Strategies for Enacting Linguistic Justice

👏Linguistic Justice & Diversity Training Program Mission Statement

Because literacy practices and literacy learning are products of a culture’s history and values—and a force for shaping a culture’s future—writing is unavoidably and necessarily a site of ideological production. People with power and influence to shape what matters in social contexts have historically decided how we write, what we write, and how we judge writing.
Following the Writing Center’s acknowledgement of “writing as a powerful and ubiquitous modality of and for learning” and DePaul University’s commitment to education for “diverse cultural and ethnic groups,” the Linguistic Justice and Diversity Training program aims to continue tutor education regarding diverse linguistic traditions within and beyond the DePaul community.
The Linguistic Justice and Diversity Training program is one way we enact DePaul’s mission to ennoble “the God-given dignity of each person” by researching, recognizing, and legitimizing linguistic traditions beyond what is putatively called by many “Standard English.”
Through guest lectures, collaborative activities, discussions, and reflections, the Writing Center provides tutors with necessary continuing education in linguistic history and diversity to ultimately better serve the writers with whom we work.

🔑Key Terms & Concepts

The language we use is always impactful. These are the key terms and concepts used throughout the Writing Center’s Linguistic Justice and Diversity work. It is important to familiarize yourself with this background to better understand the goals of the program and support our writers.
Understanding some of the key concepts defined in this (work-in-progress) glossary can help each of us bring a mindset to our work that both
  • better helps writers
  • allows us to play even a small part in dismantling or avoiding linguistic traditions that have marginalized some writers because of the ways that identity markers like race, class, gender, sexuality, and disability have intersected with assessing and valorizing some uses of language
Knowing more about the contingent and ideological nature of Standard English, for example, and ways of working to push back on the damaging aspects of that concept through a linguistic justice and post-colonial approach to our work, can help you show respect in your appointments for each and every writer's linguistic background and traditions.
📕Linguistic Justice Glossary
Standard Written English
To the degree that such a thing actually exists (it seems to obviously exist but also not be so clearly definable), a locally-bound variety of written English derived from a process of standardization in spelling, usage, & style that must be explicitly taught (unlike speech). More broadly, a product of "a historical process which – to a greater or lesser degree – is always in progress...motivated in the first place by various social, political and commercial needs...[and thus] an idea in the mind rather than a reality—a set of abstract norms to which actual usage may conform to a greater or lesser extent" (19). James Milroy and Lesley Milroy, 2012
Linguistic Justice
"an antiracist approach to language and literacy education. It is about dismantling Anti-Black Linguistic Racism and white linguistic hegemony and supremacy in classrooms and in the world" (7). April Baker-Bell, 2020 A framework for language and writing pedagogy that "implicates...the undoing of monolingual thinking and practices [and calls for] actions that would advocate for a plurality of languages, writing, and pedagogies" (288). Ligia A. Mihut, 2020
Contact Zone
“social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power” (34). Mary Louise Pratt, 1991 A way of understanding social spaces, like the writing center, in a way that "foregrounds the necessary conflict and struggle involved in any attempt to achieve multiculturalism in the United States of today [but which can be] challenging for all members of our society, those at the center as well as those on the margins" because it challenges "common-sense views of diversity," including the tendencies to "perceive cultures as discrete and self-contained rather than interactive and constructed in relation to others;... perceive ourselves as strictly inside one and outside the rest of cultures;...view our cultural identity as strictly determined by such markers as place of birth, nationality, skin color, or other biological features;...view issues of race, class, and gender as separate rather than intersecting" (232). Min-Zhan Lu, 2014
Post-Colonial Writing Center
A writing center "in which [tutors and writers] explicitly examine why and how certain features of academic discourse come to be features in the first place" (54). Where tutors work with writers to "demystify writing processes by giving marginalized students insight into why certain conventions exist for certain discourses" and where tutors "aim to equip these students with the skills necessary for analyzing conventions so that they can translate their knowledge into successful writing practices beyond the university" (55). Anis Bawarshi and Stephanie Peklowski, 1999
Myth of Linguistic Homogeneity
"the assumption that college students are by default native speakers of a privileged variety of English [which is] seriously out of sync with the sociolinguistic reality of today's U.S. higher education as well as of U.S. society at large" (641). Paul Kei Matsuda, 2006

🗣 Principles of Linguistic Justice

The Writing Center’s Linguistic Justice and Diversity training has become a cornerstone for the center's work. Here you will find the principles behind the program and how you can apply them to your own work within the Writing Center.
🕔Take the Time & Make the Effort to Enact Linguistic Justice
Communicating with writers with respect and care—and informed about the complicated history and ideology of notions of Standard English—may take more time and effort than merely referencing what you read as errors or aberrations from what you understand to be correct grammar, usage, and style. We encourage you to take this time.
You need not detail the linguistic history of each and every thing you comment on—though you are welcome provide such information when you possess it and when you think it might help you enact some of the approaches to linguistic justice suggested in this document—but you should approach your feedback with care and take the time to offer accurate and contextualized feedback.
🤗Some General Principles
Though surely few of you approach your work with writers in this way, it's nevertheless worthwhile to note that, as a tutor, you are not the language police. Rather, your role is to assist writers in meeting their goals, aiding in their personal process, and helping them navigate the contexts in which and for which they find themselves writing.
It can be hard, no doubt, to know how exactly to help a given writer. Even when we learn more about linguistic justice and diversity, we know that sometimes other people may not be aware of these ideas and instructors or potential employers may ungenerously judge writing and writers harshly. We also sometimes don't have a lot of information about a writer's assignment or themselves, so we have to guess at what, if any, standards for writing to which they might be held accountable.
All of this is to say that we know that being a tutor is a challenging spot to be in and so one overarching way to enact linguistic justice is to avoid decontextualized normative feedback. Instead, refer to documented standards like citation and style guides when referencing standards or rules and frame such information to writers as advice that they can choose to implement or not. It may seem like a small thing, but the way in which language use and intelligence—and even one's worth as a person get conflated—can be overwhelming and marginalizing for many writers and so we should seek to avoid such conflations and implications.
⏳Some Examples of Taking Time & Effort to Contextualize Feedback
Instead of...
This doesn't make sense...
...provide context for your comment
I read this sentence a few times because I was unclear exactly what it meant because for me as a reader I expected...

Instead of...
You need a citation here
...provide context for your comment
According to the APA guidelines, which you mentioned your professor required, this quote would require a citation

Instead of...
You left out a comma here and should add one; check other places too where you left a comma out
...provide context for your comment
The Chicago Manual of Style's section 6.19 on serial commas (you can use your BlueSky login to access the whole book online!) calls for the use a comma before the "and" in a series of three or more items (the "Oxford" or "serial" comma)
👷‍♂️Work Hard(er) to Understand Writers
When reading a writer's writing and in speaking with them during real time appointments, make an effort to understand what a writer is saying; don't be too quick to assume that something they wrote or said is wrong because you don't understand it immediately.
Sometimes as readers or listeners we lack the context to understand a given utterance and it's not a deficit in the writer or speaker, but an instance where we need to make more of an effort. This applies of course to our work with writers for whom English is an additional language, but also in appointments with any writer. Be generous and curious and avoid dismissing or judging things too quickly—"attitudinal resources, such as patience, tolerance, and humility to negotiate differences can help speakers decode the unique features of the interlocutor and sustain a conversation" (Canagarajah (2006), p. 205).

🤯Writing Centers as Contact Zones

The Contact Zone was a term first coined by Mary Louis Pratt (1991) and it refers to “social space(s) where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power, such as colonialism, slavery, or their aftermath” (p. 34). The idea of Writing Centers as Contact Zones—or potential Contact Zones—has driven lots of work within the field on redefining how to navigate and negotiate the Writing Centers’ location within academic spaces and their work with writers. On this page, you will find how the DePaul Writing Center uses and understands the notion of the Contact Zone to inform our work, and the Linguistic Justice & Diversity program.
🤔Negotiate Difference in the "Contact Zone" of the Writing Center
Given the range of courses and topics of study at DePaul and the myriad backgrounds and identities of both our staff and the students and writers engaging in these courses and topics of study, any particular Writing Center appointment you're in can become a contact zone—“social space(s) where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power, such as colonialism, slavery, or their aftermaths as they are lived out in many parts of the world today” (Pratt, 1991, p. 34). Negotiating differences in a contact zone can, we know from experience, bring "rage, incomprehension, and pain"; it can also involve "exhilarating moments of wonder and revelation, mutual understanding, and new wisdom—the joys of the contact zone" (Pratt, 1991, p. 39 ).
It is important to understand that while they may include some discomfort or disagreement, these situations are educational and necessary in a college environment.
💪You Have Agency in the Contact Zone
We understand that, at times, you may feel the need to detach yourself from your individual experiences to approach tutoring from an ostensibly objective or more-removed stance, and you are welcome to do so if and when this feels appropriate to or comfortable for you.
We do want to also make it explicit that you are invited to foreground your own experiences to inform your appointments and in your work with writers. You can absolutely tell writers you disagree with their ideas or arguments. You can explain to a writer how some aspect of your identity shapes how you respond to their writing. But you are never required to do so—this is up to you.
Put differently, we ask that you acknowledge sensitive or potentially offensive material in whatever way(s) feel(s) most comfortable to you.
☝Suggestions for Navigating the Contact Zone of the Writing Center
In your work with writers
  • Listen "as well as talk, take criticism as well as give it, provide support as well as judgment, experiment and take risks” (Annas, 1986, p. 15).
  • Avoid essentializing your own experience as universal by using "I" statements because doing so implies in important ways that your experience was one of many possible experiences.
  • Avoid referring to a fictional, generalized reader, aka "your reader," because it's hard if not impossible to predict how a particular reader besides you might respond to reading something and certainly impossible to know how any reader might respond; see item directly above and have confidence that hearing your unique perspective as a reader will benefit the writer.

🙋‍♀️Ask the Right Questions

Questions are a vital part of reflection—a core Writing Center value—and we hope that questioning is a practice that all of our staff members engage in. Here, you will find some reflection questions that may help guide your work enacting our principles of Linguistic Justice & Diversity.
🕵️‍♀️Questions to Ask Writers
Rather than making assumptions about individual writers, make it a practice—in synchronous appointments and when appropriate in written feedback letters—to ask them questions like:
  • Is there a style and usage guide you want us to use as we discuss your writing?
  • What do you know about your audience—professor, admissions committee, etc.—and their standards for language use?
🤳Questions to Ask Yourself
Rather than focusing on how you can "fix" a writer's work, ask
  • How can I assist my writer in reaching their personal goal for this assignment?
  • How can I provide my writer with resources that may assist them in the future?
  • How can I affirm my writer's linguistic identity and provide suggestions that might best strengthen their personal style, voice, rhetorical approach, or genre?
When you find writing unclear, ask
  • What is making the writing unclear to me as a specific, particular reader, given my own set of linguistic resources, history, and experiences?

🌎Language and Linguistic Justice

In our work at the Writing Center, it becomes essential for us to acknowledge the power that language has and how some everyday language can contribute to oppression. This content is designed to give tutors resources for learning more about the history and scholarship behind the vision of the program, as well as give actionable steps in addressing the everyday language of oppression tutors may encounter in the Writing Center.
🛑Address the Everyday Language of Oppression*
How Language Can Perpetuate Oppression
  • Avoids discussing difference
  • Erases differences
  • Assumes uniform readership
  • Minimizes significance of discrimination
  • Speaks of oppression as only in the past
  • Exoticizes
  • Presents stereotypes as evidence
  • Disrespects sources from "other" perspectives
  • Fails to distinguish sources' views from writers' own
  • Misunderstands or misrelates sources' views
How Tutors and Writers Can Challenge Oppression through Attention to Language
  • Clarify meanings together
  • Express understanding of one another's meanings
  • Discuss meaning and use of sources
  • Pose counterarguments
  • Maintain a non-combative tone
  • Address language without accusations of intentional oppression
  • Name the "elephant in the room"
  • Learn to better identify and address language that perpetuate
*Title for this section and two lists quoted verbatim from Suhr-Sytsma, M., & Brown, S. E. (2011). Theory in/to practice: Addressing the everyday language of oppression in the writing center. The Writing Center Journal, 31(2), 13-49. Included at the end of this page.

✊The CCCC Demand for Black Linguistic Justice

We endorse the July 2020 CCCC's Demand for Black Linguistic Justice and express our solidarity with its demand as a part of our commitment to anti-racism. We believe that Black Language, Black Writers, and and Black Lives matter.


Theory In/To Practice: Addressing the Everyday Language of Oppression in the Writing Center
Mandy Suhr-Sytsma and Shan-Estelle Brown