A Letter To Students, From the NWP Faculty
We are deeply grateful for your letter. Thank you for all the painful labor and thought that has gone into it, and for giving us the opportunity to make amends and to change. We want to acknowledge that as a program we have failed Black students and caused pain, and you are right to be angry and to demand immediate action. We are committed to listening to you — and working with you — to rebuild the program in a more just way. We recognize your frustration in the lack of a timely response to concerns raised in the past, which is why we want to lay out, here, a set of specific actions we will take right now to recruit, elevate, and support Black students, along with a timeline for actions we will take in the future.
We intend to address all of the items in your letter, and we want to do so thoroughly and in a way that transforms our program’s (and the University’s) culture in a sustaining way. Some of these changes will require the collaboration of other offices and outside parties, the collection of data, and our own conscientious daily action and mindfulness. We are enthusiastically committed to all of this, and will be transparent about our progress. The changes we can make immediately, we will, and they are as follows:
- All NWP faculty have already begun the process of scrutinizing and reforming our admissions process. By the next round of admissions to the program, we commit to having a more diverse pool of application screeners, including Black writers, all of whom will be compensated for their labor on behalf of the program. We will update the whole community as soon as these processes are solidified, sometime in the fall semester.
- Starting in the fall semester, all NWP faculty will include statements in their syllabi stating how they plan to address racism in the classroom, as well as resources for how to file a complaint.
- Starting in the fall semester, all NWP faculty commit to including texts by Black writers (beyond Baldwin and Rankine) on our syllabi, without tokenizing or holding them separate from the canon.
- Effective immediately, all NWP students will be allowed to count more than one outside course toward their degree.
We also want to share with you actions that we are currently pursuing that will take slightly longer to implement, but which are underway, and the timelines to which we will hold ourselves accountable.
- Starting in the Fall, we will require mandatory implicit bias/diversity training for all faculty and students, that we will do each year, with separate BIPOC-only offerings and support. We also commit to working with DEI experts to develop special anti-racist training specifically around concerns that emerge in the creative writing classroom and workshop. Likewise, we are working to help create special pedagogical support for BIPOC teaching assistants, in acknowledgement of the additional burdens they bear teaching in predominantly white classrooms. We also commit to making sure there are resources in place to help BIPOC writers and support them in their move to a predominantly white city and work environment, understanding that we have not done enough to think thoroughly and empathetically about the wellbeing and safety of our BIPOC students and that we must do everything to support their retention. We commit to working on this over the summer, with the hope of having concrete steps in this area in place by Fall.
- We are committed to making data on program demographics accessible to students and prospective students. In order to do so, we must research FERPA laws and investigate what data is already available and what needs to be collected. We are already seeking this information and will have an update by the fall semester about our progress and findings.
- In the immediate days ahead, all NWP faculty have committed to attending a workshop led by facilitators from the organization Liberating Structures. The theme of the workshop is “Reimagining Graduate Education as Preparation for Navigating Crisis,” and it is placing specific emphasis on working for justice. Any graduate students who would like to attend are welcome to join us as well. You can find more about the free online workshops which begin July 16 here.
- In acknowledgement of the fact that reform is not effective and healing is not possible if reform is left in the hands of those who are part of the very institutions that have caused harm, we are also currently pursuing the additional step of researching how we can have someone outside the program conduct a diversity audit of the NWP, a neutral party with whom students and alum can speak, candidly, frankly, about their time in the program and what must change for Black students and students of difference to thrive, all without fear of reprisal, and with the understanding that we want to listen to students and follow their lead for ongoing reform. We commit to working on this over the course of the summer and will update you with details.
- For immediate concerns, we invite students who wish to share any comments to this email account: firstname.lastname@example.org. We recognize the need to ensure anonymity for those who do not wish to be named, and so we will be working with IT to develop a special anonymous comment form for students. We hope to have that by Fall semester.
- All of the NWP faculty and our colleagues in English support the extreme urgency of the hiring needs you so rightly identify and while this is an area where we cannot yet offer a clear timeline, we commit to work in the coming weeks to exhaustively explore all possible ways to achieve this, and we will be as transparent as we possibly can during that process.
We will work on these longer-term items and have an update on our progress by the start of classes in the fall.
As we move forward, we want to be sure what we do is informed by the voices and experiences of Black students and all students committed to building an anti-racist program. We are listening. And we thank you for your leadership and strength.
The Faculty of the NWP
July 4, 2020
A Letter from The Students of The NWP:
Dear John and Nonfiction Writing Program faculty,
We are writing because we are concerned about the lack of support for Black students in the program. The program’s silence regarding current events and the Black Lives Matter movement highlights the consistent lack of actionable response that students have seen when they have reached out in the past regarding the program’s lack of resources to help its Black students (two recent examples attached).
In direct meetings with students who have attempted to advocate for themselves and others, the faculty has responded with dismissive language, silence, or at best cosmetic changes. This is unacceptable, and we are no longer willing to hear half-hearted excuses. At this point, even a statement would feel inadequate to bridge the disparity in quality of education and living that Black students receive here. We are asking for reassurance not just that the program cares, but that it will make an actionable plan to address the needs of Black students in a nearly all-white academic department placed in a city where white nationalists openly counterprotest near the building where we learn and teach.
Black students should be able to spend their time focusing on craft instead of losing energy dealing with racist encounters with faculty, staff, and students. Black students should not have to do extra work, on top of course and teaching loads, to receive the same quality of education that non-Black students are afforded by default. Despite past communications from students regarding these issues, whether asking for diverse faculty members, admissions panels, and syllabi, or addressing microaggressions as a community, there has been no concrete change that we’ve seen. This has meant that all students, particularly Black students, have had to take on needless, years-long, exhausting advocacy to rectify issues that the program should be addressing, which takes time and emotional labor.
For instance, having overwhelmingly white workshop leaders has led to instances where white students can write and workshop dehumanizing and racist work that impedes the ability of their fellow students to learn and feel present and valued in the classroom. In these instances, the faculty rarely even makes note of that content, much less does anything about it, whereas if students write something that in any way criticizes the program, they are reprimanded. Risk and mistakes are obviously central to learning, but the program has not taken measures to ensure a safe environment for all students in the classroom when these moments occur. If moments of racism are addressed at all, often faculty members avoid proactively leading the discussion, and have even perpetuated their own microaggressions against students. Not only does this alienate Black students, but the entire student body is left without a model for how to navigate racist microaggressions as an instructor in a workshop setting. This is especially disappointing given how much the program prides itself on being a leader in teaching development and job placement.
In workshops that discuss work by Black students, instead of focusing solely on critical feedback, faculty has often allowed white students to express their hurt feelings regarding what the student has written about race, which is supremely unhelpful and outright harmful in a program supposedly geared to help students write the truth of their lived experiences. This often results in a circular rant that leaves Black students with no actionable feedback to help move forward with the piece. In the end, in addition to the inability to revise, these students are left shouldering the guilt and anger of white students and white instructors. Certainly there are members of the faculty who have worked to advocate for Black students, but the fact remains that there is not a single faculty member for students affected by these incidents to report to who is not white.
Open discussion about how to respond as a group to racist microaggressions at the start of the semester, professor accountability, and bias training are a few ways to address this as a start, but it is the job of the faculty to think deeply about the environment they create in the classroom, not students’. We want to see the administration openly commit to confronting racism alongside us. For example, when the program organized an Identity, Perceptions and Bias workshop in 2018 as a response to these concerns, we were disappointed that only two of the five full-time faculty members were present, and that student attendance was relatively low, when this is the kind of work that should be recurring and mandatory. In the past, students have met with faculty multiple times about the possibility of a proactive, recurring annual or biannual meeting to collaborate on how to confront these challenges as a group. Yet there has been no opportunity to discuss the program’s issues, except for occasional last-minute meetings held at night after workshop, often in an atmosphere that feels less like dialogue than a defensive Q&A. It is not a matter of the program not being able to tackle issues proactively, as evidenced by the open correspondence surrounding COVID-19. The program seems to be saying COVID-19 is everyone’s problem, but racism is Black people’s problem—it doesn’t affect us, they’ll figure it out.
Each time we question the lack of Black faculty, it is met by passing the blame to another entity; it’s never the program’s fault. We are told that hires are rare and difficult to execute. Yet, despite student advocacy, the two hires that have been attempted have not been a part of the group most in need—Black students. The job market is highly competitive and there are many more qualified writers seeking nonfiction jobs than there are jobs available, so it is hard to hear that it has been impossible to find a candidate for such a prestigious program. We are not interested in hearing any more reasons why this can’t happen when the reasons why it needs to happen are so urgent and readily apparent.
In the process of writing this letter, students reached out to the administration requesting demographic data on student admission and graduation rates in the NWP. This request was denied. The statistics (attached) are findings researched by NWP students for the purposes of this letter. From 2013-2020, 74 students graduated from the NWP. Only five of those graduates are Black, or 6.7%. 18 graduates have been POC, or 24%. This means that most of the graduating classes since 2013 have included no Black writers at all. While overall retention for the NWP over the last five years, from 2016-2021, is 94%, retention for students of color during that same time period is 78%.
These critiques are intended to help the program be stronger, more equitable, and produce more successful students and graduates; when these ideas are received with condescension or listing other concerns as an excuse, it feels like a statement on what the program’s values truly are. We love that the program celebrates service and generosity, but are frustrated that this form of service is so rarely met with that same appreciation, even if the intent is the same. Many of the students who are most concerned with creating a community that serves all its current and potential members equally are the ones who dedicate their free time to leading orientation, organizing graduation, helping with recruitment, attending hiring presentations, and generally showing up for the program. We are happy to do this because we love our community and peers. However, it is difficult to recruit with full enthusiasm and honesty when we ourselves don’t feel the same care and attention dedicated to students of difference, and Black students in particular. We want to learn and work in an environment with more transparent and open dialogue around these issues, where we can voice concerns without fear of retaliation or of seeming ungrateful.
Below, we have included a list of action items for the program. Further silence or attempts to skirt the issue will be understood as an admission that the Nonfiction Writing Program is not welcoming to students of color, particularly Black students, and that it is only equipped to accept and educate white students and has no interest in changing that. In the future, we would like to see the program be demonstrably proactive rather than reactive.
- A concrete, transparent plan for the next faculty member hired to be explicitly Black.
- An action plan and a timeline for measures the NWP will take to foster an anti-racist environment.
- A transparent plan to address the implicit and outright bias in an admission process that is led by an all-white faculty, and the resulting denial for applicants of color to be judged by peers.
- Resources for students of color moving to a predominantly white state, city, and work environment.
- An annual bias workshop for all incoming students and all faculty members, including an option for Visiting Professors (similar to the mandatory sexual assault bystander training), ideally with discussion of how to navigate these moments in a nonfiction writing classroom.
- Faculty will craft their own statements in their syllabi on how they plan to address racism in the classroom, share resources for how to file a complaint.
- A line of communication, with the option to remain anonymous, for student concerns that have historically been ignored and trivialized.
- A commitment to include Black essayists and nonfiction writers in class readings, aside from just James Baldwin and Claudia Rankine, including contemporary writers, without tokenizing and holding them separate from the canon.
-Until there is a Black faculty member, students should be allowed to count more than one outside course toward their degree.
-Make data on program demographics accessible to students and prospective students.
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