Anti-Racism and the Writing Classroom:

A workbook for FYW teachers.

Isn’t WRAC’s curriculum already anti-racist?

We posit that our curriculum is not explicitly anti-racist while offering the opportunity to engender anti-racist practice if an instructor chooses to develop it as such. Since we are afforded classroom interpretation of our shared curriculum, and supported in doing so by our departmental leaders, we can commit to antiracist pedagogy through intentional classroom choices rooted in our positionalities and personal commitments. 

Attempting anti-racist teaching as an individual instructor in a first-year writing program, even as a part of a faculty community and program committed to such work, is fundamentally challenged by the context that teaching occurs in. That is to say that Michigan State University is a predominantly white institution (PWI) in a state founded on the displacement of Indigenous people from their land that has a history and contemporary reality of legal and structural anti-Black and anti-immigrant racism. Land-grant institutions acquired their land and endowment and facilities through the practices of supremacist settler genocide and racial capitalism, and necessarily are built to center and serve white students. Western rhetoric and the development of composition as a field was developed co-terminus with the spread of Black slavery, and was used to justify its practice. The site, circumstances, context, content and history of our work all complicate substantive anti-racist practice. In other words, the default demographics of our institution means that our classrooms are inclined to center whiteness as status quo, since Michigan State University exists in the context of the historical and contemporary social inequalities of our state and nation. To realize anti-racism under these conditions requires us to do more than embrace diversity with a color-blind inclusivity

According to the Michigan State Presidential Strategic Plan, Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Report and Plan:

While first-time, full-time undergraduate graduation rates increased for all race/ethnicity groups between 2016 and 2020, significant gaps persisted. The graduation rate for African American/Black students averaged 16.9 percentage points lower than the overall graduation rate over this period. The rate for American Indian/Alaska Native students averaged 14.2 percentage points lower than the average rate. The rate for Hispanic/Latinx students averaged 11.5 percentage points lower than the average rate. 

These stats are further reflected, though the percentages are somewhat better, by the grades BIPOC students receive in WRA:101, our first-year writing course that show that Black students have, on average, ten percent less 4.0s than their white counterparts, and fail at significantly higher rates. 

Therefore, we must begin by recognizing that WRAC, despite our best efforts to support diversity, is a department of majority white faculty serving a dominantly white student body. We must also be able to recognize the difference between anti-racist practice and practice that is merely equitable (see Fig. 1-3). Our student-centered learning goals, along with our emphasis on reflection and on formative versus summative assessment, are in alignment with many of the goals of anti-racist pedagogy. Our shared first year curriculum and pedagogy is indeed reflective, inclusive, perhaps even critical and progressive. We are fortunate to teach in a program that does not mistake grammar for merit, and does not assume rigor to be the enforcing of bell-curve. We are encouraged to engage in grading practices that can help us meet each student where they are. Yet even excellent universal practice that allows for differentiation is not anti-racist unless the reasons we practice it are explicit and legible. 

There is certainly room within our curriculum to teach a course from an anti-racist perspective; the potential is there. That being said, though, our curriculum and learning goals by themselves do not necessarily ensure a de facto anti-racist pedagogical perspective. Such an approach may infuse and shape a course, making full use of the reflective and assessment moves already embedded in our teaching without matters of race overtly considered.

How, then, can an instructor teach from an anti-racist perspective that also is student-centered, and builds from the student’s own knowledge and experience? An anti-racist pedagogy provides ample space for students to reflect on and challenge their own experiences of and beliefs about race, and to consider their own positionalities in relation to those of others as well as larger (exclusionary) institutions and ideologies that manifest themselves in people’s day-to-day experiences. It invites a particular form of listening to the stories and experiences of those who may differ from ourselves– not just by race, but also by gender, class, sexual preference, and other identity markers.

Figure 1: Inclusive to Anti-Oppressive Teaching Continuum

This figure includes a tripart diagram organized by three headings in bubbles with lines with arrows on both ends connecting between the bubbles and before and after them in a continuum. The leftmost bubble says “Inclusive Teaching Pedagogy and Curriculum. The center bubble says “Critical/DIA Teaching Pedagogy and Curriculum” and the rightmost bubble says “Anti-Oppressive Teaching Pedagogy and Curriculum.”

Figure 2: Inclusive to Anti-Oppressive Teaching Continuum, An approach

Figure 3: Inclusive to Anti-Oppressive Teaching Continuum, A few specific examples

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