Towards a Writing Tutor Course that Centers Language Justice and Antiracism
These days, when someone starts to suggest that “soon” or “one day” things will “go back to normal,” they inevitably stop themselves and let their statement trail off into the ether. Normal, we have found, is where so much of our current problem(s) lie; and so we find ourselves uncomfortably settling into this new normal, wondering what to do—and what to teach. When I asked one of my colleagues on the west coast if she’d share with me her anti-racist tutor-training curriculum, she graciously consented, replying:
Yeah what a world: an insurrection, wrapped in a pandemic, served on a hot bed of megafires, white nationalism, conspiracy theory, and incoherent populist rage. And meanwhile, just typing away at my syllabus . . .
As I prepare to teach my first (and Writing@Bates’ fourth) iteration of Theory and Practice of Writing and Tutoring in a few weeks, I feel both unable and inspired (required) to respond to what many have referred to as our nation’s ongoing triple crisis of COVID-19, white supremacy, and climate change. No matter which of the so many “sides” you’re on these days, it’s pretty safe to say that, generally, #shitsfuckedup. But here we are, still typing away, seeking some normalcy in the comfort of the genre of the syllabi, the only thing it seems we have some modicum of say in these days. And yet our syllabi, we hope, are also one of the only spaces in which we, as college writing instructors, can shake things up and move things in new directions for ourselves and for our students, where we can be open to possibilities as we critically examine why such things won’t likely (and shouldn’t really ever) go “back to normal” again.
Now, my climatological and epidemiological expertise are severely limited so I’m thankful to work with colleagues from whom I learn much in these regards (these two parts of the tri-pandemic will not make it into my syllabus). My expertise and experience in white supremacy, however and at least, has taught me that I often have gained at the peril of others from my white privilege. I read and actively continue to work at being an ally-accomplice, recognizing the need to embrace a continued and life-long approach to my self-education in anti-racism, inclusion, and de-colonialism. This is the work that I feel most inclined and experienced (enough) in to bring into my writing classrooms; it’s also why I keep typing away on my Theory and Practice of Writing and Tutoring syllabus in the midst of the mess we’re in, challenging myself to further decenter my whiteness and critically examine my own literacy narrative, which, it turns out, is written mostly in a dialect not far removed from the mainstream dialect of the academy: Standard Academic—or White Academic—English, giving me an unearned advantage that I (and most of my students) must recognize and question.
And, so, here I am…tappity, tap, tapping…and taking a moment to reflect on what got our writing tutor course to where it is now and to consider where we might take it to next.
When I started at Bates in 2017, Director of Writing@Bates and ARC, Dr. Daniel Sanford, had just revived Bates’ writing tutor course, previously taught by the former Director of the Writing & Speaking Center, Joanne Cole, to train peer writing assistants in support of Bates’ new W1-W2-W3 gen ed requirement. Cole’s “peer writing initiative” began in 2007 with a focus on grammar, structure, and revision:
“Cole trained the tutors to deal with everything from fine grammatical points to the overall organization and flow of a text—structural issues that proved to be among clients’ more common concerns.” (Bates News, May 2008)
In the newest iteration of the course, Dr. Sanford wanted to broaden this view of writing and peer education. To the course, he brought expertise in theories of cognition, applied linguistics, and peer-led learning and experience working with multilinguistic students in a large learning center at a southwestern public research university. Developing a writing tutor course for a learning center at a small liberal arts college in the northeast, however, was a new challenge.
Dr. Sanford notes that the Short Term (Re)Design concept provided “the perfect way to launch the course, and to involve students in figuring out what a writing center class should look like at Bates,” and in the spring of 2016, he led such a course with five students who, as he puts it, “bombed around Maine in a Bates van visiting the writing centers at the College of the Atlantic, Bowdoin, Colby, Southern Maine Community College, and USM-Lewiston.”
Then in the fall of 2017, Dr. Sanford was ready to run a full, one-semester writing tutor training course as an EXDS with the goal that students would be able to
serve as peer tutors who can evaluate a session as a pedagogical scenario, make informed decisions about how they can meaningfully engage with students writers, and be fluent in applying appropriate methods.
At that point, he says,
the framing was very much about the history of writing centers: the moment that gave rise to them in the 1970s, how they grew over the years to accommodate new ideas in composition theory, and most recently how the writing across the curriculum movement has reshaped writing centers.
And, importantly, (tappity, tap, tap) Dr. Sanford hoped that students would
pick up a broad knowledge of composition theory, and come to question their assumptions about the relative value of different languages & dialects.
Indeed, that last part mattered most to Kiyona Mizuno (‘18), who was a student in Dr. Sanford’s class and Student Manager of the Writing Center:
Something that I still think about to this day is our discussion on dialects. Towards the end of the course, we read “Resolution on Students’ Right to Their Own Language” . . . [which] explains how the “standard English” dialect has permeated the education system in America such that other dialects are deemed improper or erroneous, and how that affects self-esteem, potential for self-expression, acceptability into programs, schools, and jobs.
I tend to write in EAE [Edited American English] because that’s what I was taught growing up (my mother was also an English major and used to teach ESL). But I began to think critically about my own biases when it comes to academic writing, and I wondered how I could change my mindset while tutoring. It made me ask myself, “how can I more effectively support students who do not write the way I do? How can I meet them where they are in terms of dialect/idiolect?”
The move towards more inclusive perspectives on language and pedagogy had begun.
Dr. Sanford and I co-led a second iteration of the course in the short term of 2018, this time as an EDUC course. Enrollment grew to near 20. Dr. Sanford took the lead as this was my first writing tutoring and writing center course. We continued teaching writing center history, composition theory, assignment design, and basic tutoring skills; but this time, we invited students to further question their assumptions about writing tutoring by developing their own peer educator philosophies.
For Emma Morehouse-Hulbert (‘21), the philosophy was particularly important:
One of the most helpful things I remember from the course was creating my own personal peer educator philosophy statement. This allowed me to take a deep dive into the approach that I wanted to take as a tutor . . . [These] personal philosophies are so important in any line of work, because they give you a sense of purpose and allow you to focus on the bigger picture of why you’re doing the work that you are doing.
Students mostly led class discussions, using collaborative learning techniques to engage each other in conversations around course texts. They also put their learning to practice by role-playing with and tutoring each other, as well as tutoring middle and high school students and community members in the Lewiston-Auburn area. Though we didn’t center language justice throughout the course, an awareness of dialectical and language difference and tackling “difficult situations” as tutors were key components of the curriculum.
As tutor, Jack McLarnon (‘20) remembers it, a character he played in one activity was named Tommy. Tommy was a first-year who was nervous about coming into the center for the first time and who brought “a thesis statement that was overgeneralized and offensive, but not malicious.” Jack found value in the role-playing exercise:
This gave me and my partner an opportunity to teach about nuanced writing, calling a student into a learning moment without making them too defensive, and being firm on addressing any potentially offensive statements in a student’s writing. The lesson I remember from this activity years later was that encouraging a student to use more nuance in their writing is a great strategy for letting them retain control of their paper while still addressing potential stereotypes that could come from less nuanced writing.
Jack notes that now, in his current position working for Americorp in Boston Public Schools, the tutoring course helped him be “more mindful of [his] subjective perspective” while he “affirm[s] the insights” of the sixth-grade students he works with and “challenges them to think deeper about certain points.”
Doing this difficult work of questioning assumptions while effectively pushing writers to do the same without shutting them down, requires a trusting community among peer tutors and space for students to process the tutoring they engage in outside the classroom. Valerie Bravo (‘21) remembers this part as particularly important for her:
[In the tutor course] I was given [a] safe space to share my ideas and thoughts with my peers and that was really helpful. . . . everything we worked on in this course not only helped me develop my own pedagogy, but also. . .[e]veryone in my class was incredibly supportive, including our professors and I felt like we all supported each other. . . when we’d come back from our tutoring placements.
The following 2019 short term, Dr. Stephanie Wade became lead instructor of the course. In her syllabus (tappity, tap, tap), Dr. Wade unearthed some of the seeds of social justice that Dr. Sanford and I had dropped into it and sowed those seeds (and her own) more widely and deeply across the curriculum. As she put it:
The original class closely followed The Bedford Guide for Writing Tutors, an excellent resource, but one that includes information about diversity at the end. Mindful of critiques that such organization makes diversity appear as an add-on or a special situation, I reorganized the class to begin with the relationships between writing and social justice, to integrate equity and inclusion throughout the curriculum, and to convey the essential connections between literacy, equity, and inclusion. In order to decenter the whiteness of the W@B professional staff, I invited guest lecturers who provided a diverse range of scholarly perspectives and embodied diversity.
Students continued to work with local organizations and schools to put the writing tutoring theories and pedagogies they learned into practice. Max Drury (‘22) valued the opportunity to do this, noting that his most important memory from the course was his community engaged tutoring at the Tree Street Youth Pilot Program.
I think that working there and interacting with the students there really put into perspective the difference between learning material about tutoring and writing and putting these ideas into practice.
[As a result of the course,] I feel more empathetic, as a person. I think the idea of writing as another form of personal expression, even when the writer isn’t a native English speaker, is something I hadn’t considered.
To help students engage more deeply and reflexively with language justice topics like multilingualism, translanguaging, and anti-racist language pedagogies, they regularly heard from and read scholars of color in the field of writing and writing center studies, including Dr. Kefaya Diab, Neisha Anne S Green, Dr. Romeo García, Asao B. Inoue, Vershawn Ashanti Young, April Baker-Bell, and Paul K. Matsuda.
These voices pushed students to critically reflect on their assumptions of what writing is and to understand how deeply language is linked to identity. One alumni of the course, Ma. Cherrysse Ulsa (‘20), reflected on the importance to her of these new components of the course:
My first generation, my woman, my person of color, and my multilingual literacies, that Romeo Garcia . . . alluded to, all contribute to my writing process. I learned to embrace the process that comes with acknowledging my literacies. . . . I was inspired by Neisha Anne Green’s concept of code meshing — how she was able to create a hybrid of her voices yet employ a strong argument. . . . Individuals of diverse linguistic and cultural background should be encouraged to explore various writing techniques. As an aspiring female scientist, I have continuously reflected on my role as a writer in the field of science whether it be writing scientifically or expressing identities in various ways — both of which I am still trying to explore.
Eliana Al Konsul (‘22), another student and current writing tutor and ARC Student Manager of Multilingualism, found this aspect of the course similarly important:
I think the biggest thing I took away from this course is this newfound understanding and appreciation of the different forms of knowledge that often get misrepresented or even unrepresented in the usual academic setting we are a part of. I remember going into this course thinking it was going to be a very technical class about the “proper” way to write, and it was the complete opposite. It was a cohesive, diverse, inclusive course that really tried and succeeded in dismantling our previous stereotypes and assumptions about language and its relations to race, ethnicity, nationality,…etc.
I can honestly say this course really changed what I thought would be my career path and academic interests at Bates. . . . Linguistic justice, code-meshing, and multilinguistic teaching philosophy are now at the core of my social and academic passions, and I hope to continue pursuing them even after Bates.
Of the 55 students who have taken the course since its inception in 2017, 33 have gone on to become ARC tutors, and several have become long-timers and leaders in the ARC community. A few of these students took the 2018 short term course as first-year students and, this spring, will be graduating as tutors who have put in countless hours working with their Bates peers as writers, mentoring and supporting their fellow tutors, collaborating with the Writing@Bates professional staff, and partnering with faculty in the teaching of writing.
Sarah (“Raph”) Raphel (‘21) is one of our long-time tutor-leaders who is about to graduate. Raph recently reflected on the course that she took her first year at Bates, noting that it allowed her to:
- Feel prepared to start my career as a tutor in ARC.
- Develop my own [educator] philosophy and practices.
- Become a Student Manager [which] pushed me to be a problem-solver and a facilitator, a leader.
- Seek out the support of others. Even as a senior, I still go to ARC for support.
- See that ARC is a community.
- Build empathy, an essential pillar of tutoring. . . . I take pride in bringing empathy with me everywhere I go and it has proven to be an integral part of my daily life.
- Develop my Interdisciplinary Major and begin tutoring ELL students in Lewiston.
- Look forward to future education and writing center work.
Raph, who is currently conducting an IRB-approved study and writing a self-designed interdisciplinary honors thesis on Why We Need Translingualism: An Antiracist Approach in the Writing Center, summed up her feelings about the course this way:
While I had no idea how much the Writing Fellows course would shape my time at Bates, I am immensely grateful for all of the opportunities it gave me. I’m already feeling nostalgic about the tutoring sessions, weekly meetings, and trainings. ARC is an incredible support system and I will miss everything it has to offer.
These are the student testimonials, scholars, colleagues, and historical and current contexts that keep me tappity, tap, tapping away on my syllabus, imperfect and unfinished as it is and I am and will always be. This stuff we do has effects, it matters; and the students we engage with go on and do really amazing things, some of which will be inspired by what we include (and don’t include) in our syllabi. Now’s a good time to be reminded of this, I think.
Because Bates’ 2020 short term was cancelled, we are thrilled to be able to offer Theory and Practice of Writing and Tutoring once again in Module C of Winter 2021 and to usher into the ARC family a new cohort of fifteen Writing Fellows. I am grateful to be able to continue to learn from and teach the groundbreaking scholarship of my academic colleagues of color in our field of writing studies, to build upon the thoughtful foundations laid by my friends and co-workers, Drs. Sanford and Wade, and to carefully push Bates students to consider their literacy narratives and question their assumptions about writing, language, identity, and writing center work.
By my mentor-colleagues’ examples, I intend to center dialectical diversity and language justice and to invite scholars from diverse backgrounds into the virtual classroom. I will add to the mix an invitation to course alumni and current Writing Fellows to talk to and mentor this next group of tutors and will turn our community-engaged learning inward, by having students in our course work with faculty and students in other Bates writing-intensive (W2 & W3) courses offered in Mod C. Together, and especially now, we will consider how writing tutoring can be an anti-racist practice and collaborate on a draft statement of antiracism and inclusion for the ARC Writing Center (similar to Writing@Bates’ recent statement). It’s likely going to feel awkward at times, even painfully tense once in a while; but mostly I hope that it’ll just feel plain good to meanwhile be typing away on something so worthwhile.
A flyer with a few more details about the Winter 2021 course can be found by clicking here.
p.s. We will miss you dearly, Raph, and all of the Class of 2021 Writing Fellows, including:
- Catherine Berry-Toon
- Kali Brown
- Caitie Clark
- Will Cole
- Elizabeth Fairman
- Will Garantino
- Sarah Herde
- Jevan Sandhu
- Annie Boyer
- Val Bravo
- Erin Bucki
- Maya Chessen
- Tom Hennessey
- Olivia Rule
- Joanna Vollrath
- Theresa Willmott-McMahon
Be well, stay safe, and, please, stay in touch.
- Fist with pen image: https://www.jing.fm/iclip/Txbhio_pen-clipart-hand-holding-symbol-for-black-lives/
- All student photos came from the students themselves.
- Montage of scholars created by author in Adobe Spark using image-snapshots from their faculty web pages.