Confronting oppressive language in our tutoring practice: Some guiding thoughts

By Roniksha Kumar

Vol. 2, No. 5. (Winter 2021)

Roniksha Kumar is an undergraduate student and a Peer Tutor at the University of Waterloo. As an aspiring educator, she is committed to learning and applying Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion practices in her work and everyday life.

Anti-oppressive writing goes beyond academics—it reflects the writer’s experiences, their colleagues, and those who do not have opportunities to express themselves. Oppression is intersectional, including, but not limited to, the marginalization of race, socioeconomic status, gender, sexuality and disability. A commitment to learn how intersectionalities of oppression present themselves in writing enhances a critical lens to view historic and existing power structures.

Developing and applying an analytical lens is something that I have learned throughout my undergraduate studies and as an embedded peer tutor for first-year writing and communication courses in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Waterloo. My first tutoring assignment was for a class, Taking B(l)ack History, taught by Dr. Christopher Taylor, who has consistently guided me towards anti-oppressive considerations in an academic setting. I found that I had to step into his class as a student, rather than as a tutor, to acquire an outlook that recognizes everyday systemic discriminatory practices. Entering a tutoring session with an intent to engage with content from a student’s perspective can support their learning of the topic they are presented. Ultimately, our strategies as tutors should demonstrate an anti-oppressive approach that stimulates an awareness to experiences that people of all walks of life may face.

As part of our Writing and Communication Centre peer tutor professional development in Fall 2020, we read “Theory In/To Practice: Addressing the Everyday Language of Oppression in the Writing Center,” which lists mechanisms by which we, as tutors, can either perpetuate or challenge oppressive language in academic writing (Suhr-Sytsma & Brown, 2011, p. 22). This article encourages tutors to engage with and redevelop two heuristic lists of anti-oppressive language and strategies in writing centres. We each connected these mechanisms to the tutoring strategies that our cohort explored as a basis for our tutoring practices during last year’s training for this role (Fitzgerald & Ianetta, 2016, p. 49-52). Relating the application exercise to our tutoring strategies allowed me to reflect on my journey in the writing centre to see how I have progressed towards becoming a better tutor and writer. Below, I have listed three of Fitzgerald and Ianetta’s categories of tutoring strategies and explained my general approach to each. Then, I have mapped items from Suhr-Sytsma and Brown’s heuristics onto these strategies to articulate how oppression can occur within them. Finally, I explain how my tutoring can work toward anti-oppression for each category.

1. Be Specific

Being specific with my tutoring is the strategy I have strengthened most as a peer tutor. Asking direct questions and letting a student explain the assignment encourages them to verbalize their initial thoughts and reactions to a potential research question. It is also a good starting point to comprehend the perspective they are taking to be able to tailor conversation and advice to individual tutoring needs, which ensures that they receive productive feedback.

How oppressive language can be perpetuated:

  • Erases differences: Without properly understanding a student’s take on an assignment, they may inadvertently present misconstrued points in their academic paper that signify a one-sided argument, ignoring oppressive systems at play. Erasure of experiences of the oppressed enables continued ignorance about structural processes that maintain social inequalities.
  • Speaks only of oppression in the past: While it is important to acknowledge the history of oppression, it is equally necessary to recognize how history has evolved into systems of oppressions that are present in society. As a tutor, not raising these points constricts a student’s understanding of how history impacts contemporary social dynamics.

How I use specificity to challenge oppressive language:

  • Pose counterarguments: Upon recognizing disparities, posing counterarguments can be a learning opportunity for the student. I have found that it can be helpful to step away from tutoring and have an informal conversation with the individual in front of me to discuss a concept that may portray discriminatory attitudes. In addition to writing structure and organization, the skill of specificity also applies to anti-oppressive words. During a tutoring session, there is a team effort to emphasize the specifics by analyzing the relevance of oppressive structures. Discussing impactful words on the realities of oppressed peoples is often unrealized due to a lack of lived experience. It did take me some time to figure out how to ask those critical questions to highlight the deeper implications of a given topic. I started asking open-ended questions to prompt discussions such as: How might critics approach their argument, and what does this say about how social structures have developed? Generalizing a concept to encourage students to explore the specifics is a skill that I have carried forward across all courses I tutor and in my everyday life as well.
  • Discuss the meaning and use of sources: Errors in the comprehension of sources can result in misinterpretations and erasure of oppressed experiences. In a Black History course for example, the specifics of oppressive systems hold significance in the overall context of the paper. I had to learn to ask questions that get students to think about structures of power, the role of interactions, changes throughout time, and so on. To have these honest discussions, I must always be mindful of the limitations in my understanding, both in and outside of a tutoring environment. Addressing how sources should be used in a productive manner encourages writers to verbally explain the context of the source by asking guiding questions to promote critical thinking and an understanding of the academic source’s implications.

2. Be Empathetic

To be empathetic towards every person I interact with is to enter every conversation with a blank slate. I aim to stay aware of varying academic and personal stress to treat each student with equal respect and attention. When tutoring, I use a notebook to stay on track of a student’s assignment and what they wish to accomplish during our session. I make sure to turn to a new page every time. This acts as a reminder to myself that the next student is a different person with questions, concerns and experiences that are unique to them. I make it a goal to learn something about every student and provide them with the support they need by the end of our session. Empathy is a virtue that students often need, and it is especially valuable for conversations surrounding the use of anti-oppressive language.

How oppressive language can be perpetuated:

  • Assuming uniform readership: Writers and tutors can easily assume and fill in gaps of our knowledge based on personal experiences and inferences about a topic. The assumption that readers will view an argument from the same perspective can promote marginalized language as it evades the magnitude to which marginalized individuals and social groups are impacted. I recognized upon reflecting on past sessions that I did not always have an awareness of students’ vantage points differing from my own.
  • Minimize significance of discrimination: To minimize the connotations of discrimination would be to turn a blind eye on the impact of oppressive systems to inhibit access to equitable opportunities and livelihoods of oppressed groups. Language that diminishes the actual severity of oppression or shows a lack of intentional focus on the impacts of oppression perpetuates prejudiced ideologies that are interwoven into the fabric of our society.

How I can challenge oppressive language with empathy:

  • Name the “elephant in the room”: It is imperative that, as a tutor and simply a person in this world, I am open to having difficult discussions on topics that I may have little knowledge about. Relating back to the idea of being specific, I need to clearly emphasize how a student’s writing perpetuates discriminatory ideologies. To identify the significance of language, calling out discrimination cannot be feared for it to be addressed. A direct approach gives me the opportunity to learn about the world from my student’s perspective and lead a productive discussion. It also serves as a learning opportunity for students, who can now comprehend how oppressive writing can be indirectly and unintentionally perennial.
  • Address language without accusations of intentional oppression: There is much for us to learn and many ways to act. As a POC, I continue to work towards recognizing my own internalized oppressions as a segue to detect the embeddedness of marginalization in all aspects of our society. It is with an institutions level understanding that I feel confident to address harmful language in a manner that respects differences in learning experiences. Oftentimes, first-year students have not been exposed to critical, anti-oppressive academia, thus requiring a bit of guidance. Tutors need to be attentive to oppressive language to appropriately address their concerns to the student.

3. Be Professional

I find that there is a misconception about what it means to be a professional. While it is important to always maintain respect for the other person and withhold judgment, avoiding conversation about the consequences of systemic oppression does not equate to professionalism. Rather, it is the manner in which we approach the discussion on the use of oppressive language. In a tutoring environment, the key is to maintain a balance between conversation and instruction to have productive discussions about marginalization.

How oppression can be perpetuated:

  • Avoids discussing differences: Generally, the easy route is to not address issues of inequality, out of fear that voicing intrinsic concerns may come across as unprofessional. I understand my role as a tutor extends past writing instruction, but entails tutoring comprehension skills of academic sources for a constructive analysis of their project topic. To remain silent to writing that portrays an unjust perspective is equally harmful in sustaining discrimination in society as it may not consider the objective evidence of harm.
  • Presents stereotypes as evidence: It can be difficult to acknowledge stereotypes when we are unaware that the language we use can come across as discriminatory. This is typically unintentional, but it always needs to be addressed. A writer may present work that relies on stereotypes about a social group to prove their point. The challenge is then to work together to start thinking about the roots of these stereotypes, and that by brainstorming tools to ensure a student’s writing is proactive and challenges the stereotypes an individual may carry.

How I can maintain professionalism while addressing oppression:

  • Maintain a non-combative tone: A key characteristic of tutoring in a professional manner is to remain non-confrontational. When tutoring first-year students, I realize that many students at this level have yet to be exposed to critical writing structures. Hence, students simply may not realize the overlying message that they are articulating. For a productive conversation, addressing a concern firmly, but in an explanatory manner is a good way to maintain a professional stance. The goal is to help the student understand the harms of their language and brainstorm ways to avoid it for the future. At the end of the day, the student and I are a team who work together towards developing their writing and communication skills, so it is my responsibility to approach these discussions with compassion.
  • Clarify meanings together: In part with productive discussions, I start at the basics to define potentially harmful terminology and concepts that a student presents in their writing. One thing that I find to be helpful is as simple as doing a quick online search together to better help the student understand the history behind the discriminatory language used. The long-term benefit of a collaborative effort is to demonstrate new learning processes to be incorporated into writing. Being open to lifelong learning allows us to grow as academic writers. It is important for me to try to practice a lifelong learning mindset and pass it on to the students I tutor so that they enter spaces prepared to recognize oppressions.

Anti-oppressive writing is vital for academic improvement and personal growth. My experiences working as a writing centre tutor have been some of the most valuable times throughout my academic studies. The interactions I have with students, professors, and my team have taught me about self-awareness and how to encourage others to be self-aware. As a student, peer tutor, and lifelong learner, I feel a sense of responsibility to first acknowledge writing that perpetuates oppression in my own work to then facilitate anti-oppressive instruction in my peer tutoring.

__________

References

Fitzgerald, L., & Ianetta, M. (2016). The Oxford guide for writing tutors: Practice and research. New York: Oxford University Press

Suhr-Sytsma, M., & Brown, S. (2011). Theory in/to practice: Addressing the everyday language of oppression in the writing center. The Writing Center Journal, 31(2), 13-49.