Working through the tension of when it is wise to inform a student that all writing, even the very assignments they receive in class can, and sometimes must, be interrogated is no small canal to dredge. Often students are asked to write papers that are culturally insensitive or ethnocentric. For example, it may seem wise to assign students to find cultural artifacts unique to the U.S. legal system and articulate its importance to current U.S. ideologies regarding justice. However, to ask an international student to articulate how a U.S. legal artifact is related to a U.S. ideology of justice puts this student at a severe cultural disadvantage. What am I to do in this situation? How am I to assist students new to this culture articulate how a symbol signifies a U.S. ideal? How can I not spoon-feed them the information?
I am not at all suggesting that these types of assignments are intentionally microaggressive against or purposely excluding those persons wholly unfamiliar with U.S. culture and ideology. However, it is important to understand that all writing carries inherent assumptions, biases, and exclusions that can, and do, render certain bodies to the margins of academic writing and the academy at large. When students receive these assignments, they receive messages—messages about not only what should be done in the assignment, but also messages about how much knowledge the professor assumes they bring into class.
When clients enter the Writing Center afraid and confused, seeking assistance if only to show that their confusion is a cultural and not a cognitive one, I wonder what damage we can do with one simple assignment. I also wonder, what damage control must I do in a matter of minutes, minutes that may not be sufficient to stymie the damage of an exclusionary assignment?