| in Community

by Katrina Scalise (COM’25)

How does linguistic justice manifest? How do you write through an antiracist lens? What does “standard English” look like? The newly revamped introductory writing course for English-language learners (ELL) in the College of Arts & Sciences Writing Program brings these topics to the forefront of academic writing.

Christina Michaud

In the fall 2023 semester, the Writing Program reintroduced CAS WR 112, “Critical Literacies for Multilingual Writers,” while also adopting a new placement method for international students in ELL courses. These tandem changes to the Writing Program are reflective of university-wide efforts to focus on student-led learning, according to Associate Director of ELL writing and Master Lecturer in the Writing Program Christina Michaud

“It’s really been a huge step forward for students’ own agency as they begin their writing journey at BU,” Michaud said, regarding the placement system update, which recommends students to either WR 111, WR 112, or WR 120. 

She spearheaded rewriting the curriculum of WR 112 after completing the Designing Antiracism Curricula Fellowship last year. While developing the curriculum, she aimed to incorporate antiracist frameworks like critical language awareness, in addition to a critical view of globalization as the focus of the course.

“What did we want students to be able to say—to realize—about antiracism?,” Michaud said, describing the curricula design process. “We approached thinking about linguistic justice as the key aspect for this course. Because WR112 is taken by international students, they’re all multilingual and over 90% of them are students of color. It really felt like a necessary class to think about equity and justice in.”

In line with the Global Citizenship and Intercultural Literacy Hub unit the course fulfills, WR 112 professors aim to foster critical thinking about language as a tool for inclusivity, and to break down linguistic prejudice, the inherent power dynamics in language.

“This is manifesting in the classroom through related readings, open, honest and sometimes difficult discussions, reflective writing assignments, and multimodal projects,” said Pary Fassihi, senior lecturer in the Writing Program. “Students are learning to recognize and challenge systemic linguistic discrimination, thereby becoming advocates for equitable communication practices.”

“We want to give students a chance to use English in complex, challenging, interesting ways…but we don’t want to be a very reductivist, native-speaker focused framework,” Michaud added.

For example, one of the new course’s assignments is a linguistic controversy team presentation, in which students from diverse backgrounds can engage in dialogue about a controversy in language, such as the implications of mis-translation and mis-appropriation, the use of first-person in academic writing, or the debate surrounding the five paragraph essay format. Student groups orally present posters summarizing their controversies to their classmates.

“The incorporation of linguistic equity into the [WR 112] curriculum has not only raised awareness but also encouraged students to critically analyze their own linguistic biases and privileges,” Fassihi said of the project.

Other changes in the new WR 112 include more varied reading options, including podcasts and videos, and only one synthesis or comparative analysis academic paper, as opposed to the previous three argumentative papers. In addition, the updated course module now incorporates elements of the Writing Program’s cumulative portfolio assignment, a library orientation module, and a multimodal formal project.

Notably, the new WR 112 course also utilizes pass/fail grading so students can focus on their learning instead of fixating on earning a certain letter grade. Michaud said she noticed in the past that students would usually “play it safe” and stick to writing strategies they’re comfortable with. 

“They’re worried about trying something so dramatically new that it might destabilize something, so we want them to try new things, we want them to work in groups and not feel like ‘this person is a drain on my grade,’” she said.

The shift in grading has freed up faculty to give comprehensive feedback, for students to take more risks in their writing, and has led to a more collaborative classroom environment. This  grading system switch is in line with the Writing Program’s new ELL course placement system, which was also introduced in the fall 2023 semester.  

In the program’s previous placement system for English-language learners, students completed an essay exam online and would be placed into either WR 111, WR 112, or WR 120. “It was very much a top-down process, students had no input in it, this was something that was just handed to them. So that felt again, like not who we want to be as the Writing Program,” Michaud said of this system. 

With help from the Shipley Center and educational technologists, a new placement system consisting of an online course and videos was introduced to incoming international students in summer 2023. The module introduces students to the Hub, poses questions assessing how writing was approached in their high school careers, and introduces them to some key questions: “How do we think about writing at BU? What’s important to us as a university community?”

The goal, Michaud said, of the new placement system is to focus on an individual student’s English learning needs. She noted that writing faculty members responded positively to the change.

They felt like they were actually on the students’ side and cheering them along, like ‘Yes, you’re going to be great in this class,’” Michaud explained. “We really value a student’s background, their multilingualism, and what they bring, and we wanted to meet them there,” she said.