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Can I get a witness?!

Posted by HBCU Blogger Expert Apr 5, 2018

Kendra L. Mitchell is the first Director of the Writing Across the Curriculum Program at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University. With fifteen years of writing center experience, Dr. Mitchell desires to create a quilted legacy of the teaching, learning, and research occurring in the silos of most HBCUs. As a teacher-scholar, her current research interests include writing program administration, translanguaging, and Afrocentric pedagogies. She was a 2015-16 U.S. Fulbright grantee to South Africa, where her teaching helped shape her current interests. She explores these ideas in her latest chapter, "'African American’ Anglophone Caribbean Writers in an Historically Black University Writing Center."




Drawing on black rhetorical traditions, I would summarize the Symposium on Teaching Writing and Rhetoric held at Howard University in two words: we churched. Since Beverly Moss has already done the scholarship that destabilizes the dichotomous relationship between the black church and academia and Geneva Smitherman’s life work has illustrated the sacred-secular continuum, my summary of this second iteration of this needed symposium is apropos. Before my co-laborers in the field assume I have neglected the Edited American English we have been taught to revere, I will assure you: I still got it. The polemics of these comingled language varieties was not lost on this symposium’s participants. Senior scholars such as Nathaniel Norment stressed the need to teach Edited American English to HBCU students but through culturally relevant approaches. Brother David presided over our collective with care as he passed the mic to Keith Gilyard, the acclaimed “rhetorical power player,” who presented the notion of paying dues, making the mic sound nice.


We heard testimonies concerning ways to conduct meaningful assessments of our classroom and co-curricular practices. Many shared the struggle with negotiating administrative initiatives and thus assessment measures with practical learning gains. We also took a critical dive into the history of the Atlanta colleges boycott of NCTE in the 1940s and examined its correlation to the 2018 CCCC boycott, parsing out the oversaturation of social media and new technologies’ pseudo-participation as insufficient replacements for physical black bodies in safe spaces.




Our lead vocalist, Dr. Adam Banks, belted a new rhetorical melody that affords us with a new vision for Students' Right to Their Own Language (SRTOL) for the digital age that centers black digital culture just as our predecessors did for students’ oral and written discourse in the last four decades. Our panels on technology and activism as rhetorical tools proved just that.


Say so.


In the spirit of a new day, technical professional communications scholars challenged the relationships between PWIs and HBCUs. Specifically, Temptaous McKoy extended Banks’s call to technical communications beyond predominantly white institutions to HBCUs: “If we’re going to change the field wouldn’t we wanna go to where the black folks are.” She urged us to become keen students of our students’ ways of knowing and learning: “We gotta stop dismissing the ways our students learn.”


Church. Preach.


The closing panel of HBCU scholars brought it home with the founding symposia board and some scholars who point us toward what’s next. Important points, ranging from challenging scholars at PWIs studying black students to make space for those scholars at HBCUs who are doing the work on a larger scale, to reconsidering community and familial wisdom and valuable mentorship for first-generation college students, proved to make the mic sound nice. I rounded out the discussion with a proposition for translanguaging as an interdisciplinary approach to writing on our campuses. It was clear to all that teaching in this context was more than the tale of the overworked, overburdened, and underpaid teacher-scholar. Teaching and researching these schools is a calling, one to be celebrated and understood.


Now that we bear witness to one another’s journey, we will continue to Speak on it!


Can I get a witness?!



To continue the conversation on teaching writing and rhetoric at HBCUs, join the The English Community and follow the HBCU Forum to participate. Let's keep this momentum going.

ALEXANDRIA 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 Programs,” 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."


Shawanda Stewart is an Assistant Professor of English at Huston-Tillotson University and Rhetoric and Professional Communication PhD candidate at New Mexico State University. Her primary research interests include first year composition pedagogy, developmental reading and writing, composition assessment, and language and culture. Shawanda has a genuine interest in research and scholarship that examines and promotes voice and identity authenticity through language in the college composition classroom. 


In the same way that the Black Lives Matter movement was not about excluding others’ bodies, but rather, was created in response to the treatment—namely murder—of black bodies, this post is not about the exclusion of non-black lives; rather it is in response to the treatment of black language in the college classroom. It is about stating outright and plainly that the language, language identity, and voices of black students matter, which also extends to language, language identity, and voices of other marginalized populations.


In the case of first-year composition, there is a move toward demarginalizing students by recognizing language varieties in our classrooms; accordingly, I propose that doing so requires

  • combatting monolingual ideologies;
  • embracing code-meshing and translanguaging;
  • offering teaching and learning alternatives to practices that support the privileging of Standard English to other English varieties; and
  • providing learning opportunities that connect students to their personal communities and cultures.

In Geographies of Writing, Nedra Reynolds (2004) explains the relationship between sociogeographies and identity: “Geographical locations influence our habits, speech pattern style, and values—all of which make it a rhetorical concept or important to rhetoric. For writers, location is an act of inhabiting one’s words; location is a struggle as well as a place, an act of coming into being and taking responsibility” (11).

When teaching first-year composition (or any course for that manner), I must question the ways in which I might practice racism in my own classroom, and how I can—even if most of my students look like me-—contribute to the problem. Whether I contribute via my personal actions, my silence, my ignorance, or simply because I am adhering to the system, unless I am aware of the possibilities of me practicing racist writing instruction practices, I cannot work toward creating a classroom that promotes antiracist writing instruction.

I want to further expose students to the usefulness of critical consciousness in rhetoric and writing (namely in their own writing) and encourage them to recognize that their words are powerful because of their past and present sociogeographical positions. Their experiences are unique, and this is power. In On Intellectual Activism, Patricia Hill Collins writes that “developing a critical consciousness can position individuals and groups to challenge social injustices. Learning to think for oneself often leads to action” (131).


The question at hand is what exactly is our purpose for teaching writing to students? If writing is an act of expression whereby we ask students to think creatively, critically, and rhetorically, what message then are we sending students when we tell them that “good” writing is SWE? Even when we don’t use these words exactly.


When we approach standard written English as a writing convention rather than the writing standard in our pedagogy, then we can begin considering seriously the ways by which we can teach students to become better critical thinkers and stronger writers without doing so by taking away their identity.



Hill Collins, P. (2013). On intellectual activism. Philadelphia. PA: Temple University Press.

Reynolds, N. (2004). Geographies of Writing: Inhabiting Places and Encountering Difference. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.


Jimisha Relerford is a Master Instructor in the Department of English at Howard University. She serves as director of The Writing Center and is currently a student in the PhD program. Her research interests include early 20th-century African American literature, archival studies, and composition pedagogy. 


Earlier this month, The Chronicle of Higher Education published “What’s Wrong With Writing Centers,” a profile of the work of Lori Salem, director of the the Writing Center and Student Success Center at Temple University. The profile focused on findings presented in Salem’s Spring/Summer 2016 article in The Writing Center Journal, “Decisions...Decisions: Who Chooses to Use the Writing Center,” for which she received the 2017 International Writing Centers Association Outstanding Article Award. Salem’s article draws on quantitative research conducted at Temple to implore writing center scholars and administrators to reconsider some of our “best practices”: our use of nondirective feedback in student tutorial sessions, our focus on “higher order” concerns before “lower order” concerns, our insistence upon not proofreading student writing, and our casting of tutors as peers rather than experts. Such pedagogical orthodoxies, Salem argues, are geared toward privileged students and ineffectively meet the needs of the students who visit writing centers most often: women, minorities, and second-language learners.


Reading Salem’s article was a shock to my system. As the newly-appointed director of Howard University’s Writing Center, I’ve spent the past year implementing and strengthening many of the policies that Salem now calls into question! However, Salem’s voice is one of many calling for practical and pedagogical changes in writing centers, and, based on her research, it is reasonable to assume that some of those changes may be beneficial for writing centers at HBCUs. But which ones, exactly? Which pedagogical practices are most effective for the unique student populations that HBCU writing centers serve?


Answering this question requires that HBCUs take a step back and evaluate our own writing center programs. What students regularly visit our centers? What motivates those students to seek tutoring? How are we developing our pedagogies to target those students? How are we training our tutors to best meet their needs? These are the types of questions that I hope will be explored at this year’s Symposium on Teaching Writing at HBCUs entitled “Remembering Our Past, Re-enVisioning Our Future.” The symposium offers an ideal opportunity to reflect on the progress and potential of the work we do in HBCU writing centers. Let us take advantage of this opportunity to learn from each other, to re-visit our own writing center “best practices,” to make plans for our own research, to ensure that our voices are part of the broader discussion.

A native of Detroit, Michigan, Dr. Karen Keaton Jackson began her academic career at Hampton University in Virginia, earning a Bachelor of Science in English Secondary Education with summa cum laude distinction. She went on to receive her Master’s and PhD in English Composition from Wayne State University in 2004. While pursuing her PhD, she was awarded a pre-doctoral fellowship at LeMoyne College in Syracuse, New York, where she taught undergraduate and graduate courses on multicultural literacy. Since arriving to North Carolina Central University in 2004 as an assistant professor, she has become the Director of the Writing Studio, coordinates the campus-wide Writing Intensive Program, has served on the executive boards of the International Writing Center Association and the Southeastern Writing Center Association, and currently serves on the executive board of the Council of Writing Program Administrators. In May 2015, she received a University of North Carolina Board of Governors Award for Teaching Excellence. She maintains an active research agenda on the interrelated notions of literacy, race, and identity in the writing classroom, and more recently she has focused on composition instruction and writing centers at HBCUs and on how writing center tutorials can impact student success.


When I was a doctoral student, each year I would peruse my Cs convention book in advance (yes, this is when they always mailed them to your house in advance) and excitedly look through the panel options for engaging topics. Specifically, I would look for colleagues from HBCUs. As a proud graduate of an HBCU, Hampton University, I searched for faculty who could speak to the context that helped to shape me.


Year after year, sadly I was disappointed, for there would only be a handful of HBCU panelists, and maybe two handfuls of HBCU attendees. As a PhD student, I always wondered why. I could not comprehend why those who teach thousands of African-American students each year would not be at the forefront, or at the very least, actively engaged in this conversation, particularly when many of the sessions were focusing on issues related to race, AAVE, or multiple literacies. In various SIGs and caucuses, I would overhear some PWI colleagues making statements such as, “They’re too traditional at HBCUs,” or “They don’t know anything about new research.”  I never spoke of my concerns out loud back then, but internally I was conflicted.


On the one hand, I knew from my experiences at a graduate PWI that the variety of course offerings definitely were much more limited at my HBCU (as compared to offerings at the PWI). While our first-year composition courses at Hampton University (with a student population of about 6,000) did vary a bit from professor to professor, there weren’t nearly as many sections and variations as at Wayne State University (where I was a graduate teaching assistant), an institution with about 40,000 students. 


On the other hand, though, I did not like that my HBCU professors (not yet colleagues) were seen as less than or incapable of participating in such conversations. There are multiple reasons why, historically, HBCUs have been less visible at national conferences, including our focus on excellence in teaching over research and less available funding. 


In 2018, however, many things have changed. Even though many of us are at HBCUs where teaching is still privileged over research, the demand for us to complete research to obtain tenure, promotion, and post-tenure accolades is rapidly increasing.  The expectation that we present at regional and national conferences is not an option, but an obligation (despite limited travel budgets . . . but that’s another conversation for another day!)


What the 2014 HBCU symposium provided was a platform for us to be heard and to dialogue with those who have shared or similar experiences (see A Spark Ignited: What’s Going On with Composition and the HBCU). For me personally, it reminded me that my story was the story of many. It gave me the motivation to reinvigorate my efforts to have HBCU experiences included in more mainstream discourse. Since that time, my current HBCU (North Carolina Central University) was asked to host the 2016 North Carolina English Teachers Association conference. I was asked to be a facilitator at the 2016 IWCA (International Writing Center Association) Summer Institute; I was asked to serve on the editorial advisory board for College English; and I was elected to serve on the executive board of the Council of Writing Program Administrators.  I do not list these things as some sort of “brag list,” because that is not it, not at all. Rather, I include these accomplishments to say that I am certain my activity surged in recent years because I gained energy, strength, and perhaps a sense of authority from my colleagues at sister HBCUs. Other HBCU colleagues have felt that energy, too, for we are being seen and heard even more at mainstream professional conferences. 


There are many more HBCU leaders who already exist; in many cases, we just have not had the honor of hearing their voices. So, it is my hope, that at the upcoming symposium at Howard University, someone else will leave there feeling revved up, charged up, emboldened and ready to continue the conversation. (See Wading into Waters: Ruminations on Composition and Rhetoric at the Modern HBCU). There’s still lots of work to be done. Let’s get it!

Jimisha Relerford is a Master Instructor in the Department of English at Howard University. She serves as director of The Writing Center and is currently a student in the PhD program. Her research interests include early 20th-century African American literature, archival studies, and composition pedagogy. 



Yes, we’ve come a long way, but, as I write in March of 2003, I see that we’ve still got a long way to go, especially if we’re going to exploit the full teaching potential of the Internet.

-Teresa Redd

Much has changed since Teresa Redd, then a Howard University professor, published these words fifteen years ago in Computers and Composition. Whereas Dr. Redd’s Howard University students and fellow composition professors were limited to accessing the internet primarily through wired connections in dormitories and computer labs, virtually anyone on campus now enjoys hi-speed wifi throughout the campus. Many students and faculty did not yet own home computers in 2003, and few could boast advanced computer skills. Current composition instructors at Howard are, in general, highly computer literate, and the vast majority of our students are high-level digital content consumers, many of them also skilled content creators. Most students own a laptop computer, and many also own tablets and high-performing smart phones. Indeed, it isn’t uncommon to walk into a classroom and see not bright, eager young faces, but students hidden behind rows upon rows of open digital devices. But in many ways, Dr. Redd’s words still apply to the experience of teaching with technology at HBCUs, specifically at Howard. We still have a long way to go before we harness the full potential of digital technology for teaching and learning in composition classrooms.


In the years since its publication, a robust body of research on technology use at HBCUs has joined Dr. Redd’s article, and much of it reiterates challenges that persist. Rather than offer a lengthy recap of those challenges here, I instead examine three “scenes” from my own experiences with using technology in my current roles at Howard: composition instructor, graduate student, and Writing Center director. (The use of “scenes” as an organizational metaphor is adapted from Jacqueline Jones Royster’s “When the First Voice You Hear is Not Your Own.” Jones explains that the scenes are singular in terms of their being narratives of one individual’s experiences, but they are also plural in that they constitute data that can yield conclusions that are applicable to many.) These experiences illuminate the complicated relationship between students and faculty on the one hand and digital tech on the other. Taken together, the scenes show that while the conversation about technology use at HBCUs may not be an easy one, it remains as necessary now as it was in 2003.


Scene 1: Misadventures in Teaching with Technology

When I started teaching my first composition course as a new lecturer at Howard in 2015, I was excited to find that the department required at least one multimodal assignment for all first-year composition courses. With lofty goals in mind, I envisioned and planned a multimedia essay assignment, which tasked my students with developing an-all digital composition that included video, image, sound, and text elements. I’d developed the idea for this assignment after a conversation with a former colleague at Georgia State University who had used a similar video essay effectively in her composition classes. Unfortunately, I soon learned that my goals might have been somewhat ambitious. Several students required more assistance with video editing than I was knowledgeable enough to give; my colleague had assured me that she did not have to teach her students video editing for the assignment, as they relied on existing knowledge and on-campus resources.Not all of my classrooms were equipped with Smart projectors that semester, so I was limited in my ability to work through problems with students in class; my colleague always taught in a room equipped with Smart technology. Most of my students brought their own laptops or tablets to class, but a few of them didn’t own either, and at least one of them vocally bemoaned the possibly of having to spend late nights in the computer lab to complete the assignment; my colleague’s students – their entire freshman class, in fact – had all been assigned iPads by their university. Suffice it to say that I learned quickly how difficult it is to adapt an all-digital assignment from one classroom setting to another, particularly when the one doesn’t have access to the same technological resources as the other. Even in the thick of the digital age, when personal computing devices seem virtually ubiquitous, the issues that Redd raised concerning access and skill level (“the digital divide”) remain relevant for many HBCU composition students.


Scene 2: Digital Humanities…Yes, We Do That Here

My role as a doctoral student in the English program affords me yet another perspective on the relationship between technology and learning at Howard. Recently, I was prompted to consider this relationship during a conversation with a fellow graduate student about our research interests. When I mentioned that I’m interested in exploring the digital humanities for both my research and my pedagogy, my classmate’s response was, “Digital humanities? Do we even do that here?” In retrospect, I wish I had prompted her to elaborate on what she obviously perceives to be a disconnect between the program in English at Howard and the digital humanities, but at the time I was too surprised by her response to pursue it further. Later, I tried to reconcile what I know about Howard’s English department with my classmate’s words. I know that in the summer of 2016, the department hosted “Seshat: A Digital Humanities Initiative,” a 2-week program funded by an NEH HBCU Humanities Initiative Grant. The program exposed literary studies scholars to theories, methodologies, and tools related to digital humanities, culminating in scholars’ redesign of four existing humanities courses at Howard University. I know that at least one recent graduate of the doctoral program, Tyechia Lynn Thompson, undertook digital humanities research for her dissertation, an innovative study that used geospatial mapping tools to examine depictions of post-1960’s Paris in the writings of African American authors James Baldwin, James Emanuel, and Jake Lamar. And I know that in 2015, David Green, director of the composition program, implemented a full-scale revision of the first-year writing course sequence, developing courses that emphasize (alongside traditional academic essay-writing) multimodal composition, digital content creation, and web design. These developments suggest that Howard’s department of English has indeed demonstrated some investment into harnessing the potential of the digital humanities for faculty, emerging scholars, and undergraduates.


Scene 3: To Print or Not to Print…

As the director of Howard’s Writing Center, I collaborate with graduate and undergraduate student tutors at the beginning of each academic year to review and update our policies and tutorial procedures. One of our long-standing policies, which has persisted after vigorous debate among the tutors and myself, is that we prefer students bring hardcopies of their papers for tutorial sessions. The general consensus among the tutors is that reviewing a printed document during a face-to-face session with a student is more efficient and effective than attempting to conduct a tutorial session while scrolling through a digital document on a computer screen. However, last semester a student took issue with this policy, insisting that students shouldn’t be expected to bring hardcopies of their papers since “nobody prints anything out anymore.” A graduate tutor responded incredulously – surely the student prints essays and papers for her professors? The student insisted that all her assignments were submitted through email or Blackboard. This exchange is unsurprising considering that the young woman, a “digital native,” is accustomed to developing documents that are intended solely for digital consumption. Composing, revising, and sharing documents completely online is now standard practice, and, for her at least, printing paper is beyond passé. The exchange serves as a reminder that in spite of the challenges faced by HBCUs with regard to technology use, the vast majority of our students have wholly adopted the digital as a way of life. It is now up to us – scholars, instructors, departments, institutions – to decide if we will do what is necessary to catch up.



Redd, Teresa M. "‘Tryin to Make a Dolla Outa Fifteen Cent’: Teaching Composition with the Internet at an HBCU." Computers and Composition, vol. 20, no., 2003, pp. 359-373.

Royster, Jacqueline Jones. "When the First Voice You Hear Is Not Your Own." College Composition and Communication, vol. 47, no. 1, 1996, pp. 29-40.

Thompson, Tyechia L. “Mapping City Limits: Post-1960s Paris and the Writings of James Baldwin, James Emanuel, and Jake Lamar.” Howard University, 2016. ProQuest Dissertations and Theses.

David F. Green Jr. is an assistant professor of English at Howard University. He is the director of First-Year Writing, and his research interests include African american and hip hop rhetoric, as well as critical language awareness and composition pedagogy. 



In 2014 I taught an introduction to a rhetorical theory class at my respective university. It was a course that hadn’t been taught in so long that many of my colleagues assumed it was a special topics course I had created for the students. I was not surprised given the relative silence around rhetoric at many HBCUs in previous years. But the class was special to me for a variety of other reasons. The students were energetic for the most part, and willing to work with difficult texts. I was finally able to teach engage students in conversations about Hip Hop and rhetoric, and African American rhetoric in ways that privileged their own vernacular voices. One particular moment that stays with me from the class was a request for a recommendation letter from a student. He was a young, vibrant, black male student from New York City, not far from my home in Newark, New Jersey. Most requests for recommendation letters are for graduate or law programs, this one was instead for a judge, and I was asked to speak to the character of a student. The details of the student’s incident are not necessary to share beyond the fact that he had rolled with the wrong crew and had succumbed to bad decision making as many of us have from time to time.


The student had been a welcomed voice in my class that semester, one among a mixed group of inquisitive students grappling with a variety of rhetorical concepts and texts. He’d come into his own making sense of Kermit Campbell’s Gettin' Our Groove On and was able to apply much of Campbell’s discussion of vernacular voice, rap as rhetoric, and gangsta ethos to John Wideman’s Brothers and Keepers and produce a pretty good final paper exploring the ways a gangsta ethos is constructed to define individuals rather than describe particular positions taken by orators. Given his participation in the course and our talks in the office, I felt obliged to write the letter. He was given probation and allowed to return to school in the fall.


I mention this sequence for two reasons. First, the student request coincided with the 2014 HBCUs and Composition conference at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (North Carolina A&T University) in which a group of composition specialists at HBCUs met to discuss our pedagogy, our students, and our goals over a two-day period (see A Spark Ignited: What’s Going On with Composition and the HBCU). And second, the student’s request reminded me of a short essay by Keith Gilyard entitled, “The Social Responsibility that Is Writing—and Writing Instruction Too.” In the essay, Gilyard makes a convincing argument about the need to recognize one’s writing and literacies as relevant to the social stances one might take and the political values revealed through one’s acts of composing. Of import to me is Gilyard’s observation that without careful examination of the what, how, and whom one teaches, literacy becomes an equally powerful tool in reinforcing inequality rather than ameliorating it (23). Now I’m not making the case that my reference letter for my student enacted a type of social justice, rather I am suggesting that the choices we make as instructors have material effects on the broader social world, as well as the imaginative possibilities we consider for students.


The social responsibility that is writing instruction has been an indelible theme of composition and rhetoric at most HBCUs. Jelani Cobb’s recent editorial on Howard University, “Under Trump, a Hard Test for Howard University: A Historically Black Institution Confronts a New Era of Politics,” highlights this theme of social responsibility that continues to shape the legacies and relevance of HBCUs. Part of what came out of the 2014 HBCUs and Composition conference at the prestigious North Carolina A&T University has been an overt concern with how one educates learners of color in spaces designed for them. I think such a move contributes to broader efforts within academe to place anti-racist scholarship and teaching, and culturally sustaining work at the center of critical pedagogy and rhetorical studies. The press, from my perspective, has been the need to meet rising questions by youth and public culture about issues around race, state violence, and community. In the case of the 2018 HBCUs and Composition conference, the desire has been to provide more workshops, roundtables, and panel presentations that acknowledge the complex identities and critical intellectual work done at these institutions and build on them.


While much of the conversation about HBCUs has been about the lack of resources and the heavy teaching loads, enduring realities that remain rising hurdles for scholars in these spaces, it is important to recognize the research that continues to occur in these spaces as well. I am thinking about the important research on Hip Hop that Shawanda Stewart is doing at Huston-Tillotson, or the interesting research into writing studios that Karen Keaton-Jackson is completing at North Carolina Central University. This work takes on added value within HBCU spaces because of the way such work attends to the nuances of a predominantly Black and minority audience and their reception of these strategies. Such work begs for further scrutiny and asks us to consider:  Who is the learner of color in the 21st century and in what ways are we working to understand rather than flatten differences that exist among these learners? How do particular cultural traditions and techniques influence these learners and their views on the fiduciary and social responsibilities they must take up? These are the questions that animate me at the moment, and questions that remain at the center of our recent push to build on the important conference at North Carolina A&T University.  Professional responsibility demands that we expand the ways we think and discuss writing and rhetoric at the modern HBCU. For, it’s never merely about where you’re from but where you are at.


Campbell, Kermit. Gettin' Our Groove On: Rhetoric, Language, and Literacy for a Hip Hop Generation. Wayne State UP, 2005.

Gilyard, Keith. Let’s Flip the Script: An African American Discourse on Language, Literature, and Learning. Wayne State UP, 1996.

Wideman, John. Brothers and Keepers. Houghton Mifflin, 1984.  

By Faye Spencer Maor and Jason DePolo of North Carolina A&T State University.


So, where are we?


We have been and are creating spaces for ourselves through innovative ideas and creative partnering. One result from this work was the Symposium on Composition and the HBCU in 2014 on the campus of North Carolina A&T State University (NC A&T). This symposium came about through conversations with Jimmy Fleming of Bedford/St. Martin’s in 2012-2013 — conversations that started with discussions about textbooks and ended up with talks about the unique context of composition at HBCUs and the need for that work to be heard and spread abroad. We at NC A&T argued that faculty at HBCUs needed opportunities for research partners and mentoring because continued underfunding of our institutions left us little to no resources for research and travel. We teach, and our work, in many ways, can help our colleagues at all institutions!  Jimmy asked how Bedford could help. We told him. After more conversations with Bedford, and our then Dean, Dr. Goldie Byrd, the idea of a conference morphed into a much more manageable one-day regional symposium on HBCUs and Composition. The symposium was held at North Carolina A&T State University on April 2, 2014.


Over 50 participants from as far north as Baltimore and as far south as Georgia converged on the campus of North Carolina A&T State University to share and learn that they were not alone in the work, innovation, and struggle of teaching writing at an HBCU. At the symposium, HBCU faculty were able to engage with scholars such as Andrea Lunsford, Gesa Kirsch, Vershawn Ashanti Young, and Staci Perryman-Clark: scholars who came to talk to them, who wanted to know their experiences and challenges. As a result, these teacher/scholars were able to get a glimpse of the work done in this context. Specifically, students were able to hear and exchange their thoughts with Vershawn concerning code switching in a packed auditorium full of sharp thinkers who challenged what they heard in ways that not only impressed Vershawn but everyone in attendance. Workshops were held, and community was built. It was a special moment in time. It was also a spark.


Since that symposium, more of our colleagues in composition at HBCUs are engaging in continued research and its presentation to institutional- and discipline-based conferences and workshops. Collaborations and other connections are blossoming. We are inserting the need for our involvement in STEM education. We are working together and planning to do more symposia and conferences to make our voices and work known and useful to all of us who care about and do this work. We have always been here, but we are striving for and obtaining a stronger voice and presence.  We can no longer afford to be a small part of the conversation or an afterthought. Our context is similar and unique. Our challenges are similar AND unique. 


Ultimately, we believe Writing Program Administrators and Composition Faculty at HBCUs traditionally face limited resources, excessive teaching loads, and few opportunities for research productivity. The aim of the 2014 Symposium on Composition at the HBCU was to provide a platform for these underrepresented voices to participate in a teaching and learning colloquium. The goal was to provide professional development activities through workshops conducted by specialized, nationally recognized faculty. In addition, it was our hope to engender an enduring dialogue and encourage teachers to continue collaboration on pedagogy and research relevant to teaching writing at HBCUs, leading to future symposia and conferences.


The spark has ignited a flame. In Spring 2018 at Howard University, one of the oldest and most prestigious HBCUs in the United States, the collaboration will continue. We are delighted and excited! We are coming, and we will lift as we climb!