More Than Hateful Words

Racist writing instructor's Listserv post prompts debate about the future of the field and how scholars communicate with one another.

March 28, 2019
 
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Scholars and teachers of writing are on the front lines of demographic and other shifts in higher education. They face students with increasingly varied backgrounds and Englishes, and they’re tasked with preparing students to communicate across an increasing variety of platforms, genres and audiences.

For many of these instructors, the Writing Program Administration Listserv, or WPA-L, is an invaluable resource for disciplinary news, opportunities, advice and research. It’s also a kind of community for the many writing scholars who work in temporary academic positions off the tenure track.

So an anonymous post referencing the Ku Klux Klan has jarred Listserv subscribers -- some of whom now want the list to be formally moderated, or moved altogether. Many have left the list. Other subscribers say this most recent post is only an overt example of the everyday racism that happens on the Listserv.

Others still oppose moderation of the list and insist on the online community’s ability to continue to informally moderate itself -- disposing of hate speech when and where it happens.

Whose English?

The anonymous troll’s KKK-inspired post was sparked by online discussions about this month’s Conference on College Composition and Communication convention in Pittsburgh -- specifically an address by Asao Inoue, professor of interdisciplinary arts and sciences and director of University Writing and the Writing Center at the University of Washington at Tacoma.

The current conference chair, Inoue in his speech talked about the “market of white language preferences in schools” and “freedom from white language supremacy.”

Inoue researches racism in language and has proposed labor-based grading contracts instead of assessing students based on single standard rooted in standardized English. To his colleagues, he said, “I stand up here today asking everyone to listen, to see, to know you as you are, to stop saying shit about injustice while doing jack shit about it. We are all needed in this project, this fight, this work, these labors. But because most in the room, in our disciplines, are white, I have to speak to them too, many of whom sit on their hands, with love in their hearts, but stillness in their bodies.” [Emphasis is Inoue’s, from a version of his speech he posted online.]

Urging white professors present to “sit in discomfort,” Inoue argued that by using a “single standard to grade your students’ languaging, you engage in racism. You actively promote white language supremacy, which is the handmaiden to white bias in the world.” That kind of bias, he also argued, is the very kind that “kills black men on the streets by the hands of the police through profiling and good ol’ fashion [sic] prejudice.”

Inoue’s own language was unusually (and purposefully strong), but it brought to the fore questions composition instructors face all the time: how, and if, to push students with locally diverse ways of speaking and writing toward a single register. What’s gained -- and lost -- when a student learns the way she and her family have spoken together all her life isn’t “correct”?

A Troll in the List

Thoughtful discussions, including praise and criticism of the talk, followed on the Listserv. But then someone identifying him or herself as the “Grand Scholar Wizard” -- a clear reference to “Grand Wizard,” or KKK leader -- weighed in.

“The stakes in this field aren’t that high in the big scheme of things,” wrote the pseudonymous commenter. “When each are finished and gone, you’ll still be able to passionately talk about, or bitch and moan about, or mentally masturbate all over others’ ideas, their shitty analyses, embodiment, identity politics, and any other thing your heart desires.”

Subscribers immediately flagged the post, but the damage was done. As the National Council of Teachers of English/CCCC’s Jewish Caucus said in a statement, “Whether the use of KKK rhetoric on the WPA-L was genuine, sarcastic, strategic or performative, we reject it as deeply hurtful and harmful.”

To Inoue’s points, the Jewish Caucus also wrote, “As compositionists, rhetoricians and teacher educators, we are uniquely qualified to examine the ways in which words represent and disseminate ideologies. We know that rhetorics, languages and pedagogies can be liberatory; we also know that they can marginalize, oppress and silence.” It’s “part of our work to explore how our classrooms, our professional organizations, our scholarship and our discipline continue to promulgate hegemonic beliefs about language, communication and writing that perpetuate the marginalization of so many of our members, colleagues and students.”

A Moderation Proposal

Along with similar denunciations, the troll’s email inspired a movement to moderate the Listserv. Those behind this push point to ongoing racism and sexism on the list, such as critical responses to a discussion about whether to hold the 2018 CCCC convention in Missouri following an NAACP travel warning about police actions against people of color in that state. (The meeting did take place there.) The Twitter hashtag #wpalistfeministrevolution was also created in response to what women on the Listserv have called frequent “mansplaining” from their male colleagues.

Iris Ruiz, lecturer in writing and Chicano studies at the University of California, Merced, is one of the organizers of the moderation proposal and accompanying petition. That proposal calls for a WPA moderation board, which would not have to approve every post but which would monitor active posts and “have the capability to remove posts that violate the established guidelines.”

Proposed guidelines include those on tone (keeping it thoughtful and considerate), content (avoiding “copy pasta,” trolling, harassment and declarations of opinion without context) and warnings. "Any content or activity that disrupts, interrupts, harms, or otherwise violates the integrity of the WPA-L or another user's experience or devices is prohibited," the proposal reads. Repeat violators may get a warning. Multiple warnings may lead to suspensions. Suspensions might lead to bans.

Ruiz, who has previously written about her experiences feeling marginalized at the CCCC conference, said Wednesday that the some posters “continue to devalue the perspectives of people of color on this list.”

Others don’t like the idea of moderation as much as removing clear hate speech and possibly banning repeat offenders.

Jill Dahlman, an assistant professor of English at the University of North Alabama, said in an online discussion that “We need to hear all voices lest we risk becoming those we abhor because we only listen to one voice.”

Dahlman added, “We can continue to police ourselves, and if necessary, remove repeat offenders. Listening to differing viewpoints is vitally important, especially in a world filled with division.”

The End of the List?

There are simultaneous discussions about “moving” the list somewhere else. A number of graduate students effectively did this last year. That's when they started the nextGEN Listserv over concerns similar to those being voiced now. In a November “Listserv to Listserv” open letter, nextGEN encouraged WPA-L and the broader writing discipline to “listen and remain mindful toward personal growth and the expansion of your horizons of knowledge-building practices as we build more inclusive spaces.” Specifically, nextGEN asked that WPA-Lers “apologize for what was said, not for how it was perceived,” “acknowledge and appreciate that someone shared their perspective with you,” and “make a plan to educate yourself and those around you about that perspective, without placing additional burden on those who may have been harmed by your language and/or behavior.”

James Eubanks, a graduate student in English at the University of Alabama who prefers nextGEN to WPA-L, said that as a student of color, the latter “has never really felt like a particularly welcoming space.” A few months ago, for example, he said, the phrase "digital lynching" was used by a white man to describe another white man being criticized online.

As to moderation, Eubanks said he thought there should be “some mechanism to engender accountability.”

“I'm not entirely sold on a system that every message flows through, as I think there is a possibility of exploitation,” he said. But "there should be requirements like names to post, and a set of guidelines that posters should follow. And the removal of hate speech is a definite requirement in my eyes.”

On moving the Listserv somewhere else, Eubanks said he’s not sure he’d "bother with the hassle. All my mentors and peers suggested I stay off it, but I tend to like to know what I'm dealing with.”

Dave Schwalm, professor emeritus of English at Arizona State University, founded the Listserv in 1991, when writing studies was still an emerging field and considered to be a “duty” of many English departments. Things have changed from when he advertised the platform as a “national computer-based bulletin board” with about 150 subscribers, he said. (Today there are about 4,000 subscribers, though many accounts are probably inactive.)

Growth aside, it’s “clear from the outbursts that we had two or three times in the last couple of months that there were a lot of people who felt excluded and insulted by what was going on on the list,” Schwalm said. “Clearly, this list was not addressing topics of concern to a significant number of members who quite rightly and courageously are letting us know.”

Yet these issues are “fundamental” ones that go the “very roots of intellectual endeavor in all academic disciplines,” he said. “They go way beyond the scope initially envisioned for WPA-L. Whether they can be resolved to any degree on WPA-L will really depend on the willingness of participants to make it happen.”

Finding a new home for the discussion “might be a good idea,” Schwalm said, “but that in itself will not make much difference. Monitoring the discussions and enforcing generally agreed-upon guidelines is a good idea, but it requires a lot of compromise" to make it work.

“It may be a good opportunity to find out who was right, Hobbes or Locke," he added.

Lessons for the Field

And what about Inoue’s argument, which also transcends Listserv logistics? Dan Melzer, first-year composition associate director at the University of California, Davis, said there’s a “long and rich tradition of teachers and scholars in writing studies and linguistics working against the idea that there is a single, standard English that writing teachers should impose on students.”

Scholars such as Inoue “and countless others have shown that our diverse students bring a variety of linguistic strengths that aren't recognized when teachers think of literacy as a limited set of standards and inflexible rules based on rhetorical traditions that were created by privileged white males,” Melzer said.

Students also face a future that requires “communicating in global Englishes, working across languages and cultures, and integrating multiple types of literacies to multiple audiences for multiple purposes," he said. So teaching a traditional, standardized version of English “not only ignores the linguistic and rhetorical assets diverse students bring to our classrooms,” but also puts students at a disadvantage as 21st-century communicators.

Melzer, who is white, said that he and other white scholars, teachers and writing program administrators have a responsibility to “constantly interrogate our own visible and invisible privileges" and to "educate ourselves by keeping up with the scholarship on language and cultural pluralism in writing studies.”

Inoue said Wednesday that he's asking teachers and others, when it comes to judging language, "not to give up a personal standard but to be compassionate to others -- that is a harder thing to do."

"We have to see, and hear and feel just exactly how others around us use English differently, and accept those differences, not as some deviation to an arbitrary standard that is maintained by a white, middle class elite, but as the way people actually do language, the way language has to be done on a daily basis by real people in real circumstances for real purposes," he said. Language "always responds to people’s conditions in life, and it will continue to do so. That’s its nature."

And just because "I don’t use a dominant standard to grade my students’ writing doesn’t mean that we don’t look at that standard in our classroom, or consider judgments using it (we do)," Inoue added via email. "I just don’t use it against them. We also consider other kinds of standards -- that’s the only way one can be critical of our own rhetorical and linguistic choices, critical of the linguistic and rhetorical structures we each are and have been habituated to over our lifetimes."

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