Anti-racism, graduate education, and Cosmopolitan English

Early in the morning after our nation elected Donald Trump as our president, I watched this short video by David Billings: an anti-racist activist at the Anti-Racist Alliance.

I was so particularly struck by this quote:

There is not one field of study in these United States where you cannot earn the highest degree that this nation has to offer — the PhD — that requires you to have a mastery of this country’s race construct and its impact on the citizenry today. That’s sick, when we can graduate doctors, we can graduate lobbyists, we can graduate social workers, we can graduate teachers…and they never learn what the construct of the nation is.

How true.

How resonant with my experiences as a graduate student interested in the intersections between faculty development, translingualism, and technology.

How often, as a result, our neglect feels benign rather than vivid. How often it arrives unannounced in the organizational and institutional cultures we create and reproduce. In our coded language about “motivation” and “rigor” and “high expectations” and “academic aptitude.” In our research and methodological assumptions. In our either / or thinking. In our fear of open conflict.

How easy it is for me: a white, college-educated, middle class, cis-gendered, able-bodied, urban American — a progressive one, even, who is dedicated to public education, who is trying to learn how to organize, who is seeking out what to do other than reading and writing — to neglect the sickness right in front of me. To feel timid. To not bring up anti-oppression, to fail to center it.

Catherine Prendergast calls race “the absent presence” in Writing Studies. We talk about the politics of remediation, about assessment and curricular design, about teaching. We talk about training faculty. We take (or design) graduate classes and practica.

But how often do these things structure themselves explicitly around our deep histories of white supremacy and oppression? How often are our syllabi or our classes or our programs “inclusive” of difference instead of responsive to difference? When is difference allowed to transform sick systems rather than merely propping them up?

I worry about this decentering, the absence of this presence, in my own work: both in the work I do as a faculty developer, and in the work I’m doing to prepare myself to write a dissertation. As I’ve been reading Xiaoye You’s excellent book, Cosmopolitan English and Transliteracy, I’ve been so struck by his idea about the porous boundaries of language. Our histories have caused us to demarcate the way that we communicate: by nation (or nationlessness: “non-native” speakers), by ethnicity, by constructed identities. These things make us ignore the “margin of error” — the way that languages actually work. We sublimate porousness. We call it an exception to the rule, when in fact, it is the rule that we simply ignore.

And at the exact same time that we should be pointing to the constructedness of these (linguistic, or otherwise) identities, how do we also acknowledge the violence of their material effects?

Because while it is critical to “shake loose the confines of the bounded perspective to nation, culture, and language,” we can’t approach this task by continuing to be wildly neglectful of the histories of race and racism that have shaped (and that continue to shape) so much of our work (107). We can’t do this work without accounting for, without fully understanding, white supremacy. Until anti-oppression is centered in our field, in our graduate programs, rather than the province of “the race person” or “the disability person,” might there be a dangerous flattening effect that results from pursuing a less bounded approach to language?

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