How Should HBCUs Affect Diversity and Inclusion Discourses in Rhetoric and Composition?

Macmillan Employee
Macmillan Employee
3 0 2,928

Dr. Lockett is an Assistant Professor of English at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia. She deeply enjoys serving the oldest historically Black college for women, and is committed to teaching and learning about the relationship between composition, new media, sustainability, and collective intelligence. At Spelman, Dr. Lockett actively contributes to the English Department’s writing minor in the areas of professional and multimedia composition. She also provides leadership to the Comprehensive Writing Program in major curricular initiatives like First-Year Composition and Writing Across the Curriculum/Writing in the Disciplines (WAC/WID). In 2015, she was awarded a $10,500 grant from the Associated Colleges of the South (ACS) Grant to organize and lead a faculty development symposium on Integrating Wikipedia into Writing-Intensive Courses at ACS Colleges. She continued her work with Wikipedia in 2017, organizing Spelman’s first-ever Art+Feminism–Black Women’s Herstory Wikipedia Edit-a-thon. Currently, Dr. Lockett is the proud recipient of the UNCF/Mellon Faculty Residence Fellowship (2017-2018) where she is a fellow at Emory University’s James Weldon Johnson Institute for the Study of Race and Difference. While in residence, she is working on her book project Overflow: Rhetorical Perspectives on Leaks. 


Diversity and inclusion.  Equality.  Social justice. 


These terms and concepts comfortably blanket educators asserting their desired vision of the world in a distant, cold, and bitter wasteland. Part of the mystery of such words lies in the major assumption that historically white institutions (HWCUs) need to be more integrated, or at least appear mildly interested in some kind of commitment to this effort. However, what exactly do these words mean to faculty and administrators at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and single-sex colleges?  


In my own personal experience teaching writing and unofficially administering the Writing Intensive initiative at Spelman College—a historically black college for women in Atlanta, Georgia—I feel alienated from the framing of diversity discourses. Before I discuss certain aspects of my experience, I want to clarify those conversations may be very applicable to predominantly white contexts that are more or less typical for the majority of instructors and researchers participating in our discipline. However, black women faculty face major challenges in work environments where they are a highly represented demographic. Arguably, this educational space comes with significant risks that are sometimes muted by the nature of the college. 


I didn’t start to notice the systemic silence surrounding faculty and student demographics at Spelman until I started developing and leading faculty development workshops about the teaching of writing at the college across and within disciplines. Faculty often did not explicitly discuss what it meant to teach black women, or what it was like for black women of various ranks to exchange teaching and learning. There was a kind of assumption that since we were mostly black women gathered in a space, we would know what to do. 


And I thought I would know.


The allure of being part of the demographic majority when you are used to being represented as a minority is intoxicating. After living in some of the whitest towns in America from 2001-2013—Kirksville, Missouri; Norman, Oklahoma; and State College, Pennsylvania—the first week of working at Spelman felt unreal. Black women of every size, shape, color, hair type, hair style, and age moved through the space with smiling faces that lent sparkle to the sun and shine on skin that blinded me with the power. We saw each other, feeling that shared electricity of novelty and glimpsing hope. Potential filled me up like fresh fruit. Alive. Fleshy. Ripe. I moved more slowly than at Penn State where I needed to be small, dart fast, and move out the way. And those other places where I regretted being seen or taking up space, where I communed with the trees during breaks to avoid the concrete jungle of young white bodies shuffling about swiftly and completely enough to swallow me whole. In that small private college in Atlanta, I felt an indignant right to be there. Not to color the place, and not to sit on a margin, but to be at the center of its life. 


But we weren’t *all* black women faculty, and the black women faculty there most likely had been teaching in predominantly white American college classroom spaces before coming to Spelman. Did we understand that we needed to talk about the meaning of teaching black woman somewhere? To talk about what it means to work with other black women? That we needed to know more about our assumptions about the meaning of our bodies to the students in those classrooms? In faculty meetings? How were students receiving our instruction and what did they expect?


After participating in first-year writing portfolio assessment with an interdisciplinary jury for the past few years, as well as several writing-intensive faculty development workshops on topics like “Integrating Wikipedia into Writing-Intensive Courses” and “Teaching Black Women Writers,” I strongly believe that we need to do even more research on several major issues facing HBCU faculty—including but not limited to:


  • Their attitudes and expectations towards their training and work environments.
  • Their deliberate or unconscious reproduction of the field’s dominant discourses in writing instruction at HBCUs
  • Their students' responses to an instructor’s demographic embodiment and social relationship to (and within) the black community
  • Their scholarly knowledge of and/or production of research projects centered on Rhetoric and Writing programs at HBCUs—historically or present
  • Their sociopolitical relationship to the HBCU and how it influences access of and distributions of resources both within and outside the college


Next week, March 28-31, I am thrilled to attend my first-ever HBCU Symposium at Howard University, sponsored by Bedford/St. Martin’s and the Howard University Writing Program. This event will be the second time that I have been to a professional development opportunity that organizes HBCU writing faculty representing various institutions in a single space. Two years ago, July 25-28, 2016, I attended a UNCF/Mellon Teaching and Learning Institute on Critical Hip-Hop Rhetoric and Composition led by Shawanda Stewart and Brian Stone at Huston-Tillotson University. This event enabled me to network with a number of passionate writing teachers operating under financial and pedagogical constraints. Although much of the institute’s focus was on teaching students, especially those in first-year composition courses, this event brought up some glaring issues about how the field does diversity in terms of faculty development. For example, Asao Inoue—2018 Program Chair of the CCCC and one of our featured speakers—offered a dynamic, memorable workshop on assessment. Inoue’s discussion about how we may be unknowingly institutionalizing whiteness through our grading practices at the expense of marginalized students resonated with many of us. The fact that HBCUs could be subject to white supremacy by its own instructors was hardly surprising, given some of our colonial histories. Moreover, some of the institute’s attendees were white, and seeking to leverage the most value from diversity and inclusion strategies.


But when we started talking about our institutional context, as scene and agency, the conversation uncomfortably shifted to unknown terrain. To prepare for Inoue’s visit, we were required to read his book, Antiracist Writing Assessment Ecologies: Teaching and Assessing Writing for a Socially Just Future. Feeling as if Inoue was not writing to underrepresented instructors, I asked him to explain how his theory of antiracist assessment applied to HBCUs after we were well over halfway through his planned workshop. Other instructors also wanted to discuss this problem. Moreover, I wanted him to help me understand how to get linguistically conservative instructors to manage “gradeless” classrooms. I recognized quickly that if we were going to have that conversation, it would deviate too sharply from the workshop he planned. I stopped pushing it, and Inoue gracefully and thoughtfully acknowledged the validity of my concerns. Nevertheless, the disconnect between Inoue’s antiracist aims and their relevance to HBCUs seemed jarring, given that he knew he was communicating with an audience of HBCU writing instructors.


Even at a workshop at an HBCU with HBCU faculty, I was compelled to engage “diversity” pedagogical hypotheticals about represented students we don’t teach and instructors whose bodies are not black like me. (For more info about this audience issue, see the endnote.)


At the upcoming HBCU symposium, I am looking forward to discussing some of the unique challenges of teaching writing in the HBCU space. Engagement with contemporary sociopolitical issues may be encouraged even as student deficiency is focused on more than the task at hand. The teaching of grammar is often believed to be the primary and exclusive duty of English departments and Writing Centers, which positions us as easy targets to blame for student failure during faculty meetings. We often lack examples of how to structure and administer our programs because our history and traditions have yet to be fully incorporated in our field’s dominant disciplinary historiographies, our most widely circulated First-Year Composition readers and Rhetoric textbooks, or our conference panel offerings at NCTE, CCCC, ATTW, RSA, NCA, Computers and Writing, etc. Certainly this was illustrated by the teaching and learning institute at Huston-Tillotson.


Moreover, I look forward to using the space of the HBCU symposium to collaboratively develop more resources that racially diverse HBCU faculty need to effectively serve our unique demographic. In this historical moment, I’d love to see conversations about the role of HBCUs in contemporary society take the lead on cultivating an empowered faculty. Without a culture of empathic and collaborative collegiality, black and brown women teachers are just as alienated as they are at PWI/HWCUs. How can we be expected to uplift our beautifully diverse students when it seems so socially unacceptable to mention, let alone critique, the environments we labor in?



This audience issue is discussed at length in Sarah Banschbach Valles, Rebecca Day Babcock, and Karen Keaton Jackson, who argue that diversity scholarship about Writing Centers tends to assume that directors are “middle-aged White female(s) and the student, or in some cases the tutor, is the Other” (Writing Center Administrators and Diversity: A Survey, 2017). As their article demonstrates, scholarship about the field’s administrative leadership such as Writing Center Directors and WPAs is scarce, raising questions about the racial landscape of the field’s entirety of practitioners and those they serve. While Jill Gladstein’s National Census of Writing Project offers some sense of institutional writing program representation, it does not collect data about the bodies occupying them. One recent exception is "Race, Silence, and Writing Program Administration: A Qualitative Study of US College Writing Program...,” published by Genevieve Garda de Mueller and Iris Ruiz last year (2017). 




de Mueller, Genevieve Garda, and Iris Ruiz. "Race, Silence, and Writing Program Administration: A Qualitative Study of US College Writing Programs." WPA: Writing Program Administration 40.2 (2017).


Fulford, Collie. "Hit the Ground Listening: An Ethnographic Approach to New WPA Learning." WPA: Writing Program Administration 35.1 (2011): 159-62.


Green Jr., David Frank. "Notes of a Native Son: Considerations when Discussing Race and Privilege in the Teacher's Lounge." The Journal for Understanding and Dismantling Privilege 4.2 (2014): 261-75.


Hocks, M. "Using multimedia to teach communication across the curriculum." WPA: Writing Program Administration 25.1-2 (2001): 25-43.


Howson, Emily, Chris Massenburg, and Cecilia Shelton. "Reflections on Building a Popular Writing Course." Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy 3.1 (2016).


Rose, Shirley K., Lisa S. Mastrangelo, and Barbara L'Eplattenier. "Directing first-year writing: The new limits of authority." College Composition and Communication (2013): 43-66.    

Taylor, Hill. "Black spaces: Examining the writing major at an urban HBCU." Composition Studies 35.1 (2007): 99-112.


Valles, Sarah Banschbach, Rebecca Day Babcock, and Karen Keaton Jackson. "Writing Center Administrators and Diversity: A Survey."