CCCC 2014 Reviews

"RNF 2014: 'Accessing Race in Our Research Journeys: Racial Methodologies and Researching Racial Formations'”

Reviewed by Anjali Pattanayak (ar-pattanayak@wiu.edu)

Gina M. Merys, Creighton University, Omaha, NE
Risa P. Gorelick, College of St. Elizabeth, Morristown, NJ

Asao B. Inoue, Fresno State University

"The violence of literacy"

Dr. Asao Inoue, Associate Professor of Rhetoric and Composition and the Special Assistant to the Provost for Writing-Across-the-Curriculum at Fresno State University, introduced this idea in his 2014 Plenary Address at the Research Network Forum.

When I first heard Inoue use that phrase it was alarming until I considered the many students who have been crushed by educational experiences that I have encountered as a student, a literacy volunteer and a teacher for College Composition I. In several of the literacy narratives that students have submitted they have recounted the firm belief that they were terrible writers and would always be terrible writers based on their experiences in high school. The turning point in my life, when I decided that I was first interested in educational outreach, came when I tutored a young learning-disabled man through the Adult Literacy Coalition who was determined to succeed in spite each of his teachers in high school ruling him stupid and lazy. He graduated from high school with a second grade reading level and, within a couple of years of tutoring, he was acting as a teachers aid to help other students taking classes with the Adult Literacy Coalition to prepare for their GED test and aspiring to become a teacher himself as he worked towards taking college level classes. He persevered in spite of the violence of literacy that he experienced.

In his plenary address, Inoue introduced himself as having once been a failing student like the one I tutored. He was "A brown kid marked for failure." This is why the issue of assessment, racial formation and research hit so close to home with him. He talked about how being marked for failure was a violence of literacy and noted that there are connections between failure and race that need to be understood and addressed.

Inoue described the beginnings of his research into racial structures in education as occurring over ten years ago. He drew connections with the journeys of exploration and how these journeys resulted in experiencing the other and the development of racial classifications and orientalism.

Understanding how global exploration influenced racial formation is important for understanding the way that judging the quality of writing can produce failure, especially for minority students. Inoue noted that this is especially problematic because quality is a generalization that is based on academic English, which most students don't speak.

Inoue asserted that rather than rewarding the already rewarded, a WPA should pay more attention to students who are struggling. He argued for using grade contracts as a way of moving away from rewarding students who are already ahead by changing the criteria of success from assessment of the quality of the product, which he already established as problematic, to assessment of the process. He pointed to the research done by Peter Elbow and Ira Shore on grade contracts and how "habits of mind" were translated to "habits of labor.” This shift in mindsets also resulted in more time being spent on the assignment sheets articulating how the process of writing works and the rubric is more about the work involved rather than rewarding a pristine product. While Inoue advocated for the benefits of the grade contract, he also noted that this kind of system can result in push back from the administration. This makes sense in a time when there is a political agenda being pushed that focuses on assessment of outcomes, or products.

Inoue contributed to the conversation about grade contracts by presenting the research he conducted at Fresno State University in which introducing the grade contract resulted in the reduction of failure rates for every racial formation group by half with the exception of African American students. He found that the grade contracts reduced subjectivity in grading by making labor the primary criterion, effectively mitigating the failure judgments based on quality. He argues that the grade contracts effectively reduced racism in the classroom.

In understanding the relationship between judgments teachers have based on race, he considered the experiences with feedback that he received in his education, and he also supervised a research study in which graduate students in his program examined the midterm portfolios and the feedback that students received. They found that white teachers gave double the comments on Hmong students’ work and that Latino teachers wrote twice as many comments on the writing turned in by Black students as their White counterparts did. He cited Cornell West and concluded that "race does matter."

He said that we need to "turn the stigma of mediation into stigmata" and understand the "stigma of failure as racial stigmata." Inoue argued that we need to practice a pedagogy of compassion. The grade contract has helped to actualize this compassion by reacting against judgments of quality based on standard Academic English. He articulated what it means to grade by labor. Even the idea of labor is not a simple idea, but a complex metaphor that invokes child birth or the creation of ideas and labor of the working class. It is the connection with the honest labor which appeals to students who come from a largely working class background. In a system where grading is in terms of labor, students do a certain amount of work and they get a grade, regardless of quality. He did note that there is still some question of quality, but that it is tied to quantifiable measurements like whether the student answers all of the questions of the assignment rather than a pseudo-measurement.

Just as a lack of consciousness about race has consequences in the classroom, the lack of racial methodologies in research has important implications for the way that assessment and research are conducted. Inoue said that currently the assumption is that teachers are just teachers and students are just students which means that histories, experiences and economies are not taken into account. This means removing students and their writing from their corresponding contexts. He noted that "Race is one strand in the helix like structure of our lives" and argued that as researchers we need to gather ways to more ethically and effectively look at race.

Inoue also offered advice for those who are beginning their research, which resonated particularly strongly with the audience at Research Network Forum which was collaborating on works in progress. He appealed to the audience by saying that we must find our research journeys, forget our research pasts and understand the organic directions that we are taking. He referenced Dori as a queer rendering of forgetting and recommended that as we reflect on our research journeys we need to re-see past and present work and how that work has been influenced by our own literacy past and the "violence done to us by literacy."

Inoue offered two modest ideas for researchers: make the researching process about a re-searching process, and consider how your racialized position influences you. He encouraged researchers to interrogate their own unresolved tensions. He pointed to the tension of him as a Japanese American researcher gathering data on Hmong students and the tension of gathering data, which may amount to capitalizing on a vulnerable population and even the assumption that a population is vulnerable. His discussion of race tied closely to the ideas of beneficence that all researchers must be aware of, but he highlighted the degree to which a researcher’s race and identity should be examined in addition to that of the research participants.

Inoue also advanced what he referred to as two less modest ideas: that we introduce racial methodologies into our research by understanding that methodologies are already racialize and recognizing this explicitly, and that we should employ racial theories by using consciously informed theories of race in our research. He highlighted the difference between going into a research project with an awareness of race rather than applying a racial lens while looking at the data and advocated for the first approach. This means recognizing that race is a strand in the helix of life and therefore an important influence to consider. Especially given that race and class are intertwined, which is the case of the African American and Hmong students in Fresno where the histories of employment and unemployment are deeply embedded. He argued that research is a labor of giving and encouraged the audience on their own researching journeys.

CCCC 2014 Reviews

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