Academic journal article College English

Writing Up: How Assertions of Epistemic Rights Counter Epistemic Injustice

Academic journal article College English

Writing Up: How Assertions of Epistemic Rights Counter Epistemic Injustice

Article excerpt

Scene 1: Two graduate student women, Suzie and Janis, discuss a job application intended for a potential employer who has power over the writer-power linked with potential earnings and material conditions. As the writer Suzie (Korean American woman in her forties) moves toward strong assertions of her personal experience, qualifications, and skills relevant to the position, the tutor Janis (Jewish American woman in her early thirties) nods and responds with "yeah," "uhm, hum," and "right"-what sociolinguists call verbal continuers. Through these gestures, Janis supports Suzie's assertions, which become part of the application. They collaborate in articulating and writing a job application that involves Suzie asserting her authority and economic worth, something she identifies as challenging because her experiences in graduate school have left her feeling less than qualified. Together, Janis and Suzie negotiate articulations of the writer's credibility, and by doing so, they "write up" (akin to "speaking up") to audiences with greater institutional power and more implicit right to speak.

Scene 2: Two friends and graduate student women of color (both black women in their late twenties/early thirties), Traci and Ella B., build solidarity that allows Ella B. to assert herself when writing to her thesis committee within a predominantly white research university. Specifically, Ella B. writes about the representations of black women as the face of the black community, identifying what she terms a larger "damaged discourse." Ella B. shows how this "damaged discourse" has been shaped from the outside by unrealistic expectations for what the black community-and especially black women-should be. In making this analysis, Ella B. not only composes a strong critique, asserting her right to enter and alter academic discourse, but she also engages in self-representation. She shifts agency away from the damaged discourse she identifies having experienced herself and toward the act of black women writing their own stories. Acting in the tutor role, Traci supports this work by endorsing (verbally and nonverbally) both Ella B.'s claims and her act of asserting herself within the larger academic context that is largely silencing.

Scene 3: In a community literacy program, Christine (a white, working-class woman in her seventies) documents a series of medical misdiagnoses and wrong treatments as she advocates for changes to the US medical establishment. Theodore, the community literacy instructor (a white, graduate-student man in his thirties), affirms, clarifies, and helps to rewrite Christine's narrative. When Theodore writes for Christine, he performs an act that risks disempowering her. Yet in working collaboratively, they together influence the distribution and reception of Christine's work. As Christine "writes up" to be heard within large institutions (by physicians, health insurance companies, and health advocacy groups), the stakes are high. The stakes involve not the potential of employment that Suzie writes for or to counter the related academic gatekeeping and disciplinary construction of knowledge that Ella B. engages. Instead, Christine writes with the hopes of broadening access to needed medical procedures and quality health care. As such, she writes not only to reclaim her own agency and personhood that have been stripped away within the medical bureaucracy, but also to act responsibly so that others will not face the sense of victimization she has encountered over two decades.

In the three scenarios presented, we see different manifestations of epistemic injustice, or harm done to people in their capacities as knowers. This harm arises when people themselves or what they deem worth knowing are dismissed. In the first and second scenes, epistemic injustice manifests within graduate education. Suzie, the job applicant, finds her qualifications questioned, which undermines her accumulated experience and expertise. Similarly, as she writes her thesis, Ella B. …

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