myself and in others.

Now, I am working with my colleagues to take ownership of it: multiple Englishes can, should be, must be, and are the languages of our world and thus of the academy, and within those languages that belong are African American Vernacular English, Creole English, Appalachian English,[viii] and many others.

This year, in the midst of revising our grant proposal, we attended the Mid-Atlantic Writing Center Association (MAWCA) annual conference at Rowan University. The keynotes, Dr. Vershawn Ashante Young (referenced above) and Dr. Frankie Condon,[ix] spoke powerfully about anti-racism in writing centers: they raised crucial, even radical questions about the role of academic English in American life—especially when it isn’t the authentic or home language of many Americans. Young referenced the 2019 CCCC CFP as a public validation of African American Vernacular English, unpacked the “racist down the hall” fallacy, and positioned AAVRE as a dialect that belongs in the academy. As we listened, something clicked—and my fellow administrator and I sat there with lightbulbs over our heads:

If our writing center is to be translingual then it must also be specifically anti-racist. We need to complicate and expand our concept of translingualism to include all the dialects of English spoken by American students, including dialects spoken/written by students of color and by students with diverse linguistic experiences within the United States. Translingualism must include not just global Englishes, but domestic Englishes too. Anything less is racism.

Thank you, Dr. Vay, for prompting this pedagogical connection and shift. Quickly, the second light-bulb flashed:

We need to do more than just train tutors to empower student voices a la #AllDialectsMatter. We need to train our tutors, specifically, to respect and honor Black dialects. Appalachian dialects. Creole dialects. We need to consciously explain that this is more than a refusal to be directive/mute a student’s voice and is instead an ideology that empowers the voices of domestic Englishes as valid, rich, nuanced, and whole.

If we’re going to talk to tutors (in the spirit of translingualism) about the ways that international students may have cultural differences that emerge in tutorial sessions, or different ways of approaching writing structure or the sort of collaboration tutorials generate, we should be talking to them about why and how American students from various backgrounds will also respond to tutorials in nuanced ways. And this is work some in our field are doing or have already done![x] For example, programs that work with first-generation or under-served students know well the ways in which pedagogy can and must change to address and empower students whose experiences may not have prepared them for the type of English—or the type of engagement—that the academy expects of them.

If we are moving toward a translingual writing center, we mustn’t stop at global or international translingualism. Our translingual writing center must be anti-racist,[xi] must center our tutors’ experiences of “not knowing” as much as their sense of being “knowing” peers, must embrace a multiplicity of Englishes, and must undertake the complex work of finding ways to defend and articulate this position to the academy. If writing centers wish to pursue equity and justice on their campuses, one way to do it is to remain unflinching in the fear of the “racist down the hall” and to endeavor to explain to faculty—and to our own tutors—why this type of pedagogy is not symptomatic of an “anything goes” ideology about intellectual expression (the refrain and fear of many, it seems) but instead represents a push toward a more equitable academy. We can embrace appropriate research methods and citations while also honoring a multiplicity of Englishes. It’s not impossible. This work brings together social justice, global connectivity, and meaningful discourse as well as what, why, and how language is. When language shifts from being the mechanism through which one human animal shares a thought with another human animal to being something that, despite communicating an idea effectively (meaning, you know what the writer means to say), can be “right” or not—well, then we may just have weaponized language and made it a gatekeeper, not a collaborative tool. The distinction matters. Talking about that distinction matters. Thinking through the distinction matters.

And so I’ve been thinking a lot about translingualism, anti-racism, and writing centers.[xii] I’ve been wondering what I mean or should mean when I speak or write those words. I’m wondering how my context as a white academic person changes the stakes, answers, and frameworks of those questions. I’ve been wondering how the way I either create or mimic answers to those questions shapes how I write about them, how I ask my tutors to engage with them, and how we can explain the value of these ideaologies and pedagogies to our broader university community as we continue the visionwork of developing a translingual writing center.

I am grateful to the scholars who embarked upon this work long before I have. I am grateful for scholars of color who continue to challenge the boundaries of writing studies, rhetoric and composition. I am in no way thinking that I’ve said a single new thing in this blog post—I am, I know, a white person coming to the table armed with ideologies and theories generated by persons of color and expressing my understanding of their work in a public way (which can feel like stealing spotlight, and which was never my intention). I recognize the irony, too, that I—someone still unlearning racism in my pedagogy—am writing about this topic. But perhaps many of us are unlearning and being clear about that provides opportunities for us to unlearn together and hopefully unlearn quicker. My hope is that in sharing my own transparent vulnerability and willingness to rethink I will encourage others to be reflective about their own practices: our writers, our tutors, our universities, and our world need that reflection so much.

 

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[i] Young, Vershawn Ashanti. “Should Writers Use They Own English?” Writing Centers and the New Racism: A Call for Sustainable Dialogue and Change. Eds. Laura Greenfield and Karen Rowan, Logan, UT: Utah State UP, 2011, 61-72.
[ii] Canagarajah, Suresh. “An Updated SRTOL?” Conference on College Composition and Communication, 4 Nov. 2010. Web. 1 May 2011.
[iii] Inoue, Asao. Race and Writing Assessment (Studies in Composition and Rhetoric). Vol. 7, Lang, 2012.
[iv] Young, Vershawn Ashanti and Aja Y. Martinez, with Julie Anne Naviaux. “Code-meshing as World English Introduction.” Code-meshing as World English: Policy, Pedagogy, and Performance.Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 2011.
[v] hooks, bell. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York: Routledge, 1994.
[vi] Gilyard, Keith. “The Rhetoric of Translingualism.” College English, vol. 78, no. 3, 2016, pp. 284-289
[vii] Scott, Jerrie Cobb., and Dolores Y. Straker. Affirming Students’ Right to Their Own Language: Bridging Language Policies and Pedagogical Practices. Routledge, 2009.
[viii] Rickford, John R. African American, Creole and Other Vernacular Englishes in Education: A Bibliographic Resource. Routledge, Taylor & Francis, 2013.
[ix] Condon, Frankie. I Hope I Join the Band: Narrative, Affiliation, and Antiracist Rhetoric. Utah: Utah University Press, 2012.
[x] Geller, Anne Ellen, Michele Eodice, Frankie Condon, Meg Caroll, and Elizabeth H. Boquet. “Everyday Racism: Anti-Racism Work and Writing Center Practice.” The Everyday Writing Center: A Community of Practice. Logan, UT: Utah State UP, 2007, 87-109.
[xii] Condon, Frankie. “Beyond the Known: Writing Centers and the Work of Anti-racism.” The Writing Center Journal 27.2 (2007): 19-38.

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