The overwhelming majority of students I tutor at my job are Black women. Part of that is the nature of the work- you develop a rapport with students and they come back to you. But even the one-off students who just need a second set of eyes before they submit a paper are typically Black women. In the last week, every student I’ve seen has been a Black woman. They’ve hailed from the US, Jamaica, Haiti and Tanzania. They’re bright and studious and funny and dedicated. They’re also tired, frustrated and overworked in every area of their lives, and especially in school.
Others have written at length about the systemic racism within education institutions, and that usually looks at large universities, Affirmative Action and admissions, and other controversial topics such as those. What’s been bugging me lately is the little stuff though, like MLA format. I don’t understand why we force this insanity onto these students. Unless you’re going into academia later, MLA is a weird style of writing that requires alot of energy and focus to get right. The spirit of plagiarism is far more important than the letter of it, but every semester I see the same syllabi with the same dire warnings that plagiarism will not be tolerated. My students stress so much about their margins and spacing. My students also happen to be Black women.
So is the opaqueness of MLA format a racial and gender issue? Like many things, it was developed by a bunch of white guys who probably couldn’t have predicted that someday a Black woman whose first language is French would ride a bus for an hour after her job to sit in front of a computer and try to understand why a comma goes here in her citation and not there. A thing being a racial or gender issue is not so much about whether the intentions were racial, but rather whether the effects are racial. After five years of watching women of color, particularly Black women from around the world, legitimately struggle with margins, pagination, citations and other utterly meaningless minutiae, yeah, I’m ready to say it’s a racial, gendered issue.
I’m picking on MLA because it’s easy to point a finger at a cold, lifeless style guide, but it’s honestly much bigger than that. It’s non-credit remedial classes which students are required to take and must pay for. It’s financial aid guidelines which require women with families and jobs to take more classes than they should to qualify for aid. It’s department guidelines which force students to blast through multiple styles of writing in one semester which they will literally never use again. It’s lack of access to even basic technology education. I can’t tell you how much time I’ve spent in tutoring sessions teaching students how to use a computer before we could even begin working on their writing.
It frustrates me because we tell these women to get an education to earn a better living for themselves, and give them almost nothing to actually achieve that. No child care, no time off from work, no food assistance. Then we burden them with learning a very specific kind of writing- academic writing- which is divorced from their otherwise full lives. Then we grade them on it and say, “Yeah, remember that thing about a better life through education? Well, you got a D in English 101, so that’s not gonna work out for you.”
I think I’m just venting here, because any solution I can think of requires a fundamental reorganization of education. It would be nice if students didn’t have to write in MLA format, but that wouldn’t address the myriad other issues that lead to the crazy attrition rate at our college. The more time I spend working in a school, the more I realize that I’m very lucky that I’m a man who likes to write.