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Language, Justice, and the Christian Liberal Arts: Why School Isn’t Always Fair

By August 1, 2010 No Comments

Over the past decade, Northwestern College in Orange City Iowa has become increasingly engaged with social justice. Many of our students, faculty, and staff choose to spend their breaks on Spring Service, Summer of Service, and disaster relief projects. Our administration has supported these efforts–we currently have eight professionals dedicated to coordinating ministry, mission, and service learning programs, resulting in partnerships with organizations such as Habitat for Humanity and the Urban Ventures Leadership Foundation. All of this is in addition to the myriad of courses that address social justice issues and recent college publications that have examined creation care, immigration, and adoption in a social justice context.

As both a Christian and member of the Northwestern community, I am excited by these efforts. We are rightly concerned with poverty, hunger, fair trade, healthcare, and climate change. But at the same time, I find myself becoming increasingly uncomfortable with how we have overlooked the ways in which our own institutional policies and practices may be unjust. This is particularly the case regarding an important, but often neglected, issue: language. Whether intentional or not, I believe that our adherence to traditional academic discourse has resulted in policies and practices that exclude or assimilate many of the marginalized voices for which we claim to be advocates.

This exclusion is not surprising. Despite rapidly changing social conditions of our postmodern world, the academy still in many ways adheres to modernist beliefs in individual autonomy, rational thinking, and transparent communication. Most of us still believe that discourse at its best is formal, objective, and assertive. And we expect our students to communicate in this way, regardless of their ethnic, cultural, or educational background.

Anyone who studies language understands that all discourses are arbitrary and ideological. As such, assuming that academic discourse is objective, pure, and transcendent is not only erroneous, it is unjust. Indeed, by requiring our students to communicate in a certain way, we risk erasing motivation, compromising creativity, impeding agency, and suppressing perspectives. And our students recognize this. They cannot choose the discourses they are fluent in, nor can they choose the discourses that carry power. If we truly want our students to be engaged learners, we can no longer afford to ignore the inconsistency between our calls for justice and the ways academic discourse is used to marginalize and control groups of people.

In her book Good Intentions: Writing Center Work for Postmodern Times, Nancy Grimm strives to make well-intentioned people–and most of us are indeed well-intentioned–uncomfortable in the hope that uncomfortable people will search for more complicated understandings. I seek to do the same here. I want to call attention to the ways in which Christian liberal arts institutions, despite their good intentions, perpetuate injustice by silencing or co-opting student voices. In doing so, I hope that we can begin having more informed conversations about how the Christian liberal arts can promote justice.

(The Problem With) Making Students More Like Us

Grimm observes that faculty typically respond to poor students in three ways: blaming, distancing, and assimilating. While the first two responses are problematic, I want to focus on the third response because it is often done with the best intentions.   We can no longer afford to ignore the inconsistency between our calls for justice and the ways academic discourse is used to marginalize and control groups of people.   And understandably so. After all, assimilation does not blame the student but instead recognizes the difficulty of learning academic discourse, especially for students who are underprepared. Northwestern College, for instance, employs a three-pronged approach–developmental coursework, peer tutors, and caring faculty–to help underprepared students learn the language of the academy. Sometimes the approach works, sometimes it does not. Regardless of the outcome, however, almost everyone becomes frustrated during the process. Here’s why.

First, demystifying and teaching academic discourse conventions assumes that all of the conventions are uniform and easily defined when any student (or anyone who teaches writing) knows this is not the case. Faculty assume that their writing standards and expectations are the same as their colleagues, but in reality, they are dependent upon both personal and disciplinary contexts. Not surprisingly, students become frustrated when one teacher allows personal pronouns in a paper while another tells them to only write in the third person, or when one teacher wants transitions and combined sentences while another wants a minimalist style.

Students are not the only ones who are frustrated. Those of us who teach writing struggle to respond to faculty and administrators who ask, “Why can’t you just design a writing course that teaches students to write for college? ” It is not that simple. After all, what course (or curriculum or teacher) can account for not only all of the different expectations among faculty, but also the different contexts from which our students write? But even if we could design such a course, I am not sure we should. We pay a price when we reduce writing to a transparent set of skills to be mastered, thus denying the humanness of the individual student. In the end, the problem with helping students become more like us is that they become more like us. We tell students that learning should be meaningful and that we welcome diversity of thought, but in practice, we tell students, “Say what I want to hear in the way that I want to hear it.” Ultimately, the academy requires hegemony–our students must give up their individual histories, experiences, and language in exchange for membership in an exclusive club. Our good intentions silence the voices that we need to hear, and we all suffer because of it.

Moving Forward

So how should we move forward? How can we move forward? Rethinking academic discourse necessitates rethinking many of our policies, which is no small task.

A different understanding of academic discourse would have significant implications for our admissions and placement policies. For instance, research has shown that the standardized tests such as the SAT and ACT are not consistent predictors of student success and discriminate against traditionally marginalized ethnic groups. Yet most colleges continue to rely heavily on standardized test scores for admission. Whether intentional or not, these tests perform a gatekeeping role for the university in the same way that literacy tests controlled American immigration in the early 20th century.

This does not mean that we need to lower or abandon admissions standards, but it does mean that we should seek fairer ways to structure our admission and placement policies. Indeed, many schools have already done so, choosing to employ a holistic admissions process that replaces test scores with more individualized reviews of would-be students. Schools that use holistic admissions are interested in an applicant’s potential as a motivated, creative learner, not necessarily in their ability to fill in the correct ovals (or their ability to afford ACT/SAT prep courses and practice tests). The symbolism in this practice cannot be overstated. If an institution cares enough about justice to restructure their admissions system, what does it say about their academic policies and practices? Not surprisingly, many of these schools have seen an increase in both diversity and retention, which suggests that they truly are providing a more just education for their students.

The holistic admissions movement is a great example of how we can move toward more just discourse practices. We begin by recognizing systematic bias and the ways in which student voices and experiences are not accounted for in our classrooms and writing assignments. Then, we begin practicing ways that account for the lived experiences of our students. One specific way we can do so is by encouraging writing styles that challenge the restrictions of academic discourse. These “abnormal discourses” should be valued because of their referral to marginalized voices and discourses out of power.

I am not calling for a discourse of relativism or the abolishment of standards. Instead I am arguing that we should encourage our students to compose meaningful texts that are thoughtful and coherent yet do not necessarily follow the limited, prescribed boundaries of traditional academic writing.   We need to have conversations about ways our classrooms can be sites of meaningful inquiry, not places where students attempt to win “guess what the teacher is thinking” games.   For instance, instead of making students write compare-contrast essays and traditional research papers, why not let them write memoirs or design multimodal research projects? Ultimately, we should be less concerned with teaching thesis statements and transitions and traditional academic genres and more concerned with encouraging our students to take on roles as intellectuals and engaged learners. We need to give our students more choices in how they do intellectual work. We need to encourage them to explore their world in a meaningful way. And we need to give them agency so they can determine how to best communicate what they are learning.

The Christian Liberal Arts Context

A new vision may be especially difficult for Christian liberal arts colleges because it requires us to admit that we may have been unjust to some of our students. This is hard to do when so many of us truly strive to put our student’s best interests first.

This vision also requires work. Changing institutional policies and ethos are not easy. Neither is changing syllabi, assignments, teaching methods, and assessment practices. I am not saying that we are lazy–in fact, many of us work too hard. But many of us simply do not know where to start. For example, how do we assign a grade to a student who writes about being sexually abused as a child? How do we assess multimodal research projects? Moreover, some of us do not have the clout to initiate institutional change, and those of us with influence do not know how to go about establishing policies that promote socially just practices in our institutions. In the face of such confusion, we cling to what we know, which is often modernist ideals of objectivity and conformity.

Additionally, this vision is difficult because it involves risk. Northwestern College, like many Christian colleges, is inherently concerned with enrollment and funding. We do not have the large endowments or state financial support enjoyed by many larger or public universities. Even a small decline in enrollment is significant. We want to do what is best for our students, but we also want to exist in 20 years. Many of our policy and curriculum decisions begin with questions regarding cost-effectiveness, market-value, and of course, enrollment and retention predictions. Even if changing admissions policies and classroom practices might be fairer to our students, we feel obligated to first determine if doing so might result in lower enrollment and retention numbers.

Finally, there is another, often unstated risk that many of us are even more concerned about: our academic reputation. At best, most small Christian liberal arts colleges are considered obscure, intellectual backwaters; at worst, they are seen as Bible colleges, with little concern for critical thought and the life of the mind. Our understandable response to these inaccurate perceptions is an obsession with academic validity. We bind ourselves to traditional academic practices, believing that doing anything different would water-down our perceived intellectual credibility.

All of these concerns are valid and worth considering. But let me offer a few comments. First, we need to consider how the modernist values we cling to clash with the postmodern realities of our students. Our students (like us) are complex, incoherent persons with individual histories, experiences, and perspectives. They (like us) occupy unique locations and have multiple, often conflicting, motivations and needs. Why, then, do we treat them otherwise? Why do we expect them to be something they are not? We need to allow for inconsistencies and provide spaces for doubt. Most importantly, we need to let students draw on their experiences and explore in discourses more attuned to their needs (and not necessarily ours).

Similarly, we need to recognize our local contexts as both individuals and institutions, which means resisting our modernist desire to determine universal solutions. We should not strive to identify the best discourse or pedagogy–we need to allow for multiple approaches. We also need to have conversations about ways in which our classrooms can be sites of meaningful inquiry, not places where students attempt to win “guess what the teacher is thinking” games. While I cannot prescribe how this should happen, I trust that our faculty and staff are intelligent, creative, and caring enough to think about ways in which it can.

If we truly are concerned about justice, and if we believe in the inherent worth of every human being, we must be concerned with offering a more just education. This essay, then, is a call for an honest examination of how we can promote such an education for our students, ourselves, and, ultimately, the world. Doing so begins by understanding how our discourse both excludes and assimilates, and it follows by identifying the ways we can welcome and consider other perspectives. In the end, we need to be more just to our students’ voices, to their individual (and often conflicting) histories, locations, and perspectives. Doing so is the only way we can move beyond good intentions.

Tom Truesdell is the director of academic support at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate in the Composition and TESOL program at Indiana University in Pennsylvania.