Blogbook -- A First Look at the WPA Outcomes
A portion of this post was used in my Oct 1, 2021 keynote at the 2021 Conference for Antiracist Teaching, Language, and Assessment (www.atlaconf.com). To engage with the conference's materials and participants, see its ongoing forums: https://atlaconf.freeflarum.com/.
Now, how might the WPA Outcomes Statement (OS) unintentionally participate in white language supremacy (WLS) in college writing classrooms? While surely most postsecondary teachers have more control over how they teach literacy and how they evaluate and grade student writing, the OS still exerts a powerful disciplinary pressure on college writing classrooms. It’s been an important artifact in the field of college writing studies and writing program administration for at least twenty years, starting with a listserv posting in 1996 by Ed White, a long-time grandfather of college writing assessment (note 199). The OS has been through three formal revisions since it was first drafted, most recently in 2014.
This is also to say that the field of Composition Studies has been quite white(ly) in its training of college writing teachers and academics. I’m not making a value judgement here, just making clear the historical condition that creates writing studies scholars. In fact, the four dispositions of whitely people that Marilyn Frye discusses in “White Woman Feminist” are definitional to the college writing teacher in the history of the field. Frye draws on insights from the collection of feminist women of color in Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa’s collection This Bridge Called My Back, as well as works from bell hooks, John Langston Gwaltney, and Minnie Bruce Pratt. The four whitely dispositions Frye references map to what a good college writing teacher is supposed to behave like. To summarize, they are:
- Being a judge and peacemaker: a disposition toward giving responsibility and punishments, being the preacher and martyr, taking responsibility and the glory.
- Self-understood benevolence: a disposition toward seeing oneself (and other whitely people) as benevolent, good-willed, fair, honest, and ethical.
- Being procedurally ethical: a strong sense of right and wrong, usually rooted in dispositions toward forms, procedures, due process, and rules as the basis of the ethical; to be good, one acts according to the rules, which is understood as principled.
- Authority: a disposition toward running the show, or aspiring towards it, and a belief in one’s infallible authority in most matters. (note 200)
Most of the time, these dispositions have gone unnoticed. In fact, Catherine Prendergast makes a similar argument in 1998 about the field of Composition Studies in “Race: The Absent Presence in Composition Studies.” Just as a reminder, her celebrated article was published just two years after the start of the processes that would produce the OS. So at the time of drafting the OS, the issue of racism in the field should have been on everyone’s mind, right?note 201). So in these historical disciplinary conditions, it is reasonable to say that it was almost impossible for the OS to be anything but a document that participates in white language supremacy.
Again, let me be clear. The authors of the OS, like the vast majority of writing teachers and scholars in the field, are all very good, ethical people. But they are people generally speaking who have not studied racism, nor have they lived, languaged, or been educated themselves in systems that oriented standards, outcomes, people, and judging practices against their racialized positionings and the languaging that goes with those positionings. Most of them have to some degree circulate in systems that privilege their languaging and racialized subject positions (note 202). Once again, this is not a condemnation of these wonderful and smart scholars and teachers, many of whom I’ve learned a lot from. It is an historical fact of the WLS conditions of the academy.
Furthermore, I say all this because I wish to make the point that it is important to remember that such critical documents like the OS come from real people who have their own politics and habits of language, and those authors cannot help but be racialized among other things. The OS is not simply a document that sprang out of a discipline without authors who each have histories and skin and bone. The fact that authors are not attributed to the OS in any version suggests that the authors of the OS are not important in reading the document. Now, when has this ever been true? Is this what we teach our students, to ignore who is writing a text? I understand the reasoning for it. Keeping authors off the document is likely meant to deemphasize credit to individuals and emphasize the agreement in the discipline that the document represents. What’s in the document is bigger than a small group of authors. There is some strength in this position.
But agreement is not consensus and it always elides differences, the kind of differences in languaging I’m arguing matters and comes out of our racialized political positionings and places in our histories. It also participates in a habit of white language that is part of the problem in such outcomes, that is, an unseen, naturalized orientation to the world and language. This decision assumes a universal perspective, one that pretends not even to be a perspective, that such outcome statements can be authorless because, well, language can just exist abstractly in a vacuum. Our core texts, authors, genres, language practices, and ideas are just good rhetoric that “the field” deems important to remember. No politics here. No people or histories that reproduce themselves are at play.
And so, we can have outcomes without standards implied. That is, the OS can have its outcomes-cake and put aside the fact that serving that cake to writing teachers means they have to HOWL in order to eat it with their students.And more insidiously, it means some students, minoritized students of all kinds, often don’t get a chance at any sweet bite because they haven’t finished their dinners yet. They ain’t deserving of a seat at the dessert table yet. Too much cake will give you cavities.
I’m not suggesting, however, that putting names on the document will solve all these problems, make the OS less whitely or produce less WLS. I’m saying that the racialized people in history who wrote our outcomes matter, just as the flesh-and-blood authors of the CCSS matter. The WPA Outcomes Statement is a White Program Administrators Outcomes Statement. There is no doubt about this historical fact. This isn’t saying it is bad or racist. It’s saying that it can easily be used as such, if all things are equal, which they usually are -- notice that “equal” in teaching and learning contexts don’t mean equitable or antiracist. I’m also being honest and open about the OS’s racial history and the possible implications to classrooms it may have. I’m identifying the racial politics that make the conditions for such a document able to exist.
To their credit, the authors of the OS’s current introduction offer an explanation of the statement’s scope. They explain that it
articulates what composition teachers nationwide have learned from practice, research, and theory. It intentionally defines only “outcomes,” or types of results, and not “standards,” or precise levels of achievement. The setting of standards to measure students’ achievement of these Outcomes has deliberately been left to local writing programs and their institutions. (note 203)
So the OS’s “outcomes” are very much like the CCSS’s anchor standards, but not as specific as the standards that the CCSS delineate underneath each anchor. The OS leaves all performance standards for these outcomes up to local teachers. However, the authors of the OS do anticipate and expect that local teachers and programs will use some kind of standard to judge student literacy performances.post 26). It’s also a paradox. Good assessment is local assessment, but what happens when we cannot count on our local teachers to be trained in race theories?
Using similar logics as those early race theorists who classified and ranked people for empire-building (see posts 6, 7, 8, and 9) and the extraction of resources across the globe, the logic of the OS requires placing student performances on a hierarchical scale that assumes an elite white discourse and languaging as ideal, as a standard. Putting aside where any give standards come from, the OS authors assume that local teachers will use a singular way of valuing language performances, a hierarchical one, a singular kind of order. This ordering of languaging and students not only mimics Goldberg’s “preconceptural” elements of racist language and thought (see post 14), but it means the use of HOWL to judge student learning in college classrooms.
I should note that from its early stages, some emphasized that the OS wasn’t designed to be a set of universal standards for college writing courses. In fact, it wasn’t meant to say much at all about standards for learning. Instead it was meant to be used as a general guide for curricula, a heuristic of sorts that local teachers who knew their students best could use to make decisions about curricula, outcomes, and the standards of performance needed to succeed in those local courses.
The OS was not designed to be directive and prescriptive in the way that the CCSS is. Mark Wiley offers this argument for the OS in the first published collection on the statement (note 204). He emphasizes that the OS “does not articulate performance standards!” Instead, Wiley explains:
As the literature on writing assessment makes very clear, good assessment is local assessment, and Wiley’s sense of how the OS should be used works from this assumption. But what is the nature of the judgements in those local contexts? Who are those local teachers and from what habits of language are they judging students’ performances? How exactly are the outcomes that come out of the OS circulated in actual classrooms?
these outcomes offer general goals for writing programs . . . There is no underlying assumption that all students will achieve these outcomes to the same degree of proficiency within the same time frame. In fact, we would expect variation depending on the type of program, the institution, and the students involved. Since students will demonstrate their developing competencies in a variety of ways, performance levels should be described locally by faculty participating in the writing program, who know their students well and who understand the level of writing ability necessary for success within a given course in a particular sequence. (note 205)
What isn’t addressed in the OS or in Wiley’s explanation of it is the local assessment ecologies in which such outcomes circulate. As I’ve discussed elsewhere (see Inoue, Antiracist Writing Assessment Ecologies), assessment ecologies matter, especially if you’re trying to craft them as antiracist. If we understand the OS in this way, how is it anything other than a hegemonic document, another structure in WLS systems?
One indication of the nature of those local standards and judging is in Wiley’s explanation. While “[t]here is no underlying assumption that all students will achieve these outcomes to the same degree of proficiency,” there is an assumption in how local teachers determine “developing competencies,” “performance levels,” and “level of writing ability.” Wiley assumes that there will be “degrees of proficiency.” All of these terms work from HOWLing systems that string students’ performances on linear scales of performance, competence, and ability. These scales may be different in each course or location, but they all are scales, and they all work from the local HOWLing of teachers, who all have been trained in the same elite white places -- in the whitely discipline of Composition Studies that Prendergast and Gilyard warned us about. So standards may not be articulated in the OS, but the OS assumes them to be determined by local white(ly) teachers. The problem, then, is that the OS ignores the racist conditions that make us all.
Wiley doesn’t stop there though. He makes the argument that the OS promotes equity in writing classrooms. And from one position, he can be right. He says,
these outcomes establish a basis of equity, they are a measure of what composition teachers share in common, a standard measure of what all students should be able to do after going through a composition program. These are educational experiences to which each student has access. (note 206)
Yes, I agree. It seems ethical to determine up front what kinds of educational experiences students can expect in their writing courses, perhaps from a sense of what most in the field understand those experiences should be, but this statement does not reference a “standard measure of performance,” as Wiley says. Wiley, I think, confuses equity in classroom assessment with conventional notions of equity as consistency, as treating everyone the same, treating everyone as if they were the same, treating everyone as if they actually had equal access to any given educational experience we teachers might ask of them. What educational experiences exactly is Wiley referring to? How are locally diverse students measured? How to measure and what experiences students get are not articulated in the OS because that document doesn’t describe experiences, nor ways to measure. It is a set of broader goals that assumes elsewhere ways of measuring and the habits of language teachers must use to do that measuring.
It’s odd to me that Wiley describes equity in this way, by invoking students’ experiences, which are assumed to be quite diverse and different according to each student, next to “a measure of what composition teachers share in common, a standard measure.” When I put these two things next to each other -- diverse experiences, which I read as a curriculum that is phenomenologically based and a curriculum rooted in common standards of measurement -- they do not jive together. Diverse experiences (the phenomenological kind) are not shared by definition, so what is the “standard measure” that Wiley speaks of? It’s an unseen or unexplained white one, one that HOWL describes. Standard measures that are shared but not precisely articulated are only persuasive and compelling in hegemonic conditions that determine such ideas. WLS makes such standard measures common enough that Wiley only needs to vaguely point to them.
Wiley also explains that the OS, while “not set in stone,” is an “emblem of quality . . . heralding high expectations for our students,” representing expectations that “the profession of composition values in terms of classroom practice” (note 207). This feels to me like having and eating your cake at the same time. Mixing ideas about focusing on experiences of students that support equitable learning environments with the assumption of uniform and singular standards, even if they are only singular and uniform in local contexts, is contradictory.
Perhaps it’s Wiley’s use of the language of hierarchy that keeps me from accepting the spirit I know Wiley is writing from. Emblems of quality? Who decides quality? Isn’t it local HOWLing teachers? How is that different from a world without the OS? “High expectations for our students”? Who decides what is high and how individual performances meet or do not meet those expectations? Why is it that whenever we talk about expectations of students, or rigor, we use metaphors of altitude, but when we speak of student literacies, their language histories and heritages, the metaphors change to landscapes.
What would happen if our metaphors for our expectations and outcomes were also based on landscapes and not ladders?
Please know that I do not mean to pick on Wiley. I use his discussion here because I think it is a common enough understanding of the OS, and how it is used in classrooms. It’s really the patterns of understanding and usage that I want us to pay attention to.
Do you see a pattern in my reading of the language of the OS? It is difficult for whitely people, even good, ethical, smart writing scholars and teachers, like Wiley and the authors of the OS, to escape their own HOWLing. The conditions of the field didn’t really equip them to see or feel or understand their HOWLing, nor their whitely dispositions as judges, peacemakers, and benevolent authorities offering just a guide for all writing teachers and students. Because our conditions are WLS, the field didn’t really give them a chance to consciously and explicitly identify their own racialized positionings and politics. Their Eurocentric, whitely ideas of rhetoric and languaging just seemed neutral, objective, or at least, not political. And this absence (in the field and in their work with the OS) keeps them from being able to orient themselves against the disciplinary HOWLing around them, against the disciplinary logics and ideas that make the OS not just possible but necessary.
So what can be done about something like the OS? What if you have to have something like it in your course or program? Well, our necessary use of such outcomes should be more critical of them and our own use of them. Our outcomes might help their readers orient themselves in racially critical ways. A more critical introduction to the OS, for instance, might call attention to the ways standards produced from the statement itself can or will easily reproduce racist and white supremacist standards and learning conditions in writing courses and programs.
Such an introduction might call attention to how most outcomes usually deny or punish Black and multilingual English practices. It might call attention to the fact that leaving the particulars of outcomes and the performance standards that they usually imply up to local teachers may provide those local teachers with agency and power, but this does not structurally or systemically help anyone investigate the very real WLS conditions that make curricula, the academy, all college writing classrooms, all writing teachers, and the habits of language that teachers come to feel as being a part of themselves, even as essential to being a good, ethical teacher. And that making such a local move, ceding power to local classrooms, while laudable in many ways, seems suspiciously similar to the racist ways the G.I. Bill was enforced.
This more critical introduction could raise questions about where the outcomes expected in a course come from historically, who they prioritize and privilege, what subject and language positions are they already oriented toward? How might those standards be framed from a position of an elite white racial group of language users that get taken as a neutral language position, or a default position?
The WLS of “Language Conventions”
Now, I’ve only discussed the OS’s introductory material, not any actual outcomes. So let’s consider the OS’s learning outcome, “Knowledge of Conventions,” which is the closest that the OS comes to the previous CCSS standard 11-12.1 (note 208). The OS offers the following definitional information under this outcome: “Conventions are the formal rules and informal guidelines that define genres, and in so doing, shape readers’ and writers’ perceptions of correctness or appropriateness.” It seems straightforward. Conventions are rules and guidelines that make genres and shape readers’ perceptions about correctness and appropriateness. The implication is that if you want to be an effective or successful writer of any genre, you gotta learn that genre’s guidelines and rules. You gotta learn what readers expect is appropriate. Nothing racist here, right?
But much is left out or assumed in this statement about genres, and the readers and conventions that make them. What’s missing is any reference to the political and historical information that made those “formal rules” and “informal guidelines,” that put particular people -- real people in history -- in positions to determine what’s appropriate for any given genre. What’s missing is who historically those “readers” are or were. What’s missing are the racialized and gendered agents and social groups in the world who have been (and still are) in control of most of the rules and guidelines for such genres. This brief definition of conventions ignores the racial and other politics of language that create the histories and contexts in which any genre and its conventions are made. To have a genre like the academic research essay, you have to have people who find it important to write that thing in their conditions and from their own habits of language. That’s historical and political work, which makes it, among other things, racialized work.
I mean, who exactly has been the writing teachers, professors, chairs, and editors of journals for the vast majority of any discipline’s history? Who has written the textbooks for those writing courses? Who has been in charge of things? Who has written and controlled the genres of legal briefs and such? Who has written the vast majority of business memos and emails? These are rhetorical questions. We know the answers.
And because race, gender, socioeconomic positioning, geography, and other social factors have always influenced the ways people use language in the world, they influence the people controlling the genres that are referenced in the OS’s outcomes. These factors of our languaging influence how such outcomes get used and judged by teachers in classrooms. Because the OS stays away from these political dimensions, it is oriented toward the default position in classrooms and society, that is, toward reproducing conditions of WLS.
So we might say that genres have conventions and expectations that help define them, but if we’re being fully forthcoming and ethical, we should say that genres have conventions that are made by racialized groups of people in power, which in turn define genres and their conventions and rules in hegemonically racialized ways, in white supremacist ways.
And if we wish to be really ethical and honest, we should also say that genres have been defined and used in the service of WLS globally, in the service of controlling, dominating, subjugating, and extracting labor and value from bodies of color.
We can see this in the ways genres function and circulate in every field primarily by white(ly) authorities: in the prison industrial complex of the U.S., which includes the legal system; in voter suppression legislation; in police procedures and practices for “reasonable suspicion” (see entry 13); in laws that allow corporations to extract minerals and other things from the earth in environmentally destructive ways, ways that harm many vulnerable communities of color; in the arguments and narratives against the fact of climate change or that downplay environmental racism; in the ways the discourses and genres of science allowed for numerous genocides and the controlling of groups of people for profit and power, the Jewish Holocaust, U.S. Japanese imprisonment, the systematic genocides of every group of North American indigenous peoples, the U.S.’s destruction of the Bikini and Kwajalein Atolls by atomic testing and the subsequent systematic and deliberate infecting of those indigenous to those islands by radioactive fallout; the numerous state laws that promoted racist eugenics and sterilization programs, some of which are still on the books today. I could go on. And these are just a few of the most recent ways genres have been deployed in the service of white supremacy, toward ends that amount to racism through WLS. Teaching genres as non-political sets of rules, as the OS encourages, creates conditions for WLS in classrooms and beyond.
The OS so consistently ignores the racial politics of language that it would seem that its own politics is one that says that there are no racial politics in the teaching and learning of language. In the OS’s description of Knowledge of Conventions, the authors say:
Conventions arise from a history of use and facilitate reading by invoking common expectations between writers and readers. These expectations are not universal; they vary by genre (conventions for lab notebooks and discussion-board exchanges differ), by discipline (conventional moves in literature reviews in Psychology differ from those in English), and by occasion (meeting minutes and executive summaries use different registers). A writer’s grasp of conventions in one context does not mean a firm grasp in another. Successful writers understand, analyze, and negotiate conventions for purpose, audience, and genre, understanding that genres evolve in response to changes in material conditions and composing technologies and attending carefully to emergent conventions. (note 209)
All of this is true enough. But again, the racial politics of language are avoided in this introduction. It assumes that the history of language conventions and their uses are neutral or apolitical. How do those conventions that simply “arise,” as if by themselves, come to be? What makes those conventions “common expectations”? And shouldn’t we ask whose common expectations are we talking about and why are we not talking about others’ expectations? The authors do acknowledge that conventions, or rather “expectations,” “are not universal.” They “vary” in a number of ways: by genre, discipline, and occasion. Do you hear a hierarchy in the distinction between language conventions and expectations? Could a reader’s expectations of a text be unconventional? If so, which is more important to consider for a writer in a writing classroom, language conventions or audience expectations? Which is more important in the future settings that the course is supposed to prepare that student for? Is there a contradiction?
If one factors in who controls most spaces in society, schools, and academia, we have to admit that all these factors that make conventions and expectations vary come out of historical, racialized, gendered groups of people. And these social features of these groups dictate much of their languaging in the world. Thus in its introduction, the OS HOWLs at us. It takes on an unseen, naturalized orientation to the world and language by ignoring the racial politics that constitute languaging in the world and schools. It also invokes genres and their conventions as neutral, objective, and apolitical, that is, as if they are outside of the power relations that create the spaces that allow elite white groups of usually men to make such decisions about genres seem common.
There is, however, room in this introduction of rhetorical and language conventions to insert such politics, but it would require that the reader or teacher have an antiracist orientation to the OS already. And the OS forgets or ignores the fact that it has its own politics that gets circulated with its outcomes. Nothing is apolitical when it comes to language and people -- we all know this. The politics in the OS are not against racism or WLS -- and they should be for humane and ethical reasons. Why shouldn’t our important and even sacred texts, such as the WPA OS, have their own antiracist orientations? This would be a structurally antiracist dismantling of our racist systems, wouldn’t it?
Now, the actual OS outcomes for “Knowledge of Conventions” are broken up into several bullet items, and supported by another list of practices that help build the outcomes listed in the first list. The two lists are seen in Figure 9. These outcomes (the first list in Figure 9) are worded in such a way that make it possible to use them in writing classrooms in socially just ways, in ways that could be critical about the politics of language and the WLS conventions that make for all languaging conditions. However, this depends on the orientation of the teacher and program. It is not hardwired into the outcomes themselves. The WLS of these outcomes really depend upon how they are used in the classroom.
Take the first outcome, “develop knowledge of linguistic structures . . . through practice in composing and revising.” It’s broad enough. It doesn’t seem to dictate a singular set of structures or grammar. It doesn’t, as the authors say, dictate a single standard for any knowledge or the linguistic structures it argues students should learn or develop in writing courses. It focuses on practicing and revising, not some artificial or arbitrary standard of proficiency in such languaging. This is promising, but the outcome itself by abstracting and depoliticizing the linguistic structures and knowledge students should develop creates an outcome that can be used easily to reinforce WLS. What “linguistic structures” are we really asking students to “develop knowledge” about? Why? Who benefits most when we do this? Where did these linguistic structures come from, that is, what racialized group of people?
To avoid these problems, such outcomes should be oriented against our languaging conditions by identifying these conditions as WLS. In its current version, it doesn’t easily counter WLS because it doesn’t push students and teachers to investigate the racialized politics of grammar and conventions, but it is possible given the present articulation. But again, it ain’t oriented this way, so why would any classroom do this investigating, particularly if most teachers have not been trained in theories of race or racism?
In most college writing classrooms where one main purpose is to “prepare” students for their professions or futures, the kind of knowledge of linguistic structures asked of students is the kind that prepares them to be successful in their careers and majors. But what is the nature of that success and thus that preparation? What is the nature of the linguistic landscapes of those professions and majors? It’s WLS.
What is traded by a student for success in such places? What do you think happens to a student who uses Black English but is asked continually to practice and revise their writing in school in order to conform to an elite white version of English, one they have little relation to in the world? They learn new linguistic structures, but this learning comes at a cost to everyone.
The cost we all pay is losing the language gifts the student of Black English might offer in a more linguistically just education. Instead, the student learns that they cannot use Black English structures in a white dominated society. They learn to go along with the WLS of school in order to get the pay off, the good grades, the job, the career in a white supremacist society. They learn to maintain WLS, even if in a resistant way. They learn to self-colonize. And this is only the successful ones, the ones who make it. Many more fail to do this for a range of reasons. Many of those reasons are ethical ones. And they end up somewhere else. And we all end up the lesser for it.
So by not using language and ideas that are self-aware of the racial and other politics of language and conventions, the OS easily reinforces WLS and the conditions in society that it maintains. Much like the CCSS, the OS uses the HOWLing that we all are trained in to operationalize these otherwise potentially critical outcomes. It also tacitly assumes that writing classrooms -- teachers and students -- can (and maybe should) avoid the racial and other politics of language in our world, at least while students learn to be a part of that world.
But of course, once you’ve become a part of the system, a part of a racist profession and world, especially in your languaging, once you’ve been given a small bit of the reward, a delicious bite of the cake in the beautiful dining room, it’s too late. You have been assimilated into the white supremacist system. In fact, on the daily, you make it possible.
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