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Jackson et al. HBCUs in the Composition Conversation.CCC, Dec. 2019. Posted 02/09/2020.

Jackson, Karen Keaton, Hope Jackson, and Dawn N. Hicks Tafari. “We Belong in the Discussion: Including HBCUs in Conversations about Race and Writing.” College Composition and Communication 71.2 (2019): 184-214. Print.

Karen Keaton Jackson, Hope Jackson, and Dawn N. Hicks Tafari note that scholars in composition have written about issues in African-American higher education, but they write that the voices of compositionists who teach at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) “are most noticeably, and perhaps ironically, absent from this conversation in any consistent way” (185). They note scholars writing about the black experience in higher education are “well-meaning,” but that “very few” have actual experience in HBCUs (185). In the authors’ view, this absence casts HBCUs as “the well-mannered Other” referred to by Jacqueline Jones Royster in her 1996 article, “When the First Voice You Hear Is Not Your Own” (186).

The authors write to make the voices of HBCU faculty, especially female faculty, heard in the composition conversation, making visible the value to the field of HBCUs as places where black students are centered and the African American experience is “fully integrated and a part of the curriculum and campus life itself” (188).

Reporting the history of HBCUs, the authors explore the differences between HBCUs and other “minority-serving institutions” (MSIs). They write that only HBCUs and “tribal colleges” serve specific populations as their mission; in other cases, the colleges may be designated as MSIs based on enrollment and this designation may change as enrollments vary (187). The first HBCU, they write, originated in Pennsylvania in 1837 to serve African Americans who could not enroll in white schools; these institutions proliferated during reconstruction. At present, there are approximately one hundred HBCUs designated as such by a 1965 act of Congress (186). In 2015, 76% of HBCU enrollees were black (187).

Elaborating on Keith Gilyard’s 1999 article, “African American Contributions to Composition Studies,” the authors argue that the contributions he notes come largely from HBCUs in existence before the civil rights movement, whose faculty were “vocal, prominent, and actively engaged in discourse about the teaching of writing to our students” (190). They reiterate Gilyard’s reference, for example, to Melvin Butler, chair of the committee that drafted “Students’ Right to Their Own Language” in 1974 (191).

Jackson et al. write that students at HBCUs differ from African American students at primarily white research universities in that they are more likely to be first-generation college enrollees, come from lower-income households, and have experienced under-funded schools. Importantly, in the authors’ view, these students are less likely to have heard Standard English used frequently and are “more likely to speak AAVE [African American Vernacular English] consistently, with little experience with or awareness of code-switching or code-meshing” (189).

Acknowledging work by scholars who do address effective pedagogies for this population, Jackson et al. state that much of this scholarship appears in “‘special’ issues” rather than in the “normative” conversation in “mainstream” journals (192). The authors critique examples of this scholarship as “incomplete” in that it often involves very few students over short periods of time. Moreover, in one case they cite, they argue that including code-meshing in the curriculum as exemplified leaves out the facility with Standard English required if AAVE speakers are to successfully combine the two languages (193-94). In their view, research conducted by and with HBCU students and faculty would come closer to producing a “complete” picture of how such pedagogies work (195).

As an alternative, Jackson et al. discuss the 2014 HBCU Composition Symposium at North Carolina A&T State University, at which HBCU faculty and students collaborated with “nationally recognized faculty and scholars” (195). From this event, the authors recount two “unwelcome stories” (David Wallace) or “hiccup[s],” moments that illustrate the nature and challenges of “cross-boundary discourse” (196). In one example, an HBCU faculty member was invited to participate in a CCCC panel but was unable to attend because of lack of funding, a barrier that the authors argue is a pervasive limitation on the participation of HBCU faculty in matters in which their voices should be foregrounded (196). In the second unwelcome story, an HBCU student challenged a presenter who advocated for code-meshing, “critically interrogat[ing] the benefit” of this strategy in her context (199).

The authors contend that this exchange illustrates the concept of a “hush harbor” (199), a space in which the students in their population are able to speak freely and examine issues affecting them without being judged. Other concepts that the authors identify as guiding effective pedagogy for their students include “othermothering,” in which female HBCU faculty can mentor and nurture students as they enter larger contexts (205).

Similarly, they present “discursive homeplacing” as a process through which students in their classrooms can “explore language as a tool,” again without being judged (202-03). The authors present examples in which the students examine the role of code-meshing and Black English in events such as the George Zimmerman trial and in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. Other pedagogical choices include the use of narratives to permit “double-consciousness writing” as students consider their “collective knowledge” about their complex environments. In the “safe harboring” provided by an HBCU, the authors write, students can practice complex cross-boundary discourse as they challenge teachers’ assumptions about their learning (202-03). Jackson et al. further illustrate their use of students’ social media skills and their strategies to provide literacy options for students for whom cost may be a factor (204).

In the authors’ view, HBCUs furnish students a “unique” environment: “the safe space or hush harbor to freely be themselves without feeling judged or attacked” (204). They illustrate the value of HBCUs by providing data on the prominence of HBCU graduates among African Americans who go on to distinguished and successful careers in science, engineering, and the humanities (209).

Concluding that the voices of HBCU faculty and the educational space they represent are essential if the field of composition is to fulfill its mandates of inclusion and empowerment, the authors propose resolutions to enhance their ability to participate in the professional conversation. Funding support to attend conferences and conduct research, as well as representation and designated board positions on national and regional organizations, they propose, would result in the kind of cross-boundary collaboration and discussion that would bring their students from the periphery of college writing education into the mainstream (206-09).