Writing Program Furor

Essay defending association is denounced as belittling diversity concerns and promoting stereotypes.

August 26, 2015

Like many academic groups, the Association of Writers & Writing Programs faces scrutiny over whether its meetings reflect the diversity of members.

This week a member of the planning committee for the association's annual meeting published an essay in which she is widely viewed as mocking those who have pushed for more diversity at the meeting, and of using stereotypes to do so. Rather than reassuring those pushing for more diversity, the essay has angered them. And many members of the association -- which represents more than 500 college writing programs -- are saying that the essay is more evidence of a problem with the AWP, as the association is known.

While diversity issues have been debated for some time within the AWP, the current debate started when some members started a petition asking for changes to the association's 2016 annual meeting, in part because, the petition says, every disability-related proposal for the meeting was rejected. Further, the petition states that AWP has rebuffed requests to provide a race and gender breakdown on panels accepted and rejected for the meeting. The AWP last week responded to the petition by stating that its conference committee did include a spot for the disability caucus at the meeting, and that the caucus can organize an event. Further, AWP said that while it provides gender breakdowns, it hasn't asked proposal submitters for demographic information, but is considering doing so.

Against that backdrop, Kate Gale, managing editor of Red Hen Press and a member of the committee organizing AWP's next meeting, published a piece on her own blog and in The Huffington Post criticizing the groups pushing for more diversity at the AWP.

She said that AWP members hurl insults at one another over diversity and other issues, instead of recognizing that -- in the title of her piece -- "AWP Is Us."

Gale went on to write:

"Transparency is another accusation, and although AWP is pretty transparent about the number of applicants to panels and who is on them, for some, it's never enough. How many questions should they ask? I'm going to offer some suggestions. First of all, as someone who is 50% Jewish, I want to know just how Jewish AWP is. How many Jews apply to panels? How many Jews have worked at the office, not counting the accountant? Is there any level of anti-Semitism going on at AWP? With some added queries, we can nail down the Jewish question.

"Of course, I want to know about gender preference diversity as well. How gay is AWP? I would say that I'm about 30% gay, that percentage accounting for all the time with girls before I started dating guys and which I'd be happy to return to if the need arises. We could simply ask applicants, how gay are you? If the person is confused, AWP could lay out some questions to help tease out the truth. If you are a female and not sure if you're gay, think about this. Did you attend Smith or Reed? How many pairs of Doc Martens do you have? Have you seen the movie Bound more than once? If male, do you attend musicals regularly? Do you have a large Barbara [sic] Streisand collection? Do you shop at Crate and Barrel?"

The response has been intense, with many AWP members saying that Gale used stereotypes to belittle those pushing for more diversity.

The poet C. Dale Young wrote on his blog: "Kate Gale, managing editor of Red Hen Press, gives us the very model of white privilege in her discussion of AWP and the fact various minority groups ask questions about it. We should all just pay money, shut up and take it."

Peter LeBerge, a student at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote an open letter to Gale Tuesday at The Adroit Journal. Wrote LeBerge, "Okay, aside from the alarming stereotypes flagrantly used in the above excerpt of your letter (Barbra Streisand? Jewish accountants? At least be original if you’re going to rely on stereotypes to make your feeble argument seem a bit less feeble) and the seemingly supreme misunderstanding of sexual orientation displayed here, there’s the simple fact that as minorities -- as members of color, as members across the expansive spectrum of gender and sexual orientation, as female members or members of a particular religion -- we don’t, and never would, strive to host 'black panels,' nor 'gay panels,' nor 'Jewish panels' (etc.) in a world in which all voices are given equal respect and weight. We do not strive to be tokenized, to be labeled in the way you have labeled us."

Numerous comments on social media are criticizing Gale and AWP. Gale did not respond to a request for comment. Nor did the board chair or executive director of AWP.

The makeup of the committee on which Gale serves has already been controversial this year. In May, the AWP kicked Vanessa Place, a prominent and sometimes controversial poet, off the committee for the association's 2016 meeting. The association acted after many members pushed for Place's removal because of her Twitter account (now private) on which, as of May, she was posting, line by line, the text of the novel Gone With the Wind.


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