Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Working Against Racism: a Review of Antiracist Writing Assessment Ecologies


Inoue, A.  (2015). Antiracist writing assessment ecologies:Teaching and assessing writing for a socially just future. Fort Collins, CO: WAC Clearinghouse/Parlor Press. 

By Katrina Love Miller, University of Nevada, Reno

Before I wrote this review, I did a key term search in the JWA archive for race and racism.  I got one hit: Diane Kelly-Riley (2011).  I did this search because one of Asao Inoue’s premises is that we have not yet adequately addressed race and racism in our theories of writing assessment.  According to this admittedly cursory check, Inoue is right. 

As practitioners and scholars of writing assessment, we have an ethical obligation to consider how writing assessments can unfairly impact our increasingly diverse student populations based on their race, ethnicity, gender, multilinguality, sexuality, and other social markers.  However, there has been renewed scholarly interest in writing assessment as a vehicle for social justice (Inoue and Poe 2012; Poe, Elliot, Cogan Jr., Nurudeen Jr.  2014).  In other words, we are not only looking for potential problems to be solved, but also reflecting on our practices as potential sites for inequality.  In Antiracist Writing Assessment Ecologies, Inoue challenges readers to not only take the stance that our classroom assessments of student writing should do no harm to minority students, but to go a step further by using writing assessment as a vehicle to promote social justice. 

Inoue constructs an antiracist ecological theory he contends is capable of informing the design and implementation of more fair and just classroom writing assessments.  Chapters one and two are theory-building chapters wherein Inoue lays the foundation of his concept of antiracist classroom writing assessment ecologies.  In chapter one, he offers robust definitions of key terms like race, racial formation, and racism but emphasizes his term racial habitus as the most useful way to think about how racism is manifested in writing classrooms, consciously or unconsciously.  For example, he argues that race is a factor in most if not all classroom writing assessments because such judgments of student writing are typically measured in terms of students’ ability to approximate the dominant discourse, which he says is always already closely associated with white racial formations in the U.S.  (p.  31).  He continues that “as judges of English in college writing classrooms, we cannot avoid this racializing of language when we judge writing, nor can we avoid the influence of race in how we read and value the words and ideas of others” (p.  33).  Inoue ends chapter one with a clear articulation of racial habitus, which builds upon Pierre Bourdieu’s term habitus to consider race as socially constructed in three dimensions: discursively/linguistically, material and bodily, performatively.  Racial habitus, Inoue explains, is a conglomerate of “structuring structures" or principles that construct racial designations and identities (p.  43).  Such structures maybe be seen in each of these three dimensions because “some [are] marked on the body, some in language practices, some in the ways we interact or work, write, and read, some in the way we behave or dress, some in the processes and differential opportunities we have to live where we do (or get to live where we can), or where we hang out, work, go to school, etc.” (p.  43).

Chapter two focuses on defining anti-racist ecologies as productive, as a system, and as a Marxian historic bloc.  Pulling together diverse theoretical traditions, this chapter constructs antiracist writing assessment ecologies as paces that provide sustainable and fair assessments by engaging in inquiry about the nature of judgment against the backdrop of the normative “white racial habitus” found in most writing classrooms (p.  10).  The ecological perspective, which seems to build upon Wardle and Roozen’s (2012) ecological model of writing assessment (although Inoue does not directly discuss their model) builds a definition of this space by blending together Frierian critical pedagogy, Buddhist theories of interconnectedness, and Marxian political theory.  Such a theoretical blend, he contends, provides “a structural and political understanding of ecology that doesn’t abandon the inherent interconnectedness of all people and things, and maintains the importance of an antiracist agenda for writing assessments” (p.  77).   In turn, this understanding can enable practitioners of classroom writing assessment to reconceive of classroom writing assessment as “cultivating and nurturing complex systems that are centrally about sustaining fairness and diverse complexity” (p.  12).

The next three chapters build from the framework in chapters one and two to explain and analyze classroom writing assessment ecologies.  Chapter three breaks down such ecologies into seven related elements—power, parts, purposes, people, processes, products, and places—and chapter four describes the assessment ecology in Inoue’s upper-division writing course at Fresno State and analyzes students’ writing (the author has since moved to the University of Washington, Tacoma).  In the final chapter, Inoue condenses the theoretical concepts from earlier chapters into an accessible and generative heuristic for antiracist writing assessment ecologies in the form of a list of questions that could help writing teachers construct their own antiracist classroom writing assessment ecologies. 

Inoue adeptly weaves in micro-narratives about his students as well as his own experiences as a person of color.  The rhythm of these reflections helps the reader periodically surface from the theoretical discussion to pause and consider the racial consequences of assessment.  For instance, Inoue reflects: “I will be the first to admit that I lost my ghetto English a long time ago (but not the swearing) for the wrong reasons, for racist reasons.  I cannot help that.  I was young and didn’t understand racism or language.  I just felt and experienced racism, and some of it was due to how I talked and wrote in school” (23).

Though classroom assessments remain Inoue’s main focus, he does take occasional detours to discuss the racial consequences of larger-scale assessments readers are likely familiar with, including IQ tests, the SAT, and CSU’s English Placement Test.  His discussion of the EPT’s consequences, which he says paint “a stunning racial picture,” is particularly insightful.  The test, which is purported a language competency test and is scored in blind readings by CSU faculty readers, consistently produces racially uneven results.  Inoue uses this as evidence that “language is connected to the racialized body” (p.  35).

JWA readers may recall Richard Haswell’s 2013 response to Inoue and Poe’s collection Race and Writing Assessment.  Haswell (2013) argues “any writing assessment shaped by anti-racism will still be racism or, if that term affronts, will be stuck in racial contradictions” (para.  6).   Inoue’s new book might face a similar criticism, but he bluntly addresses such criticisms.  Take, for example, his agreement with Haswell (2013) that we are all implicated in racism, even as we take-up an antiracist agenda.  Indeed, as Inoue explains, “racism is still here with us in our classrooms” (p.  9) and “You don’t have to actively try to be racist for your writing assessments to be racist” (p.  9).  Inoue argues that such contradictions become less problematic if we consider the point of such work is to eradicate racism, not race itself.  However, “We cannot eradicate racism in our writing classrooms until we actually address it first in our writing assessments, and our theories about what makes up our writing assessments” (p.  9).  Inoue similarly acknowledges in the introduction that his argument may rub some the wrong way because teachers as practitioners of classroom writing assessment might be uncomfortable with his assertion that our judgments are racially informed.  But, Inoue reiterates, “Any denial of racism in our writing assessments is a white illusion” (p.  24). 

Inoue’s book is important for its productive and respectful critiques of other writing assessment scholars for their limited treatment or avoidance of racism, including Brian Huot, Patricia Lynne, Peggy O’Neill, Bob Broad, Bill Condon, Kathleen Yancey, and Ed White.  He devotes most of this critique to problematizing Huot’s emphasis on individualism as problematic in its avoidance of racism in writing assessment.  “By referencing individualism, by referring to all students as individuals” (p.  21), Inoue argues, Huot’s theory and model fail to capture “broader patterns by any number of social dimensions” (p.  21).  Inoue sees his antiracist agenda as something that can help bring issues of racism to the forefront of future theoretical discussions of writing assessment. 

Inoue also confronts the fact that antiracist theory and practice often encounter resistance in the form of rationalizations of rival causes for white students’ better performance rates (e.g., some students simply do not write well and those students are sometimes students of color or multilingual).  While he agrees that students should not be judged on a different scale because they happen to be from minority groups, he emphasizes that it is the judgment that should be under examination because those judgments might be biased in their orientation to a discourse that privileges Standardized Edited American English and other discourses of whiteness or might exist in broader ecologies of writing assessment that might be racist themselves (6-7).

For conscientious writing teachers and WPAs who as leaders want to cultivate attention to the racial politics of writing assessment and perhaps further such an antiracist ecology that Inoue proposes, this book will provide a theoretically informed and accessible vocabulary for thinking about how to enhance assessment in their own writing classrooms, a useful heuristic for designing antiracist classroom writing assessments, and a sampling of Inoue’s classroom materials (a grading contract for an upper-division writing course, reflection letter prompt, weekly writing assessment tasks). 

Inoue’s argument is familiar in its implication that writing assessment will always cast a shadow on pedagogy because as a writing teacher, what you assess “trumps what you say or what you attempt to do with your students” (9).  However, Inoue invites us to reexamine our pedagogy and assessment practices to ask if writing assessments are not only productively connected to programmatic objectives like course outcomes, but also informed by a sense of ethics and fairness.  In this way, Antiracist Writing Assessment Ecologies complements recent work on writing assessment as social justice, including the joint NCTE-JWA webinar “NoTest is Neutral: Writing Assessments, Equity, Ethics, and Social Justice” and a forthcoming special issue of JWA on ethics and writing assessment.  Inoue admirably deploys concepts that are cutting-edge in writing assessment theory, which makes his book an exciting and timely addition to the canon of critical studies of writing assessment.

References

Hawell, R.  (2013).  Writing assessment and race studies sub specie aeternitatis: A response to race and writing assessment.  Journal of Writing Assessment Reading List Retrieved from http://jwareadinglist.blogspot.com/2013/01/writing-assessment-and-race-studies-sub_4.html

Inoue, A.  B., & Poe, M.  (Eds.).  (2012).  Race and writing assessment.  New York, NY: Peter Lang.  

Kelly-Riley, D.  (2011).  Validity inquiry of race and shared evaluation practices in a large-scale, university-wide writing portfolio assessment.  Journal of Writing Assessment4(1).  Retrieved from http://journalofwritingassessment.org/article.php?article=53

Poe, M., Elliot, N., Cogan, J.  A., & Nurudeen, T.  G.  (2014).  The Legal and the local: Using disparate impact analysis to understand the consequences of writing assessment.  College Composition and Communication, 65(4), 588-611.





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