College Composition Weekly: Summaries of research for college writing professionals

Read, Comment On, and Share News of the Latest from the Rhetoric and Composition Journals

Marotta, Calley. University Writing as White Property. CE, Jan. 2019. Posted 02/20/2019.

Marotta, Calley. “Who Has the Right to Write? Custodian Writing and White Property in the University.” College English 81.3 (2019): 163-82. Print.

Calley Marotta analyzes the ways that custodial workers at a “Midwestern, predominantly white, public university” (166) experience writing through their positions as support staff in a cultural institution in which writing is central. Stating that studies of people in such positions are rare (163), Marotta reports on observations and interviews from a “larger qualitative case study” (166) to make her case that in such settings, writing is “White property” with which the minority participants she studied have complex relationships (164).

Marotta states that 53% of the fifteen custodial workers at the university were Latino; the seven who took part in her study were Latino and male. All but one were first-generation immigrants (166). She drew on “feminist and critical race theory,” as well as “Latino/a critical theory” (165) to examine the workers as writers both in terms of their social interactions and the material aspects of writing, such as access to equipment and production of artifacts (167).

Her research addresses scholarship that views writing as having cultural and exchange value, thus coming to serve as “property” in power hierarchies (165). Marotta sees this property as “constructed as white” by “those who regulate writing” and its circulation within power configurations (165). She cites scholars such as John Trimbur and Jenny Cook-Gumperz to argue that safeguarding literacy is an ongoing function of “dominant castes” who attempt to block access for those not considered deserving (164).

Her study presents cases in which the Latino staff members find their access to and use of writing affected by what critical race theorist Sara Ahmed calls “institutional whiteness” (165) as manifested within a “writing-intensive” setting (164). Marotta argues that even though the workers are seen as outside the privilege associated with writing, they “are indeed workplace writers, because they write in, on, and for the institution as well as for themselves” (164).

Her research results in four categories of analysis: ways in which the workers and their writing were surveilled and “overwritten” as well as ways in which the workers used “writing back” to create agency in their positions and were positioned to “serve” through their writing (168).

To illustrate her category of surveillance, Marotta describes her observations of “Roberto,” a recent hire at the institution who had been in the United States since the age of seven (168). For Marotta, Roberto’s job as collector of discarded materials is that of protecting the writing that goes on in the privileged spaces of classrooms and offices (169). Roberto discusses his uncertainty over being allowed to use “public kiosks” for computer work during breaks even though, in a training session Marotta observed, workers were told they could use these resources (169).

Marotta recounts that in this training session, a “white, male, English-speaking facilitator” drew on an anecdote of a “custodian” using a professor’s office computer while the professor was “log[ged] in remotely” to remind employees that they were not authorized to use computers in private spaces like offices (169). In Marotta’s view, this kind of admonishment “cultivate[s] an atmosphere of danger circulating around custodial writing, and specifically, the use of university property to create it” (169). Within this atmosphere, Marotta writes, Roberto brings his brother’s laptop to work to study for his GED, thus “negotiating university property figured as white” in order to act as a writer (170).

“André” illustrates Marotta’s claim that workers’ products are “overwritten” as the white institution reasserts that writing is White property. A native-born U.S. citizen identifying as Puerto Rican who previously attended the university as an engineering major, André took time off to reconsider his goals and signed on as “lead worker on the custodial crew” because he had an unfulfilled student housing lease (171).

André reports on a scatological graffito scrawled on a notice about proper waste disposal he posted in a restroom. Acknowledging that the graffito may have been the kind of joking text common in restrooms, Marotta argues that for the writer of the scrawl, the “joke” was “the idea that custodians could make requests and even demands of those around them via writing” (171). Similarly, when a wallet disappeared, André believed that flyers instructing employees to ask “suspicious individuals” if they needed help led three different people to ask him such questions while he was posting official notices. Marotta argues that “this flyer functioned to metaphorically overwrite” André’s notices, thus, again, claiming writing for whiteness (172).

The case of “Henry” explores how, in Marotta’s view, employees are both subject to “demands” from the white institution and able to “make demands of [the institution’s] actors in ways that, for some, may be worth the risk” (175). A lipsticked note on a washroom mirror asked questions about maintenance that Henry saw as attacking his work. Moreover, he found that his professional background as a college-educated electrician during his life in Cuba was discounted due to what he considered racism (174). At the same time, despite his difficulties with English, Henry wrote on garbage containers to instruct faculty and staff where to correctly deposit trash (174-75). This act of “writ[ing]back,” for Marotta, both “made [Henry’s] job a little easier and asserted his presence in the university space” (175).

Marotta reports that custodians wrote notes when turning in found property and often received notes of appreciation in return, writing that, for Marotta, documents their value to the university (176). This aspect of “writing to serve” is further illustrated with her study of “Jesus,” whose friendliness and collegiality across the university class tiers earned him written testaments to his worth to the institution from both the university and an individual student (176-77). Jesus is shown using his own literacy abilities to make signs that further the university’s mission. According to Marotta, when custodians are able to “negotiate” the university’s limits on writing in such ways, their efforts

reflect how the difference between custodial writing that is institutionally resisted and accepted is the extent to which participants seem to be writing to serve students and staff. (177)

Marotta urges composition faculty and staff to address workplace writing of the sort she describes as an issue of access and of who counts as writers. This project “can play a role in exposing such structures of whiteness and shifting expectations about who writes and has the right to do so within university spaces” (178).

1 Comment

Coleman et al. Risky Equity Work. TETYC, May 2016. Posted 06/07/2016.

Coleman, Taiyon J., Renee DeLong, Kathleen Sheerin DeVore, Shannon Gibney, and Michael C. Kuhne. “The Risky Business of Engaging Racial Equity in Writing Instruction: A Tragedy in Five Acts.” Teaching English in the Two-Year College 43.4 (2016): 347-70. Web. 27 May 2016.

Taiyon J. Coleman, Renee DeLong, Kathleen Sheerin DeVore, Shannon Gibney, and Michael C. Kuhne recount their experiences attempting to deal with equity issues at Minneapolis Community and Technical College (MCTC) between 2005 and 2015 (348, 353). They argue that white dominance is entrenched in higher education and that faculty, administrations, and institutions must recognize and act on the material and emotional consequences of this dominance.

The article grows out of a presentation at CCCC in Tampa in 2015. It is structured as “Five Acts”; each author presents personal perspectives illustrating the struggles involved in making the curriculum of MCTC more responsive to the students it serves.

Michael C. Kuhne recounts his participation in curriculum changes designed to restructure the English department and its developmental writing program so that they no longer mirrored the pedagogical assumptions of the older white male faculty (348) but rather more nearly met the needs of an increasingly diverse student population. Of special concern in this shift was improving low retention and graduation rates, particularly among African American men and Native American students (349). The developmental sequence shifted from a “formal, structural approach” built around paragraph structure and timed tests to a portfolio system and then to the Accelerated Learning model in which developmental students enroll in regular first-year writing but participate in additional class time with their instructors (349-50).

These changes led to some success, and Kuhne was among the faculty instrumental in changing hiring practices to bring the faculty make-up more in line with student demographics (352). But Kuhne contends that because of his “naïveté and white privilege,” he “was not able to see that simply hiring faculty of color without changing the culture within the department and institution would not move equity forward” (352).

DeVore follows with a history of changes at the college that, she writes, show “How We Broke” (352). Central to her account is the effort to include a request in the hiring language that new hires exhibit “an awareness of Critical Race Theory [CRT] and a demonstrated connection to communities of color” (Position Description, qtd. in Coleman et al. 354). DeVore offers definitions of Critical Race Theory, including one from Tara J. Yosso: “A critical race curriculum exposes the white privilege supported by traditional curriculum structures and challenges schools to dismantle them” (qtd. in Coleman et al. 354). DeVore argues that the new hiring language “simply referred to the need for applicants who understand that we live and teach in a nation with a raced social order” (354).

Including these qualifications resulted in new hires, several of color, changing the department makeup. However, a white male adjunct who had not been hired brought discrimination charges against four members of the hiring committee (355). After a “yearlong investigation,” the committee members were cleared but were required to strike the CRT language from the hiring language (355).

Meanwhile, a new hire of color acquired funding for series of workshops with Tim Lensmire of the University of Minnesota (356). After the first workshop meeting, DeVore reports, “a majority of faculty of color asked to caucus out into two groups, one for faculty of color, one for white faculty, as levels of experience, awareness, and understanding of white racial identity formation and white privilege were painfully low in the combined session” (356). DeVore states that this practice was “a common move in racial equity work,” but in her view, it led to a drop in workshop participation; subsequently, the new hire resigned (356). DeVore recounts a final department meeting dominated by emotions as faculty of color expressed their frustrations with the department (356). According to DeVore, the program has not been able to return to constructive equity work in the three years since (357).

Shannon Gibney adds her account of returning to the mass communications classroom after a personal health and emotional trauma and attempting to begin a discussion of “the legacy of ongoing racism in American life” (357). A “small group of students” exhibited what Gibney describes as “animosity at this black female body in front of them” (357); their reactions led to a reprimand from the college vice president that cast Gibney’s “tone as ‘defensive, angry, and disrespectful'” (358). She was ordered to attend training sessions to “learn to model ‘civility'” (358). She reports being the only faculty member of the 172 who had faced student complaints to be “disciplined” (358). After two appeals, as her case was about to enter arbitration that would make the case documents public, the president removed a letter of reprimand from her file (358). She reports being “offered ‘a blank check’ to leave MCTC altogether” (359).

Gibney argues that her willingness to speak up led to the unease with which administrators and colleagues regarded her. In her view, institutional pressures generated within a white-supremacist system act to silence those who would critique the status quo (360).

Renee DeLong, a “white, child-free lesbian,” was moved to protest the establishment of a creative-writing associates’ degree because she sees such courses as invested in white privilege. However, she found her role in the discussion “just erased” in favor of the voices of the black women faculty (362). This experience, in her view, suggests the need for victims of oppression to recognize their interconnectedness, as called for in the 1977 Combahee River Collective’s Manifesto (363). She urges attention to black LBGT women (362) “through the lenses of both critical race theory and queer theory” (363). White faculty, she maintains, must move beyond making claims about their love for students of color to recognize that their motives, in her description, are born of a sense of themselves as students’ “white savior[s]” (363). She deplores “this grandiose vision of pedagogical prowess” as “damaging [to] the health and lives of colleagues and students of color alike” (364).

Taiyon J. Colman discusses the degree to which she contends most educators see dominantly white institutions and classrooms as “normal” (365). She draws on her own experience as a marginalized student to suggest that a context in which the majority of faculty and the bulk of the administration are “institutionally constructed as white” (366) cannot serve student populations that are largely non-white (365). She argues that racial constructions of the type she describes deliver a message to black students that they are “not supposed to be there”:

If I am not supposed to be there through the continued normalization of racially constructed and dominantly white spaces, places, and teaching positions, then who, too, is still not socially, historically, and institutionally constructed to be in the writing or literature classrooms? (366)

She agrees with Gibney that efforts to address this problem result in the derogation of those who speak up (366). She offers eight preliminary steps for addressing equity issues (367), focusing on rejection of “silence” and “rationalization”; attention to institutional and systemic accountability for the development of equity (367-68); and recognition by privileged faculty of their own responsibility for these changes (367). She emphasizes the importance of “moving forward collectively” because “achieving equity benefits all members of the institution and the communities that we serve” (368; emphasis original).