The Promises and Perils of Higher Education: Our Discipline’s Commitment to Diversity, Equity, and Linguistic Justice
2022 CCCC Annual Convention
March 9–12, 2022
Program Chair: Staci M. Perryman-Clark, Western Michigan University
Why are you here?
“Why are you here” was the name of the first college writing assignment I ever assigned as I began my career as a graduate teaching assistant and writing teacher. As I continue to assign personal narratives in first-year writing, I often think about that first assignment. I think about and remember some of the responses students have submitted over the years, ranging from suicide attempts to coming out to stories of racism and implicit/explicit biases about writing abilities based on broad strokes and simplistic assumptions about race, class, and gender.
Given that it has been a while since we have been able to gather in person, and given that the COVID-19 pandemic has forever changed what it means to gather for a convention and what it means to have a conference for the dissemination of research, scholarship, and the widest range of creative activities, I now ask the question, “Why are we here?”
To answer this question, we have to be honest about what we mean by “here.” The location of “here” suggests a sense of belonging. It suggests access. It suggests invitations: Some people will be invited; some will not. Others will accept the invitation; others will decline. With the suggestion of invitations, I recognize that systems of power and privilege enable certain folks to send the invitations and vet guest lists, determining who is worth inviting and who is not. And even for those worthy enough to make the guest list, not all guests will necessarily appreciate one another’s presence. In 2011, with my ride-or-die colleague Collin Craig, I wrote “Troubling the Boundaries: (De)constructing WPA Identities at the Intersections of Race and Gender,” in which we grappled with our first experience attending the Council of Writing Program Administrators (CWPA) conference. While we were invited to present our work, which ironically focused on the intersections of race and gender in writing program administration, we were perceived as being out of place because very few Black people attended this conference. In short, our invitation and sense of belonging were questioned.
Fast forward to more than a decade later. Despite being an active member of a scholarly community as well as an academic administrator, my sense of belonging continues to be questioned. I could share the many times I’ve been excluded from key meetings with leaders or the microaggressions I experienced just by my mere existence as juxtaposed with leadership and the authority to make decisions. But I won’t. Not here. Instead, I will simply state that as representatives of a discipline, we bear tremendous responsibility for the gatekeeping practices we employ and who we decide to and decide not to invite to our disciplinary conversations. Now is the time for us to hold ourselves accountable for the gate entry and gatekeeping we practice with our students and each other. For if we don’t, not only will our ethical reputation be at stake but we also risk being so exclusive that our relevance becomes extinct and shifting demographics may potentially lead to a decline in the membership we once treasured, protected, and justified the exclusivity of in the spirit of protecting rigor and the academic integrity of writing studies.
Now it’s time to flip the script, and it just so happens that we got da time today.
Consider the invitation our students receive when they apply for admission to the institutions where we teach. Instead of considering the admissions team as the gatekeepers for postsecondary entrance and instead of considering our introductory writing courses as gatekeepers to advanced writing courses, however, let’s position students as the gatekeepers to higher education enrollment. Let’s consider the following facts: (1) There are fewer high school graduates, and the rate of high school graduation continues to decline (Nadworny 2019); (2) postsecondary enrollment has continued to decline since 2011 (Nadworny 2019; Nietzel 2019); (3) in 2017–2018, whites comprised the minority of college enrollment for the first time; and (4) despite the fact that the pool of Black and Latinx 18-year-olds in the US is not shrinking at the same rate as the pool of white 18-year-olds, especially in regions like the Midwest and Northeast, Black enrollment has fallen sharply since 2017 (Miller 2020). Given these sobering statistics, students are now making choices about whether or not they want to enroll in a postsecondary institution, making competition among postsecondary institutions keen with more pressure being put on chief marketing and recruitment/enrollment officers to sell the optimal college experience to prospective students.
Given enrollment challenges, as a discipline that is committed to the teaching of postsecondary instruction, we can no longer be exclusive about what writing belongs and which writings belong in our classrooms. In making this claim, I acknowledge the 2020 Annual Convention call proposed by Holly Hassel that asked us to consider access and its relationship to what we do as writing teachers; however, I would like to think more about the relationship between access, enrollment, and relevance. As a discipline, how do we remain relevant? How do we use the work that we have done with access to make the case for postsecondary enrollment to prospective students? What does college writing instruction promise to do for students who have the choice to attend/not to attend college? And what are the perils of not making our case?
When we think of inclusive spaces, Julie Lindquist reminded us in her 2020 call that “teaching inclusively is (only) a matter of teaching ‘about’ diversity, rather than a matter of creating storied learning experiences, or making good on the ones students have. That our primary activity is ‘teaching’ rather than creating learning opportunities for students. That ‘learning’ is an experience that entails only gains, and never losses.” Given this, we must think about the promises and perils of what higher education offers by rethinking how we examine “inclusive” spaces, particularly when we think about student access, teaching, and learning—all commonplace themes in higher education discourse. In the spirit of inclusivity, how do we practice diversity in our teaching—I mean, how do we really practice diversity as opposed to simply teaching about it? And how do our practices afford opportunities to both teach and model inclusivity as well as offer spaces to learn from the wide and diverse range of experiences that students bring with them when they enroll in higher education more broadly and in our writing courses more specifically.
It is clear that given the shifting demographics of college students who enroll in higher education, we can no longer think about diversity and inclusion as abstract concepts or as buzzwords strategically placed in writing program descriptions or on university webpages. Nor can we rely only on the language of our CCCC mission statement, particularly its first sentence that marks CCCC as “committed to supporting the agency, power, and potential of diverse communicators inside and outside of postsecondary classrooms” (emphasis added). While eloquently stated, our mission must critically examine the material and physical realities of those whom we invite to our community. While we have always had ethical obligations to consider access and equity in whom we invite to partake in our disciplinary conversations, we no longer have the fortune of relying on language alone to send the message of an organization that purports to be welcoming, inviting, and hence, inclusive. Even if sincere and genuine in our language, there is no guarantee that students will accept our lip service—let alone our invitation to higher education or our discipline.
Therefore, it is time to think beyond diversity by also revisiting what our discipline historically and presently means about equity and inclusion. Beyond the invitation, how do we really know our pedagogical practices are equitable? How do we really know that our disciplinary practices are equitable? As a field, what evidence have we produced up until this point, what evidence do we need to present, and what evidence might we already have concerning areas for equitable improvement? Put simply, given our historical past, present, and future, where do we go from here? How do we make CCCC a more equitable organization, and how do we take our understanding (old and new) of equity to shape enrollment, teaching, and learning in higher education?
As Julie Lindquist also reminded us in her 2020 Annual Convention call, “What is going well, of course, is the strength and resolve of our organization as a countervailing force in national and local conversations about educational access, adult literacy, rhetorical ethics, and cultural and social diversity. We know that our work as members of CCCC has a renewed exigency and a new urgency.” Given this, I second the exigency and urgency to use what we know about diversity and equity in the pursuit of social justice. Social justice, though, is not a term I use lightly. For me, social justice has life or death consequences. For instance, at my home institution, Western Michigan University, an African American student recently died after contracting coronavirus. Even more recently, a former African American student was shot to death by a security guard in a mental health facility. Placed in relation to recent statistics that acknowledge racial inequities associated with healthcare and coronavirus death (Center for Disease Control 2020; Godoy and Wood, 2020) in addition to the many, many examples of unarmed killings of Black and Brown citizens (far too many to list in this space), I submit that as writing teachers and educators we have a deeper responsibility to commit to social justice.
Perhaps one might see the connections from the examples I just shared in relation to higher education enrollment; however, we must also begin and continue to take a more active role as a discipline in our commitment to social justice: It really is a life and death issue. As Asao B. Inoue (2019) reminded us in his coda, “Assessing English So That People Stop Killing Each Other,” labor-based contract grading practices enable us to critique and resist dominant power and discourses. More specifically, in terms of survival, labor-based contract grading allows opportunities to resist white language supremacy, and, in essence, resist white supremacy in the pursuit of social justice because “they create sustainable and liveable [sic] conditions for locally diverse students and teachers to do antiracist, anti-White supremacist, and other social justice language work, conditions that are much harder to have when writing is graded on so-called quality or by some single standard, and when students’ labors are not fully recognized and valued” (p. 306). Anticipating readers’ potential responses that social justice in writing assessment might be an extreme and far-fetched leap from survival, Inoue further proposes that we rethink survival and killing in the following way:
Do standards in English writing classrooms kill people? Hmm. Maybe a better question is this: In a world of police brutality against Black and Brown people in the US, of border walls and regressive and harmful immigration policies, of increasing violence against Muslims, of women losing their rights to the control their own bodies, of overt White supremacy, of mass shootings in schools, of blatant refusals to be compassionate to the hundreds of thousands of refugees around the world, where do we really think this violence, discord, and killing starts? (p. 306)
When reframing the question in the way Inoue suggests, we can understand how those who judge language from a white-supremacist framework are also and often the same folks who make gatekeeping decisions about justice, decisions that have life and death consequences. Even more recently, April Baker-Bell reminds us that peaking mainstream white English has not enabled a single unarmed Black body to be spared from being murdered by police. In fact, as Baker-Bell (2020) tells it,
If y’all actually believe that using “standard English” will dismantle white supremacy, then you not paying attention! If we, as teachers, truly believe that code-switching will dismantle white supremacy, we have a problem. If we honestly believe that code-switching will save Black people’s lives, then we really ain’t paying attention to what’s happening in the world. Eric Garner was choked to death by a police officer while saying “I cannot breathe.” Wouldn’t you consider “I cannot breathe” “standard English” syntax? (p. 5)
Earlier in this call, I suggested that it is time to flip the script, meaning that it is time to consider the ways in which students are the arbiters of their fates and are the ones positioned as decision makers. Inoue’s discussion of labor-based contract grading affords us one of many ways we might flip the script to afford students decision-granting authority over their futures and lives. Baker-Bell’s ethnographic research on how Black students offer “counterstories” that position their voices as central to dismantling “Anti-Black Linguistic Racism” offers us another example of a way in which students flip the script, reclaim their time, and make decisions about the education for which they are willing and/or unwilling to pay. Given these historical moments in time and higher education, we have no choice but to see students as decision makers over their lives and futures. Granting that authority, then, is one of many ways that we can use our roles as higher education educators to pursue social justice.
Therefore, I invite you to consider how you promise to educate students in the pursuit of social justice. What are the perils for not doing so? How might our physical location and space of the conference in the city of Chicago provide us with a unique opportunity to consider diversity, equity, and social justice as essential and foundational to what we do as writing teachers? What specifically can we learn from the demographics of Chicago about social justice that we can bring back to our own local campuses? And how does the city itself become an invitation for writing teachers to consider the implications of our work as connected to the greater work of higher education? As we consider this invitation and our willingness to accept it, given the higher education landscape, we must also ask not only, “Why are we here?” but also, “Given that we are now here, how does higher education survive? How do we as a discipline survive?
Perhaps our survival might take the form of resistance; Malea Powell (2002) has long argued through rhetorics of survivance a survival that “imagines resistance and survival in the face of violent assimilation strategies” (p. 404). As a field, then, we must resist assimilationist tropes of access including the violence imposed on acquiring edited American English as a life skill. Further, we must also understand that our ability to advocate for resistance in pursuit of social justices also rests on our own survival, for if we do not create welcoming spaces for inclusion, our students will resist our invitations. Without students, not only do our institutions not survive, but we also risk survival as a field.
But, really, it ain’t enough for us to just survive. As much as I am interested in survival, I am also interested in establishing a high quality of life. Put simply, I want us to thrive! I want us to innovate. Vershawn Ashanti Young’s 2019 CCCC CFP identifies our field as a living body by asking us what might happen if we “think of rhetoric and composition as live, as embodied actions, as behaviors, yes, as performances inside of one pod—our discipline—that lead to the creation of texts, to presentations, that invite mo performances and certainly mo co-performances.” Echoing Young, I ask us to think of our work as a living entity that impacts and shapes the future of education for students across a wide range of institutional contexts. And I want us to create hope and promise for how our work impacts higher education’s future in the most innovative and exciting of ways. I want to us to dream and reimagine what we might become.
Proposals for CCCC 2022
Regardless of role or session type, proposals will be judged based on the following criteria:
- connects teaching and learning in postsecondary writing to larger issues of higher education enrollment and access;
- promotes and/or advances diversity, equity, and inclusion, especially for historically oppressed populations, in pursuit of social and/or linguistic justice;
- is situated within current and relevant scholarship or research in the field;
- reflects an awareness of audience needs relevant to the topic; and
- demonstrates a clear and specific plan that aligns with the criteria for the selected session type.
In essence, I want an institution, an organization, and a convention that is all the way live, an “event that is extremely lively, exciting, dynamic. Also live” (Smitherman, 2006, p. 21).
As you consider this call, I leave you with a final word from my academic mother, Geneva Smitherman, a word that builds on past wisdom of our elders as we reimagine the future: “As I have learned from the elders and sacrifices of many thousands gone, the role of the linguist—indeed the role of all scholars and intellectuals—is not just to understand the world, but to change it” (p. 145).
I very much look forward to gathering with you all together in person in Chicago in 2022!
Staci M. Perryman-Clark
2022 Program Chair
1. Pedagogy (#Pedagogy)
1. First-Year and Advanced Composition
1. First-Year and Basic Writing
1. First-Year Writing
1. First-Year Writing
Baker-Bell, April. Linguistic Justice: Black Language, Literacy, Identity and Pedagogy. Routledge, 2020.
Center for Disease Control. “Health Equity Considerations and Racial and Ethnic Groups.” www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/health-equity/race-ethnicity.html.
Craig, Collin Lamont, and Staci Maree Perryman-Clark. “Troubling the Boundaries: (De)Constructing WPA Identities at the Intersections of Race and Gender.” WPA: Writing Program Administration, vol. 34, no. 2, 2011, pp. 37–58.
Godoy, Maria, and Daniel Wood. “What Do Coronavirus Racial Disparities Look Like State by State?” NPR, 2020, www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2020/05/30/865413079/what-do-coronavirus-racial-disparities-look-like-state-by-state.
Inoue, Asao B. Labor-Based Grading Contracts: Building Equity and Inclusion in the Compassionate Writing Classroom. WAC Clearinghouse, 2019.
Miller, Ben. “It’s Time to Worry About College Enrollment Declines Among Black Students.” Center for American Progress, 2020, www.americanprogress.org/issues/education-postsecondary/reports/2020/09/28/490838/time-worry-college-enrollment-declines-among-black-students/.
Nadworny, Lisa. “Fewer Students Are Going to College. Here’s Why That Matters.” NPR, 2019, www.npr.org/2019/12/16/787909495/fewer-students-are-going-to-college-heres-why-that-matters.
Nietzel, Michael. “College Enrollment Declines Again. It’s Down More Than Two Million Students in This Decade.” Forbes, 2019, www.forbes.com/sites/michaeltnietzel/2019/12/16/college-enrollment-declines-again-its-down-more-than-two-million-students-in-this-decade/?sh=3b9d012b3d95.
Powell, Malea. “Rhetorics of Survivance: How American Indians Use Writing.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 53, no. 3, Feb. 2002, 396–434.
Smitherman, Geneva. Word from the Mother: Language and African Americans. Routledge, 2006.