“Racism in the Margins:” Confronting Biases in Writing Instruction

by Alexander Mika, ’21 (CLAS)

Banner image with the words “Racism in the Margins” over a paper marked up with red ink.In an effort to promote anti-racist writing practices across academic disciplines, Kathleen Tonry, associate professor of English and associate director of the University Writing Center, and Gabe Morrison, a PhD candidate in rhetoric and composition, are working on an initiative called “Racism in the Margins.” The project begins with a virtual conference that will take place on Friday, February 19 and Friday, February 26. A panel of experts featuring Haivan Hoang, associate professor of English, UMass Amherst; Mya Poe, associate professor of English and director of Writing Program, Northeastern University; Vershawn Ashanti Young, professor, English Language and Literature, University of Waterloo; and Asao Inoue, professor and associate dean of Academic Affairs, Equity, and Inclusion in the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts at Arizona State University, will meet to present on the current issue of racially biased writing evaluation and opportunities for improvement in providing fair and valuable feedback to a diverse set of voices. Following the conference, a faculty working group with members from a range of disciplines will synthesize the information presented in the conference and develop strategies to improve writing instruction at the University of Connecticut. 

The Writing Center: A Unique Vantage Point 

The idea for this initiative came from conversations students had with their UConn Writing Center mentors. Tonry remarks, “We see things and have conversations about writing that are really different than the ones that [students] have with faculty. The kinds of conversations that get precipitated there are really peer ones.” In this peer environment, some students felt comfortable enough to express concerns about feedback they received on assignments. Many were international students who felt that some faculty members were getting frustrated at their “writing with an accent,” and unfairly expressing those frustrations in the margins (hence the name for this initiative). 

“A couple times each semester,” Tonry recalls, “there will be a knock at my office door or an email that says, ‘Hey, I had a really hard tutorial with a student who felt that they were being singled out because of their race or gender in the comments and they felt that it was really unfair. What can we do?’ Well, it turns out there’s not much you can do. You can take it to a dean or move it through the OIE, but the bureaucratic processes really rely on students being willing to carry that further.” While the Writing Center provided a space in which such issues of biased feedback could be identified and discussed, Tonry and Morrison recognized that it was not the space in which these problems could be solved via peer mentoring; the solution had to come from faculty

For Students, Through Faculty

As they developed their proposal for “Racism in the Margins,” Morrison emphasized that issues of racism and writing become especially problematic in situations where there is an inherent power imbalance between teachers and students. “Part of the reason why we weren’t focused on the Writing Center and what our tutors could do,” Morrison explains, “is because that power dynamic doesn’t exist: they’re peers, so they’re really on an equal playing field. Where damage can really be done is through evaluation. We’re looking at the margins of students’ papers. That’s where the grade appears, and it can make a student feel like they want to give up. Faculty are the ones that have the power to shape those margins.” 

To facilitate a conversation about such damage that lasts beyond two Fridays in February, Tonry and Morrison developed the idea for a faculty working group that will continue the necessary work of applying the conference’s discussions to university practices. Since writing-intensive courses are required for every major, Tonry and Morrison organized an eclectic panel with representatives from as many cultural centers, colleges, and departments as they could include. Morrison notes, “Writing doesn’t belong to one field, so anti-racist writing practices in biology might look different than anti-racist writing practices in English. Part of what’s so exciting about this initiative is that we need to build that knowledge from the ground up. That’s why we need this faculty working group to be interdisciplinary; we need to generate that knowledge. I don’t think it’s really been done in this way before, so we’re excited to do that.” 

“It’s Ongoing Work.”

While their College of Liberal Arts and Sciences grant covers the expenses of organizing the conference and developing the working group, Tonry and Morrison hope that the work they achieve in the coming months will lead to further opportunities for creating lasting change at UConn and beyond. While it will be the working group’s job to decide how best to implement anti-racist practices in pedagogy, according to Morrison, the Writing Center could play an integral role in this work

“An advantage of the Writing Center is that we do some of the training for faculty and graduate students who are teaching writing-intensive courses, so we saw in this an opportunity to start having conversations about different views of language that are explicitly anti-racist and more inclusive to students of color or students who speak another language as their primary language.”

Regardless of what form this initiative takes on once the working group completes its deliberations, Tonry says, “We don’t want this to be another hoop for faculty to jump through. We want to develop something that becomes a part of faculty culture: thinking about how they use writing and how they use anti-racist writing assessments. It’s not something you get a dose or shot of and be declared an ‘Anti-Racist.’ It’s ongoing work.” 

Tonry and Morrison anticipate expanding the scope of the project to also include anti-racist writing workshops as part of the community outreach work the Writing Center does with Connecticut high schools. They hope that this work will inspire other institutions to examine and improve their practices, bringing these issues in the margins to the forefront and creating a more equitable experience for students of all backgrounds and experiences.