heterodox: the blog
Is the College Essay an Artifact of White Supremacy?
Recently the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC), an organization of composition teachers, accused the academic essay of complicity in white supremacy. What might this mean for the future of the university?
I hesitate to say that essay writing is sacred to me, but it’s something close to it. I started teaching essaying at New York University in 2009. Under the tutelage of dedicated faculty, I came to see the essay as a means to a vital end: cultivating open inquiry, and inviting students to consider complex problems from multiple viewpoints. Through small workshops, students gradually learn that respect emerges not from uniform agreement, but from constructive criticism. From the clamor of the workshop emerges a kind of group genius. Frost’s dictum “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader” could be our faculty’s unofficial motto. Simply put, writing class, following on the essay’s inventor Montaigne, instills liberal collegiate values.
Yet because freshman composition is a core course in most colleges, it behooves everyone to attend to the rhetoric that’s been emanating in recent years from the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC): the “professional voice of composition and rhetoric studies.” Much of this rhetoric looks to undermine the values ostensibly present in writing classrooms and in the modern university more broadly. In this essay I review in detail the CCCC’s recent Statement on White Language Supremacy, which they published to codify their position on how writing should be taught. By close reading, we can discern an organization pitting a vague vision of social change against the classical liberal ideals that make rhetoric and composition pedagogy worthwhile.
The Problem of Fairness
The CCCC statement reveals a preoccupation with anti–White Language Supremacy (WLS). In its strongest form, the argument is this: First-generation and immigrant students, along with economically disadvantaged or minority groups, can struggle to compete with their middle class and/or native-born peers in a writing classroom. The practices of evidence selection (from reputable sources), evidence analysis, and reflective expression are all formal skills that foreign-born or non-middle-class students may be less familiar with. As such, the CCCC statement seeks to enlist “coconspirators against white supremacist practices” to achieve “linguistic justice for our BIPOC [Black/Indigenous/people-of-color] students.” This entails a wholesale reappraisal of what constitutes good writing in a classroom context. Many suggest dispensing with letter grades and adopting a labor-based contract grading approach, where effort (e.g., producing a predetermined volume of writing per semester) replaces formally evaluating the verbal skill, logical coherence, or persuasive ability demonstrated in a student’s writing. These suggestions aim to make the writing classroom more equitable and less intimidating. (Some critics warn that even effort shouldn’t be measured and condemn as ableist the assumption that labor is neutral.)
There’s no good argument against a more welcoming classroom, and it’s true that pedagogy should consistently recalibrate both goals and rubrics. This position admirably addresses the fact that standard grading is subjective (and therefore imperfect), and some instructors can and do dismiss modes of expression that don’t conform to a narrow notion of “proper” academic diction. Nevertheless, dismissing all standards, and by extension all forms of measurement, because they are racist requires a powerful argument that this statement fails to make.
If You Cannot Define a Problem, You Cannot Fix It
The CCCC statement fails because its terms are never lucidly defined. It calls for “the defunding of deficit-based racist research, and of racist ideologies of learning, teaching, testing, and evaluation of teachers and students.” Who decides whom to defund? The adjectives in “deficit-based racist research” are strung together to imply that scholarly work examining academic underperformance is automatically suspect, yet the fluid definition of racism in the academy today makes it impossible to pinpoint what is being claimed; the statement’s authors never lay out their understanding of racist ideologies. “WLS is a tool of white supremacy,” they write. This is a circular claim: Racist thing is racist.
The statement borrows from Robin DiAngelo, an influential anti-racism advocate. (Here is a positive introduction to her work, and here is a critical one.) The CCCC definition of white supremacy notes that DiAngelo has “extended [it] to illuminate and address this vast system … [encompassing] movies and mass media, corporate culture, advertising, US-owned manufacturing, military presence, historical colonial relations, missionary work, and other means.” Note, the word “definition” suggests increased focus. This near-infinite expansion represents the opposite — a fact devastating to the goal of communication.
The statement goes on:
WLS [is] the default condition in schools, academic disciplines, professions, media, and society at large. …WLS assumes its worldview as the normative one that allegedly everyone has access to regardless of their cultural, social, or language histories. WLS perpetuates many forms of systemic and structural violence.
This observation is difficult to square, since every advanced society has a semiformal language, independent of slang, niche diction, or other in-group codes. The more complex the society, the greater its need for a lingua franca; immigrants benefit from one especially, because they can learn a single standard rather than dozens of patois styles. Erec Smith, an associate professor of rhetoric and composition at York College of Pennsylvania and cofounder of Free Black Thought, states a version of this position clearly despite being routinely attacked for it: “One cannot be both a rhetorician and a social justice activist who demonizes particular dialects, especially the one most common in civic and professional contexts.” One might go so far as to say that we cannot have meaningful social justice if large swaths of the population are considered exempt from the lingua franca in general, or incapable of understanding informed academic discourse of these issues in particular.
The Unclear Vices of “White Language”
The CCCC argument against an academic lingua franca is that it is so tainted by historical atrocities that we need to abandon it — but their own obfuscatory style renders their critique incoherent. Consider the following list of characteristics of the ideology of WLS that the statement asserts are routinely taught by writing professors. If my own student submitted this text, I would be compelled to pencil questions in the margins:
Consumption. Of what? And how does writing class encourage it?
Consent. To what? Since when is consent, in the abstract, bad?
Obedience. Again, to what? Laws? Satan? Be specific.
Fragmentation. There’s no context given, but surely calling for multiple forms of “languaging” in schools and professions is more likely to achieve “fragmentation” than not.
The statement coins an acronym: Habits of White Language (HOWL). HOWL-ing “create[s] the conditions of WLS.” Here are some:
Unseen, naturalized orientation to the world. What “language” is the CCCC statement written in? It presents everything as just so and self-evident.
Hyperindividualism. What’s wrong with individualism, and what does “hyper” mean? Too individual? Should the writer identify more with “their group”? What would this mean in an increasingly multiracial world?
Individualized, rational, controlled self. As opposed to what? Tantrums?
Rule-governed, contractual relationships. Again, as opposed to what ideal?
Clarity, order, and control. There are other virtues, but these seem pretty good ones, and increasingly rare.
Having spent over a decade helping students develop their inner skeptic or deftly negotiate a challenging text that had previously flummoxed them, I am stunned to see our project reduced to a tool of corporate greed:
Teaching standardized English, a narrowly conceived academic discourse, and their cousin, the “academic essay,” are examples of the “neutral skills” needed to succeed in the corporate educational system and the market driven capitalistic society … The viewpoint [of educational institutions] is that students/good citizens need these skills to function in society.
Where I work, at one of the largest writing programs in North America, faculty routinely meet to discuss how to develop the student’s unique intellectual voice. Such a voice is a distinct entity from cliché judgments gleaned by osmosis from peers, parents, teachers, or a haphazard diet of media. It is not the student’s personal history alone, but what emerges after they’ve been encouraged to deautomate their thinking, to keep their projections in check, to closely read what is really in front of them and not what they imagine it is at a glance. Discovering such an intellectual voice is always a personal experience. It is nothing less than the discovery of the self. It is neither violent nor exploitative. It’s not converting them into consumerist dupes or imperialist hawks. The communion of the mind with its reflection on the page can be a powerful and even transformative experience for many students, especially for those who weren’t raised in intellectual households (and here I don’t just mean lower-income students — the struggle to forge self-reflective habits of mind afflicts the wealthy too!). Far from frog-marching students into a rhetoric of white supremacy, having standards for reading comprehension or critical analysis of evidence gives them the opportunity to forge their own values, or at least spot when they’re being manipulated.
The CCCC statement dismisses two more tenets of liberal education that have fallen from favor: color blindness as a worthy ideal and the concept of merit. Both are
… characteristics of WLS, the ideology of individualism as it works with meritocracy to disguise the role of language in racial capitalism and legitimize the failure of whole groups of BIPOC by pointing to exceptional individuals who … transcended their “cultural handicaps” to acquire white middle-class social goods. Those who espouse liberal, individualistic, and white supremacist politics are not involved in a project of … critical socially just language and literacy education. (Emphasis mine.)
Notice how “liberal” and “individualistic” are conflated with white supremacy. The empowerment of learning to read or write more precisely is dismissed as a desire for “white middle-class goods.” Incidentally, what “goods” should we be pursuing? How does one know, ahead of time, what a student should want or need?
My greatest concern is that the statement’s authors do not disguise that they want students to absorb predetermined conclusions. “It is important that educators develop ideological clarity,” we’re warned (though “clarity” has been deemed a HOWL), “and understand the urgent need for social change and their role in it.” Since WLS encompasses everything from logical coherence in an essay to general economic activity, the desired social change remains unspecified, but coming from teachers tasked with helping students understand the modes and value of original thought, the demand for ideological clarity is in itself chilling.
It is not aimed solely at college-level instruction: “Educators, at the middle school level, should be wary of colorblind approaches to youth (language) development at the expense of evading issues of power.” A cynic might say this was a call to teachers, working with kids at a critically susceptible moment in their psychic development, to program their pupils for revolution rather than prepare them for participation in the larger civic body. Finally, we come to this proclamation: “As anti-WLS educators, we strive to collaborate with communities through our teaching ‘for sweeping social change’ (Sledd). Linguistic change is the effect and not the cause of social change.”
Let that sink in. The professional face of composition studies is declaring that linguistic change is the effect and not the cause of social change. This isn’t an appeal to change how we teach writing; it’s a call for revolution. This is what ideological clarity means: Stop teaching critical reading or writing skills. Instead, sow the seeds for a nebulous overthrow and wait. The language of the After Times will look after itself.
The Fate of the University
This line of thinking isn’t confined to composition studies. Consider related disciplines such as scholarly communications. April Hathcock compares libraries to slave plantations. Sophia Leung giving a University of Michigan talk, “The ‘Ordinary’ Existence of White Supremacy in Libraries.” She paraphrases Tema Okun, a widely cited anti-racism consultant, advising that perfectionism be avoided because “nothing’s perfect; that’s just a myth of White Supremacy.”
Matthew Yglesias gives an overview of reasons that Okun’s decrying of measurement, high operational standards, or engaging in clarity or coherence might be a pervasive problem for liberal organizations who take her work seriously. I share his concerns. To be clear, we can make good faith criticisms of enduring class barriers within academia. But it’s important to consider several possible incentives at work, as my colleague Geoff Shullenberger does here — especially when something as momentous as the place, purpose, and future of the university is at stake. Personal intellectual enrichment, free from the stresses of grades, is what we hope students will spend their lives pursuing. However, if the university ceases to function as a place of evaluation, a mechanism for locating students in the skill hierarchy of a given field, then it’s hard to grasp what economic or practical justification it retains.
What Should Be Done?
Civilization is essentially a jigsaw of competing ideological models and agendas. One role of the university is to make legible our own ideological blindspots. But overly simplistic ideological critique (a sort of cartoon version of our world’s problems) is what I’m trying to root out of my students’ thinking and writing. It stifles voices and erases uniqueness, and worst of all, the false “clarity” it brings destroys the open field of vision required for curiosity. It’s all answers and no questions, all (severe) judgment and no inquiry. Ideological clarity terrifies me, as it should every pedagogue worth their salt.
The free play of ideas, and the pursuit of dialectical truth, is the liberal ideal, not ideological clarity. At this critical juncture, when the value-for-money of a college degree is constantly questioned and, simultaneously, educational institutions face pressures to cancel speakers or fire professors for causing indistinct “harm” by expressing an unpopular opinion, it can be daunting for faculty — especially nontenured faculty — to speak up and assert their commitment to liberal values.
But these same pressures are the very reason why firmness is important.
What I ask is straightforward but not easy; it requires a modicum of courage. It’s this: When you read something shared by a student, academic, librarian, or administrator calling to “make things burn” or accusing faculty members of “killing people” with their syllabi — engage them. What the Heterodox Academy (and the work of Jonathan Haidt in particular) has taught me is that humanities educators are most essential when they work as diplomatic translators between competing value systems. Our best work involves interjecting to clarify a definition, locating logical fallacies and other lacunae in an argument, and otherwise detecting how we are talking past one another so that we can figure out points of overlap. We (and ever more so our students) cannot do this vital translation and analytical work when we validate tactics calculated to shut down debate. Preference falsification only encourages greater performative displays. If dissenters say nothing, the academy may find its most curious and promising students gone, having found somewhere better to cultivate their unique voice.
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