2020 Anti-Racism Statement and Action Items from The Writing Seminars
As a creative writing department, we know that the words we use have power. James Baldwin wrote that “not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” We, the faculty members of The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University, commit to facing racism and inequality in words and working toward equity and inclusion in our actions. Baldwin also wrote, “I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” We, too, recognize criticism as a loving and generous act (including the uncomfortable work of self-criticism), an act necessary to imagining and building a more equitable future.
We condemn racism in all forms, including the racist and militarized policing of our communities and the racist violence that has caused the deaths of Black Americans like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and numerous other individuals. We understand that, while grieving these losses, Black Americans are also grieving the disproportionate toll of the ongoing pandemic on Black communities. We understand that valuing Black lives means making a commitment to challenging the underlying inequalities that lead to such a stark difference in outcomes. We affirm that Black Lives Matter.
We also understand that expressing a desire for Black people’s basic survival is step zero in creating communities where Black people feel welcome, heard, and valued. In affirming the value of Black lives, we must also acknowledge our own personal and institutional responsibility to work toward an equitable present and future in our classrooms and community. Creative writing, publishing, and higher education are not immune to the historical legacy of entrenched and institutionalized white supremacy. We commit ourselves to the work of anti-racism within our institution and our department, recognizing that such a commitment entails a process of self-education and reflection, listening, and concrete action.
We have collaboratively developed and will collectively work on the following practical, interlinked steps:
- Hire and retain tenured/tenure-track faculty of color, focusing on URM faculty.
- Distribute the labor of anti-racism and inclusion equitably across faculty.
- Diversify curriculum and pedagogically address issues of race and representation.
- Regularly solicit input on issues of diversity and inclusion.
- Address equity in editing, curating, and awarding.
- Prioritize diversity in graduate admissions.
- Recruit and retain a more diverse undergraduate student body.
- Hold ourselves accountable in our progress.
In expanding on these action items below, we note both historical shortcomings and work already in progress. We recognize that we have to build trust in the sincerity of our intentions and commitment, that some of our goals will take longer than others, and that additional actions and initiatives will likely be necessary, particularly in response to student feedback.
Hire and retain tenured/tenure-track faculty of color, focusing on URM faculty.
Our department’s goal is to build a meaningful coalition of faculty of color—particularly underrepresented minority (URM) faculty—with the seniority to shape curriculum and policy, and we affirm that our white faculty will work proactively alongside these writers to effect change.
Our predominately white faculty, in a department and institution with a history of predominate whiteness, cannot fully address the work of anti-racism until we hire and retain tenured colleagues of color, particularly Black colleagues. The Writing Seminars successfully hired its first tenure track Black faculty member in 2017, much later than peer programs, and we recognize that, in turn, our lack of diversity may have made potential students and colleagues reluctant to join us. We also recognize that some conversations are harder to have when the only faculty member of color in the department is also the most junior person in the department. Meaningful departmental change requires a more proactive approach to the hiring of URM faculty than our department and institution undertook in the past. Critique from a diversity of perspectives is central to our practice, and all of our student writers deserve the benefit of a diverse faculty.
While we greatly value the presence and contributions of our Black visiting professors, MFA graduate student instructors, and adjunct instructors past and present, we recognize that these positions lack the institutional security and longevity required for building Black representation in The Writing Seminars. Thus, we commit to being proactive in hiring decisions that change the department in the long-term. We also commit to working toward a departmental and campus climate in which junior colleagues of color present and future can thrive and work toward their goals for promotion and tenure.
Recognizing the need for change, we have already made offers to two fiction writers of color for senior hires in The Writing Seminars. We made those offers in the Spring 2020 semester, and despite the unfortunate timing of the university’s current hiring freeze due to COVID-19, we believe that the university recognizes the vital importance of these two hires, and we hope that it will enable our department to move forward with them in the very near future. We will continue to prioritize diversity in hiring as we move forward. This recent search and our previous search were both written specifically to attract writers with expertise in teaching diverse literary histories to join our department. We had a diversity advocate on each search committee, and this protocol will apply to future search committees.
Distribute the labor of anti-racism and inclusion equitably across faculty.
We will work toward easing and redistributing the “invisible labor” of anti-racism, diversity, and inclusion in our department. We commit that we will not let this work fall disproportionately on faculty and students of color in the present or the future, nor on our untenured or non-tenure track faculty, and that we will review our division of labor on an ongoing basis. Our department’s Diversity Champion position (an existing school-wide service role since 2016, meeting regularly with the Assistant Dean of Diversity and Inclusion) will henceforth be held by a senior faculty member; our Director of Graduate Studies will meet privately and individually with MFA students at the beginning of their second year and will also hold MFA exit interviews to hear feedback on the MFA experience, including specific issues related to inclusion and climate; and we will task specific faculty members with steps in this document while taking collective responsibility for the departmental climate.
We recognize that the project of moving from diversity to antiracism is about recognizing that inviting people of color into predominately white spaces is often challenging work for them. As we recruit or work with graduate students, majors, and faculty, we will be conscious of the fact that we’re inviting them to do additional labor, in some cases more of it than they’d have to do elsewhere in a more diverse environment. We will continue to think critically and proactively of ways to mitigate that work.
All faculty, including MFA graduate student instructors and adjunct instructors, will undertake anti-bias/diversity training. This will be an annual event, and we will work with the JHU Office of the Assistant Dean of Diversity and Inclusion to implement and continue to update this training. For MFA students, the graduate-level Readings in Pedagogy course (a requirement for all incoming MFA students to prepare for teaching undergraduates) will dedicate class time to this training, and make racism, representations of race, and racial sensitivity part of the course’s ongoing conversations about effective teaching.
Diversify curriculum and pedagogically address issues of race and representation.
We have heard past student feedback on the issue of curricular diversity and are responding accordingly. Our program is committed to graduating students who are grounded in a long literary history and asking students to consider their own literary practice in relationship to writing from other historical periods. We will be proactive about communicating that this emphasis is in no way incompatible or at odds with diversity, understanding that any literary canon is under constant construction because of new texts and rediscovered or recontextualized older texts by marginalized writers. We recognize that literature by writers of color has a long history, much of it less studied and taught than it should be.
We will consider diversity in meaningful ways at the level of individual syllabi and in the context of each faculty member’s overall teaching. We will also weigh the diversity of each semester’s course offerings as a whole at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. As faculty, will meet to discuss our own reading lists and syllabi and focus on issues of diversity and inclusion. We will consider how our syllabi explicitly lay the groundwork for inclusive learning through individual diversity statements or otherwise.
Meeting to discuss our syllabi will be part of a broader ongoing implementation of faculty meetings/seminars focused on our own pedagogy. We will share texts to educate ourselves on the particular writerly aspects of these issues, including writing across cultures, cultural essentialism, and approaching sensitive subjects, including race, in both course materials and student work. We will consider how we teach difficult material. Where the work we teach is dated by its problematic language or racist attitudes, we will acknowledge those moments and make space for students to process them, being conscious and deliberate about how we teach and frame potentially hurtful material. We recognize that our students bring a diversity of lived experiences to the classroom, and we will strive to make cultural humility a component of our pedagogy and department culture.
We will include more writing by Black writers and writers of color in the syllabi for Fiction/Poetry Writing I and II, our introductory-level course taught across multiple sections. These core syllabi were recently revised with a focus on diversity; our Director of Fiction/Poetry Writing is further diversifying the syllabi and will solicit feedback from our MFA graduate students who teach the course.
We will also continue to grow and deepen our Community-Based Learning (CBL) classes, the “Writing and Social Engagement” series and “Teaching Writing in the Community,” as CBL is a “high-impact educational practice” shown to promote engagement and retention of students of all backgrounds. These courses are also a space for our students to learn from and celebrate the work of Black writers and writers of color in and beyond the city of Baltimore, and explicitly engage in discussion of social justice, white privilege, and racism. We will prioritize support for our Community Based Learning classes by creating an expense line for those courses in the WS annual budget.
We will offer more courses focused on writers of color on a regular basis, as well as courses that weigh the facts and effects of racism; however, we will not leave the curricular work of anti- racism and inclusion to Community-Based Learning classrooms or courses focused specifically on URM authors. We will teach Black writers and writers of color as artists, not only for a historical or cultural perspective.
In addition to meaningfully diversifying our own syllabi, we will also be more pro-active in cross- listing other departments’ and programs’ courses that focus on diverse writers, particularly Black writers, crediting the importance of these courses to our majors’ educations.
We will celebrate and respect the artistic and cultural production, expertise, and history of communities and individuals of color, particularly Black communities, at JHU and in the city of Baltimore, and work to respectfully incorporate the life and history of Baltimore into our departmental offerings.
Regularly solicit input on issues of diversity and inclusion.
We want to build a department in which students and faculty of color feel seen, heard, and actively represented. We recognize that the opportunity for anonymous feedback is an equity issue, particularly as we are still in the process of diversifying our faculty and diversifying positions of authority within the department. More channels for reporting and collective departmental accountability for the work of anti-racism will ease the burden of fielding concerns off of present and future faculty of color. We will discuss feedback at faculty meetings on a regular basis, attending to concerns as they arise.
Johns Hopkins University does not require graduate-level course evaluations, but we believe that these should be part of the work of hearing all voices in our community. We will implement graduate-level course evaluations as of Fall 2020. We will also add a question to our undergraduate and graduate course evaluations that will enable students to address issues of diversity and inclusion anonymously.
We will implement yearly formal and anonymous departmental evaluation mechanisms, so students feel secure and protected in giving their honest feedback on their Writing Seminars experience as it pertains to both climate and curriculum.
Address equity in editing, curating, and awarding.
We will consider the ways in which public-facing endeavors like The Hopkins Review and our reading series reflect our values, implementing changes as necessary to prioritize diversity and inclusion in our contributors and invited writers. We will also prioritize diversity and inclusion in editorial and curatorial representation in the future.
The Hopkins Review will prioritize diversifying its masthead, cultivating input from scholars and writers of color, and its editorial team will more vigorously solicit writing from underrepresented writers, casting a wider net of inclusion.
The Reading Series has intentionally and significantly increased the number of Black and other non-white speakers in recent years. It has been an honor to learn from the writing and thinking of the numerous Black writers and writers of color we have invited to campus; since 2014, our public departmental reading and lecture series has included Gina Apostol, Paul Beatty, Andria Nacia Cole, Teju Cole, Eduardo Corral, Natalie Diaz, Esi Edugyan, Danielle Evans, Tarfia Faizullah, Lawrence Hill, Terrance Hayes, Rahul Kanakia, Yiyun Li, Dinaw Mengestu, Jamaal May, Claudia Rankine, Salman Rushdie, Zadie Smith, Tracy K. Smith, Jesmyn Ward, and Colson Whitehead. Since 2014, over 30% of our invited readers have been writers of color, and over 50% of our invited Fall 2020 speakers are Black writers. We strive to work continuously for representation that reflects national and global diversity, particularly voices that have been historically marginalized.
Since 2014, individual faculty have also applied for grants and collaborated with other programs and departments including the Center for Africana Studies to invite a diverse group of writers for class visits, workshops, Q&As, and performances, including Melvin E. Brown, Safia Elhillo, Quraysh Ali Lansana, Rickey Laurentiis, Tony Medina, Jess X. Snow, Christopher Soto, and Afaa M. Weaver. We plan to similarly further the impact of our departmental event series by having more of our visiting writers conduct student-centered workshops and/or visit classrooms directly, giving our students the opportunity to work more closely with diverse writers and pedagogies. It is, however, important that we recognize the difference between inviting a diverse roster of distinguished guests and working on structural change within our own department.
While our awards for graduate students are intended to recognize exceptional work, we also want to prioritize our sense of community. Beginning in the 2020 – 2021 academic year, and with diversity in mind, we will hire outside readers to judge submissions to some of our department’s graduate prize competitions. This policy will introduce a wide range of perspectives to the award selection process, with the incidental benefit of allowing our relationship to our students to remain primarily that of teachers and mentors, rather than judges.
Prioritize diversity in graduate admissions.
While a diverse class of MFA graduate students is and will continue to be a top priority for our department, we need to ensure that the experience of our graduate students of color, particularly our Black graduate students, is one in which they can thrive. Diversifying our faculty in both poetry and fiction is a major factor in creating an inclusive environment, but as we work toward that goal, we will also be mindful of the challenges and isolation students of color— particularly URM students—face in predominately white programs and strive to ensure ongoing diversity. We know that the actual experience of URM MFA students in our program is the factor that will have the greatest impact on achieving our diversity goals in future recruitment, and we will be mindful of the work we need to do to ensure that our students of color have a positive experience in our program.
We will also promptly gather data on past diversity in our student body and continue to gather that data as we admit future classes, making our demographics transparently available for our own accountability. Our intention is to show quantifiable progress in the ongoing diversity of our department in the coming years, while also striving to provide a creative and educational
experience in which no MFA student feels reduced to a number. We will also explore additional funds to aid in our recruitment of URM graduate and undergraduate students.
Recruit and retain a more diverse undergraduate student body.
While currently about half our majors are students of color, we recognize that we still have work to do, particularly in reaching out to and retaining URM students. Our faculty will address issues of diversity and inclusion in speaking to newly admitted students and prospective majors. We will reach out to other departments and programs, as well as student organizations, to explicitly welcome students from diverse backgrounds to our events and into the Writing Seminars community. This past school year, we created an undergraduate Student Advisory Board (SAB) to give our students more of a leadership role in the life of our department, including the work of diversity and inclusion. Our faculty will ask the SAB for feedback on issues of anti-racism, diversity, and inclusion, and support potential SAB initiatives or partnerships that promote diversity and inclusion. We will also continue to prioritize diverse representation in the makeup of the Student Advisory Board itself.
As with our graduate students, we recognize that recruiting a more diverse undergraduate student body requires building trust and attending to current student experience. That said, we recognize the particular challenges and systemic barriers URM students have faced and continue to face in higher education, and a long-term goal is considering how we could address those challenges and barriers as a department. For undergraduate recruitment and retention, this recruitment process will most likely involve partnering with and following the lead of existing programs, organizations, and initiatives committed to anti-racist work and diversity in higher education, both within and outside of Johns Hopkins University. This is a long-term goal, as we are building a curriculum, faculty, climate, and support system that will promote retention and student success, enabling Black students and students of color to have a sense of community and thrive in The Writing Seminars at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.
Hold ourselves accountable in our progress.
We recognize that our challenges are not conducive to quick fixes, and we commit to annual stock-taking and transparency in our progress. We don’t think of our statement as a one-off, but as the beginning of a process. To this end, we will institute an annual review to see what steps we’ve taken, to measure the difference they’ve made, and to see what further steps are necessary. We will also hold ourselves accountable in a continuous way by including the work of anti-racism, diversity, and inclusion as a regular item on the agenda of our departmental meetings. Thank you for joining us in this work of imagination, reflection, education, critique, and action.
The Faculty of The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University