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White-washing language: ‘Academic’ writing perpetuates division

Photo courtesy Cole Holladay

By Cole Holladay     1/18/22 11:04pm

Editor’s Note: This is a guest opinion that has been submitted by a member of the Rice community. The views expressed in this opinion are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of the Thresher or its editorial board. All guest opinions are fact-checked and edited for clarity and conciseness by Thresher editors.

As is the case with most aspects of our reality, professionalism and academia have been defined by whiteness to a degree that is obvious in their customs, codifications and subtleties. Whiteness is often defined as a latent, systemic ideology in which the customs of the white majority are normalized to a degree that alienates others, sometimes unbeknownst to the white people benefiting from it. Over time, white majorities have established a monopoly on communication, prioritizing their culture-specific vernaculars and language structure, thus creating norms of communication. Through the expansion of this construct, marginalized communities have been actively excluded from academic and professional spaces institutionalized by whiteness. Our university falls into this category. The First-year Writing Intensive Seminar program’s curriculum exemplifies this reality. In light of the necessities that are diversity and inclusion in an educational environment, our community must have more conversations about the inequities woven into the university’s approach to academic writing.

For example, upon taking Rice’s diagnostic composition examination over the summer, we are assigned into groups based on our ability in “academic writing.” This begs the question, what constitutes successful academic writing? Is it possible that biases and standards of whiteness influence the “ideal” form of written communication and delegitimize other cultures?

In 2017, the Director of the University of Washington Tacoma’s Writing Center, Dr. Asao Inoue, asked himself these questions. During his tenure as director, Inoue used his role to confront exclusive conventions of writing and prioritize “rhetorical situations” in Writing Center programming. Underlying this goal was the recognition that enforcing abstract grammatical correctness excludes many students. In practice, the writing center manipulated the definition of academic and professional writing in the context of a diverse student body to validate individual identities and foster unique expression. This mission was exhibited through the Center’s efforts to academically legitimize African American Vernacular English, the exploration of discrimination based on language expression in grading, and the acknowledgment that conforming to existing language conventions is a choice.

The Program in Writing and Communication’s website states  their goal of teaching students to “communicate correctly” through  the FWIS program. Considering the integral importance of language, dialect and vernacular to cultural identity, the expectation that students of different backgrounds should express themselves uniformly inherently contradicts inclusivity and can, instead, reward conformity. The implications of grammatical correctness and particular expression of ideas through the standardization of writing can eventually lead to the suppression of diversity and identity. 

As opposed to bridging gaps between students, alternatively, FWIS classes should put a higher value on the wide range of differences between students and their backgrounds to cultivate a culture of learning from each other. The shifting mission of UW Tacoma’s Writing Center should serve as a meaningful guide to this sensitivity, disenfranchising the long-held ideas of what qualifies as professional or academic. Therefore, empowering students of all backgrounds so that they have the skills to express themselves in an impactful way while maintaining their individualism. 

I hope that students, professors and the university alike will further acknowledge and evaluate the structural unfairness of academic writing and grammatical conventions, supporting the institutionalization and development of productive and inclusive alternatives. As a community, we should shift our understanding of valuable contributions from their ability to communicatively conform to their uniqueness and unconventionality.

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