Our Secret Resource For Liberal Education

White Rose Magazine.

EARLY in the semester in my Composition Theory seminar at California State University, we were reading a scholarly text on “black English” and “students’ right to their own language.” That week, two students in the course came to see me during office hours and, with some hesitation, politely told me that the book we were discussing was ridiculous. Both of them had gone to historically black colleges as undergraduates; they said they would never have been told to write papers or participate in class discussions in the way the authors advised, by using their familiar “home dialect” rather than standard English.  Although “students’ right to their own language” is explained as honoring different dialects and traditions by encouraging students to communicate in any way they find most comfortable, often as a transition to writing in “standardized English,” the two students in my office objected that this was a condescending idea and a colossal waste of time. 

They had a point. Our campus was certainly diverse, with many speakers not only of different dialects but different languages. Yet, in my own writing courses in which I always had students revise drafts of their papers, I had never suggested that they write in a “home” language or dialect. Of course, there’s a difference between theory and practice. Yet, my seminar was a prerequisite for teaching a first-year writing course and these theories, which I found interesting as theories, were meant to guide and influence future teachers. 

Looking back, that seminar was an early step in my own coming to terms with the direction the humanities had already been taking for some time as it moved away from liberal and liberatory education and scholarship toward the almost completely politicized situation we have now. We can argue that education has always been political, that I became concerned when I didn’t like the political direction in which we seemed to be going. Yet, I do think there is more to it.  The goals themselves have changed. Rather than educating to build an informed citizenry, we have entered an era of constraining dogma in which there is little to no room for free thought; where everything is political; where the goal of building an informed citizenry has been replaced by an environment in which thinking for oneself is not promoted.

Evidence of this distressing and often Orwellian situation abounds. Asian Americans began taking universities to court when they realized that admission practices had for years made it more difficult for Asians than for any other group to be accepted by top universities—because Asian students did so well in high school.  According to the ideology of “equity,” Asians are “overrepresented” and therefore their admission to universities should be limited to their percentage of the population. Such maneuvers used to be called discrimination

Jews are also an overrepresented group at universities, but they have been labeled “white” and are facing a different form of discrimination. They are pretty much under siege at many universities where anti-Semitism is becoming normalized, often in the name of anti-Israelism. 

Anti-Semitism at the City University of New York has gone unchecked in spite of many complaints and vast evidence while any sign of bias against a “protected group” is  quickly addressed. Ironically, until the 1960s Jews were not allowed into some of the Ivy League schools and consequently contributed mightily to the CUNY system. 

For many decades, Ethnic Studies courses taught at universities expanded the curriculum in positive ways. They added more choices for assigned readings, developed new topics to be studied, and gave attention to a wide range of ideas and cultures. But academic scholarship is always pushing at whatever boundaries are currently in place. And the current iteration of Ethnic Studies that is grounded in Critical Race Theory (CRT) and enforced by offices of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) actually advocates against inclusiveness. It sets up an antagonistic environment focused on race that Martin Luther King Jr. would have decried. And the training and curriculum demanded by DEI are never ending. It never arrives at a stage where racism can be diminished. 

However, all may not be lost.  Many objections have been raised by teachers, parents, and students to the educational and societal harm of requiring courses based on Critical Race Theory in public school classrooms. As of this writing, seven states have actually banned CRT,  and in another 16 states legislative bills have been introduced to do so. At the same time, for those who live in states where such measures are extremely unlikely to appear, we still have a (secret) resource for preserving liberal education: our own classrooms. 

This ray of optimism comes from my years directing our campus Writing Center. The Writing Center gave me a window into course assignments in many academic disciplines as well as experience navigating conflicting views of what it means to educate. The extent to which the following strategies are useful may depend on your teaching situation, on how much job security you have, on your own temperament, and on the degree to which DEI is influencing your campus. At the same time, I do not think it is possible to teach effectively unless we believe that what we are teaching is helpful and true.  

Closing the door

The Writing Center offered help and advice to any student working on a paper in any discipline. I trained new tutors in a semester-long seminar, and these students began tutoring two weeks into the term. Along with tutoring, the paid, experienced tutors managed the logistics of making appointments, keeping the center open, and helping new tutors.  I did not think that our goals were controversial: to encourage critical thinking; to help students learn what counts as evidence in different fields; to use the act of writing as a way of making sense of complex issues; and to understand that writing requires revision and rethinking. 

And yet, our goals conflicted with what both students and some faculty expected of the Writing Center: an error-free paper. At first, I advertised our goals letting faculty know that tutors did not rewrite or edit papers. Instead, students and tutors talked over the assignments, read through drafts aloud, and discussed a plan for the student’s continued work on the paper. Although tutors did address what we called “surface features” of a text, they kept the focus on the content of the writing. 

My explanations only made the situation worse and even led to a temporary drop in faculty recommending students to make use of the Writing Center. In time, I learned simply to listen to complaints and then carry on as usual. 

Likewise, classrooms are still under the leadership of the teacher. And, while Critical Race Theory may be required in a school, our classrooms are likely to be more under our control than DEI trainings want us to believe. In the tutor training course, I made a ritual of closing the classroom door and saying something like “Ok, tutors. The door is closed. Lets talk about what’s really happening in the Writing Center.” 

A sense of community

The Writing Center thrived in part because it belonged to the students. No faculty conducted tutoring sessions, and I had managed to work around the idea of some professors that students should be required to come to the Writing Center. We made efforts to advertise the availability of tutoring to departments across the campus but we kept attendance voluntary. And the Center itself became a meeting place for tutors and students. Several times during the semester we held events in the Writing Center. Always, there was a lot of food; sometimes we had poetry readings or music performances, and tutors from past semesters also came to the parties.  During regular teaching days, the tutor staff room was usually crowded with “off duty” tutors visiting with each other or working on their own assignments. On a commuter campus like ours, it was a special privilege to be part of the Writing Center.

Clearly, a writing center, especially one where students came for tutoring voluntarily, differs in significant ways from a classroom.  Yet, creating a sense of community in a classroom, as we were able to do in the Writing Center, may be more important now than ever before.  A major objection many have to CRT is that it is divisive, that it pits groups against each other based on immutable categories of race, and that such divisiveness has been given new life and even status. 

Classrooms can certainly foster positive interaction among students. Many disciplines lend themselves to collaborative student research and to group projects. And even in a lecture course, a few moments devoted to some interactive and community-building activities can mitigate against divisiveness that may be occurring in other parts of the curriculum. One of my favorite, very quick exercises at the beginning of the semester was to ask students to turn to someone sitting nearby and see how many things they could find that they had in common. A few minutes more spent hearing some of their findings was time well spent. K-12 teachers have many such strategies for classroom engagement that university faculty can also use as a way of mitigating against divisiveness. 

Making a risk assessment

Although students came to the Writing Center expecting tutors to fix their papers for them, they were quite willing to return for subsequent sessions because the tutors did give useful advice. Yet students’ biggest concern, one that has only become more extreme with the demands of DEI, was to make sure they were taking the correct position in their papers, that they said whatever it was they were supposed to say.  Although this concern actually conflicted with the ethos of the Writing Center to help students think through the ideas of assigned texts for themselves, when we looked at the required readings, at the assignments, and at times even at course descriptions, it was clear that often students were right. There was an expected political point of view inherent in many of the assignments. Now a political position is inherent in entire disciplines. 

If students wanted to write against what appeared to be the expected dogma, we recommended a kind of risk assessment of their situation in the course. How many more papers would there be that could offset a possible low grade? How open-minded did the teacher seem to be? How well are you doing in the course so far? How important is this issue to you? We didn’t encourage or discourage but tried to help the student decide. 

At this point, unfortunately, teachers may also need a version of the risk assessment as well, a way of choosing our battles strategically. Long before Critical Race Theory, faculty had been limited by set goals of required courses, clearly more so in public schools than at universities. And yet every discipline is interpreted by individual instructors and taught within our own teaching styles, based on our own decisions about how to teach and what to emphasize.  

The Writing Center I have just described is decidedly old-school. Writing Center scholarship and therefore tutor training have included and promoted CRT for some time. For Critical Race Theory is in no way limited to single courses; rather, it is a strategy to be used in every discipline and at every grade level. Can we offer an old-school, more positive classroom to our students? I believe we have to try.

Originally published in White Rose Magazine.

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