The banner has been hanging in the University of Washington Tacoma’s Writing Center since October, proclaiming the center’s commitment to fighting institutional racism in academia.
This week, it became a source of outrage, as some websites seized on the center’s statement as an attack on using proper English.
“The Writing Center at the University of Washington is telling students that expecting Americans to use proper grammar perpetuates racism,” reads the first line of a story posted on the far-right website Breitbart.
Other conservative outlets including The Washington Times and The Daily Caller also picked up the story, which spread after UWT officials posted about the Writing Center’s philosophy last week on the university’s website.
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Fueling the controversy is a section of the UWT Writing Center’s statement that says its tutors will “emphasize the importance of rhetorical situations over grammatical ‘correctness’ in the production of texts.”
UWT officials posted a statement Thursday addressing what it called “inaccurate reports,” saying the poster hanging on the writing center wall has “been misrepresented by issues-oriented blogs based in other states.”
“The Writing Center statement is not about changing the standard for how UW Tacoma teaches commonly accepted English, grammar and composition,” according to the UWT statement.
The center wants to assure them that no matter what language or dialect they come in with, they won’t be judged as less able to achieve the ability to write successfully in a university or work environment.
Michael Wark, spokesman for University of Washington Tacoma
Other parts of the statement hanging on the wall of the UWT Writing Center declare:
“Racism is pervasive. It is in the systems, structures, rules, languages, expectations, and guidelines that make up our classes, school, and society. For example, linguistic and writing research has shown clearly for many decades that there is no inherent ‘standard’ of English. Language is constantly changing.
“These two facts make it very difficult to justify placing people in hierarchies or restricting opportunities and privileges because of the way people communicate in particular versions of English.”
UWT spokesman Michael Wark said the Writing Center’s banner shows the center’s commitment to be inclusive and help people improve their academic writing, no matter how they speak in non-academic settings.
“They want students who come in here to know that regardless of the language or the dialogue that they speak, they won’t be judged by that, and they will be supported in their efforts to achieve the kind of writing that will make them successful in academia and the workplace,” Wark said.
I think this is more self-righteous chest-thumping than it is really trying to address a problem.
State Rep. Matt Manweller, R-Ellensburg
Others said they find the center’s philosophical statement to be an example of political correctness gone amok.
“I think this is more self-righteous chest-thumping than it is really trying to address a problem,” said state Rep. Matt Manweller, R-Ellensburg and a professor at Central Washington University.
He said he sees a danger — and a certain element of racism — in any statement that implies students of color should be held to a lower standard than their white peers.
“They’re really not doing this for the benefit of the kids that they’re teaching,” Manweller said. “We do not want to send a message to students that you can hide behind cultural differences to justify poor academic performance.”
Wark said the Writing Center’s statement doesn’t change how UWT professors evaluate student papers. He said the statement isn’t a university policy, but instead “a statement of values” for Writing Center tutors.
Asao Inoue, an associate professor at UWT who also directs the Writing Center, said the statement aims to help students learn that different types of language are appropriate in different contexts, and how to choose their words carefully with that in mind.
“Good writers make informed choices, they don’t follow orders,” said Inoue, whose research investigates racism in writing assessments.
“For us to give them one standard would be a disservice,” he said. “It might suggest that the way they talk or speak in other areas of life is devalued or not good enough, or illiterate, and that’s just not the case.”