UConn Conference Tackles Racism in Teaching Writing

The initiative, titled “Racism In the Margins,” sought to help professors better understand how to be anti-racist when teaching – and grading – writing assignments.

A written paper marked up in red ink.

A UConn anti-racism initiative kicked off its first stage on Friday with the first part of a two-week conference titled “Racism in the Margins.”

The conference, organized by faculty and students in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, saw more than 900 virtual registrants attend talks about how racism affects the teaching of writing at colleges and universities, and how professors can be more inclusive in their teaching.

“When professors give students feedback on their writing, it’s an intensely private and vulnerable place,” says Kathleen Tonry, associate professor of English and a conference organizer.

Students of color experience a range of racial invalidations and microinsults in classrooms and instruction, says Tonry, citing evidence from a recent survey of racial microagressions at UConn. She suggests that many of these harmful expressions show up in the margins of student writing.

“When it comes to writing, we expect students to speak The King’s English to operate in this [academic] space,” said Vice Provost for Faculty, Staff, and Student Development Michael Bradford, in a conference panel discussion. “We are living in these white privileged spaces because it’s the air that we breathe. For many students, it’s difficult to breathe.”

In her work as associate director of UConn’s Writing Center, Tonry says that for years her writing tutors had spoken about students whose writing was seemingly criticized for its nonconformity to academic English, rather than its logic or rhetoric. And most professors are unaware of their own biases when grading.

So in response, she and Gabriel Morrison, a graduate student in the Department of English, created a project to address the problem at UConn and beyond.  Tonry and Morrison started presenting their research at conferences in 2017, and this fall began an archive of recorded interviews with Writing Center tutors about the issue.

They developed the conference to encourage discussion among faculty about the issue, and make a broader section of the academic faculty aware of the problem.

Friday’s talks included Mya Poe, associate professor of English and director of the Writing Program at Northeastern University, who spoke on writing assessment with particular attention to issues of equity and justice; and Haivan Hoang, associate professor of English and associate Director for the Junior Year Writing Program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, who spoke on her study exploring the ways race comes into play in disciplinary courses, such as sciences and social sciences, where students are expected to write on the subject.

Panelists at Friday’s event included Bradford, Brenda Brueggemann, professor and Aetna Chair of English; Jason Oliver Chang, professor of history and director of the Asian and Asian American Studies Institute; Challa Kumar, professor of chemistry; Glenn Mitoma, assistant professor and Director of the Dodd Center; and Margaret Rubega, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology.

Rubega summarized the issue as it applies to writing in the sciences during the conference’s panel.

“In science, precise writing can reduce ambiguity,” she said. “But at the same time, that formality excludes people, and concentrates the recognition of expertise into the powerful hands.”

The speakers and panelists recommended several paths to fairer and more inclusive assessments of student writing. One direct method is to engage in peer-to-peer group writing reviews, where students critique each other’s work. The perspective of other students can be instructive not only for the student themselves, but for the professor, the panelists said.

Faculty were also encouraged to continually broaden their definition of audience, so a student paper can be perceived in the context for which it was written.

Grading contracts, in which a professor and student agree mutually on a baseline and particular goals for the student’s writing development over a course of a semester, are becoming more common, and are a good way to introduce fairness and objectivity, says Tonry.

“Contract grading can really help students articulate their own goals around language and move them forward,” Tonry says.

After the conference, Tonry and Morrison will convene working groups of UConn faculty to develop, based on the conference’s teachings and the relevant literature, a training course for UConn faculty on anti-racist teaching of writing. If it is successful, Tonry hopes to expand the training further to other colleges and universities.

The conference continues on Friday, February 26, 2021, with speakers Vershawn Ashanti Young, professor of communication arts and English language and literature at the University of Waterloo; and Asao B. Inoue, professor and associate dean of academic affairs, equity, and inclusion for the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts at Arizona State University. Interested faculty can register for the conference at the Writing in the Margins website.

The conference is funded by a College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Anti-Racist Pedagogy Grant and by support from 17 UConn departments and offices.