Shannon Madden

University of Rhode Island

This special issue, Access and Equity in Graduate Writing Support, comes at what my co-editor Michele Eodice and I feel is a time of both significant challenge and tremendous opportunity for writing centers and the discipline of writing studies more broadly. On one hand, changing student demographics in graduate programs across the U.S. present a challenge to traditional conceptions of the need for writing support at the graduate level and a challenge to existing ways of doing graduate education. Enrollments of international and multilingual students have been on the rise for a number of years, and scholars have used these growing enrollments as exigence for re-examining the important role that writing support plays in graduate professionalization (see for instance Caplan and Cox; Curry; Mallett, Haan, and Habib; Phillips; Simpson). Equally important, the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) recently reported that in fall 2015, underrepresented minority (URM) students constituted almost 25% of all enrollments by first time graduate students (Kent). Although students from URM groups are still drastically outnumbered by majority/white students among graduate enrollments overall, these changes suggest that universities are making much-needed efforts to recruit a more diverse graduate student cohort.

Despite these positive trends in enrollment, statistics on attrition and completion rates show that there is still much work to be done to ensure that our graduate programs are accessible and inclusive. As has been well-documented, prolonged time to degree and high rates of attrition are problems that impact graduate students in all disciplines, and reports coming out of the Council of Graduate Schools indicate that attrition rates have been hovering around 50–60% for decades (Council of Graduate Schools; Bowen and Rudenstein; Casanave; Golde). Significantly, although many universities are working to increase the diversity of their student demographic and are making a more concerted effort to recruit students from underserved groups, in general these schools are still not graduating URM students at proportional rates (Council of Graduate Schools; Bell; National Center for Education Statistics; Sowell, Allum, and Okahana). Moreover, attrition for URM graduate students typically happens during the dissertation- or thesis-writing phase (Bell; Sowell, Allum, and Okahana). This reality points both to the urgent need for considering more carefully the role that writing support plays in retention and completion and for identifying the structural factors that disadvantage students from underserved groups and erect barriers to educational access.

In many places, it is little wonder that the practices of graduate education fail to support access and inclusivity. As has been noted, faculty often bear the incorrect assumption that students are already socialized as expert communicators for their disciplines by the time they enter their graduate programs (see Coffin et al; Curry; Starke-Meyerring; Thaiss and Zawacki). Underlying such assumptions is the tacit belief that being admitted to graduate school is the end of the learning process and not the beginning, that having read books and articles in their disciplines should have prepared students sufficiently to write books and articles of their own. Indeed, assumptions about graduate students’ writing competencies are institutionalized and made material in course offerings and writing support mechanisms (or lack thereof). When graduate programs fail to offer writing instruction of any kind or when they offer graduate-level writing classes for international students only, they position writing as equivalent to language learning, as a remedial skill that is separate from—rather than constitutive of—disciplinary content knowledge. Yet learning to write is a complex, iterative process that unfolds in unpredictable ways and at a variety of stages during students’ scholarly and intellectual development (Adler-Kassner and Wardle). By failing to offer explicit instruction in disciplinary writing practices or structures by which graduate students can develop expertise as communicators for their disciplines, universities offload the costs of acquiring facility in writing practices onto the students themselves (Madden and Stinnett).

In spite of or as a result of these challenges, the current moment is also a time of tremendous opportunity for writing centers, the discipline of writing studies, and those in a variety of disciplines who are working on supporting graduate students as communicators. Budding conversations within and at the intersection of composition and rhetoric, TESOL, writing center studies, and applied linguistics are beginning to draw much-needed attention to the needs that graduate students have as writers, and the Consortium on Graduate Communication has recently been established as a national organization in which scholars can come together to share resources and develop best practices for graduate writing support. The Council of Graduate Schools likewise has been calling for additional focus on writing support for a number of years (Council of Graduate Schools; Sowell, Allum, and Okahana). At the core of this issue lies the tension between the need for professionalizing graduate students as communicators on the one hand, and the failure to teach writing explicitly on the other (Madden and Stinnett). In this way, the need for graduate writing support presents us with an exigent moment both for articulating the integral role that writing plays in scholarship of all kinds and for considering more critically the ways in which institutions are failing to address the needs of their students. In other words, graduate students encountering and struggling to write new genres help writing centers and writing studies experts articulate what it is that we do. Writing support is not remediation; rather, specialized communication practices are essential to scholarly activity in all disciplines and at all levels—including for advanced graduate students and faculty writers (Geller and Eodice). Institutional structures in which graduate writing support and writing instruction are absent provide an opportunity for writing centers to increase our footprint on campus and for writing studies to continue building disciplinary efficacy.

This special issue developed out of a research project motivated by the urgent need to support graduate writers. Like many schools across the U.S., at the University of Oklahoma we recognized that some of the factors that disenfranchise students of color, students with disabilities, queer students, and first-generation students are structural, ingrained, and pervasive. If the issues weren’t structural, the stark patterns in retention and completion rates for underrepresented students reported by the CGS nationally—and parallel forms of oppression facing faculty—wouldn’t exist.¹ These structural issues manifest anecdotally; many graduate students have come to both Michele and myself eager for someone to engage with their writing in a sustained and meaningful way. We have heard faculty colleagues lament the state of their graduate students’ writing—some of them asking for support in teaching their students the discourse conventions of their own disciplines. And we have spent many hours trying to help faculty understand the process of graduate student writing development, a process the faculty themselves may or may not have experienced with awareness.

In response to these conversations, Michele and I began a research project several years ago on the lived experience of graduate writers. Together with our team—which included the associate director of the OU Writing Center, Moira Ozias (ABD/Ph.D. education), Ivan Ozbolt (Ph.D. anthropology), and Alicia Burris (Ph.D. education)—we developed a survey to investigate students’ perceptions of their ability, development, and needs as writers in relation to their access to writing resources, mentorship, and feedback. The survey allows us to see relationships across student identity, interactions with peers, interactions with advisors, and other mentoring opportunities. The data from that study are helping us to see the acute need for addressing access and equity in our conversations about graduate writers. Preliminary findings are showing that students who receive strong mentorship on their writing and who have access to communities of writers are significantly more likely to publish before graduation and to have a strong sense of writerly self-efficacy. Conversely, students who report a strong sense of isolation and who report not feeling integrated into a student cohort that offers peer feedback on writing are more likely to take longer to finish their graduate degrees and to lack confidence as writers. In this way, our survey results are suggesting that community signals a kind of accessibility. Students who have a strong sense of integration into communities are more likely to succeed. Anecdotally, it is likely that many in the Praxis audience already believe that those who have strong writing mentorship and access to writing centers will be more likely to succeed as graduate writers. Yet in order to make the case for writing support to administrators and others outside of our disciplines, strong correlations proven through data are needed.

At the time of writing, we are validating the survey and preparing to offer it nationally so that other institutions can both gather data on their own students and contexts and contribute to a multi-institutional database through which emerging patterns can be further investigated. Making broad-scale connections will counter the narrative that writing support concerns only a few struggling individuals and will be crucial to demonstrating the need for systemic writing support.

In the years since our team began this project, we have been heartened by the increasing attention to graduate writers, and several new and forthcoming collections are beginning to address the gap in knowledge by offering program models and pedagogical best practices to support early career scholars as they learn to navigate the specialized and high-stakes genres that are central to their disciplinary knowledge-making (see Brooks-Gillies, Garcia, Kim, Manthey, & Smith; Badenhorst & Guerin; Simpson, Caplan, Cox, & Phillips; Lawrence & Zawacki). The models, strategies, and insights offered in these volumes are essential if universities are to support all of their students and maintain their own viability as places where disciplinary knowledge is made.

Excited as we have been by this sudden burst of attention, we felt it would be remiss to wait any longer to make access and equity a requisite part of the conversation about graduate writers. Up to this point, attention to the needs of graduate students from underserved groups has been almost nonexistent. Although a great deal of research addresses multilingual writers, U.S.-born students of color are nearly absent from the emerging discourse on graduate writers.² Students with disabilities likewise have been the focus of a great deal of important research involving undergraduate writers, and yet there is little mention of the particular challenges writers with disabilities face at the graduate level. Now that graduate and faculty writers are gaining recognition as an understudied group that deserves our attention, it is crucial that we resist normalizing discourses which cover over identity differences and thus obscure the barriers to access that exist for students with disabilities, students of color, and students who don’t occupy the assumed subject-position as privileged, white, and able-bodied.

This collection asserts that as a field, we don’t yet know enough about the lived experience of writing for graduate students. We therefore don’t know yet what questions we should be asking in order to design programs, courses, and support services that meet all graduate students’ needs, including those from underprivileged groups. Given the structural inequities that exist in graduate programs, we need to make access our praxis for graduate writing—access should be the ethic, the principle, and the theoretical commitment that guides our practice. Writing centers have a long history of positioning themselves as safe spaces (Boquet), feminist spaces (McKinney), and queer spaces (Denny) within which academic success can be achieved through challenge, community, and collaboration. And these must also be antiracist spaces (Diab, Godbee, Ferrell, and Simpkins; Geller et al; Greenfield and Rowan; Villanueva). Yet writing center space is always and already constrained by a number of institutional realities and local circumstances and positioned in institutions which are undeniably racist. As Asao B. Inoue puts it in the afterword to this volume:

Writing centers are often places where students and tutors create success in both quiet, cooperative ways and contentious, tense ways, despite the institutional structures around them that determine students’ learning and languaging and tutors reading and judging practices, all of which set limits on their languaging and pressure people to succeed in particular ways.

As a field that has historically been concerned with how structures of domination function through literacy education, writing studies has much to contribute to the conversation on access and equity for graduate writers. Writing centers, likewise, are sites of productive interaction among peers working in non-evaluative relationships, and often fill the institutional gaps that exist in writing feedback, mentorship, and support. Writing centers are where the structural, institutional barriers to access materialize in one-with-one interactions, and accessible writing center work thus hinges on recognizing and valuing individual experiences.

In order to learn more about graduate students’ lived experience of writing, we invited articles, reflections, and narratives that addressed the following questions:

  • Where and how are graduate students from underserved populations receiving writing support on our campuses, and how can writing centers and writing faculty offer more support for their writing?
  • What kinds of support do graduate student writers from underserved populations need and want, and how does it compare to the kinds of support students are currently getting?
  • What is the lived experience around graduate writing, especially for students from underserved populations?
  • What are the particular circumstances that contribute to graduate writing success (and, by extension, to degree completion) for any of the following:
    • U.S.-born graduate students of color?
    • Graduate students with disabilities?
    • First generation college students who are undertaking graduate work?
    • International graduate students?
    • Multilingual graduate students?
    • Students at the intersections of these identities?
  • How are graduate students building community as writers, and how can writing centers and writing faculty support and foster those communities?
  • How can writing centers foster more collaborative writing and peer engagement among graduate students from underserved populations?
  • How do or how can graduate students develop informal networks of writing support, and how might writing centers do more to sponsor such informal communities?
  • How can writing centers and others who support writing on campus help students create informal structures of support that bolster students’ self-efficacy as writers as well as the completion of their advanced graduate writing projects?

To address these questions, the articles within Access and Equity in Graduate Writing Support variously discuss the forms of oppression faced by graduate writers from marginalized groups, considerations for improving our approaches to graduate writing support, and formal and informal mentorship methods that challenge racism and ableism as they are institutionalized in graduate education in the U.S. Although re-visioned, antiracist, anti-ableist models are needed, this collection does not offer an explicit how-to guide for building graduate programs. Instead, this special issue is about listening to experiences. Only by understanding experiences can we begin to understand the issues which impact student writers from underprivileged groups and from there, begin to design solutions.

Importantly, those individuals from marginalized groups comprise the voices in this collection. Rather than speaking for underserved students, this special issue is written by scholars of color, scholars with disabilities, queer scholars, and graduate students, in addition to writing center specialists whose mission it is to promote inclusive, accessible structures of graduate writing support. We hope that these articles will lead Praxis readers to consider more carefully “the normative underpinnings of so many conversations around graduate writing,” as one member of our editorial board put it.

In the lead article, “Agency, Liberation, and Intersectionality among Latina Scholars: Narratives from a Cross-Institutional Writing Collective,” Nancy Alvarez, Francia N. Brito, Cristina Salazar, and Karina Aguilar offer their experiences as “multi-marginalized” Latina women undertaking graduate work. In particular, the authors describe how they created for themselves an informal community through which they could enact writing support and emotional support across institutions, and be in solidarity with one another throughout graduate school and beyond. By forming this collective, the authors were able to counteract feelings of loneliness, imposter syndrome, and the misperception that women of color don’t belong in the academy. Importantly, the collective also created space for them to “engage in decolonizing dialogue that sanctions the production of diverse knowledge and epistemology.”

Cedric D. Burrows describes the affective and psychological toll paid by graduate students of color to enter and participate in white spaces in “Writing While Black: The Black Tax on African American Graduate Writers.” Burrows notes that students of color, and particularly African American students, are pressured to perform in ways that are not expected of their majority peers, even as African American students are viewed by the university not as individuals but as multiple instances of the same narrative or identity. Burrows argues that institutions which disenfranchise scholars of color also essentialize and “tax” them; they are expected to represent their race, to express gratitude for being allowed to participate in white (and racist) institutions, to perform certain subjectivities, and to recognize as well that they don’t belong. Burrows recommends that universities create spaces where students of similar cultural backgrounds, especially those of shared racial identifications, can collaborate.

In “Productive Chaos: Disability, Advising, and the Writing Process,” Griffin Keedy and Amy Vidali present an edited dialogue from a mentoring session during their collaborations as thesis advisor and graduate student. Both authors self-identify as individuals with disabilities and were working together on a disability studies research project for Keedy’s master’s thesis. Their reflective discussion considers the ways in which writing mentorship for graduate students is normative inasmuch as institutional contexts refuse or reshape atypical ways of knowing, writing, and doing. Their piece presents a powerful challenge to those who mentor graduate writers to consider more carefully the ways in which “normative assumptions of the writing process” shape how we teach writing and interact with writers, and thus “mak[e] normative notions of the writing process prevalent for students.”

Michelle Hall Kells offers a framework for professionalizing graduate students who will go on to become leaders of writing centers, writing programs, and graduate mentors in ways that privilege ethnolinguistic diversity in her article, “Writing Across Communities and the Writing Center as Cultural Ecotone: Language Diversity, Civic Engagement, and Graduate Student Leadership.” Kells proposes the “ecotone,” a transactional site between biological communities, as a theoretical frame for conceptualizing writing center work. By conceiving graduate student professionalization in this way, Kells argues, we can do more to “promote approaches to knowledge-making, strategies for community activism, and opportunities for writers at the intersections of composition studies, including second language writing and community literacy education” and thus engage the language resources and cultural resources of ethnoliguistically diverse writers.

In their article, “Freire's Pedagogy of Love and a Ph.D. Student's Experience,” Charmaine Smith-Campbell and Steven Littles reinterpret Freire’s theory of pedagogy of love to offer a new model for working with graduate writers. By blending a Ph.D. student’s experiences of a writing center and writing mentorship with a theoretical discussion of Freire’s work, Smith-Campbell and Littles argue for reconceptualizing pedagogy as a mechanism for justice. In this way, the authors argue, we can “enhanc[e] equity and possibilities for educational success for all students, especially those who are at risk of attrition.”

Candace Epps-Robertson reflects on her experiences as a dissertation writer researching the history of her community in “Writing with Your Family at the Kitchen Table: Balancing Home and Academic Communities.” As a student encountering graduate school, Epps-Robertson felt isolated by its culture. In her words:

I’d entered a world that felt so different to me, a Black woman from the South, a wife, and mother. At that moment, I didn’t see how I’d ever feel comfortable as a scholar in the ivory tower because my ways of knowing, of problem solving, and of doing, seemed incompatible with academia.

Writing her dissertation about resistance to integration in the Jim Crow south became a process of bridging the distance between the university and home, and her reflection speaks to the need for connecting academic and home epistemologies as well as the power of mentorship in supporting that work.

In “Creating a Community of Learners: Affinity Groups and Informal Graduate Writing Support,” Katrina Bell and Jennifer Hewerdine describe a writing partnership that they created for themselves, one which functioned as an affinity group through which they were able to support one another and supplement the mentorship they received in other areas. Whereas a community of practice describes a group of people who share a common profession or practice (Lave and Wenger), individuals in an affinity group are bound together by their investment in a common goal. For this reason, affinity groups offer more opportunity for recognizing and honoring individual experiences. Bell and Hewerdine’s partnership provides a way for students to create their own networks for writing support, a model which may be particularly useful for students who are under-supported by faculty or who lack strong peer cohorts.

Aja Y. Martinez offers a critical narrative about being Latinx in the academy in her work, “Alejandra Writes a Book: A Critical Race Counterstory about Writing, Identity, and Being Chicanx in the Academy.” This narrative contends both that “marginalized students are the experts of their own experiences and should be the purveyors of their narratives,” and that universities and writing centers “can best serve marginalized students when administrators and staff are trained to listen to, learn from, make space for, and perhaps even assist students in the rebuilding of a writerly identity.” Martinez traces the literate life of Alejandra, a Chicana woman who grew up loving words yet faced language-based oppression throughout her career as a student. Martinez’s counterstory forces educators to consider the extent to which their practices and false assumptions contribute to the continued marginalization and attrition of Latinx students.

Erica Cirillo-McCarthy, Celeste Del Russo, and Elizabeth Leahy consider the ways in which writing center mission statements position the needs of graduate multilingual writers as remedial in their article, “‘We Don't Do That Here’: Calling Out Deficit Discourses in the Writing Center to Reframe Multilingual Graduate Support.” When writing centers fail to offer grammar-based support for writers, the authors claim, they enact a new deficit discourse that “may limit our ability to be open to and to serve the multi-layered needs” of graduate multilingual writers. Instead, the authors offer strategies for rewriting writing center mission statements to honor the linguistic resources of multilingual students and thus move “towards real action in practicing the values of linguistic diversity in our centers.”

In her article, “The Re-Education of Neisha-Anne S. Green: A Close Look at the Damaging Effects of ‘a Standard Approach,’ the Benefits of Code-meshing, and the Role Allies Play in this Work,” Neisha-Anne S. Green examines the normalizing role that Standard American English (SAE) can play for multilingual and multidialectical writers. Green points to the tension between the disciplinary mandate to help students access discourses of power within the university on one hand and the need to honor students’ linguistic codes on the other. As she puts it, “Hybridity is sometimes a choice and sometimes a nonchoice, when it just comes pouring out and I see it as my job to foster learning and to help guide students so that they make educated choices that are suitable for them the way my village made it possible for me.” Through her analysis, Green offers a model for working with students as ally-accomplices and being there for students as they explore the connections between language and identity without forcing them to enact “standard” or “conventional” discourses.

Joseph Janangelo reflects on his time as an openly gay graduate student and Writing Center tutor in the early 1980s in “Equity before ‘Equity’: Catalytic Mentoring and Professional Development for an Openly Gay Writing Center Tutor.” In the face of micro-aggressions committed by faculty, Janangelo found an ally in the writing center director, Lil Brannon, who shaped his career by valuing his perspective and professionalizing him as a tutor. Janangelo’s reflection reminds us that mentorship can make the difference between a student’s capacity to continue and their decision to leave the academy.

Amy Whitcomb offers a memoir about her sustained interactions with an English-language-learning graduate student of the writing center over the course of several months in “‘I Cannot Find Words’: A Case Study to Illustrate the Intersection of Writing Support, Scholarship, and Academic Socialization.” By offering letters between herself, the student, and the student’s thesis advisor as well as analysis of the student’s requests for targeted feedback, Whitcomb demonstrates the affective dimension of graduate writing support and academic socialization in the context of a writing center.

Finally, Asao B. Inoue closes the issue with an afterword that attests to the need for taking up the work of antiracism in a concerted and emphatic way. Inoue challenges writing center specialists and the discipline of writing studies more broadly to recognize “how whiteness and whitely ways of being determine much of what happens in writing centers.” After all, Inoue reminds us, “white supremacy determines the entire system—is the system—and structures the limits and pressures of all writing center work, whether it is with or by graduates or undergraduates, faculty or staff.” Social justice work is thus contingent on dismantling the ways in which systemic injustices materialize in writing center work and graduate writing pedagogy.

Taken together, these articles attest to the ways in which the issues that materialize to some extent for all graduate student writers, such as imposter syndrome and feelings of isolation, can be compounded for students from underrepresented groups who are told both explicitly and implicitly that the spaces of higher education are spaces that are not designed for them, are spaces in which they don’t belong. Yet they also attest to the ways in which strong mentors, writing centers, and supportive peer communities can themselves be productive sites for the work of inclusion, equity, antiracism, and anti-ableism. The authors implore us all to take a hard look at ourselves, at our pedagogies, and at our explicit agendas and to ask whether we are truly making space for writing practices that challenge the status quo, for diverse ways of knowing and doing, and that are designed so that those students who have historically been denied access to education to flourish and succeed on their own terms.  


Thanks, as always, to Michele Eodice. I have grown so much throughout our years of collaborations and continue to learn so much from you. Thanks to my co-researchers on the Doctoral Student Writing Study, Ivan Ozbolt, Moira Ozias, and Alicia Burris, as well as Michele. Thanks to Noro Andriamanalina and Jasmine Kar Tang for having conversations with Michele and me early in our research process regarding access and equity issues for graduate students from underrepresented groups. Thanks to the Consortium on Graduate Communication for their support, especially Nigel Caplan, Michelle Cox, and Steve Simpson, and special thanks to Steve for sharing his work from the CGC collection in advance of its publication. I’d also like to thank Sandra Tarabochia; many of the ideas presented here on the parallels between graduate and faculty writers Sandy and I worked out in conference and grant proposals. Finally, many thanks to James Garner, Casey Sloan, Thomas Spitzer-Hanks, and the Praxis editorial team for hosting Michele and me for this special issue!


1. Significantly, the struggles reported by underprivileged graduate students parallel the oppression documented by women, faculty of color, queer faculty, and faculty with disabilities on the tenure track (see Grollman; Gutierrez y Muhs et al; Kerschbaum et al; Matthew; National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity; Stapleton).

2. I credit Noro Andriamanalina and Jasmine Kar Tang for making this point to me during our discussions about graduate writers in 2014. 

Works Cited

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