Toward Writing as Social Justice: An Idea Whose Time Has Come

By Poe, Mya; Inoue, Asao B. | College English, November 2016 | Go to article overview

Toward Writing as Social Justice: An Idea Whose Time Has Come


Poe, Mya, Inoue, Asao B., College English


In her last book published in 2013, Responsibility for Justice, the late political theorist Iris Marion Young wrote,

While there are vast disagreements about why, almost no one in American society today thinks that educational opportunity is equal . . . The turn-of-the-century hope that public education can equalize the relationship among children of very unequal parents, giving each child an equal chance to compete with others from more privileged backgrounds, seems like a strange dream. (21)

Indeed, writing teachers and writing program administrators working today in higher education often find themselves wondering if equitable education is a strange dream. Placing students into noncredit basic writing classes, assigning credit for dubious dual-credit experiences, and preventing students from advanced coursework through exit assessments that capture just slivers of the writing construct: So much of the writing assessment work we do seems complicit in sustaining inequality. No wonder we are drawn to seemingly more democratic assessment methods like directed self-placement, portfolios, and contract grading. If we were to make this desire for more democratic assessment more visible in our profession-to say that we value socially just writing assessment-what would it mean? Would assessing for justice be asking something of writing assessment that is simply, to echo Young, a strange dream?

This special issue takes up a singular question: What would it mean to incorporate social justice into our writing assessments?

One of our goals in putting together this special issue was to foreground the perspectives of contributors whose voices are not typically heard in writing assessment scholarship: non-tenure-track faculty, HBCU WPAs, researchers interested in global rhetorics, queer faculty, and faculty of color. These voices have too often not been heard in writing assessment scholarship. There is no doubt that the first step toward projects of social justice writing assessment is to listen to those who have not been heard, to make more social the project of socially just writing assessment. Thus, in this special issue of College English, we argue that there is much to be learned by making the writing assessment "scene," as Chris Gallagher would say, more inclusive.

Theor i z ing Soc i a l J u st i c e for Wr i t ing Ass e ss ment

Social justice theory may encompass many disciplinary and theoretical orientations. As Michael Reisch points out in the Routledge International Handbook of Social Justice, social justice theory is not simply the eradication of injustice. Achieving social justice, or perhaps simply justice, means "envisioning what a just society would look like" (1). As a result, it requires us to "address fundamental questions about human nature and social relationships; about the distribution of resources, power, status, rights, access, and opportunities; and about how decisions regarding this distribution are made" (1).

John Rawls's thought experiment, what he called "the veil of ignorance," was an exercise in imagining what kind of society we might choose if we could suspend our current knowledge of our place in society. In this exercise in which "no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does any one know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength, and the like," the principles of justice are selected "behind a veil of ignorance" (A Theory 12). Rawls defined this "original position of equality" because "all are similarly situated and no one is able to design principles in favor of his particular condition" (12). For Rawls, "justice as fairness" meant understanding the ways that the "basic structure of society" was created by relations among individuals (Justice 10). He explains that "as a social process view, justice as fairness focuses first on the basic structure and on the regulations required to maintain background justice over time for all persons equally, whatever their generation or social position" (54). …

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