Conversation Shaper: Exploring Efforts to Enact Linguistic Justice at Writing Centers

Kathy Yan, University of Rochester
Faith Thompson, Salisbury University

Opening Statement

For many students from marginalized backgrounds, the idealized and mythical concept of “Standard English” (see Greenfield, 2011, among many others) excludes and disregards their language and sense of identity. These students are often further marginalized in academic spaces due to linguistic oppression and continued racist stereotyping (Hudley & Mallison, 2018). This rejection and ignorance towards dialectical and global Englishes, especially in educational and professional writing, has shaped the conceptualization of American Academic English. Further, speakers of marginalized languages may be judged by their proximity to whiteness relative to language use, and their ability to code-switch into what Baker-Bell (2020) terms White Mainstream Language. In particular, speakers of Black language have experienced epistemological violence through linguistic discrimination (Alim & Smitherman, 2012) and eradicationist pedagogies (Baker-Bell, 2020). 

The concept of Linguistic Justice (Baker-Bell, 2020), the disruption of racism, white hegemony, and white supremacy in language education, has gained popularity as an inclusive pedagogy for the language practices of marginalized students. Although writing center scholarship has long taken up the call for Linguistic Justice (e.g., the 1974 Students Right to Their Own Language statement issued by the Conference on College Composition and Communication; Young’s 2010 work on code-meshing, etc.) recent work emphasizes code-meshing (e.g., Hutchinson & Morris, 2020), educating tutors on the connections between language and identity (e.g., Daut & Rebe, 2022), and challenging the long-standing “fix the writing; fix the writer” mentality (e.g., Basta & Smith, 2022). While we can only speculate why the issue of linguistic discrimination has received more scholarly attention since 2020 (e.g., the 2022 theme for the Conference on College Composition and Communication was “The Promises and Perils of Higher Education: Our Discipline’s Commitment to Diversity, Equity, and Linguistic Justice”), this shift correlates with a broader emphasis on racial justice from American higher education institutions in the aftermath of the police murder of George Floyd (Castillo Jiménez, 2021). 

This conversation shaper aims to define the current landscape of Linguistic Justice in writing centers. Both theory and praxis are necessary considerations for writing centers as they establish their position on supporting and including speakers of marginalized dialects in the broader setting of academia. For the purposes of this conversation shaper, we have limited our review to literature addressing linguistic discrimination towards speakers of marginalized English dialects. Multilingual and non-English speaking students face linguistic discrimination, eradicationist pedagogies, and epistemic violence daily. However, a discussion on the experiences of users of marginalized non-English languages is outside of the scope of this conversation shaper and, more importantly, worthy of its own bibliography. Here, we first present literature regarding writing centers’ efforts to approach language through a linguistic and social justice perspective. Next, we center the voices of those enacting such efforts—tutors themselves. We conclude with a discussion of how writing centers can operationalize Linguistic Justice concepts in their daily work with students. 

Our positionalities are worth noting as we join the broader conversations of Linguistic Justice at writing centers. I am Kathy, currently working as an undergraduate tutor in a Predominantly White Institution (PWI) and I am a second generation Chinese American. I recognize that while I grew up speaking a different language, my English has been assimilated from a very young age by a white school system. As an undergraduate writing center tutor, I also serve a mix of multilingual and multidialectal students. The concept of Linguistic Justice came up during my training and has followed me around my tutoring sessions as well as in the different social science spaces I learn from. I find myself questioning and struggling with how to preserve and recognize student voices while allowing students to accomplish their goals under the pressures of school. Taking on this project has felt like a first step that allowed me to reflect and grow, inspired by methods that others are employing across the country. Faith is a former graduate writing center tutor at a Predominantly White Institution (PWI), and identifies as a white female. My linguistic style and choices are often heard as standardized or correct for academia. I recognize that while I do not face linguistic discrimination, my liberation is bound up with others’ liberation, and, thus, I work to actively dismantle linguistic hierarchies in my work. As a writing center tutor, I served a mostly multilingual and multidialectal, racially diverse population, and graduate students I worked with often felt the pressure of publications and their advisors to remove various linguistic features from writing. Feeling this pressure myself, I struggled between the desire to help students meet their professors’ and publishers’ expectations and the desire to support students in finding their own voice. Reading the book, Linguistic Justice, by April Baker-Bell (2020), had a profound impact on my tutoring as I began to understand that linguistic assimilation still does not guarantee success for the students I work with and that such assimilation cannot disrupt racism.

Kathy: Framing Statement 

While interest in dismantling linguistic hegemony is growing, few scholars of color are having their voices and perspectives heard by institutions and other scholars in actionable ways. Seminal work continues to center the voices of white scholars on issues of antiracist language and writing pedagogies. In addition, the current academic environment prevents the voices that lay outside of the walls of academia from being heard by privileging certain notions of what is and is not academic language. Even within writing centers, directors and tutors without the time and opportunity to speak beyond their writing centers and into the public domain go unheard. Considering that it is speakers of color who are most affected by linguistic racism, this is a glaring gap, exacerbated by the privileging of White voices and academic writing spaces, that must be addressed. Learning from, standing up for, and encouraging voices of color through the use of community engagement and promotion of Linguistic Justice is crucial.

Here, we must consider the invasive linguistic standards that climb into our daily settings, and how scholars can address these standards–all while listening to voices of marginalized populations. The current English language learning systems, from Pre-K to higher education, spill into discourse that affects Black children and adults. Such education affects their racialized linguistic experiences, mismatching their real identities to the ones academics urge them to take on (Baker-Bell, 2020). As higher education seeks to pursue positive change through inclusivity and diversity initiatives, their efforts must also critically examine the languages of marginalized communities, which are relegated to outside of the academy. This means re-examining the practice of “code-switching” for the negative impacts it may have on students writers and marginalized speakers (see Baker-Bell, 2020; Kirkland, 2010). 

Above issues concern writing center spaces, wherein theoretical and applied studies about Linguistic Justice play a role within each class, tutoring session, and conversation. Here questions emerge as writing centers contemplate the situational conflicts that arise in academic spaces that have resided deep within privileged white spaces. How do we tackle and dismantle the ideology of right and wrong Englishes? How can writing centers support marginalized speakers in broader university settings that are heavily entrenched in notions of academic, “correct”, right and wrong Englishes? In addition, as many writing centers purposefully engage with Linguistic Justice, all those involved with these centers must have the mindset to examine the marginalized community of staff, tutors and tutees alike who are currently hurt by the barriers of academia. Keeping their stories in mind, writing centers must build space to become a champion for Linguistic Justice. How can writing centers consider the purpose of Linguistic Justice throughout staff meetings and trainings? What methods exist to recognize one’s own language choices in tutoring sessions? Are there methods that those within the writing center can employ to spread Linguistic Justice through the campus to change how we understand language? The literature below attempts to create space to address such questions as well as highlight voices of color who propose and innovate upon ideas and strategies of Linguistic Justice. 

Kathy: Curated Bibliography

Alvarez, N. (2019). On letting the brown bodies speak (and write). In H. C. Denny, R. Mundy, L. M. Naydan, R. Sévère, & A. Sicari (Eds.), Out in the center: Public controversies and private struggles (pp. 83-89). University Press of Colorado. https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctvbqs9mw.11

Baker-Bell, A., Williams-Farrier, B. J., Jackson, D., Johnson, L., Kynard, C., & McMurtry, T. (2020). This ain’t another statement! This is a demand for black linguistic justice! Conference on College Composition and Communication. https://cccc.ncte.org/cccc/demand-for-black-linguistic-justice 

Basta, H., & Smith, A. (2022). (Re)envisioning the writing center: Pragmatic steps for dismantling white language supremacy. Praxis: A Writing Center Journal, 19(1). https://www.praxisuwc.com/191-basta-and-smith

Daut, A., & Rebe, T. (2022) Training writing tutors about language and identity. Axis Special Issue: Imaging the Decolonizing Center. https://www.praxisuwc.com/axis-si-5-daut-and-rebe

Gallager, M., Morris, K. J., Binkley, A., & Rivera, B. (2017). A union of voices: Building a multilingual positive community through a multilingual writing mentors program. The Peer Review, 1(2). https://thepeerreview-iwca.org/issues/braver-spaces/gallagher/

García, R. (2017) Unmaking gringo-centers. The Writing Center Journal, 36(1), 29-60. http://www.jstor.org/stable/44252637

Hudley, A. H. C., & Mallinson, C. (2018). Dismantling “the master’s tools”: Moving students’ rights to their own language from theory to practice. American Speech, 93(3-4), 513–537. https://doi.org/10.1215/00031283-7271305 

Jackson, K. K., Jackson, H., & Tafari, D. N. H. (2019). We belong in the discussion: Including HBCUs in conversations about race and writing. College Composition and Communication, 71(2), 184-214. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26877929

Kern, D. S., & Raynor, E. (2022). Shifting theory and practice: Professional development on Linguistic Antiracism. Axis Special Issue: Imaging the Decolonizing Center. https://www.praxisuwc.com/axis-si-1-kern-and-raynor

Lee, Y. R., Zungu S., & Andrews V. J. (2022). Disrupting the narrative Cross-national consultants in a U.S. graduate writers’ studio. Praxis: A Writing Center Journal, 19(3). https://www.praxisuwc.com/193-lee-et-al

Martinez, A. Y. (2016). Alejandra writes a book: A critical race counterstory about writing, identity, and being Chicanx in the academy. Praxis: A Writing Center Journal, 14(1). http://www.praxisuwc.com/martinez-141

Sales, S. K. R. (2022). Challenging writing centers’ commonplaces: An emerging director’s take on complicity and social justice and its place in the university. The Peer Review, 7(1). https://thepeerreview-iwca.org/issues/issue-7-1-featured-issue-reinvestigate-the-commonplaces-in-writing-centers/writing-center-reporting-strategies-that-subvert-institutional-absurdities-2/

Shelton, C. D., & Howson E. E. (2014). Disrupting authority: Writing mentors and code-meshing pedagogy. Praxis: A Writing Center Journal, 12(1). http://www.praxisuwc.com/shelton-howson-121

Tinoco, L., Herman, L., Rana Bhat, S. R., & Zepeda, A. (2020). International writing tutors leveraging linguistic diversity at a Hispanic-serving institutions writing center. The Peer Review, 4(2). https://thepeerreview-iwca.org/issues/issue-4-2/international-writing-tutors-leveraging-linguistic-diversity-at-a-hispanic-serving-institutions-writing-center/

Wang, I. K. (2022). Our theories of race will not save us: Towards localized storyings of race, colonialisms, and relationships. Praxis: A Writing Center Journal, 19(1). https://www.praxisuwc.com/191-wang

Young, V. A. (2010). Should writers use they own English?. Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies, 12(1), 110-117. https://doi.org/10.17077/2168-569X.1095

Faith: Framing Statement 

Scholarship, however, does not always transfer into praxis. While writing center directors have put forth theories on practicing Linguistic Justice within centers and created professional development curriculums designed to orient tutors to an antiracist language praxis, less is known about how tutors internalize and apply Linguistic Justice principles in practice. This is a significant gap, as tutors are the ones charged with enacting these principles and interacting with speakers of marginalized languages every day. Expectations to do so can be daunting, especially considering professors may not buy-in to inclusive, antiracist pedagogies or may lack the pedagogical knowledge to instruct with such methods (especially when it comes to Linguistic Justice; see Smith (2021) for further discussion) and students ultimately come to the writing center to seek support in meeting those professors’ requirements. 

Questions arise when considering this. How can tutors meet the immediate needs of students while providing options outside of the concept of academic and standardized English? How can tutors, in the liminal spaces they occupy, promote antiracist and linguistically just writing pedagogies? The answer to such questions can best be found through the voices of tutors themselves who are the most knowledgeable of their own contexts. Some tutors are sharing their perspectives and praxis of Linguistic Justice, giving insight into what Linguistic Justice actually looks like in practice. Further, some are even creating and sharing professional development programs around Linguistic Justice. 

Below is a curated bibliography of such literature written by tutors, or utilizing tutor voices as the main data source. It is worth noting that much of this work is seen in conference presentations, but little has made its way into scholarly publication as of yet. Thus, this bibliography is limited, as information on tutor’s perspectives of Linguistic Justice is still emergent. This special issue on Linguistic Justice will help move the field forward, as several pieces address tutor perspectives among its many other contributions.

Faith: Curated Bibliography

An, D. (2023). “Do you even know what you are doing?”: A racial Other professional writing tutor’s counterstory of imposter syndrome. The Peer Review, 7(1). https://thepeerreview-iwca.org/issues/issue-7-1-featured-issue-reinvestigate-the-commonplaces-in-writing-centers/do-you-even-know-what-you-are-doing-a-racial-other-professional-writing-tutors-counterstory-of-imposter-syndrome/

Cichino, A. T., Brown, K. H., Basgier, C., & Haskins, M. (2022). Beyond transactional narratives of agency: Peer consultants’ antiracist professionalization. Writing Center Journal, 40(3). https://doi.org/10.7771/2832-9414.1025

Faison, W., & Treviño, A. (2017). Race, retention, language, and literacy: The hidden curriculum of the writing center. The Peer Review 1(2). https://thepeerreview-iwca.org/issues/braver-spaces/race-retention-language-and-literacy-the-hidden-curriculum-of-the-writing-center/

Hutchinson, B., & Morris, A. (2020). Mesh it, y’all: Promoting code-meshing through writing center workshops. The Peer Review, 4(2). https://thepeerreview-iwca.org/issues/issue-4-2/mesh-it-yall-promoting-code-meshing-through-writing-center-workshops/

Lockett, A. (2019). Why I call it the academic ghetto: A critical examination of race, place, and writing centers. Praxis: A Writing Center Journal, 16(2), 20-33.  http://www.praxisuwc.com/162-lockett

Raphael, S. T. (2021). Why we need translingualism: An antiracist approach in the writing center [Honors Theses, Bates College]. https://scarab.bates.edu/honorstheses/340

Thompson, F. (2023 Feb. 21). “Try and fight that white supremacy:” Tutors on antiracist praxis. Another Word: from the Writing Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. https://dept.writing.wisc.edu/blog/fight-that-white-supremacy/

Treiber, S., & Best, K. (2023 July 11). Linguistically diverse writers’ experiences guide linguistic equity training. Another Word: from the Writing Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. https://dept.writing.wisc.edu/blog/linguistically-diverse/

Tucker, K. (2023). Learning to tutor for racial and linguistic justice: Reflections from the UW-Madison Writing Fellows program. Another Word: from the Writing Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. https://dept.writing.wisc.edu/blog/wac-racial-linguistic-justice/

Field Shaping Statement

Writing centers can play an important role in challenging standardized notions of academic and correct Englishes. They have the ability to serve as liaison to student voices and their needs, creating a bridge between professors and students. Writing centers have a great ability to understand the student population, and, even more so, students that are looking for help with writing. With this understanding, writing centers have the capacity to promote inclusive languaging practices to dismantle white linguistic hegemony. 

While theoretical literature is building in regards to Linguistic Justice at the writing center and beyond, this bibliography uncovers two main gaps in the literature that are worth exploring: the voices of marginalized communities themselves and the voices of tutors. It is crucial that linguistic scholarship is rooted in the voices of marginalized communities and speakers of marginalized dialects as they are the ones living and experiencing linguistic oppression. Marginalized communities provide the best insights on how we can bring power to their voices. 

Much of the writing center scholarship has come from higher education institutions that are PWIs. This is true for Linguistic Justice scholarship as well. There have been calls for research on antiracist writing center practices to turn to Historically Black Universities (HBCUs) (Jackson et al., 2019) and Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs) (Camarillo, 2016). We hope to see more of the spotlight on funding, collaboration, and mentorship being given to HBCUs and HSIs, as they often have understanding of these populations, but often lack the monetary ability and time to spread their knowledge (Jackson et al., 2019). By supporting and learning from peers of different establishments and backgrounds, writing center scholarship and writing centers themselves can further promote tutors’ understanding of students with wide-ranging linguistic backgrounds.

The second gap that must be addressed is the voice of tutors at writing centers. Individual tutors have the powerful opportunity to look beyond an academic bubble and recognize the diverse nature of English (Nichols & Williams, 2019; Zimmerelli, 2015). Yet, a divide still remains between Linguistic Justice principles and what a tutor can actually do within a session, faced with the uncomfortable dilemma of supporting a tutee’s voice and making sure their language is shaped towards the expectations of the professor or publisher. 

Conflict between Linguistic Justice and academic expectations is difficult to avoid. As institutions often focus on the quantifiable scope of grades and where students fall among their peers, what should tutors do, faced with extreme pressure and uncertainty and/or a lack of understanding around the layers of racism that perpetuate standard English? While we recognize and say these connotations surrounding English should cease to exist, we are still left wondering how this can be put into play through daily praxis. 

It is here that the ability of a tutor exists to recognize and discuss the ideas of standard academic English with a tutee. We as tutors have the power to explain how these standards have come to be, and what options should be given to a writer (Shapiro & Del Russo, 2023). Encouraging author voice in writing may change the previously inflexible nature of standardized academic writing practices (Thompson, 2023; Young, 2010). 

Linguistic Justice and the eradicationalist language policies that are embedded within our educational systems must be discussed in academic settings across the country. By naming the past history of oppression and recognizing unique language differences as valid in academic spaces, we within university settings have the opportunity to reject and stand against preexisting stereotypes and linguistic racism. Tutors, in particular, are positioned to support students in disrupting and dismantling hegemonic languaging. Although this work is situated in the educational context, linguistic hegemony exists in our broader world, and dismantling standardized notions of academic writing cannot be the stopping point. We call on writing center scholars and researchers to look beyond the writing center only and to work towards normalizing code-meshing pedagogies. Special issues such as this and recent collections like Haltwinger Morrison and Evans Garriot’s (2023) edited book, Writing Centers and Racial Justice, are important steps forward in this work.

References 

Alim, S. H., & Smitherman, G. (2012). Articulate while Black: Barack Obama, language, and race in the US. Oxford University Press.

Baker-Bell, A. (2020). Linguistic justice. Taylor and Francis.

Basta, H., & Smith, A. (2022). (Re)envisioning the writing center: Pragmatic steps for dismantling white language supremacy. Praxis: A Writing Center Journal, 19(1), 58-68. https://www.praxisuwc.com/191-basta-and-smith

Camarillo, E. (2019). Dismantling neutrality: Cultivating antiracist writing center ecologies. Praxis: A Writing Center Journal, 16(2), 69–74. http://www.praxisuwc.com/162-camarillo

Castillo Jiménez, E. (2021). Racial justice to the forefront. In Kjaerum, M., Davis, M.F., & Lyons, A. (Eds.), COVID-19 and human rights (pp. 80-97). Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781003139140

Committee on CCCC Language Statement. (1975). Students’ right to their own language. College English, 36(6), 709–726. https://doi.org/10.2307/374965

Daut, A., & Rebe, T. (2022). Training writing tutors about language and identity. Axis Special Issue: Imaging the Decolonizing Center. https://www.praxisuwc.com/axis-si-5-daut-and-rebe

Greenfield, L. (2011). The ‘standard English’ fairytale. In L. Greenfield & K. Rowan (Eds.), Writing centers and the new racism: A call for sustainable dialogue and change (pp. 33-60). Utah State University Press.

Haltwinger Morrison, T., & Evans Garriott, D.A. (Eds.). (2023). Writing centers and racial justice: A guidebook for critical praxis. Utah State University Press. 

Hudley, A. H. C., & Mallinson, C. (2018). Dismantling “the master’s tools”: Moving students’ rights to their own language from theory to practice. American Speech, 93(3-4), 513–537. https://doi.org/10.1215/00031283-7271305

Hutchinson, B., & Morris, L. (2020). Mesh it, y’all: Promoting code-meshing through writing center workshops. The Peer Review 4(2). https://thepeerreview-iwca.org/issues/issue-4-2/mesh-it-yall-promoting-code-meshing-through-writing-center-workshops/

Kirkland, D. E. (2010). English(es) in urban contexts: Politics, pluralism, and possibilities. English Education, 42(3), 293–306. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40607993

Jackson, K. K., Jackson, H., & Tafari, D. N. H. (2019). We belong in the discussion: Including HBCUs in conversations about race and writing. College Composition and Communication, 71(2), 184-214. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26877929

Nichols, A.M., & Williams, B.T. (2019). Centering partnerships: A case for writing centers as sites of community engagement. Community Literacy Journal 13(2), 88-106. http://doi.org/10.1353/clj.2019.0009

Thompson, F. (2023 Feb. 21). “Try and fight that white supremacy”: Tutors on antiracist praxis. Another Word: from the Writing Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. https://dept.writing.wisc.edu/blog/fight-that-white-supremacy/

Shapiro, R., & Del Russo, C. (2023). Working towards racial justice in the writing center: Five strategies for translingual tutoring. In T. Haltiwanger Morrison & D.A. Evans Garriott (Eds.), Writing centers and racial justice: A guidebook for critical praxis (pp. 120-138). Utah State University Press. 

Smith, B. (2021). “I’m just following the policy”: The last line of defense for “Standard English”. Writing Program Administration, 44(3), 97-99. https://wpacouncil.org/aws/CWPA/asset_manager/get_file/604420?ver=3

Young, V. A. (2010). Should writers use they own English? Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies, 12(1), 110-117. https://doi.org/10.17077/2168-569X.1095

Zimmerelli, L. (2015). A place to begin: Service-learning tutor education and writing center social justice. The Writing Center Journal, 35(1), 57–84. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43673619