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Composition Forum 53, Spring 2024

Toward a Pedagogy of Linguistic Justice Through Empathy in OWI

Marcela Hebbard, Janine Morris, and Catrina Mitchum

Abstract: This article argues that in the teaching of writing online, incidents of linguistic discrimination can be (in)directly caused by faculty unfamiliarity with online teaching best practices, lack of critical linguistic awareness, and the prevalent legacy of racist and monolingual ideologies. To address this issue, it is necessary to cultivate empathy as a bridge between instructors and students. This article calls for the interconnectedness of empathy and linguistic justice in online writing courses as tools to create more equitable and inclusive environments for all students. The article uses data from a longitudinal, cross-institutional study to apply an empathetic, linguistically just approach to OWI to examine assumptions around technology instructions and use. The authors stress the importance of understanding student perspectives and experiences and outline strategies that humanize students in online writing courses. Implications for teaching include a need for increased reflexivity and pedagogical clarity.

To address the need for more equitable and inclusive language environments in Online Writing Instruction (OWI), we argue that a disposition of empathy can serve as the bridge between instructors and students to enhance understanding and cultivate more inclusive online writing classrooms. We adopt Lisa Blankenship’s characterization of rhetorical empathy “as coming alongside or feeling with the experiences of an Other rather than feeling for or displacing an Other” (6). Blankenship sees rhetorical empathy through relational terms and emphasizes it as a “conscious choice” to build connections (7). Online writing instructors wishing to better understand the needs of their students can utilize rhetorical empathy through communicative and emotive practices.

In composition studies, the need for linguistic inclusivity in OWI has been a constant theme since 2007 when the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) Executive Committee established the CCCC Committee for Effective Practices in Online Writing Instruction (OWI) and gave this committee four charges (Establishing). Charge two called for identifying and examining best practices for online writing instruction, specifically for English language learners and students with disabilities (Establishing). However, linguistic inclusivity in OWI remained (and continues to remain) in the periphery.

For readers unfamiliar with the history of OWI in composition studies, we offer a brief account. In March 2013, six years after the CCCC Committee for Effective Practices in OWI was formed, it published “A Position Statement of Principles and Example Effective Practices for Online Writing Instruction (OWI),” which consists of fifteen principles (CCCC Committee). The overarching principle—OWI Principle 1—calls for universally inclusive and accessible instruction (CCCC Committee). Inclusivity, as defined by the CCCC Committee, means addressing the needs of learners with physical disabilities, learning disabilities, and multilingual backgrounds, whereas accessibility focuses on increasing students’ confidence in reading skills as well as facilitating access to technology (Rationale for OWI Principle 1).

Two years later, members of the same committee published the book Foundational Practices of Online Writing Instruction (Hewett and DePew). In chapter 9 of that volume, Susan Miller-Cochran writes about multilingual writers and argues for designing and facilitating inclusive online writing courses (OWCs) that address the needs of these writers. That OWCs rely on more text-based communication is positive, according to Miller-Cochran, because it helps multilingual students master written English (297). Miller-Cochran aptly notes that it is not uncommon that “[a]dministrators and teachers in higher education often immediately think of international students when they hear the terms multilingual, ESL, or second language learners, but multilingual writers also can be resident ESL students who are either citizens of the United States or permanent residents” (298). According to Miller-Cochran, linguistic diversity should be the expectation in each class, particularly in an online writing class, where communication takes place largely through writing. Building on what Miller-Cochran began theorizing almost a decade ago, we argue that to be inclusive, OWI necessitates practices that benefit all learners, including those of varying linguistic backgrounds.

Ten years have passed since the publication of A Position Statement of Principles and Example Effective Practices for Online Writing Instruction (OWI) and research in online writing instruction and writing pedagogy has expanded. Examples of this expansion include the adoption of organizations like the Global Society of Online Literacy Educators and the Online Writing Center Organization (both of which host annual conferences), as well as the updated Bedford Annotated Bibliography of Research in OWI; a list of 585 sources presented either alphabetically or organized by the CCCC Statement of Principles and Example Effective Practices in Online Writing Instruction (Harris et al.). However, despite the impressive research advances, linguistic inclusivity in OWI remains insufficiently addressed.

At least two interrelated factors might be the cause of why linguistic inclusivity remains at the periphery in OWI. First, the Position Statement of Principles and Example Effective Practices for Online Writing Instruction (OWI) has not been updated to reflect the research-based advances made in Second Language (L2) instruction and other interrelated fields regarding language issues. When A Position Statement of Principles and Example Effective Practices for Online Writing Instruction (OWI) was composed, it was informed and supported mostly by the CCCC Statement on Second Language Writing and Multilingual Writers, which then included scholarship published from 1998 to 2012 (CCCC Statement). While the CCCC Statement on Second Language Writing and Multilingual Writers underwent its latest revision in May 2020 (CCCC Statement), the position statement in OWI was not subsequently updated, even though both of these publications have helped to advocate “that all writing teachers should be prepared to address pedagogically the linguistic and cultural diversity of the multilingual students in their classes” (Rationale for OWI Principle 1).

While the OWI principles address language issues, they do it from the perspective of the L2 Writing field, even though there are other perspectives regarding language teaching and learning that have emerged in the last 15 years (e.g., Horner et al.; Vogel and Garcia). For instance, since 2011, new paradigms for understanding and responding to language difference in writing have emerged such as translingualism, an approach that sees language difference “not as a barrier to overcome or as a problem to manage, but as a resource for producing meaning in writing” (Horner et al. 303), and translanguaging, a theoretical lens that claims that bilingual and multilingual speakers possess two or more autonomous language systems (Vogel and Garcia). Therefore, there is a need to revise the existing principles and put them in conversation with the various paradigms regarding linguistic inclusivity that address the needs of all students, faculty, and administrators (Canagarajah; Horner and Tetreault; Silva and Wang). While it is beyond the scope of this work to offer suggestions for revision to the existing OWI principles, we want to strongly reiterate that linguistic inclusivity in OWI must become more than a theme. It needs to be placed as a central element of online writing courses, particularly because the COVID-19 pandemic amplified the instances of linguistic discrimination (De Costa).

Second, despite the vast advances in scholarship, little is known about students’ needs, backgrounds, and experiences in OWCs from student perspectives (D. Martinez et al.). In 2021, the CCCC Online Writing Instruction Standing Group published its State of the Art of OWI Report based on 235 survey responses from writing instructors, administrators, and scholars with experience in digitally mediated teaching environments. Regarding accessibility, findings revealed that more attention has been given to ensure students have access to technology and to content and less attention has been placed on language issues. Only a total of 37% of respondents said they offer “more text-based communication for ESL students” (11), despite the fact that previous scholarship in OWI for multilingual students has indicated that at a minimum, OWI requires instructors to be prepared to assist linguistically diverse students (Hewett) and offer explicit instructions for these writers (Miller-Cochran; Sánchez). We maintain that to make our classrooms more accessible and inclusive, we need to understand who our students are (as best we can) and take steps to support the learners we have (Mitchum et al.).

In what follows, we define linguistic discrimination and discuss the ways these issues have been exacerbated during the pandemic. Drawing from select findings of a cross-institutional, longitudinal study, we discuss how our own lack of consideration of these factors resulted in us re-considering our approach to teaching with technology in our online writing classes. We then discuss how an empathetic disposition (Leake), combined with linguistic justice, can create more equitable online writing classes. The article concludes with recommendations and considerations for online writing instruction.

Linguistic Discrimination and the COVID-19 Pandemic

Before the COVID-19 global health crisis, instances of linguistic discrimination toward students from minoritized groups such as international, indigenous, and students of color in higher education had already been reported. In October 2016, for instance, a sociology professor at Suffolk University accused a student of color of plagiarism for using the preposition “Hence” in her paper and wrote on the margins “This is not your word” (T. Martínez). And, in January 2019, at Duke University the director of the graduate program for the School of Medicine sent an email to all international graduate students asking them to “commit to using English 100% of the time” in public areas of the department (Kaur).

During the pandemic, discriminatory occurrences continued, but this time were captured in real-time by the technologies that are supposed to make education accessible. For example, in March 2020, a white, male, Stanford law professor was heavily criticized after quoting the N-word from historical source material in a Zoom class (Woo). A year later, a white female adjunct professor at Georgetown was terminated after making negative comments about Black students’ intellectual writing capabilities to a colleague after a lecture via Zoom (Redden). Although these two incidents may seem distinctly different, we argue that both are racially aggressive from the perspectives of the students involved. These racist incidents that fail to account for student perspectives are not isolated cases committed only by ethnic white faculty. Instead, these are just a few examples of the cases that have become public and reported. How many more occurred that are never made public? How often do instructors discriminate against, dismiss, and commit micro- and macro-aggressions against the students they teach? Particularly in online settings, where connections between instructors and students largely take place through writing, the physical distance can embolden a lack of civility, and instances of linguistic discrimination may never come to light.

If we want, as scholars and educators to foster what is fair, right, and just for our students, we should—regardless of language background, ethnicity, and race—ask ourselves how many discriminatory situations remain hidden or go unreported; how (not whether) each of us is contributing to this issue, and what we should do when linguistic discrimination occurs in our classrooms and institutions. And after looking inward at technology and linguistic injustice in our own classes, we should continue laboring. This article is our attempt to embody that labor and to call for the interconnectedness of empathy and linguistic justice in online writing courses as tools to create more equitable and inclusive environments for all students.

Linguistic Justice

Linguistic justice is a compound term. It has two words. Linguistic in this work refers to all language varieties and practices used by individuals to index their various identities and mediate their participation in society and their access to different forms of capital (Schreiber et al.). As a critical resource, language has always the potential to transform social structures, including educational structures (Schreiber et al.). Regarding Justice, we draw on Schreiber et al.’s definition of justice “as a process and a goal with multifaceted dimensions that require a shared responsibility and action against structural oppression” (4). Put in another way, change that is just requires individual and structural changes.

Online writing environments are not neutral (Motha). Like traditional classrooms, OWCs are impacted by internal and external forces such as racial and linguistic hierarchies as well as the students’ educational and linguistic backgrounds, access to technology, and understanding of institutional resources (Mitchum et al.). These linguistic hierarchies are not intrinsically negative (e.g. a History professor has more linguistic capital to write and talk about history than an entering freshman student). However, if not careful, these linguistic hierarchies can morph into subtle ideologies of linguistic racism and negatively impact online educational spaces.

Linguistic racism, in sociolinguistics and TESOL, refers to the ideologies and practices, enacted implicitly more often than not, “to conform, normalize, and reformulate an unequal and uneven linguistic power between language users” (De Costa 833). According to Toni Dobinson and Paul Mercieca, linguistic racism manifests itself in education when a language is given a central role while keeping other languages in the periphery and completely unacknowledged. When this occurs, it creates two unequal and uneven kinds of linguistic experiences for students. Some students might experience linguistic privilege defined as having a higher status because they speak and write the dominant language variety. On the other hand, other students might experience linguistic invisibility because their languages, including English variations, are not valued and are completely unacknowledged (Dobinson and Mercieca). These inequalities and injustices toward student language practices in writing courses negatively hinder their writerly identities, learning and knowledge production, and retention.

Even though the implicitness of this type of racism makes it hard to see, accept, and name, its negative impacts on the lives of those affected by these ideologies and practices make it impossible to negate its existence. Sender Dovchin’s ethnographic study, for example, investigates the translingual practices of college-age students with Mongolian backgrounds who possess sophisticated translingual repertoires in Russian-accented English, fluent Russian, and rural-dialected Mongolian. Her findings show that participants experienced negative responses from locals despite their varied creative and cosmopolitan linguistic practices. Dovchin warns against celebrating speakers’ translingual creativity and fluidity “without fully acknowledging the local disparities and constraints” (99). Put simply, recognizing translingualism must go hand in hand with dismantling discriminatory linguistic ideologies.

Recent work in language education, driven by antiracist and linguistic justice frameworks, has theorized and explored the notions of language and race together and how these “social processes mediate and mutually constitute each other” in a new field—raciolinguistics (Alim, Introducing 13). Emerging studies in this field show that race is an unstable notion that is negotiated daily by speakers through language, and that, racial identities can shift across contexts and even within specific interactions (Alim, Who’s 33). This racial shifting across is called transracialization, which refers to raciolinguistic enactments where an individual uses language to change their race or others use language to have their race changed for them at times in radically and different unexpected ways (Alim, Who’s 36). Jonathan Daniel Rosa’s ethnography study in a US high school, for instance, is an example of how language standardization and racialized ideologies produce perceptions of languagelessness, which refers to the situations when the language of minority students and their racial identities are conflated and subjected to double stigmatization. This double-stigmatization is seen when the linguistic competence of multilingual students is called into question based on their race resulting in the students being perceived as intellectually and linguistically inferior; as a lesser person (Rosa).

When the ideas discussed in this section are applied to OWI classrooms, the implications one can draw are that neutral classrooms are a myth, and if not careful, instructors can create unequal and unjust learning environments. These inequalities might occur when an educator values the language and language varieties of some students (typically those that resemble the instructor’s) while keeping the languages and language varieties of other students invisible. Or, in an OWC when an instructor makes assumptions about students’ racial identities and linguistic and writing abilities based on the spelling of their names (Bucholtz).

In order to enact linguistic justice in OWCs, educators should be aware of their own positionalities and racial identities and think about how these shape their worldview when they teach students who do not share their racial and linguistic identification (Motha 3). As well, instructors should keep in mind that in online writing classes, students’ raciolinguistic identities shift too in response to the written expectations they are told to meet as they navigate their instructors’ perceptions of their abilities. Thus, developing a sense of empathy can help them as well to combat and resist forms of ethnolinguistic racism. Next, we discuss how findings from our study led us to heighten our awareness regarding our own positionalities and racial identities as well as to reconsider our approach to teaching with technology in our online writing classes.


In 2017-2018, after being awarded a CCCC Research Initiative grant, we conducted a cross-institutional study on OWI that focused on students’ linguistic backgrounds, experiences, and expectations when entering online first-year writing (Mitchum et al.). Understanding how student expectations are or are not being met is critical to student success (Pleitz et al.). Both institutions where we collected data have designations as Hispanic Serving Institutions, which means that more than 25% of the students they serve are Hispanic. While this designation is problematic because it gives the appearance that Hispanic students are a monolithic ethnic group, we decided to use it to measure differences in student populations between the two institutions. 89% of undergraduate students enrolled at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley at the time of the study identify as Hispanic while at the University of Arizona, it was 25%. We send out a pre-and post-survey in addition to collecting reflections and conducting focus groups. The surveys and reflections were required parts of the course and students could elect to have them included in the study.

What we share here is what we found when analyzing a single question in our pre-survey and post-survey data. We share the responses to this question because the results caused us to rethink how we approach linguistic inclusivity and empathy in our own OWCs. In our pre-survey we asked students to identify their first language. In the pre-survey, a total of 165 students identified English as their first language, 41 identified Spanish as their first language, 10 identified a language other than English or Spanish as their first language. In the pre-survey, we also asked students to anticipate and rank how difficult they thought the technology requirements in the online writing class would be. In the post-survey, we repeated the same question and asked students to rank how difficult technology requirements were for them. Student choices for that question were: Very High, High, Moderate, Low, Very Low.

We calculated the percent change difference between pre- and post-survey responses to determine whether there was a shift in student perceptions of technological ability after completing the courses. We found that the biggest shifts between actual and perceived technology skills were in the “Low” end; we saw these as positive shifts as students reported in their post-surveys that the technology skills needed for the course were less than expected. In the high end, we also saw the number of students who reported “Very High” skills needed drop from pre- to post-survey as positive because it shows a shift to fewer students perceiving the tech skills to be “High.” However, the 1.6% increase in students who perceive the tech skills to be “Very High” at the end of the course was concerning to us (see Table 1).

Table 1. Expected Tech Skills vs. Actual Required Tech Skills

Skill Level

Expected (Pre)

Actual Perceived (Post)

% Change

Very High
















Very Low




After we did the percent change calculation, we decided to dig in a bit further to see if more of our students who did not identify English as their first language were landing in that “Very High” category on the post-test. We completed a disparate analysis based on what language students identified as their first language with tech requirements. We found that in our pre-survey, our students who identified Spanish as their first language (n=40) expected the technology skills requirements to be “Very High” (7 students), “High” (17 students), and “Moderate” (16 students) with zero students selecting “Low” or “Very Low” skills needed. When we completed the disparate analysis to see what shift there was in actual required skills, we found that only two students out of the initial 40 who identified Spanish as their first language in the pre-survey took the post-survey. For the two who remained, we found one shifted from “Moderate” in the pre-survey to “High” in the post-survey and the other shifted from “Moderate” in the pre-survey to “Low” in the post-survey. What stood out for us here are the 38 students who had taken the pre-survey but did not complete the post-survey. We hypothesized that perhaps some students did not complete the course or opted not to answer the survey because of academic and linguistic exhaustion. In addition to the significant drop in Spanish-speaking students’ responses, we found that we also lost almost half of (4 out of 10) students who identified that their first language was a language other than English or Spanish. This left us wondering about what happened to those students.

While we are unable to determine clear causation or correlation from our data, losing so many students who reported speaking English as an additional language prompted us to reconsider our approach to the elements of the course that we can control as well as our own positionalities and racial identities. For instance, all three researchers are females. Ethnically two researchers are White and one is Hispanic. Two researchers identify as English monolingual while the third researcher identifies as a proficient bilingual, Spanish-English. While all three researchers advocate for linguistic inclusivity, all three researchers realized that they often provide instructions for technology use in their own classrooms in English. This realization urged us to devise ways to acknowledge and include the languages our students bring into the Online Writing Center, and to pay attention to those students who might gain confidence in their linguistic skills or need extra help due to language barriers. Having also learned, in a disparate analysis of the same question, that our first-generation students felt that they needed more technology skills for the course than they anticipated, improving instruction for required technologies was critical. Taking an empathetic disposition towards our students would allow us to question the assumptions we hold about our students’ technology use and modify our classes to make clear our expectations for student engagement and technology use.

Considering Language and Technologies as an Empathetic Act

The realization gained from investigating students’ linguistic backgrounds, experiences, and expectations when entering online first-year writing, reminded us of Lisa Blankenship’s definition of rhetorical empathy as “the ability not only to imagine what others have experienced but to be moved by it to an extent that we’re both enlarged and humbled at the same time” (38). Being moved, however, is not a natural state of mind or a psychological attribute informed by ethics. Instead, it is socially and politically influenced and fueled by fear—fear of the Other and fear of bringing similar suffering seen in the Other onto oneself—and a desire for self-preservation (Blankenship 39). In reaction to this understanding of empathy as self-presentation, decolonial scholars have called to resist this view and instead incorporate global traditions such as the Chinese tradition and its term Bian, which conveys the idea of interdependence rather than contention and polarity fueled by fear, or the Arab-Islamic traditions and its practice of suhl, which focuses on peacemaking and reconciliation. Including other rhetorical theories would help build a better understanding of the notion of empathy, one that is more inclusive (Blankenship).

Developing an ability to feel, communicate, and enact empathy is crucial in OWI because the raciolinguistic identities performed by both the instructor and students can create inequalities, division, and misunderstanding in online environments. Instead, instructors can incorporate assignments that foster mutual listening and understanding. For example, personal narratives, when used to engender openness to self-discovery and vulnerability can pave the way to see the world through an Other’s eyes (Blankenship 55). Eric Leake proposes two approaches to teaching empathy: as rhetoric and as disposition. Empathy as rhetoric occurs when the writer/speaker is taught how to enter an argument from the perspective of another, whereas empathy as a disposition happens when writing teachers help writers (and themselves) develop “habits of mind not only in relationship to texts but also to others” (Leake). Here we suggest that online writing instructors employ both kinds of empathy in their interactions with students. We must understand our students’ perspectives while also conveying “habits of mind that are rooted in our work with texts but with the potential to extend beyond the writing classroom” and to our work with students (Leake). We offer some suggestions below for ways instructors teaching online writing classes might employ empathetic dispositions in their work with students.

Reducing Inequalities by Humanizing OWI

Although recent special issues of Composition Forum (2020, Weisser et al.), Composition Studies (2016, Ray and Theado) and College English (2016, Lu and Horner) have focused on issues related to social justice for multilingual writers and globalization and translingualism in writing classrooms, much of this work relates to face-to-face classroom settings [1]. Within these conversations, scholars like Shapiro et al.; Kiernan et al.; and Donahue’s call for awareness and celebration of linguistic differences and promoting linguistic empathy to empower students. Approaches towards enhancing social justice for multilingual writers has been an increasingly important area of consideration. What we seek here is to apply humanizing perspectives specifically to students in online classes.

An empathetic disposition will seek to reduce inequalities in OWI by humanizing the online space. For example, Jennifer Sheppard’s Pandemic Pedagogy outlines lessons learned during the pandemic’s move to online instruction and outlines a set of pedagogical and professional best practices for instructors using online teaching tools. For students more specifically, a way to reduce inequalities in online classes is to provide tools that grant students who might not otherwise have it, access to higher education (Pacansky-Brock et al.). For us, humanizing online instruction means including a variety of modalities like podcasts, videos, infographics to communicate course content (Oswal and Meloncon; Nielsen; The UDL Guidelines; Gonzales and Butler). While we acknowledge that creating video and audio materials is time consuming, instructors are often not compensated for that work (Warnock) and learning management systems’ (LMS) multimodal elements are not always intuitive or accessible, online courses that default to considerable reading and writing might be missing the opportunity to increase a sense of belonging (Salisbury). The theory of transactional distance suggests that the physical distance between learner and instructor in online classrooms can make students feel isolated (Moore). When students feel isolated, they are less likely to reach out to their instructor (Conceição and Lehman; Cunningham). Thus, if not careful, online courses can create and widen inequalities because students will take longer to come to an understanding of the course content, if it happens at all.

Humanizing online spaces also calls for instructors to create a human presence in their courses to establish instructor-student interaction and relationships (Barnes; Borgman and McArdle; Istenič; Karakaya). Increasing instructor presence and instructor-student interactions needs to be more nuanced to benefit students from minoritized groups. Enhancing instructor presence can decrease feelings of isolation (Moore; Dockter). However, it is important that we ensure that the presence we create helps improve feelings of isolation for all students.

Suggestion 1: Be Aware of Assumptions and Biases

One way to humanize online writing courses for all students is by critically assessing the invisibility of the LMS as a technology in the classroom, our assumptions about technology neutrality, and the ways we create instructor presence in the classroom. Humanizing online courses through the lens of linguistic justice means being mindful of language and power differences in interactions. Adopting an empathetic disposition here would mean encouraging a shift to our students’ habits of mind altering the ways we structure assignments and model feedback. While much of the research on linguistically diverse students in our writing courses focuses on those who are learning English or have English as an additional language (Matsuda et al.; Tomaš et al.; Wang), some scholars, such as Alexander MacGregor and Giacomo Folinazzo studied the challenges international students encountered in face-to-face courses while attending English-language postsecondary institutions. Their data shows that many obstacles’ students experienced are tied to pace, course delivery, and the lack of professors’ clarity of academic expectations regarding assessments and participation—not issues related to poor English skills. When looking at OWI scholarship, it seems there has been a dearth of research that guides educators in best practices to accommodate for linguistic diversity in OWI; for us, empathy is the key for considering first steps in making course language and technologies accessible.

When selecting technologies, we, as instructors, sometimes have choices and can select resources that specifically support and align with the course objectives (Rationale for OWI Principle 3; Course Design Rubric Standards). However, we are largely unable to select the LMSs that are the primary delivery technology for our online courses. Even if we only utilize the technologies within the LMS, assuming that they are neutral is detrimental to our students (Carmichael; Salisbury). We can focus on the LMS in ways that make it more transparent and can help our linguistically diverse students feel supported. More direct instruction on LMS usage, either through institutional or self-created materials, is one way to make the platform more transparent. Instructors will need to check institutional materials for accessibility (linguistic and otherwise) [2]. Additionally, being responsive to confusion in ways that acknowledge student’s concerns about the LMS and how to navigate it is an empathetic strategy that can help linguistically diverse students feel more supported, which can improve student learning outcomes (Lee et al.).

Instructions for even the most basic technology use in our LMS must be accessible (Witte). An empathetic disposition to these instructions would encourage student questions, feedback, and anticipate some of the barriers to use and understanding. Should we venture outside the LMS, which many of us do because we have specific pedagogical needs it cannot fill, the technology that will solve our pedagogical problem might create further issues if we are not critically considering the accessibility of technology instructions (Selfe).

Suggestion 2: Engage Reflexively

Again, empathy “often includes a move to perspective-taking so that one might be more aware of how the world looks and feels to somebody else with a different personal history and in a particular situation” (Leake). There are a few ways we can use empathy for linguistic justice in our online writing courses. One way is by developing a habit of engaging in reflexivity, which is defined as the fluid process of engaging in constant scrutiny of the self, questioning our own perceptions of ourselves and others, and recognizing that we are ultimately influenced by our positionalities (Villegas Greene and Park). Reflexivity is useful in unpacking issues of power and moments of discomfort in our teaching. For instance, Maribel Villegas Greene and Gloria Park write about how reflexivity is crucial to not only better understand their respective roles teaching online, but also to navigate their experiences and positionalities in and outside school during the COVID-19 pandemic. The authors highlight the importance of being vulnerable, taking risks, and recognizing moments of discomfort. Another recent qualitative phenomenological study explores how three multilingual writing instructors define and incorporate linguistic justice in their online teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic. The findings suggest that reflexivity prompts all three participants to monitor their own attitudes, ideas, and actions by putting them on pause and allowing them to become uncomfortable—even frightened at times—about their experiences at the intersection of teaching and practicing linguistic justice (Kudjo).

Because being a writing instructor is one position out of a multitude of positionalities and identities (spouse, parent, friend, poet, scholar, administrator, etc.), reflexivity can allow us to practice transparency about the identities that impact the roles and responsibilities we have toward our students (Villegas Greene and Park). In other words, it can help humanize our teaching by inviting us to be vulnerable. As a result, being more open and transparent can help close the transactional distance between student and instructor by learning about how our students are feeling about the technology and their abilities to use and get help with the programs through live interaction, surveys, and their writing. We can be sure to check in with students to ask about the usefulness of technology instructions. While making time to check in benefits all students, when we ask students to identify barriers to understanding, we can specifically articulate if there are any aspects of the instructions that are inaccessible. For example, students might identify inaccessible language used by the instructor or by those creating help videos online. The key to making these kinds of check-ins empathetic acts is not only to ask but also to act and recreate videos or walk through technologies with students who are struggling to understand the language being used.

Suggestion 3: Celebrate Linguistic Diversity

A third way to use empathy to promote linguistic justice is to use what we learn and understand about student experiences outside of the classroom in our online classes to help students recognize the value of their social presence. For example, we might use a survey to get to know our students and learn about their experiences and act on that information through our assignments (Mitchum et al.). To be linguistically just in our online classrooms, instructors should encourage students to use the language they are comfortable with and see that as valuable. We’re proponents of small teaching (Darby and Lang) and acknowledging that students might speak multiple languages and that is a strength. Other small steps can be promoting low-stakes multilingual discussions between students; asking students to find articles in or do invention work in their preferred language through the writing process; or offering space for students to share regional differences in their language use to show that language difference exists across languages.

Suggestion 4: Anticipate Uncertainty

An additional strategy is not assuming that our courses, designs, and language use are “clear.” In fact, assuming the opposite and designing universally for students from a variety of linguistic backgrounds can help instructors empathize with and act on potential roadblocks before they become a problem. Some of the ways we can do that is by reducing jargon, making our language student-centered, scaffolding the technologies in ways that give students plenty of time to ask questions, and creating a glossary of terms that students can add to, which allows them to be actively involved in making the course linguistically accessible. As with most other examples here, and with Universal Design for Learning in general, designing for linguistic diversity helps all students (The UDL Guidelines).

Barriers to Teaching with Empathy

As discussed so far, showing empathy is a regular part of teaching, however, enacting empathy can be limited when inflicted by trauma or by imposing colonialist agendas, and we cannot in good conscience provide these strategies without a reminder of the labor that care work and empathy entails. All these suggestions help students and require anticipating, learning about, and responding to student needs in powerful ways, but they also cost time and energy.

Teaching with empathy requires criticality; that is, writing teachers must acknowledge empathy’s limitations as well as the complexities created by different material circumstances and sociohistorical forces and be willing to challenge oppressive systems. Uncritical empathy, Leake explains, is empathizing with marginalized peoples without acting to change the systems that keep them oppressed or trying to remake them in one’s own image by imposing colonialist agendas. Critical empathy in teaching, on the other hand, recognizes that at best one can approximate another’s point of view by prompting questions about who gets to empathize with whom, how so, and to what end, and by prioritizing the emotional learning, mental health, and wellness of those we consider the Other regardless of how they respond to us and to our instruction (Kaplan-Rakowski 134).

An additional caveat to teaching with empathy is experiencing compassion fatigue (CF), defined as “the compromised emotional and physical well-being in teachers” (Koenig et al. 260) or “the unwanted consequence of working with suffering people” (Adimando 304). Educational psychologists note that CF is different from burnout in that CF does not develop over a long period; instead, it can occur after one interaction with someone who is experiencing a traumatic event. The combined stress with the desire to help the traumatized individual can trigger CF. Symptoms of CF in teachers include blaming, chronic lateness, physical and emotional exhaustion, inability to maintain a balance between empathy and objectivity, diminished sense of personal accomplishment, overwork, and withdrawal, among others (Krop 44). In teaching, CF can lead to burnout when institutions fail to show care for faculty; both can negatively impact instructors by undermining and lessening a desire to identify students’ learning needs and applying the effort to helping them achieve desired outcomes, which in return negatively impact student/teaching relationships and students’ motivation and attitude toward learning (Koenig et al.) and ultimately lead to teachers leaving the profession. Self-awareness, self-care, and stress reduction are solutions that scholars in the medical field have proposed for preventing and alleviating CF (Adimando; Sodeke-Gregson et al.).

Even without CF, instructors engaging in empathetic teaching spend time and energy doing so. For example, Gloria Park writes that as a graduate faculty member and administrator, during the pandemic, she constantly scrutinized and became critical of the design of her online graduate course (Villegas Greene and Park). She questioned her pedagogies around online teaching and realized that she perceived online courses to be less rigorous than traditional face-to-face ones. However this perception was rooted in knowing that she was not well-versed in online teaching strategies. She felt worried and frustrated at herself for not being interested in online teaching in the past. However, instead of letting the frustration set in, she adjusted her pedagogy and became more available to the students. She added additional weekly Zoom sessions with smaller groups. Of course, all these changes added extra work on her plate and led to increased screen time and increased fatigue (Villegas Greene and Park). Perhaps Park’s experience resonates with readers here. For this reason, we conclude with ways to mitigate some of the labor of teaching online writing as well as with a reminder that doing just one strategy can make a big difference (Darby and Lang).

Finding Balance

One of the first strategies for mitigating empathy labor is to work with your institution and those who create their resources. This might be a specific department for educational technologies or the institution’s library team. Do not feel like you need to recreate the wheel but do check on what the institution provides. If the support materials and services fail to consider students who speak English as an additional language, offer suggestions for improvement. Institutions need to build linguistically accessible support. We also would argue that educational technology companies must provide some of this labor, and if they are unwilling, speak to those who decide which technologies the institution pays for. You might also team up with other online instructors. Working together to create support materials can help cut some of the behind-the-scenes labor of support.

All these strategies, both for using empathetic acts to promote linguistic justice and for mitigating the labor of empathetic work, apply across all online courses. While we, as a field, “focus on writing” and avoid “technology orientation or teaching students how to use learning and other technologies” (Example Effective Practices), we, here, argue that not teaching technology is detrimental to our linguistically diverse students. This is an issue beyond teaching composition or English literacy online as many online courses focus on content without bringing the programs we use to consume, engage with, and produce content into the picture. Ensuring that we not only teach the technology, but do so with empathy, will help us create more equity in our online classrooms.


[1] Some notable exceptions include Xing et al.’s focus on an interactive e-learning course; McCorckle et al.’s examination of World Englishes in MOOCs; and Cicchino, et al. et al.’s course design for Composition Studies focusing on GSOLE’s global-reaching online literacy educator certification program.

[2] Online instructors should adhere to Federal Section 508 Guidelines, which require that “employees and members of the public with disabilities have access to information comparable to the access available to others” (GSA), focusing on access to those with cognitive, sensory, and physical disabilities. We’re arguing that instructors need to be inclusive of linguistic and cultural differences going beyond disability.

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