Infantilization of minority college students
Do you remember Ebonics? It was a term invented about 55 years ago to describe the variant of English that black Americans often use when speaking to one another. It made headlines in 1996 when the Oakland, CA School Board passed a resolution aimed at improving African American school performance by treating Ebonics as a separate language and as a tool to improve the acquisition of Standard English as in others Forms was used of bilingual teaching. Although the board never intended teachers to teach ebonics, the resolution (as described by African-American linguist John McWhorter in his book Losing the Race) soon became embroiled in racial controversy between critics who misrepresented the resolution’s intent and defenders , some of which were advocates of black separatism who accused the critics of racism.
The Ebonics controversy is now a thing of the past. Instead, the apex of educational theory is led by a scholar who argues that grading students based on the quality of their work, rather than their perceived “effort” or the mere quantity of their contributions, is inherently racist and makes a substantial contribution to inferiority academic achievement by black students. The leading proponent of this position is Asao Inoue, Professor and Assistant Dean of Academic Affairs, Justice, and Inclusion at Arizona State University’s College of Integrative Sciences and Arts. He chairs the University Composition and Communication Conference in 2019, a former member of the CCCC Executive Committee and the Executive Board of the Council of Writing Program Administrators. The CCCC itself has awarded Inoue two Outstanding Book Publications Awards in the past half a dozen years.
As would be expected of a respected scholar, Professor Inoue complements his base salary and royalties by regularly doing the rounds of the college lecture circuit. On January 21, Inoue offered a Zoom lecture sponsored by several departments of the College of the Holy Cross (where I teach) that was attended by a significant number of faculties and administrators from Holy Cross and other academic institutions who joined concerned with explaining the use of what he calls “work-based assessment contracts for socially equitable teaching”.
Inoue began his presentation by asking the audience to take a ten-minute break to engage in “mindfulness” (an unusual step for a lecturer, for sure). He then offered a presentation, the nature of which can be illustrated by some of the PowerPoint slides on which he relied. After a first slide with the simple legend “Brief argument about the supremacy of the white language and standards for grading”, the next offered a unidirectional flowchart (under the heading “Language travel with people”), which was generated by reading balloons (from left to ) was illustrated on the right) “Language”, “People”, “Language Standards”, “Good Writing” (the latter expression in fear quotes) and “White supremacy”. I’ll just add one more thing here: “Bottom line, if you use a single standard to assess student writing in courses that use and teach writing, you are reproducing the predominance of white language.” Might be noted here is not black himself – his parents were Japanese and European – but he considers himself some kind of volunteer black person since he lived in a poor black neighborhood as a young child.)
As readers can tell from these slides, Inoue’s presentation was not of an intellectually high standard. (Or at least subtlety isn’t one of his strengths.) However, it was received with great warmth by his audience. While some asked for clarification on the application of his recommendations for grading student work and even expressed a little skepticism about its feasibility, only one professor openly questioned his claims about the inherently racist nature of quality-based grading. It is alarming to believe that academics in his audience, on the Holy Cross and elsewhere, will actually seek to use his methods to combat alleged white supremacy in their classes. As Inoue was recognized in his award-winning book (that is, it was recognized by an organization he served on the board of directors), Antiracist Writing Assessment Ecologies: Teaching and Writing for a Socially Just Future, he replaces quality judgments in his classes with devices such as creating “project headings” with his students and signing “employment contracts” by the students, which will be used to judge them based on the amount of work they have submitted.
Rather than striving to inspire his minority students with the hope that regardless of their economic or family background, they can actually learn to write well, Inoue encourages them to attribute the difficulty or pain they experience to other people’s racism.
Something of the character of Inoue’s own writing can be inferred from the following, somewhat randomly selected sentence: “Thus the project heading was a place of standardization for a locally generated SEAE [Standard Edited American English] and a white racial habitus depicted in the articles the students used to induce writing dimensions. “I counted four cases of mismatch between subject and verb number only in the first paragraph of the appendix to the“ Assessment Contract ”that Inoue issued for a writing class that he enrolls in Antiracist Writing Assessment Ecologies. In this regard, Inoue is a man who practices what he preaches.
Given what he calls “physical pain or discomfort” that hard work often causes, this translates into what he calls two of his students “oh shit” moments, Inoue (the one about one he offered Intensive Writing Course reported) at Fresno State University) attempted to “recognize the sensual and emotional aspects of the job of reading, writing, and getting reviews of their work”. He is not aware of this in order to “change students’ attitudes towards work, but rather to acknowledge and possibly explore the feelings that go with any work. . . and perhaps allow these feelings to be a first clue to productive work, especially considering that most students have such experiences with writing, reading, and assessing in school because they write unreflective, hegemonic, and often racist assessments that these works usually exist in the. “
From these remarks it can be seen that Inoue’s usual manner with his students is no less patronizing than the one he demonstrated to his academic audience on January 21st. Most worryingly, though, Inoue accuses other educators of racism when in fact he does, his own association of standards for good writing with “white supremacy” that is truly racist. Rather than striving to inspire his minority students with the hope that regardless of their economic or family background, they can actually learn to write well – which will pave the way to success in business, law, teaching, or politics – he encourages them to the difficulty of blaming or pain they experience from other people’s racism.
How would he explain the rhetorical heights reached by Frederick Douglass, who was born in a far worse condition than any of Inoue’s disciples and yet – as a result of hard work – mastered the English language as an abolitionist speaker and essayist so well that some viewers did it were wrong? Presumably he relied on a ghostwriter? What about the eloquence of other black leaders like Booker T. Washington, who like Douglass was born into slavery, trained at the Hampton Institute, and founded the rightly renowned Tuskegee Institute, as described in his book Out of Slavery; WEB DuBois, who did his doctorate in Germany, the home of another Eurocentric language, and then founded the NAACP; and Martin Luther King Jr., who inspired so many whites and blacks to support the civil rights movement? Does Inoue believe that Judges Thurgood Marshall and Clarence Thomas owed their command of the language of the law to privileged upbringing? What about the rhetorical feats of many other black ministers, both present and past, especially in the south? For these men, mastery of standard English, far from a tool of “white supremacy,” was an instrument of black liberation. Nevertheless, Inoue encourages his students to reject such achievements or at least to ignore them.
The causes of the widespread under-fulfillment of blacks and Latinos in today’s schools are diverse, but hardly unclear: high rates of single mothers (a problem first made public in Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 report on “The Negro Family”) ; unmotivated public school teachers who are guaranteed a lifetime tenure; judicial restrictions on the ability of school administrators to suspend disruptive students who are making it impossible for their classmates to study; the government’s failure to support proven alternatives to regular public schools in the form of charter schools or vouchers to fund attendance at private and parish schools; and the gang “culture” in which so many poor young people grow up. However, it is an act of sheer demagoguery to blame white supremacy for the lack of education.
Inoue presents himself as a kind of liberator who removes obstacles to the academic success of black students. But such a label is an insult to generations of eloquent black leaders – and to any educator who encourages the pursuit of excellence in students of all races.