Implicit Bias, Language, and Community College Writers

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On October 27, Tiffany Martinez, a first generation Latina student, wrote a blog post narrating a humiliating encounter with a professor who assumed, based on Martinez’s use of language, that Martinez had plagiarized a paper. The photo at the head of the blog shows the instructor’s handwritten comment on her use of the word “hence”: “This is not your word.” The instructor confronted Martinez with the charge of cheating—in front of her fellow students.


I first saw the blog on Facebook; a friend and recent college graduate shared the post. It struck a chord with a number of students who were on the receiving end of similar comments, or who had seen similar incidents of implicit bias and insensitivity in their classrooms. A couple of days later, faculty forums also began to consider Martinez’s plea to be accepted and in academia (see here for an example).


Much of the discussion that I’ve seen thus far is situated in the context of private and public four-year institutions, where lines between privilege and the lack thereof are often obvious.  That’s not the case where I teach, at a community college in a rural/suburban area. Is there an implicit bias here? Certainly. After all, we are “just a community college,” where the students are not “academically inclined,” and may be “headed straight to the work force, anyway.”  My colleagues and I will admit that we are suspicious when we get a polished paper with strong vocabulary – from any student. And we check that paper for plagiarism. We call that student in for a conference to discern whether the words do indeed come from the student. 


Those of us who teach in two-year institutions have good intentions: we believe in the promise of access and the value of academic support. We also recognize the cultural disconnect that many of our students face when they enter our classrooms, and we struggle to value and affirm our students’ lives and experiences while at the same time inviting them into “our” academic culture. Nonetheless, our biases exist, and we have to address them; otherwise, we put our students in an untenable position. We are asking that they adopt the linguistic customs of our discourse community, and we can be harsh in our denunciations when their efforts to do so are not successful – when their good faith attempts to figure out our rhetorical expectations, use new vocabulary, and make sense of grammar and punctuation rules result in awkward or garbled sentences. And yet when our students produce something that closely approximates the writing we have held up as “good,” we immediately assume that they could not have produced such work on their own. “Either you fail or you cheated” – this isn’t a fair set of alternatives.


So how do we respond? How can I—or my colleagues or students—learn from Martinez’s piece? Perhaps I could share it with my freshman writers, as a way of exploring implicit bias. Many of them have experienced bias, but I suspect they are not familiar with this term (and there’s my implicit bias, again).


But the piece also raises further questions: was Martinez’s response reasonable and appropriate? Could there be another side to the story? The piece illustrates both the value of a democratized Web, where those traditionally without power can call out injustice, and the danger of the open internet, where memes and tweets rule, where context and nuance are stripped, inviting rapid (and sometimes thoughtless) responses. This, too, would be worth discussing with students: what is the process for discerning truth here?


Or perhaps the students and I could approach the post, and the comments which sparked it, in a rhetorical context. The instructor’s comment—“this is not your word”—could be interpreted as an accusation of plagiarism (“I don’t think you wrote this”), but also as a prohibition (“you are not allowed to use this language”). I wonder which interpretation arises first for my students, or if they perceive the comment differently. Approaching the comment in terms of rhetorical choices open to the instructor for the given situation could help students understand that I am also a writer, and I need feedback on the effectiveness of my rhetorical choices, just as I offer such feedback to them.


I am thinking of using the piece as an end-of-term reflection: students will identify a comment I made on their work during the course and write their own blog post in response. They will discuss their interpretation of the comment, the implications of the comment, and the relative success of the comment as a rhetorical choice, given the purpose of my feedback. Such an exercise will reinforce rhetorical choice as a threshold concept in my course, and it will help me understand how my students perceive the feedback I give them—as well as answer a nagging question that arose when I read Martinez’s piece: have I written a comment such as this, not recognizing how it would be read by a student?


And of course, having begun a study of argumentation, we could also analyze Martinez’s post in terms of appeals to ethos (noting her explicit presentation of credentials at the outset), to pathos (a plea to be “loved”), and to logos (contrasting her need to present credentials with those who would not need to do so to be accepted). Ultimately, the piece invites discussion of discourse communities: boundaries, membership, treatment of “imposters,” shibboleths, apprenticeship, appropriation, and the role of language in negotiating each of these. My students are not yet where Martinez is academically, but she has raised the issues in a voice which—I believe—they will find authentic and relevant.


Kudos to her.

About the Author
Miriam Moore is Assistant Professor of English at the University of North Georgia. She teaches undergraduate linguistics and grammar courses, developmental English courses (integrated reading and writing), ESL composition and pedagogy, and the first-year composition sequence. She is the co-author with Susan Anker of Real Essays, Real Writing, Real Reading and Writing, and Writing Essentials Online. She has over 20 years experience in community college teaching as well. Her interests include applied linguistics, writing about writing approaches to composition, professionalism for two-year college English faculty, and threshold concepts for composition, reading, and grammar.