Posted on July 23, 2020

Rutgers English Department Actions in Solidarity with Black Lives Matter

Rebecca L. Walkowitz, Rutgers, June 19, 2020

Dear Staff, Students, and Faculty,

I am writing to you today, Juneteenth, to report on the ongoing and future initiatives the English Department has planned as a way to stand with and respond to the Black Lives Matter movement; to create and promote an anti-racist environment in our workplace, our classes, our department, our university, and our communities; and to contribute to the eradication of the violence and systemic inequities facing black, indigenous, and people of color members of our community, to which the #BLM movement and ongoing protests have drawn our attention in pointed and necessary ways.

This is a very long email, but please make sure to read right away at least the department section, which contains information about workshops that will be required of all Fall 2020 instructors and information about two department-wide teach-ins held remotely in the month of August.

As many of you will know, Juneteenth commemorates the day, June 19, 1865, when news of the Emancipation Proclamation reached the enslaved people of Galveston, Texas.  As Dr. Lacey Hunter, a lecturer in the Department of African-American and African Studies at Rutgers-Newark, explains in an interview posted yesterday on the Rutgers-Newark web site, it took two and half years for the news to travel across the territories of the United States.  On this day, 155 years ago, African Americans in Texas learned “that the system of slavery had been legally abolished.”

As Dr. Hunter explains, “For African American people, Juneteenth is a reminder of their historical fight for unconditional freedom in the United States, as much as it is a symbolic manifestation of the ideals espoused on Independence Day.  It reinforces the principles of democratic freedom emphasized during the American Revolutionary period and in some African American communities, Juneteenth is the replacement for July 4th celebrations.  Beyond that, however, it remains important because it stands as a kind of reminder of the road African Americans in the US have traveled and that there is still a long way to go.”

Rutgers English honors the day by pledging to continue and launch the following initiatives.  Some initiatives will operate at the department level and involve conversation and action among all of us: graduate students, staff, TT and NTT faculty, and PTL faculty. Other initiatives are designed to meet the local needs and priorities of smaller units and communities.  Many, many thanks to the faculty and staff who worked with enormous commitment and creativity to assemble these reports quickly.  They represent the six major units of the department: the Writing Program, the Rutgers English Language Institute, Undergraduate English, Creative Writing, Graduate English, and the Center for Cultural Analysis.

This is not an exhaustive list.  We welcome your suggestions and collaboration.  To that end, on or around July 1, 2020, we will be launching a new page on the department web site, which will be moderated by the department’s Committee on Bias Awareness and Prevention (CBAP).  The page will include the names and contact information of members of that committee; links to related pages and committees within various units of the department; and a list of affiliated groups, a calendar of events, and rolling dossier of resources.  I will send out a message with more information when the page launches.

Department-level initiatives

Since 2012, Rutgers English has had a Committee on Bias Awareness and Prevention (CBAP).  The committee was formed in response to a racist incident in the department, and it has served as a resource to graduate students and faculty members; and an engine of workshops and forums related to anti-racist pedagogy, addressing bias in the classroom, and recognizing and eradicating bias in the workplace and academic profession.  We are the only department in the School of Arts and Sciences that has a committee designed to address and remediate bias.  The committee is comprised of tenured and tenure-track faculty appointed by the Chair and two elected graduate student representatives.

In a meeting earlier this week, members of CBAP agreed that the committee needs to move from a role emphasizing “awareness and prevention” towards a role emphasizing “culture change.”  Several initiatives came out of that meeting:

  • Launching a web page to provide access to contacts, events, affiliated groups, and resources (mentioned above).
  • Organizing two teach-ins focused on Black Lives Matter, anti-racism, police brutality, and prison reform that will be offered remotely to the entire department in August.  These will be all-hands-on-deck events.  I urge everyone to attend, especially faculty, staff, and students who do not live the experience of anti-black racism every day.
  • A recommendation – now endorsed by the Chair and leaders of all instructional units – requiring all Fall 2020 instructors in English to attend at least one workshop (remote) on “how to have an anti-racist classroom.”  The instructional units of the department will be collaborating to develop a module that can be adjusted to fit the different courses we teach.  We will be in touch about these workshops over the course of the next few weeks.  They will be mandatory for all tenure-track, tenured, non-tenure-track, part-time, and graduate instructors – everyone.

Ongoing department-level initiatives include mentoring programs that are addressed to students, early career scholars, and mid-career scholars and aim to provide the kinds of information and support that make advancement as widely accessible as possible.  Among those initiatives are the Rutgers English Diversity Institute, which just celebrated its 11th year.  REDI is designed to encourage current students and recent graduates from diverse cultural, economic, and ethnic backgrounds to consider graduate study in English-language literature.  We also sponsor the Cheryl A. Wall Postdoctoral Fellowships in African American and African Diaspora Literary Studies, recently renamed as one gesture to commemorate the invaluable work of our cherished late colleague Cheryl Wall, which for more than a decade have brought two early career scholars to the department.  As way to improve access and transparency in the process of tenure and promotion, the department has created robust mentoring programs for tenure-track assistant and associate professors, which provide mentors, detailed information about strategies and benchmarks, and a portfolio of resources and university policies.

The Writing Program

Subsequent to the appointment of the Writing Program’s first Associate Director for Diversity and Equity in the Fall of 2019, a six-member Diversity and Equity Steering Committee was formed in January 2020.

The committee is sponsoring a three-part summer session workshop on responsive teaching beginning June 29.  The workshop will cultivate critical conversations for Writing Program instructors around the disproportionate impacts of covid-19; state power; racism; violence; white supremacy; protest and resistance; and justice.  The goal of this 3-part workshop (June, July, August) is to come together as teachers now, so that we can invite students into these conversations in the fall.  By the end of the workshop, instructors should have class plans almost completely designed with a toolkit of activities, questions, and prompts for the upcoming semester. We will also be addressing the opportunities and challenges of responsive teaching in a remote learning environment.  This workshop series is intended to be collaborative and low-barrier so that we can maximize involvement and learn from each other.

In development this summer for an August launch, the group will launch a Racism in Education Reading Group, which begin with seminal texts about the ways in which educational institutions reproduce the racism and inequality of American society, and will then break into smaller interest groups around themes such as history of  education, critical and culturally relevant pedagogy, radical writing center praxis, and so on, depending on participant interest. The reading group will meet online once per month.

The Diversity and Equity Committee values initiatives to address racism in our classrooms, but also feels strongly that we must equally address workplace racism and inequity. We have begun informally working within our networks to initiate conversations about the climate of the Writing Program, but we are mindful not to ask colleagues of color to bear the burden of describing how these issues affect them professionally and personally unless they feel called to do so.

Ideas we have for workplace initiatives include implementing periodic climate surveys and/or listening sessions in tandem with the creation of new structures to bridge the gap between listening and institutional action; developing an underrepresented faculty mentoring program; and creating campus meet-and-greets and affinity groups to build community.

Ongoing initiatives within the Writing Program include the ongoing assessment and updating of the reader that is used in English 101, “Expository Writing,” the University’s only universal graduation requirement.  The assigned texts address—and have addressed, for more than thirty years–issues related to race, class and gender and the intersections of those categories, as well as the challenges arising from globalization, the information economy, the growing influence of “One Percent,” and the potential for a “clash of civilizations.”   Current readings in 101 that address systemic racism include an excerpt from Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow, Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The First White President,” Karen Ho, ”Biographies of Hegemony,”  and David Treuer, “Digital Indians.”  More information about readings related to racism, sexism, homophobia and related forms of systemic discrimination in upper-level Writing Program classes will be available on the WP’s Diversity and Equity Committee web site (forthcoming this summer).

The Writing Centers have developed two internship initiatives to support the goals of diversity and equity. The Plangere Writing Center currently offers a spring advanced tutoring internship called “Tutoring Towards Diversity and Inclusion” and the Livingston Writing Center is developing an internship to launch in Spring 2021 titled “Decolonizing the Writing Center.” Both critically engage the history of “English studies” and how we can both continue teaching/tutoring English composition, even as we work to make the writing centers linguistically diverse and decolonized spaces.

The Graduate Writing Program serves graduate students in all SAS disciplines as well as students in select programs outside SAS, has undertaken.  In response to current events, it will undertake the following initiatives:

  • Workshops on social justice and writing.  These will address topics such as the politics of citation and knowledge (the “Cite Her” movement and the “Gray Test” on citing women and people of color).
  • Increasing focus on graduate student life.  We plan to increase curricular content and also programming to focus on managing graduate student life especially for first-generation students, including issues such as the student-committee relationship, self-advocacy, etc.
  • Incorporating “critical grammar” into our pedagogy.  This approach challenges the familiar dogma that writing instruction should limit emphasis on grammar/sentence-level issues so as to not put students from multilingual, non-standard “academic” English backgrounds at a disadvantage. Instead, it encourages students to develop a critical awareness of the variety of choices available to them w/ regard to micro-level issues in order to empower them and equip them to push against biases based on “written” accents.

Not only in its pedagogy but in its hiring practices, the Writing Program has endeavored to increase the diversity of its faculty.  During the 2018-19 academic year, the Writing Program elected its first Non-Tenure Track Hiring Committee, and it conducted a nationwide search that attracted nearly 300 applications and resulted in 21 full-time hires. The HC began its work by extensively researching best practices for equitable and diverse hiring and designing all steps of the application process in accordance with those guidelines.  The result of this new process was that 4 of the 7 candidates who accepted job offers were people of color.

The Rutgers English Language Institute (RELI)

The Rutgers English Language Institute, which provides courses supporting English language development to international students and multilingual residents, circulated its plans for ongoing and new initiatives on June 6.  Those initiatives include:

  • Continued development of courses such as “Exploring American Identities,” “Writing Across Cultures,” and co-curricular workshops on “Inclusive Teaching” and Educational Diversity Around the World,” that provide opportunities for discussion on critical social and cultural awareness across ALL student populations at Rutgers.
  • Leading and sustaining conversations on language rights as human rights including the “Difficult Dialogues” series co-sponsored by the Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights (CGHR) and RELI-led “Addressing Implicit Bias and Accented Speech: Creating a Linguistically Diverse and Inclusive Classroom.”
  • Increasing the awareness of linguistic diversity at Rutgers University through student projects to be featured on an interactive website, “The Linguistic Landscape of Rutgers,” created in partnership with the Language Engagement Project.
  • Providing guidance and resources on inclusive and translingual pedagogy.

Details on these and other initiatives will be announced on our website,

Undergraduate English

New initiatives in Undergraduate English will include:

  • In the Fall, we will be launching programming about “art and protest.”  If we are teaching remotely, this might take the form of a virtual exhibition including submissions from faculty teaching classes that touch on this area and/or creative or meta-reflective work from students about how art works politically. In the spring if we are back on campus this could involve teach-ins, or an art festival on the quad with readings and projections of student-made, digital-storytelling documentaries.
  • We will be requiring a workshop for all Fall 2020 instructors on “How to Run an Anti-Racist Classroom” that is specifically tailored for UE, and we have beging to plan readings and a format. We look forward to working with CBAP, Creative Writing, and the Writing Program to develop the session.

Ongoing initiatives include:

  • The English Department has long-standing commitment to the field of African American Literature.  We are one of the first English Departments in the country to require a course in African-American Literature for the major.
  • In 2020-2021, we are running 14 courses in the fields of African-American literature, on subjects ranging from W.E.B. Dubois and His Afterlives to Afro-Futurism and Black Speculative Fiction.
  • Building on this commitment to African American Literature as a standalone requirement for the major, we are also implementing a new Global South requirement, the fruit of two years of curricular study and revision by the faculty.  This will create more space in the curriculum for courses in the areas of post-colonial, ethnic American, and global Anglophone literatures and support future hiring in these fields.

Creative Writing

New initiatives in Creative Writing include:

  • We are developing modular CW assignments on a) identity issues and b) social change issues that all of our CW instructors will be invited to use; they will be expected to use one, or to craft their own. This curricular innovation will be part of the entire CW curriculum for next year – in every CW class.
  • We will run a “how to have an anti-racist classroom” workshop. We will require this of all our instructors. This will be planned in collaboration with Undergraduate English.
  • We have been developing a new course called “Reading for Creative Writing.” We are considering a suite of “topics” courses: “Reading and Writing about Race,” for example. The curriculum committee will discuss this possible initiative.
  • We will choose and host a writer who would be featured in a public-facing event with Rutgers faculty on a work of anti-racist literature.

Ongoing initiatives in Creative Writing include:

  • We will design the reading for Rutgers Day 2021 to specifically address issues of anti-black racism and social justice.  This is our annual reading-under-the-tent, which attracts students, faculty, administrators, and community members to the Rutgers campus.
  • Writers at Rutgers will organize several readings in 2020-2021 addressing issues related to the #BLM movement and systemic racism.  Professors Mark Doty and Evie Shockley are going to read (together); we also have the novelist Viet Nguyen scheduled.

Graduate English

New initiatives in Graduate English include:

  • The graduate program has a long-standing commitment to offering a curriculum that reflects the cultural, racial, and ethnic diversity of our community and of the literatures we study.  Going forward, we will develop plans for and prioritize course proposals that seek to foster greater understanding of the longer historical arc of racial injustice that connects earlier periods to the structures that continue to hold sway over our present moment.
  • The graduate program is committed to extending discussions about social justice and the resources afforded by our positions within the university beyond department walls, even as we hope to create new structures that will put the skills and insights afforded by an English Ph.D. to work in the world.  We will build on current university initiatives that seek options for graduate students to undertake community-engaged projects such as educational initiatives in public schools, prison outreach, and different forms of community organizing and political activism.  We will also be exploring possible ways of incorporating these commitments into the structure of some graduate courses.
  • This is not a complete list. We are committed to this ongoing effort and welcome your thoughts and suggestions.

Ongoing initiatives include:

  • The Graduate Program will continue its long-standing commitment to recruiting a diverse graduate class.
  • The Graduate Program is committed to maintaining an inclusive and welcoming environment for everyone in Murray Hall, and to continuing the difficult, necessary discussions about social justice, pervasive bias, and structural racism that affect the lives of students, faculty and staff both in our community and beyond. In coordination with CBAP, the graduate program will continue to sponsor workshops for faculty and students to work towards combating racism in the classroom and in the department.  Recognizing the imperative to create greater awareness of the ways bias expresses itself and becomes institutionalized through pedagogical practices, the graduate program is gathering additional materials to help 201 Faculty Mentors foster discussions with MTAs about best practices around syllabus design, inclusive pedagogy, engaging students in conversations about race in the classroom, and addressing racial bias in texts.
  • The Graduate Program will continue to run workshops and discussions on less-formalized professional practices to make sure that everyone entering the program has equal access to information and resources, seeking to combat the “inside-knowledge” aspect of academia. We will develop ways to provide increased mentoring to support black, indigenous, and people of color students in navigating the department and the profession.

The Center for Cultural Analysis (CCA)

The Center for Cultural Analysis will adopt the following policies and practices:

  • Intentionally diversifying the CCA’s Executive Committee.
  • The director will write to all the individuals and groups that CCA sponsors, encouraging them to attend to the racial diversity of their invited guests, topics of discussion, and sponsored events.
  • Since catering is a substantial part of our discretionary spending, we commit to seeking out and supporting black-owned businesses.  Given that there will be few in-person events in AY 20-21, this is likely to be more relevant for future years, but it is a significant and tangible policy.

New programming initiatives in the CCA include:

  • The Race and the Early Modern World Working Group is planning large event for 2021, “Race Before Race,” jointly sponsored with the Folger Library.
  • The Asia Studies Initiative is planning sessions on the ongoing immigration crises, and the racialization of COVID (particularly in relationship to Asia).
  • We are sponsoring a new working group, Slavery + Freedom.
  • The main research seminar, “What is Photography,” will sponsor a visit from Rutgers Professor Nicole Fleetwood, whose work considers the intersections of photography, race, and mass incarceration.  Two of the incoming group of fellows funded by the Center work directly on questions of race and representation.
  • The Critical AI symposium (tentatively scheduled for February 2021) plans to devote one session to biased algorithms (where race is a central concern), and commits to inviting scholars of color to the symposium.
  • The CCA invites co-sponsorships, and particularly welcomes planning joint events with African-American and Diaspora studies groups.  This would include practical matters around pedagogy and professionalization.

Initiatives in the past year have included:

  • The main research seminar on “The University and Its Public Worlds” devoted one session to “Decolonizing the University” and one session to HBCUs.  Critical race theory and decolonization also figured in many of the other seminar readings and discussions, especially in the fall.
  • The Urban Humanities Working Group sponsored a lecture by Alison Isenberg called “Uprisings” that considered the April 1968 “riots” in Trenton in the volatile weeks after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.
  • The CCA was the primary sponsor and organizer for mini-conferences on Octavia Butler and on “Race, Caste, and Christianity.”

Many, many thanks to the members of CBAP and all the faculty and staff who are working together to create the department, university, and national culture we want and that everyone deserves.  I look forward to listening, thinking, reading, and acting with all of you in the days and months to come.  Please reach out to me, to members of CBAP, and to other unit leaders with any questions or suggestions.

Warmest wishes and solidarity,


Rebecca L. Walkowitz
Distinguished Professor and Chair
Department of English
Rutgers University