Decolonial Options for Writing Consultations

I have been a writing consultant for nearly 7 years and I have seen many students struggle with the nuanced rules and regulations imposed by academic writing and convention. These rules and regulations are troublesome for native speakers as much as international students. Often times instructors suggest that students come to The Writing Center for help on their “Standard English”. In many ways, “Standard English” is the vehicle of furthered colonial oppression due to the fact that there is no actual standard. Disciplinary writing is standard within a discipline, and sure there are specific rules that are generally applicable in most contexts, but all of these rules can and are broken daily in successful well thought out ways.

As a consultant, I see my job as support for students attempting the balancing act that is academic writing. Over the last few weeks I have engaged in a personal exercise to further my understandings of Decolonial theory in the context of writing center consultations. In this post I  weave the concept of options for Decolonial thought, as laid out by  Walter Mignolo and Shawn Wilson, into productive tools for understanding the larger academic system and the expectations this system imposes on students’ writing.

Why is this important you ask? The answer to this question is a difficult one, because academic colonality functions on multiple levels and not all of these levels are evil. In a writing context, understanding the “language of the oppressor” (Fanon, Richardson, Perryman-Clark) holds power that enables students to pass, to achieve, to graduate. None of these things are bad, but there is a sense of oppression that often times goes un-discussed.

I see it as part of my job to enter this discussion. When I am working with clients and we are struggling together, I find it useful to reflect on why this process is necessary. Last week I was in the middle of a consultation with a student who was struggling with understanding the function of the article ‘the’. This was an instance where I found myself providing options to understand, but in the end I had to acknowledge that the inclusion or exclusion of ‘the’ does not impede comprehension. This student stated bluntly that they needed to know why their instructor focused so much on grammar when the class that they were in was Marketing.

This presents an interesting situation to me, as a consultant, because English was not this student’s primary language and was in fact the third language they were learning/knew, but there was a continued push for this student to conform to “Standard English”. Within the discussion to understand articles, we talked about how neither of the languages the student knew used articles, and we came to the conclusion that the focus on grammar thus becomes a tool to function within the academe, not some life sustaining knowledge that provides meaning and depth to live, but a hurdle to acknowledge and choose to overcome, or not.

As an active learner of Decolonial theory, I see this acknowledgement as a Decolonial option for students. This is one example, but an example that occurs frequently. How do you explain to a student who possesses mastery of multiple languages that these formalities are not a reflection on their intelligence but rather an issue of passing? I have found that talking about the students options often times helps us both get to this point, because we both know internally that “Standard English” serves a function in academic discourse, but rarely reflects where students are in their classrooms. As a consultant, I believe it is my job to help empower students and sometimes this means providing options, other times it means breaking down the academic structures to be understood as optional. I try to help my students understand the outcomes of resisting theses structures as well as following them, but these conversations are situated on the client’s terms and needs, not mine.

4 thoughts on “Decolonial Options for Writing Consultations

  1. Thank you for the thoughtful post! I really appreciate that your take on Decolonial theory is, as you say, “situated on the client’s terms and needs,” because I struggle with keeping the focus there myself. It’s difficult for me to resist the urge to take a side.

    But I think a crucial part of our job is making those underlying ideological systems more visible for students. It’s the only way I know to construct a sensible answer to the kinds of questions you pose here. It’s also the most honest answer, I think. To pretend to anything else, like saying that “Standard English” is innately “better” for instance, is to cover-up or mask the ideological inflection of language.

    I think being clear about WHY the expectations are as they are is just as important as being clear about WHAT the expectations are in the first place. One without the other feels like an incomplete education to me.

    1. I totally agree with you. It gets difficult to sort out the differences sometimes, but you hit it spot on. It is the dissection and understanding combination of why and what that have been really successful in helping students for me. I am amazed at how willing my clients are in trying to understand when we work together to uncover both of these larger ideas. It is one way that Decolonial theory can help students understand the forces that they are working with and can provide our clients with the tools to accomplish their own goals in ways that allow the students to consciously place their goals in relation to the larger structure.

  2. Definitely! I get the sense with many of my students that they know (or perhaps, that they feel) how these hierarchies and ideological structures underpin so much – but they have difficulty articulating their sense of “how things are.” And without having someone in a position of power (even the relatively modest power of a writing center) acknowledge and validate those thoughts or feelings, I worry they’ll learn not to question and critique those structures, but to question and doubt themselves. Students who are perpetually on the losing end of these hierarchies can also internalize those feelings of being “less than” or inadequate, blame themselves rather than the inequity of the system, and that’s a terrible thing.

  3. What can we do to further incorporate these ideas into every consultation that call for the attention. Certainly it’s time consuming. I hope that this conversation is just the beginning to conversation within the writing center staff and eventually within the university. We as consultants, and those in 395, should question our role as colonizers while working with the Writing Center. Identifying as a colonizer, for me, has been a draining experience, and makes me question the effects of my consulting. We should also think about whether we should strive for decolonization, or non-colonization. I understand this as decolonization is actively working to decolonize, while non-colonizing is trying to not associate or assist the colonization that is happening. Once we have identified ourselves as writing center colonizers, how can we critically think about our methods and conversations in our consultations to fight colonization, or at least make the power structures transparent, and make sure the WHAT and WHY, stated above, are clear. How can we deal with the colonizing role within the writing center staff? If these ideas were talked about in 395 that would be awesome!

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