Prioritizing Antiracism in
Writing Tutor Education



Kristina Aikens
Tufts University

Photo of Kristina Aikens.

Nine years ago, when I was hired to oversee the two main programs that constitute my institution's academic writing support—a graduate writing consultant program and an undergraduate writing fellows program—I stepped into a situation where the tutor education program had already been established. My own formal education had only peripherally prepared me for my new position: with a PhD in English (rather than Rhetoric and Composition or Writing Center Studies), I had very little exposure to writing center theory, so most of my approach came from my own experiences as a student, writer, writing tutor, and writing teacher. Thus, like many writing center administrators with backgrounds similar to mine, I had to educate myself on writing center theory. Since the programs I was hired to direct already had agendas for their intensive workshops and a syllabus for the writing fellows course, I had the luxury of a foundation, but because that foundation was established by prior directors, it took some time to figure out my own priorities and approaches to the education of writing fellows and consultants.

It has been a years-long process for me to reconsider the ways I approach the education of writing fellows and graduate writing consultants. Within this ongoing process, antiracist pedagogy has emerged as central to the project of educating writing tutors and preparing them both to write in the academy and to work with other student writers.

A growing number of writing centers are prioritizing antiracist approaches in their work by developing mission statements, tutor education programs, and hiring practices that directly address systemic racism. With so many topics that could be covered in a tutor education program, it can be difficult to figure out how to prioritize antiracist work if you are new to writing center administration. In "Making Commitments to Racial Justice Actionable," Rasha Diab et al. observe that "racial justice work often does not receive the time and attention it should because it is often seen as in addition to other responsibilities" rather than central to them (9). Diab et al. argue that we need to shift the perspective so that antiracist work is seen as intrinsic to our responsibilities rather than extrinsic, and to "look for ways to make antiracism part of every task and to articulate the goals of antiracism as central to our writing programs, teaching, and scholarship" (9). This chapter is intended for readers who are new to the discussion of antiracist pedagogy, who are coming from a background that did not include writing center theory, or who are re-evaluating their tutor education programs. Within the context of my own process of evaluating and re-evaluating my tutor education programs, and following in a feminist pedagogical tradition of exploring intersections between theory, experience, and application, I will suggest some practical ways to prioritize conversations within writing tutor education about the relationships between writing, the academy, and institutionalized oppression.

Background and Rationale

Text box: Important aspects of generally-accepted writing center pedagogy are shared with feminist pedagogies: active listening, collaboration, reflection, peer mentorship, student empowerment, and the interrogation of power structures between student and teacher/tutor.The compatibility of writing center pedagogy with feminist pedagogy is what first drew me to writing center work and continues to assert its relevance to me now. Even if they are not always articulated as such, important aspects of generally-accepted writing center pedagogy are shared with feminist pedagogies: active listening, collaboration, reflection, peer mentorship, student empowerment, and the interrogation of power structures between student and teacher/tutor. In "Feminist Mothering: A Theory/Practice for Writing Center Administration," Michelle Miley argues for the writing center as a feminist space "where student writers struggle to find their voice, a messy space that allows growth and development of writers and tutors, [...] a space shaped by our own insistence on listening, encouraging, nurturing" (18-19). As Miley observes, for many writing center staff, a primary goal of writing centers involves empowering students to take ownership of their writing processes and find their academic voices, as well as empowering tutors to develop their own pedagogical approaches as they also improve their relationship to writing and its processes. As many scholars have pointed out, addressing these goals is a much more complex endeavor than it may initially appear, and certainly power dynamics between students and teachers in particular complicate the writing process; after all, many students are highly invested in figuring out what the teacher wants, and it is impossible to entirely separate a teacher or advisor's approval from a writer's own assessment of their writing. When we add the historical disenfranchisement of people of color, women, individuals with dis/abilities, gender and sexual minorities, low-income individuals, immigrants, and other groups by the very educational system that claims to afford opportunities and value equity, the complication is even greater. Universities have often claimed to be neutral spaces when it comes to academic and scholarly achievement, but bias is inherent to the structure of our educational system and to how writing is taught and assessed in the academy.

Image of cover for Writing Centers and the New Racism.Scholars such as Vershawn Ashanti Young, Laura Greenfield, Asao B. Inoue, Nancy Grimm, Victor Villanueva, and many others have established through a growing body of work that responses to and evaluation of writing in composition classrooms and writing center philosophies are anything but neutral. Read together, the first three chapters of the foundational edited collection Writing Centers and the New Racism—Victor Villanueva's "The Rhetorics of Racism: A Historical Sketch," Laura Greenfield's "The 'Standard English' Fairy Tale, and Vershawn Ashanti Young's "Should Writers Use They Own English?"—reveal that, despite the beliefs and practices of many faculty and students, "Standard American English" (SAE) is raced and classed as white upper and middle class English. As a result, many American racial minorities, especially low-income African Americans, often enter the education system at a disadvantage from the beginning by being forced to speak and write in a significantly different way from how they speak and write at home and being taught both explicitly and implicitly that their "home" language is inferior. The collection goes on to more explicitly address the ways writing centers have been complicit in linguistic discrimination and other modes of upholding systemic racism. Many other scholars, including those cited in this chapter, have built on this work by advocating for antiracist pedagogies and actions in the writing center and composition classroom.

As my familiarity with this body of work has grown over time, three primary themes have emerged as crucial to address in my writing tutor education (see Figure 1).

  1. Recognize that academic language is raced, classed, and otherwise privileged, and therefore disadvantages low-income students of color and multilingual students, among others. Develop strategies to avoid using writing tutoring as a method for assimilation.
  2. Identify how the racial positions and educational experiences of tutors affect their approaches to writing and tutoring, their perceptions of the students they work with, and the students' perceptions of them.
  3. Develop and practice strategies to compassionately and thoughtfully challenge racist and other oppressive language when it appears, consciously or unconsciously, in student papers.

Figure 1. Aikens' crucial themes for her tutor education program.

Figure 2. "Stereotype Threat." Video explaining the concept of "stereotype threat," including an interview with Dr. Claude Steele, the leading expert on the topic.

These themes are highly complicated. Most American students are taught from elementary school onward—often explicitly—that SAE is the "only" way to write and speak and that other Englishes are just "bad" writing in need of "correction." As most writing tutors and other traditionally-successful students of all races and linguistic backgrounds have been rewarded for their execution of academic writing in SAE, it can be hard for some of them to recognize the privileged nature of SAE or to give it up as an ideal, even if they code-switch themselves or have experienced bias against their own writing or speaking. Many tutors might not initially be aware of how the practices of disavowing other Englishes from an early age and internalizing the dominance of SAE could contribute to stereotype threat and writing anxiety in many students of color, low-income students, and multilingual students. Even activist students may not have seriously questioned the role of academic language as a tool of white supremacy.

Once tutors recognize the relationships between academic language and systemic oppression, it's hard for them to know what to do with that information. Students of all races, genders, nationalities, and socioeconomic backgrounds at our institution are highly accustomed to writing in SAE and have likely demonstrated mastery and acceptance of it in their admissions materials. Professors generally expect students to write in SAE, and expect tutors to perpetuate SAE conventions. There are long-standing debates over whether SAE is a necessary tool for low-income students and students of color to access power and success. Even if linguistic diversity were to be wholly accepted as a goal of education, the transformation would certainly not happen overnight. Writing tutors are often at a loss for how to put this understanding into practice.

These are questions I also struggle with. By infusing our tutor education with discussions about the intersections of identity, power, and language, I hope to expand tutors' concepts of what good writing can be and look like. I hope to curb their impulses toward using tutoring as a tool for assimilation and conformity, and rather to consider the possibilities for experimentation and boundary-pushing in academic writing. I want to deepen their understanding of the complexity of their roles as tutors and writers. I hope to empower them to make informed, even bold choices in their own writing, just as I try to advocate on behalf of students' right to their written voices through conversations about these topics with faculty and colleagues. And because some of my writing tutors will become teachers or policy makers as a career choice, I want to begin exposing them to these debates so they can make informed choices when they have the opportunity to influence larger changes.

A more concrete but also challenging dimension of antiracist pedagogy focuses on teaching tutors to address racist, misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic, ableist, and other oppressive language in student papers, whether it appears in the papers consciously or unconsciously. Despite, or perhaps because of, the difficulty of addressing racist language in student papers, it seems imperative that writing center administrators provide opportunities for tutors to practice these difficult conversations. As writing center practitioners well know, many conversations about writing are difficult, whether the conversation explicitly includes a discussion of race or not. So on some level, it might be tempting to focus only on the challenges of talking about writing in a general sense—and indeed, the feminist pedagogies that underpin an expansive writing tutor education imply ways to address the topic of race. But if we do not explicitly address racism in our writing tutor education, we are sending tutors into situations where they are not fully equipped to deal with real problems in real time. Often, a tutor panics when they recognize racist or other biased language and can have a hard time addressing this even when the problems can be attributed to faults in the writer's logic, inattention to research practices, or lack of awareness. Inevitably, tutors will encounter racist ideas in papers, so it is our duty to prepare them for that inevitability and to assure them—as they are not always aware that this is the case—that they are encouraged to address, through thoughtful and deliberate discussion, language or ideas that are racist or otherwise oppressive.

Text box: I worry that I will say the wrong thing, that I am unqualified to teach the material, that I have too many questions and not enough answers. But this kind of discomfort is crucial to the projects of resisting racist ideology and building an inclusive community.In their study of diversity among writing center administrators, Sarah Banschbach Valles, Rebecca Day Babcock, and Karen Keaton Jackson reveal that writing center administrators in the United States overwhelmingly identify as white (282 of 313 respondents, or 91.3%). If writing center administrators are serious about welcoming all students to the writing center as both writers and tutors, we owe it to those students to become aware of our own unconscious biases and to acknowledge how our own privileges may have led us to overlook important topics. As a white writing center director myself, sometimes I feel less comfortable teaching my current writing fellows course syllabus, developed deliberately over several years, than I did when I was teaching the syllabus provided for me in my first year teaching the class. I worry that I will say the wrong thing, that I am unqualified to teach the material, that I have too many questions and not enough answers. But this kind of discomfort is crucial to the projects of resisting racist ideology and building an inclusive community.

A Process of Prioritizing

This chapter is not intended to provide a single method for including antiracist pedagogy in writing center education, nor does it claim to provide a groundbreaking approach; rather, I aim to explain some of the changes I have made that could prompt writing center administrators to develop or modify their own approaches in ways that best fit the needs of their centers. My school is a predominately white institution (PWI), so some of my suggestions will certainly reflect this. When I first began in my position, an initial focus, which continues today, was on recruiting a writing tutor workforce that is diverse in terms of race, nationality, linguistic background, and gender as well as academic major and other factors. As Katherine DeLuca and Hsing-Yin Cynthia Lin show in their chapter in this volume, recruitment and education go hand in hand; being deliberate, reflective, and creative in recruitment and hiring strategies is vital to cultivating a creative and inclusive writing center community.1

Because my institution has two distinct programs for writing tutoring—an undergraduate writing fellows program and a graduate writing consultant program—I will address the two programs and their education programs separately.

Undergraduate Writing Fellows Program and Education

The undergraduate writing fellows at my institution are sophomores, juniors, and seniors. We have the luxury of a robust preparation structure for new writing fellows: a week-long orientation before classes begin followed by a full-credit pedagogy seminar in the fall. Writing fellows begin to work with students in their first semester, concurrent with taking the course. They are assigned to specific classes in various disciplines and receive drafts in advance of the papers they discuss with their students (though they are discouraged from writing comments), typically meeting with 10 students two or three times per semester.

When I first began teaching the course, my inherited syllabus did not include any writing center-specific readings on race, though there was a week devoted to working with multilingual students that addressed cultural differences related to academic writing, including the excellent film Writing Across Borders, which includes many interview clips in which international students explore their experiences and observations about writing in the American academy. (This film, created by Oregon State University, also has a guide for using the film in writing center education programs.) There was one reading on the syllabus that addressed race directly: the chapter "Death of the Profane" from Patricia J. Williams's book The Alchemy of Race and Rights. Williams describes her attempts to publish her analysis of a racist business policy based on her own personal experience of the policy, and how the legal journal that agreed to publish it systematically eliminated all references to her race and the racism inherent to the policy, all in the name of objectivity and disciplinary convention. It is a powerful piece, and within the context of the class, placed as it was near the end of the semester, had the effect of provocatively complicating what they may have come to think of as a "normal" writing tutoring interaction.

Text box: Seeing race as a complication or problem reinforces the idea that whiteness = unraced, neutral, and normal; this approach also reinforces an ingroup/outgroup concept of writing and tutoring that most of us strive to avoid.However, it took time for me to realize that the placement of the reading at the end of the semester and the implicit framing of race as a complication forced the syllabus into what Laura Greenfield and Karen Rowan have termed the "week twelve approach," where race is addressed but as something outside of the "norm" of writing and writing tutoring sessions, a problem that complicates what is assumed to be a "neutral" situation. Seeing race as a complication or problem reinforces the idea that whiteness = unraced, neutral, and normal; this approach also reinforces an ingroup/outgroup concept of writing and tutoring that most of us strive to avoid. I had originally not seen the problem because the light bulb effect the reading had on tutors was so palpable.

Figure 3. "Code-Meshing." Interview with Vershawn Ashanti Young, who explains the concept of code-meshing and how it differs from code-switching.

After this realization, I added readings from Writing Centers and the New Racism, which had an immediately positive effect. Because writing fellows blog their responses to readings before class, I was able to see even before we met in person that white writing fellows responded to the exposure of SAE as a product of systemic racism with dismay and reflected upon their own privilege, while many of the Black, Latinx, Asian-American, and international writing fellows immediately related these scholarly articles to their own lives and experiences as writers. Some of the most transformative moments are when, after reading Vershawn Ashanti Young's masterful "Should Writers Use They Own Language?," a defense of code-meshing written almost entirely in African-American Vernacular English (AAVE),2the writing fellows themselves spontaneously begin to code-mesh in their blog responses to the piece, mixing SAE with languages they use at home or with friends but typically avoid in academic settings, such as AAVE, text-speak, Spanish, and Hindi.

Using an essay that "breaks" the conventions of academic writing allows tutors in our class to experiment with meshing their "traditional" academic voice with languages they use in other contexts, exploring ways to more fully express their own experiences and ideas, and associating variations of English with positive, creative expression that need not be excised from "formal" academic

Figure 4. "3 Ways to Speak English." TED Talk by Jamila Lyiscott. Lyiscott breaks the conventions of a typical TED talk by performing spoken-word poetry about her multiple Englishes.

writing. Jamila Lyiscott's TED talk on being tri-lingual in English, which itself breaks the conventions of a typical TED talk by taking the form of spoken-word performance, demonstrates code-switching and the concept of multiple Englishes while questioning what her audience's reaction might be to her code-meshing or using these different Englishes in unexpected situations. Her more recent TED talk on what she terms "liberation literacies" explains both the devastating effect of linguistic colonization on people of color and the empowerment that comes with "disrupting" institutional spaces by validating multiple Englishes. These examples from Lyiscott and Young, among others, validate the experiences and raise the consciousness of writing fellows, while also preparing them to think more broadly about the potential power in disrupting, or at least questioning, conventions in academic writing.

Eventually, I came to realize that I had still placed the readings, powerful as they were, late in the semester, suggesting that the concepts included were tangential rather than integrated into the course. Because the topics were challenging, I had thought it best to build up to them; however, when I eventually placed them much earlier in the semester, it led to a deepening of writing fellows' ability to see how readings about multilingual writers and writers with dis/abilities, for example, also explore questions about linguistic diversity and the costs of conformity in writing, as well as concepts such as stereotype threat and other anxieties. Additionally, I found that—as effective as the readings were—I needed to add more and spread them out, in order to revisit the concepts and allow for connections to be made (an annotated bibliography is included in Appendix B for reference). When we focus on how race, gender, language acquisition, nationality, or dis/ability have influenced their own development as writers, and read materials that are written from a variety of perspectives (not exclusively writing center professionals) writing fellows are more apt to see the relationship between tutor and writer as dynamic and fluid, an inclusive community of learners and writers.

We still return to Patricia J. Williams's chapter at the end of the semester, but now the guided discussion of that text feels like a culmination and synthesis of the semester rather than a complication of the "norms" of tutoring. It has been validating to recognize, through course evaluations and other measures, that writing fellows still name Williams's piece as an especially influential reading, but for deeper reasons than before.

Text box: Their shock reminds me of the importance of pairing theory with practice, and of how practice, combined with collaborative problem-solving, will help them identify and address racist language when they encounter it in their own sessions.In addition to these changes, we work together in class to practice strategies for addressing racist ideas and language in papers. Writing fellows are encouraged to bring in papers containing such language, especially when they are not sure how to handle the session, and I have collected a number of such papers over the past few years. Using the two-list heuristic provided by Mandy Suhr-Sytsma and Shan-Estelle Brown in "Theory In/To Practice: Addressing the Everyday Language of Oppression," writing fellows identify the language they want to address in the sample papers and then practice conversations they could have with the writers of the papers. We also use sample scenarios drawn from real-life session notes for further practice. It often surprises me how shocked the writing fellows are when they see these real-life sample papers or descriptions from session notes, even after their careful reading and discussion of published theoretical articles—sometimes even after experiencing similar situations themselves. Their shock reminds me of the importance of pairing theory with practice, and of how practice, combined with collaborative problem-solving, will help them identify and address racist language when they encounter it in their own sessions.

As I experimented with the shape of the course, I also revised the course objectives. In addition to learning the basics of writing tutoring, writing fellows are also expected to be able to

  • practice strategies for tutoring across linguistic and cultural differences
  • apply a critical lens to language-based issues of institutionalized oppression and analyze relationships between writing and power
  • practice strategies for addressing racist language and ideas in student papers.

The writing fellows' final paper is to develop their own writing fellow philosophies, based on their own experiences combined with any of the readings they choose to cite. Unprompted, nearly all of the writing fellows address these questions in their essays. Because we discuss code-meshing and expanding the limits of academic writing throughout the semester, I encourage students to experiment with form; many students code-mesh in their final papers, and this year two writing fellows wrote poetry about their vulnerabilities as women of color tutoring white male students, while a third wrote her essay in scientific format. These experiments allow writing fellows to explore the themes of the course on their own terms.

These conversations acknowledge the various ways that the educational experiences of tutors themselves, as well as the students they work with, have been shaped by white supremacy and other hegemonic systems. Sometimes, tutor education efforts focus so much on trying to teach tutors how to work with different groups of students that not enough time is spent encouraging tutors to consider their own positionality and learning experiences in relation to their processes as writers and tutors. In their article "Changing Notions of Difference in the Writing Center: The Possibilities of Universal Design," Jean Kiedaisch and Sue Dinitz discuss the radical shift in their writing tutors' response to the course readings when they replaced articles about working with students with dis/abilities with articles by writers with dis/abilities, prompting the tutors to relate more personally to the material. As Kiedaisch and Dinitz point out, our tutors are (or should be) a diverse group of students with a variety of identities, backgrounds, and experiences; therefore, inclusive readings allow writing fellows to open up in blog responses and class discussion about the relationships between their own identities and their developments as writers, scholars, and educators. Over the past few years, these realizations have gone beyond our classroom, with writing fellows carrying their insights into other coursework, conference presentations, fellowship applications, and job interviews.

Graduate Writing Consultants Program and Preparation

While the writing fellows at my institution are assigned to specific courses across the disciplines, graduate writing consultants meet with both undergraduate and graduate students in any discipline for any writing project, including coursework, dissertations and theses, articles for publication, personal statements for scholarships, professional schools, and graduate school, and so on. They meet primarily by appointment, but experienced consultants also hold drop-in hours, conduct workshops, and run writing groups and graduate writing retreats.

Our graduate writing consultants are primarily doctoral students, though we also have some master's degree students; roughly half are from the English department, while other represented departments include drama, psychology, biology, chemistry, history, art history, philosophy, urban planning, and child development. As of the writing of this chapter, eight consultants are in their first year as a consultant, eleven have been consultants for 2-4 years, and five have been consultants for 5 years or more. Almost all have some kind of prior experience working with student writing: many teach first-year expository writing classes, while others have served as TAs or graders, or were tutors as undergraduates. New consultants complete a four-day intensive workshop series two weeks before courses begin in the fall (one week before the writing fellows intensive), and we follow up with monthly 75-minute staff meetings.

As Bethany Davila points out, many "orientation training programs," due to their brevity, do not include discussions of race. She recommends that, no matter how short the orientation, "writing center directors should initiate conversations about race (including whiteness) and writing at the onset of tutor training, thereby making this topic a priority. Through these discussions, directors can encourage tutors to be critically aware of and to challenge their participation in perpetuating the writing center as a site for assimilation" (3). To this end, a key reading for our workshop series is Nancy Grimm's "Retheorizing Writing Center Work to Transform a System of Advantage Based on Race," which questions a number of deeply-held beliefs about writing and tutoring and considers ways that some of those basic tenets could be upholding a system of institutionalized racism. Because our graduate writing consultants have more experience with writing centers and pedagogy, this reading is more appropriate for graduate writing consultants than for undergraduate writing fellows, and we therefore begin our work together by jumping straight into a high-level discussion of mission statements and guiding principles. As further application of the ideas Grimm raises, Mandy Suhr-Sytsma and Shan-Estelle Brown's "Theory In/To Practice: Addressing the Everyday Language of Oppression in the Writing Center" explains general tutoring strategies while also being clear about how these strategies specifically and importantly apply to uncomfortable conversations about oppressive language.

Because we partner with the office of scholar development to provide support for the 40-60 Fulbright applicants we have each year, a significant portion of our workshop series focuses on preparing consultants to work with students applying for Fulbright scholarships. Many student applications for this particular scholarship, which enables recent graduates to conduct independent research or teach English for a year abroad, tend to make unintentionally racist or imperialist claims (often due to a "white savior complex" endemic to many global learning opportunities). The program specialist for scholar development with whom we collaborate identified this problem in Fulbright essays some time ago, so the part of our workshop that focuses on the Fulbright applications helped consultants consider racist language even before the topic became central to our orientation. During our workshop, we spend time looking at sample applications that contain such problems and working together to consider ways to help students think through the problematic formulations that have led to such proposals. Because the applicants almost unanimously possess a desire to better the world, these examples are particularly good at helping consultants practice strategies for addressing unintentional racism or bias and for helping students deepen their critical thinking.

Recommendations and Conclusions

Graduate writing consultants and writing fellows have revealed, in casual comments made directly to me, course evaluations, and yearly written reflections, very positive responses to the antiracist theories and practice in our preparation and education programs. A few years ago, I created an additional survey to more deliberately assess their attitudes towards these topics. Overwhelmingly, both groups reported that they learned a great deal from the readings about bias and racism and found the readings and activities to be crucial to the understanding of their roles as writing tutors. They also commented that these topics produced new strategies for their practice, revelations in their thinking, and validation of their own experience. (A summary of the findings of this survey can be found in Appendix A.)

For new writing center administrators who are tasked with developing or updating a tutor education program, or for experienced administrators interested in revamping a program with a greater focus on antiracism, the project can seem overwhelming. Based on my own experience, research, and assessments, I can suggest several ways to, as Diab et al. argue, "articulate the goals of antiracism as central to our writing programs, teaching, and scholarship" (Figure 5).

  • No matter how small the amount of time you have to prepare tutors, make sure race and racism is a topic of conversation.
  • Revise learning objectives to include antiracist goals.
  • Teach strategies for addressing racist language as part of general tutoring strategies, rather than as an "add-on."
  • If you can only assign one reading, choose one that addresses strategies for challenging racist language.
  • Especially if you are white, explicitly tell white tutors that they have a responsibility to challenge racist language and avoid assimilationist thinking.
  • Create opportunities for tutors to experiment with language in academic discourse.
  • Invite antiracist/antibias campus groups to lead workshops as part of your education programs.
  • Allow yourself to be educated by tutors.
  • Survey tutors to learn more about their experiences and cultural competencies. Revisit these conversations as tutors gain experience.

Figure 5. Aikens' suggestions for prioritizing antiracism.

No matter how small the amount of time you have to prepare tutors, make sure race and racism is a topic of conversation. If you have a course, make sure the topic of racism is introduced early and revisited. Even if you have an orientation program rather than a class, make sure that identity and racist language are part of the curriculum. If you have staff meetings instead of an orientation or class, build the topic in as a regular part of the meetings.

Revise learning objectives to include antiracist goals. Create multiple opportunities for tutors to demonstrate their understanding of those goals.

Teach strategies for addressing racist language as part of general tutoring strategies, rather than as an "add-on." Give tutors multiple opportunities to practice those strategies. If, like many writing center administrators, you use role play as practice for tutors, make sure that your role-play scenarios include situations where tutors need to address racist language. Some examples of scenarios are included in Appendix A. If you or a program assistant review session notes, look for examples of tutors dealing with challenges around either addressing oppressive language or helping students who are resisting white supremacist ideologies in the academy. Ask these tutors to share these specific experiences with the group, or develop anonymous scenarios from the session notes to provide real-life examples. Collect examples of student writing that include racist language and use them to brainstorm strategies as a group. Look for both explicitly racist language and less obvious examples. Ask tutors to collect and share examples as well—especially if they are confused about how to address the problems, or if they know there's a problem but are having trouble identifying it. (One advantage of the writing fellows program is that papers are submitted in advance, which provides a great opportunity to discuss anonymous examples in an effort to develop strategies as a group that can be applied in individual sessions.) Working in groups to develop strategies will help generate multiple possible approaches.

Especially if you are white, explicitly tell white tutors that they have a responsibility to challenge racist language and avoid assimilationist thinking. Relatedly, allow tutors of color space to share their experiences, but avoid putting them in a position to teach white tutors about racism. Create opportunities for tutors of color to contribute to conversations that don't have to do with race.

Figure 6. "Seeing White Fragility." Animated video by RISE District that explains the concept of white fragility and how white people can address it in themselves.

Allow yourself to be educated by tutors. Today, many activist students are extremely savvy and informed about biased language and how to address it. Remain open to feedback on your choices as an instructor. If you are white, don't give in to white fragility—these conversations require vulnerability, openness, and the willingness to listen.

Invite antiracist/antibias campus groups to lead workshops as part of your education programs. One of the writing fellows who belonged to a feminist education group (located in the campus women's center) developed a workshop about everyday bias in spoken language, so we invited the group to conduct the workshop in separate staff meetings for the writing fellows and graduate writing consultants. While it is always important to invite presentations from campus resource offices (such as student accessibility, the library, and the counseling center), workshops on social justice topics, especially those developed by and for students, can open up new conversations, enhance your own understanding as an instructor, and provide valuable peer-learning opportunities.

Create opportunities for tutors to experiment with language in academic discourse. In written assignments, encourage students to code-mesh; if students claim not to have a language to code-mesh with, suggest texting-language. Push them to consider rhetorical reasons to explore linguistic diversity in their own writing. Assign readings that break conventions of academic discourse; invite them to bring in their own examples. Use reflective freewriting to encourage them to explore their own positionality and push back against assimilationist stances.

If you can only assign one reading, choose one that addresses strategies for challenging racist language. I recommend "Theory In/To Practice: Addressing the Everyday Language of Oppression in the Writing Center" by Mandy Suhr-Sytsma and Shan-Estelle Brown, which explains tutoring strategies that are effective in any situation, but does so within the context of antiracist pedagogy.

Revisit these conversations as tutors gain experience. Last year, I was surprised when a senior writing fellow requested a workshop on challenging bias for one of our monthly meetings because I felt we had covered the topic thoroughly in the class and sporadically afterward. The request, however, reminded me that writing fellows who have been tutoring for a while, as she had, appreciate revisiting these concepts and discussing challenges with less experienced tutors.

Survey tutors to learn more about their experiences and cultural competencies. To learn more about whether writing tutors valued these conversations and the degree to which they internalized and applied these concepts in tutoring sessions, I created a survey—results of which can be found in Appendix A—that consisted of a combination of simple ranking questions, optional essay responses, and essay responses to three hypothetical scenarios. While evaluations of classes and workshops are valuable in assessing the efficacy of an education program, I found this additional survey, focused on this specific topic, to be especially illuminating. In addition to providing insight into tutors' understanding, it also provided a window into experiences that had not come up in classes, workshops, or staff meetings and led to both programmatic enhancements and changes to broader aspects of the writing center, such as how information was presented on our website. The anonymous aspect of the survey also allows tutors to admit confusion or share experiences they might be reluctant to share in a group meeting.

Bringing these topics into writing tutor education programs allows us to recognize that tutors and writers have lives outside of sessions that affect what goes on during them; it increases empathy and gives tutors tools to make meaningful connections with other writers. It allows all tutors in the program to recognize their own racial positions and those of the writers they work with as very real factors in their writing and tutoring practices. I believe it helps tutors make connections between different types of systemic oppression, including xenophobia, ableism, sexism, and transphobia, and how these are related to language. It can give voice to often silenced oppressions and discrimination experienced by tutors themselves. And it encourages tutors to question academic norms and writing conventions, which contributes to a deeper and more meaningful learning experience.

Throughout all of my reconsiderations of my tutor education programs, I have repeatedly re-committed myself to active listening as the most crucial skill a writing tutor can possess. Writers who feel unheard by tutors do not return to the writing center, and tutors who adhere to rigid concepts of writing or fail to listen to disenfranchised writers will be limited in their growth as writers and tutors. As Rasha Diab et al. point out in "A Multi-Dimensional Pedagogy for Racial Justice in Writing Centers," difficult conversations require patience, intense listening, and room for writers to explain themselves. If a tutor simply tells a student that their language is racist but doesn't engage in conversation, the student might simply change the language out of shame instead of understanding. In a historical moment when there is a real concern about sharp divisions in our country and a loss of meaningful exchanges between people with different perspectives, I can think of nothing more important to prioritize in our tutor education programs than skills that lead to honest reflection and empathetic, brave conversations.


1 (back to text) In addition to DeLuca and Lin's innovative ideas about recruitment through education, see also the suggestions in Ann E. Green's "The Quality of Light" in Writing Centers and the New Racism, which briefly covers recruitment strategies. Enlisting the help of the tutors themselves has proven invaluable at my institution. If you are seeking to diversify your staff at a predominately white institution and have asked tutors of color to help with that effort, it is imperative to compensate them in some way and provide additional leadership opportunities, as people of color have historically been enlisted in diversity outreach labor without compensation or other opportunities.

2 (back to text) Young uses the term code-meshing to describe how writers and speakers can move fluidly between different "Englishes," rather than separating them. He distinguishes code-meshing from code-switching, which he argues has come to describe a practice of speaking different Englishes in different contexts.

Works Cited

Davila, Bethany. "Rewriting Race in the Writing Center." The Writing Lab Newsletter. vol. 31, no. 1, 2006, pp. 1-5.

DeLuca, Katherine, and Hsing-Yin Cynthia Lin. "Recontextualizing the Writing Consultants Training for Graduate Students to Work with Non-native English Speaking Writers." How We Teach Writing Tutors: A WLN Digital Edited Collection, edited by Karen G. Johnson and Ted Roggenbuck, 2019,

Diab, Rasha, et al. "A Multi-Dimensional Pedagogy for Racial Justice in Writing Centers." Praxis: A Writing Center Journal, vol.10, no. 1, pp. 1-8.

---. "Making Commitments to Racial Justice Actionable." Across the Disciplines, vol.10, no. 3, 2013, pp. 1-17.

Green, Ann E. "'The Quality of Light': Using Narrative in a Peer Tutoring Class." Greenfield and Rowan, pp. 255-72.

Greenfield, Laura. "The 'Standard English' Fairy Tale: A Rhetorical Analysis of Racist Pedagogies and Commonplace Assumptions about Language Diversity." Greenfield and Rowan, pp. 33-60.

Greenfield, Laura and Karen Rowan, editors. Writing Centers and the New Racism: A Call for Sustainable Dialogue and Change. Utah State UP, 2011.

---. "Beyond the 'Week Twelve Approach': Toward a Critical Pedagogy for Antiracist Theory and Practice," Greenfield and Rowan, pp. 124-49.

Grimm, Nancy. "Retheorizing Writing Center Work to Transform a System of Advantage Based on Race." Greenfield and Rowan, pp. 75-100.

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Kiedaisch, Jean, and Sue Dinitz. "Changing Notions of Difference in the Writing Center: The Possibilities of Universal Design." The Writing Center Journal, vol. 27, no. 2, 2007, pp. 39-59. JSTOR,

Lyiscott, Jamila. "3 Ways to Speak English." TEDSalon NY, February 2014,

----. "Why English Class is Silencing Students of Color." TEDx Talks, 23 May 2018,

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"Vershawn Young: Code-Meshing." YouTube, uploaded by Kentucky Educational Television (KET). 3 April, 2014.

Villanueva, Victor. "The Rhetorics of Racism: A Historical Sketch." Greenfield and Rowan, pp. 17-32.

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Young, Vershawn Ashanti "Should Writers Use They Own English? Greenfield and Rowan, pp 61-72.


Thank you to Ted Roggenbuck and Karen Johnson for their generosity and patience throughout the writing and revision process of this article; to Anne Moore, Robin Olinsky, and Katherine Swimm for helping me think through these ideas and for reading drafts; and to the writing fellows and graduate writing consultants at Tufts University for their insights, without which this project would not be possible.


Kristina Aikens is the Program Director for Writing Support in the Academic Resource Center at Tufts University. She has previously published or presented on topics of voice in student writing and peer mentorship and leadership in writing tutor programs, and she is co-chair of Boston Area Writing Center Administrators.