Culturally Responsive Composition

Andy Gurevich

Japanese writing set
“Japanese Set for Writing” by Feng Zou is licensed under CC BY 4.0

Writing Through Our Subjectivities

There are a number of issues that arise when students from diverse cultural, social, economic, religious, and educational backgrounds enter a college composition course and are expected to engage the materials in efficient, collaborative, and meaningful ways. From limited access to technology, to English as a second (or third) language, to a variety of learning disabilities, divergent learning styles, and diverse cultural ways of understanding, we must realize at the very outset we do not all come to the college writing process with the same backgrounds, the same skills, and the same access and opportunities. But with some awareness and careful planning, we can turn this situation largely into an opportunity for expansion and variety of expression, instead of a path filled with unnecessary roadblocks and unfair obstacles to student success. It may seem odd, at first, to discuss race, gender, class, and national/linguistic identity markers in the same space as those of the hard of hearing or seeing communities, or the various learning ability communities, but I believe  that by treating each of these communities as a proper “culture,” we will better be able to design, implement, and evaluate the college writing experiences for these communities with more intentional balance, situational equity, and sufficient support.

Instructors are experts in the content, but will likely have less understanding of the students’ personal lives and the pertinent socioeconomic information required to make the content as meaningful, relevant, and accessible as possible for those very students. Students, on the other hand, know their own lives, but are not yet, usually, experts in the course content. But for this process to be successful, both the “objective” elements of the writing process and the “subjective” elements of students’ actual lives and experiences need to come together into a unity of focus and intent.

Students and instructors should work together to “level the playing field” as much as possible, giving each student the best chance to thrive and succeed in the writing classroom. Institutions are increasingly leaning into data-driven models of educational reform, and the data pretty clearly suggests that academic, research-based essay writing is a resource intensive process. And it is the process that matters, often more than the product. So if students do not have adequate access to the resources necessary to fully engage the materials, they will be missing out on the most important parts of what college writing classes are supposed to teach: critical and creative thinking and research-based writing skills. Students who are not adequately resourced are, out of necessity, more likely to become product-focused instead of process-focused because they will not have adequate or regular access to the resources necessary to fully engage the process. And this largely creates a opportunity gap that only increases no matter how hard the student tries to “do the work.”

Furthermore, if instructors, themselves, are not adequately trained and resourced to help students navigate the particular challenges AND opportunities available to them in their educational experiences, crucial transformative moments will be lost to the quicksand of the five paragraph essay and yet another update to MLA documentation styles. Strong critical thinking and research writing skills help students maximize the voices and viewpoints of their own particular sociocultural, religious, and political backgrounds while also situating them within the fabric of the rest of the living world. When students learn how to engage any topic that interests them and do so from both their critical and creative minds, whole worlds being to change. Essay writing is important not because of what it produces on the page so much as what it produces in the heart and mind of the writer. They learn how to think about their own thinking in ways that bring their own voices into the generations-long discussion of the communal search for wisdom, truth, justice, and love. They learn to measure, understand, and evaluate the factual relationships between various established fictions. Knowing how to do these things well will lead students to better resources and opportunities for the rest of their educational, vocational, and personal lives. We owe it to them to do all we can to help them learn how to learn well. They will be better for it. And the world will be better if they are better.

Students, let your professors know, to the extent that it is appropriate and to which you are comfortable, what your circumstances are and what your needs might be in order to be successful in the course. Chances are the instructor can help you access those resources, or at lest connect you with those who can.

Writing Tutoring  often has access to support for ESL and ELL students, as well as students who need interpreters or tutors who can speak their native languages. Contact them for questions regarding support in these areas. Your instructor and the Multicultural and Diversity Resource Center are also great contacts for help in these areas.

Students should consult their own institutions and instructors if they are not currently enrolled in MHCC. The key is communication: early and often. Don’t not be ashamed to ask for the help you need. There is more available than you might think. You cannot receive the support you do not ask for or that nobody knows you need.

Instructors, communicate with your students and let them know your expectations, that you are approachable, and what resources are available to them to help them succeed and thrive in your course and in their larger college experience.

Here are a few guiding principles and values that can help guide students and instructors in creating the optimal learning environments for students to do their best work:

  1. Focus on process more than product.
    • You will read this statement several times in this guide. But what does it mean, exactly? It means that the goal of college composition courses is to teach college composition. So, inevitably, the materials and coursework will require the student to develop their skills in critical thinking, research methodology, as well as in drafting, editing, revising, and formatting the standard college essay. But this does not mean that every single component of the course needs to be written down. Multimodal instruction allows the instructor to use short videos, TED Talks, podcasts, images, and class friendly technology such as Zoom, Slack, Kaltura video, Flip (formerly Flipgrid), and many other emerging apps and student centered technology that is emerging to help develop and expand the digital sales in which this work is done.
  2. Stay in communication. 
    • It seems obvious, but instructors cannot help with problems they do not know the student is having. Often, instructors can be flexible with deadlines and course assignments if the student lets them know what is happening, what they need, and keeps them informed. there is only so much instructors can do, but most are willing to help if they know the problems. And they can often direct you to further resources, if necessary.
  3. As much as possible, try to use technology to minimize or erase barriers to learning, not increase them.
    • Once again, this seems obvious. But it takes some planning on the part of the instructor and the student. The college experience, and writing course in particular, have been almost entirely overhauled by the presence of emerging technologies over the last two decades and the pandemic has made many of those structural changes permanent. So has the emergence of text-based A.I. and the continued exponential growth of the Internet and its presence in our lives.
  4. Treat essay writing as a form of self-empowerment and autodidacticism.
    • Autodidacticism (also autodidactism) or self-education (also self-learning and self-teaching) is education without the guidance of masters (such as teachers and professors) or institutions (such as schools). In other words, once a person masters the skills necessary to write the standard college-level essay, they are no longer subject to the rules and dictates of those “above” them but have a reliable, consistent and time-tested method of consulting the “experts,” evaluating conflicting claims, and deciding for themselves what is the best way forward. Nothing could be more important for any student wishing to better themselves, and their own communities, than that. Teaching writing this way will make the process itself more relevant, more engaging, and more student-centered.
    • Students are often confused about why they are all made to take college composition courses no matter what their chose career path or major. These courses are intended to teach students how to think, not what to think. And, equally as importantly, how to learn. Anybody can go down a YouTube rabbit hole or randomly click on Google links that randomly support or dismiss the thoughts we already have about a given topic. But the ability to think about our own thinking, to carefully and deliberately evaluate our own thinking and the thinking of others in pursuit of clarity, depth of understanding, validity, and proper support and integration of alternative points of view are skills that will empower anyone who has them to be a better version of themselves and a more productive and adaptive member of their community. This is why we ask all college students to take these courses and this is why they ALL deserve equal access, opportunity, and support in pursuit of these vocational, cognitive, and educational goals.

The following is a list of resources that are available for students to help them in their college writing goals. Most of the list is intended for students of Mt Hood Community College in Gresham, Oregon. Some of the resources are national and even international. The  resource list is intended to help make the writing classroom the most enjoyable, equitable, and diverse space possible for students to engage the college writing process in the full and unobstructed pursuit of their own personal, vocational, and educational goals:

General Resources

The following links are mostly specific to the needs of the students and community surrounding Mt. Hood Community College in Gresham, Oregon. But instructors should feel free to add to this list or adapt it to fit the needs of the students and communities they serve. Students, you are, yourselves, resources for yourselves, your families, your communities and your fellow students and instructors. If you have ideas for additional resources that are relevant to this guide and can help your fellow students, let your instructor know and they can likely be added. We are all at our best when we are bring all we we have to the table to help one another succeed.

Cross-Cultural Communication 

A person’s culture affects their perceptions and judgments of the world around them. It can also determine patterns of behavior. What is typical behavior in one culture may be unusual or even unacceptable in another. For example, the thumbs-up gesture, which has a positive meaning in North America, has extremely rude connotations in some other cultures. Looking elders directly in the eye when speaking to them is seen as proper respect in one culture and inappropriate in another. Thus, what we see as ordinary, someone else might have a strong reaction too.

This matters a great deal in how we approach the essay writing process, as well. Concepts like authority, voice, tone, style, and even formatting can be greatly altered when viewed through the various cultural lenses students bring to the writing classroom. Cultural differences can make easy writing assignments interesting; however, they can also lead to difficulties in communication. Some of the most problematic issues arising from dynamic cross-cultural communication are discussed below.

As just one example, the data shows that overcorrecting students who use African-American Vernacular speech (AAV) or other culturally-conditioned dialects does little to help them succeed in college, or in the world, but actually does create a few serious obstacles in their quest for success in both worlds. The following articles dive into the specifics of how we might encourage students to achieve excellence in the skill set we are teaching while not compromising their relevant and established subjectivities in the process. The list also includes links to valuable resources for ESL and ELL students and instructors:

What should we do with this information? Well, again, if we emphasize the process over the product, we can be less concerned with the container of  students’ thoughts and more concerned with their substance. This sounds a bit cliche, but it turns out to be true according to the data. And process-driven composition is both culturally sensitive, flexible, emergent, and responsive to the growing diversity of students who come into the college writing class in their journey through the college experience. As stated elsewhere, The MHCC Multicultural and Diversity Resource Center and the Accessibility Services Office are also vital resources in this process.

Gender, Names, Pronouns, and the Essay Writing Experience

A few times in my career I have helped transitioning students through the process of switching their names in the college system to the one which is connected to their new identities. It is a remarkable thing to see someone finally be able to speak and write through the frames of their emerging selves. Students come to the writing classroom with a variety of gender identities and experiences. Sometimes, a student may wish to use a different name on their essays than the one they are officially registered under. The student may officially be in transition, or they may be exploring the contours of their gendered experience. Instructors can do a lot to help students navigate this space with as much support, dignity, and safety as possible. One thing we can do is to use a variety of pronouns in our own materials to make sure the subjects of our examples and writing prompts are as diverse as our actual student population. Another thing we can do is normalize the use of preferred pronouns in spaces like online chat forums and Zoom rooms. Lastly, there are resources within the college to assist students in using “preferred names“while attending the college even if the student has not initiated an official name change at the state or federal level. All of these steps go a long way in making the writing classroom as accessible, safe, and welcoming as possible for the many kinds of students that come through the doors.

Religion, Politics, and the Essay Writing Experience

Students with needs regarding their religious, cultural, and/or political beliefs should contact their instructors directly so they can make reasonable accommodations and provide support where necessary. For MHCC, the best place to start is with your instructors. The MHCC Multicultural and Diversity Resource Center is also a vital resource.

  • If an assignment is due on, or near, a religious holiday that you and your family celebrate, contact the instructor and let them know. Ask for an extension.
  • If a writing prompt or topic is constructed in a way that would force you to engage in a discussion that violates your cultural, religious, and/or familial values, customs, and beliefs, let your instructor know and see if it is possible to develop an alternative assignment that is more in line with your values and beliefs. To be sure, college is about expanding our horizons and learning about the world beyond our own views, experiences, and beliefs. But no student should be forced to openly violate their own values, beliefs, practices and principles in order to do well in a class.
  • Instructors, consider assigning writing that does not force students to engage topics that you re not prepared to grade and evaluate fairly. In other words, if you force students to write about topics that are controversial (abortion, gender-affirming care for minors, same sex marriage, etc.) be prepared for assignments to come in that are written by students who may not agree with your own values and perspectives on the topic. Students should be encouraged to fully engage the writing and research processes free from any fear that their own views will be subject to dismissal and/or retaliation from an instructor who forces them to write about a controversial topic but does not agree with the student’s own perspective on that topic. Students should learn to properly support their ideas, consider alternative perspectives, and reach beyond their own prejudices and beliefs when appropriate, but they should never be forced to choose between a good grade and staying true to their personal values, beliefs, customs, and religious identities.

OERs and Free Support Materials

No matter what or where our students identities and life experiences, many of them struggle with college and life expressive while they take courses. And most appreciate the reduced costs from having access to high quality free, or reduced cost, texts and course materials regardless of their personal financial status. There are many resources, this digital OER text included, to assist students and instructors with all aspects of the essay writing experience that can be accessed for free through the college library site or the open internet.

YouTube has several free pages devoted to helping students and language learners with grammar, syntax, and punctuation support. Here are a few of our favorites:

There are a growing number of free, reduced cost, and Open Education Resources (ER) available for both instructors and students to use in navigating the college writing experience. The instructor should always be consulted regarding which resources are appropriate and required for successful engagement with the course, but the following list provides a great starting point to explore the diverse array of free and accessible materials available at any time for students to use in the college writing experience:

Reference Librarians and Online Learning 

Reference librarians are the unsung heroes and heroines of the college journey. They are there to help you with all aspects of the research, writing, and revision processes. The links below provide access to all of the services the library has to offer students. Instructors should include presentations from reference librarians in their courses whenever possible and students should not go through an entire writing class without availing themselves of these vital and practical services.

Learning Styles, Attentional Styles, and Spectrum Abilities

Students come into the college academic essay writing experience with a variety of different learning styles and cognitive capacities. Students and instructors should work together to, as much as possible, tailor the student experience in ways that maximize their chances for success while anticipating and minimizing the areas where obstacles or lack of adequate resources may compromise student experience. Students with needs regarding divergent learning styles, attention disorders, or any other cognitive function disorder should contact their instructors, their institutions, and their disability resource office directly. For MHCC, the best place to start is with your instructors. The MHCC Multicultural and Diversity Resource Center, The Disability Services Office, and the Accessibility Services Office are also vital resources.

  • Instructors, make sure your syllabi, assignments, writing prompts, class activities, and due dates are clearly defined, easy to follow, and available in accessible formats. Be patient with students who need extra help and try to be a conduit to their success as much as possible. Obviously, comply with any student IEPs (Individualized Education Plans) but do your best to go beyond that by having clear, accessible, and engaging materials and being flexible and responsive to student needs as they navigate your courses.
  • Students, do your best to read and watch all of the materials your instructors provide. Likely they will contain answers to most of the questions you will have. Having said that, never be afraid to ask. You instructors want you to succeed and they want to do all they can to help you do so. There are many aspects of your education that you will have to navigate on your own (you will eventually write your own essays, for instance) but you have many dedicated, caring, and professional people who are here to help you along on your education journey to your future goals.

Hearing and Visually-Impaired Resources

Students with needs regarding visual or hearing support should contact their instructors, their institutions, and the disability resource office directly. For MHCC, the best place to start is with your instructors. The MHCC Multicultural and Diversity Resource Center, The Disability Services Office, and the Accessibility Services Office are also vital resources.


Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) are customized educational strategies that are designed to meet the unique needs of students who have disabilities or neurodivergent conditions. These plans consider the individual strengths, challenges, and learning styles of each student, and they aim to provide the support and accommodations that are necessary to help them succeed in their academic pursuits.

The goal of an IEP might include ensuring that the student has access to all educational materials, activities, and opportunities; providing accommodations that allow the student to participate in the classroom and complete assignments; and offering support to help the student develop the skills and strategies needed to overcome any barriers to learning.

After registering with Accessible Education Services (AES) and meeting with a Learning Facilitator, you may receive an IEP which would include tailored educational adjustments. Adjustments are selected based on the medical documentation you provide and a discussion about the impact of your condition(s) or caring responsibilities have on your studies. IEPs are usually renewed at the start of each new term.

Educational Adjustments

Students who are neurodivergent, have disabilities, or individuals caring for them, may face certain learning challenges in educational settings. Adjustments are meant to reduce or eliminate barriers that could be reasonably altered. Some examples include modifying class participation requirements, taking exams with a smaller group of students to minimize distraction, or getting access to assistive technology. If you’re required to complete a placement for Work Integrated Learning (WIL), ELS can also recommend adjustments, like modifying location.

Keep in mind, we can’t always predict how a disability may impact performance within a course, so it may be necessary to amend adjustments during the study period. Instructors are not legally required to unreasonably alter their courses, and some adjustments may not be acceptable in the context of course requirements. In these situations, students and faculty should contact ELS to facilitate the identification of mutually acceptable accommodations.

Assistive Technology

Assistive technology refers to a range of devices, software, and tools that can help individuals with disabilities or neurodivergent conditions overcome barriers to learning and access information. It assists students in areas such as communication, reading and writing, organization, and attention. It helps in leveling the playing field and provide access to information and educational materials that may otherwise be difficult or impossible to access. There is a range of specialised computer software and equipment that can assist you to access course and study information. You may already be familiar with the various computer software packages that adapt text into a readable format for a number of vision and learning disabilities. Example: SENSUS ACCESS.


(adapted, in part, from The Word on College Reading and Writing by Carol Burnell, Jaime Wood, Monique Babin, Susan Pesznecker, and Nicole Rosevear. This OER text is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.)


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Culturally Responsive Composition Copyright © 2023 by Andy Gurevich is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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