“I’m Not Your Father:” Moving From Paternalism to Empowerment in the Writing Center

Kam Dunbar ’19 reflects on a workshop he attended this fall, led by Vershawn Ashanti Young, Associate Professor of Drama and Communication at the University of Waterloo, Canada. 

In a preface to his workshop titled “Allies of Code-Meshers and Translingual Writers,” Rhetoric and Composition scholar, Vershawn Ashanti Young, set a very explicit ground rule: no paternalism. This workshop, composed of Oberlin College faculty, staff, and a few students in the Writing Associates Program, focused on preparing educators to embrace the complexity of language and global Englishes by empowering writers to explore and draw from the linguistic communities they belong to in their academic writing.

“No paternalism?” I thought.

Dr. Young followed up on his rule. He explained that often when presenting on allyship in code–meshing, he’s met with reservation from educators. This reservation comes from their greater familiarity with code-switching, which is often described as “the practice of switching in between two or more languages or varieties of language in conversation.” In contrast, code-meshing may be defined as “blending dialects and languages with standard English—as the better pedagogical alternative to code-switching—shifting between dialects or languages in different settings—in teaching literacy to diverse learners.” Teachers explain that they want to prepare students for the world they will face outside of the classroom. They often (claim to) understand the premise and ideological merit behind his approach of allowing language outside of common presentations of academic English into the classroom, but fear that students will not be armed with weapons for success when they leave the classroom.

I understand this line of thinking. In fact, I once believed it. It comes from a sense of obligation. We, the people allegedly carrying certain knowledges, must relay those to others so that they can move forward in their pursuit of success. This was a struggle that I negotiated nearly every time I stepped foot in the Writing Center to start a tutoring session.

The struggle here became deeply personal as it is directly related to communities I belong to. Growing up in a predominantly black community in an urban center, I was frequently exposed to African-American Vernacular English (AAVE), so I understood the complex but cogent systems and structures therein from a young age. At the same time, I was fortunate to attend a suburban parochial school and participate in English programs with strong focuses on standard rudimentary English conventions.

When I entered my first college course, code-switching had become second nature to me. I knew how to speak and represent myself in the classroom, a predominantly white setting, and how to speak on the block. At that time, I understood them to be two separate environments where the linguistic convention of one did not ever venture into the other.

As I’ve matriculated through a series of undergraduate courses spanning several different academic disciplines, the lines of rhetorical performance I once saw as rigid and defined have become flexible and attractive to challenge. I’ve written “y’all” in submitted assignments. I’ve used terms from my communities that have historically been excluded from the spaces of academia.

But what does this have to do with teaching and allyship and all that good stuff?

When I first started tutoring in the Writing Center, I frequently found myself at a displeasing binary. I thought, “Do I edit this phrasing because I know it deviates from commonly perceived standard academic English, at the risk of modifying this author’s voice and taking their agency, or do I let it go and let the professor have at it with a red pen?” In some ways, I felt guilty for this privilege. I’d been privileged with the knowledge necessary for successful assimilation into a predominantly white academy. For me to withhold that, I felt, would be unfair and incongruent with the principles of equity I strove to reach as a Writing Associate.

While I haven’t fully come to terms with the multiple points of intersection that arise from a flawed Academy and the even greater flawed world, I did settle on this: let students make the choice. At the end of the day, writing tutors provide tools, while students ultimately have agency over their work. They are the captains of their own ship. Writing instructors can teach what has been commonly understood as traditional academic rhetoric as long as we make it abundantly clear that it is not doctrine. Students are free to make their own rhetorical choices and should know the consequences and benefits that can come from doing so.

Going even further, writing tutors shouldn’t be protecting students. They don’t need our paternalism or guardianship. What we could all benefit from is our advocacy. Let’s build a world in which students can thrive as they proudly represent the linguistic communities they belong to.

Don’t be a shield for students against the Academy; fight the systems in the Academy that force you to feel as though students need shielding.

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