Paper on writing centers as ‘neocolonial tools’ is retracted

Are academic writing centers agents of US hegemony, spreading the evils of colonialism as they work to topple rogue syntax and rehabilitate failing grammatical states?  

So argued a pair of authors in Canada in a now-retracted 2022 article which claimed that such centers have been used as “neocolonial tools” to push American foreign policy goals. 

But according to critics, that claim –  which seems like it might have emerged from a cross between Don DeLillo’s “White Noise” and Graham Greene’s, well, lots of his books – suffered from a fatal flaw or two, as we’ll shortly see. 

“Writing Centers and Neocolonialism: How Writing Centers Are Being Commodified and Exported as U.S. Neocolonial Tools” appeared last November in the Writing Center Journal – a publication of Purdue University – and was written by Brian Hotson, of Dalhousie University, in Nova Scotia, and Stevie Bell, of York University, in Toronto.

According to the abstract of the article

In this paper, we explore the complicity of Western writing centers in global neocolonialism despite its resounding rejection within Western writing center scholarship, in which Romeo García contends that writing tutors can be “decolonial agents.” We show that higher education is used by Western governments as a neocolonial tool and situate international U.S. writing center initiatives within this context. Writing centers have remained complicit in global neocolonialism involving the commodification and exportation of American English as well as Western-style institutions, curricula, and pedagogies. This is most explicit in recent writing center initiatives undertaken by the U.S. Department of State in South America, Eastern Europe, and Central and Southeast Asia. Our analysis of the IWCA and the global community of writing center organizations reveals that few institutions in the field are well positioned to address this important issue. Indeed, the IWCA has remained silent on the complicity of Western writing centers in neocolonialism despite the resounding rejection of neocolonialism within the writing center community. 

But the journal has now issued the following retraction notice

The editors of the Writing Center Journal and Purdue University Press, publisher of WCJ, are retracting the following article:

Hotson, Brian, and Bell, Stevie. (2022). “Writing Centers and Neocolonialism: How Writing Centers Are Being Commodified and Exported as U.S. Neocolonial Tools.” Writing Center Journal, vol. 40, no. 2, article 4.

This article contains two significant factual errors that the authors have agreed to correct. The Writing Center Journal is committed to the highest standards of publication ethics and has accepted the request of Dr. Ron Martinez and colleagues from the Universidade Federal do Paraná and the article’s authors to retract the piece until a revision can be posted. The journal will also create a space for published rebuttal.

The nature of those errors is unstated. However, we received a tip about the article on our database submission form, which claimed: 

The authors were obliged to acknowledge major factual errors in the article, which included baseless claims that the US Department of State were responsible for “exporting” writing program initiatives to Brazil and Russia in a “neocolonial” fashion when, in fact, those initiatives were created by scholars in those countries. With those false claims refuted, the article lost much of its validity and the editors felt compelled to retract. 

Bell initially told us that the article would be republished “with one minor correction” but acknowledged a second, “interrelated” problem. She did not immediately respond to our request for elaboration on the mistakes. 

Martinez confirmed the details in the tip, which he and several colleagues left, we received and told us the matter has “caused many people a great deal of stress” – one of those people being himself. Among his lengthy list of beefs with the article, as he wrote to the journal in a December 12 email, was its allegation that the: 

“writing center Centro de Assessoria de Publicação Acadêmica (CAPA) at the Federal University of Paraná (UFPR) in Curitiba, Brazil, as well as the organization Writing Centers of Brazil (WCB) were created and are currently directed by the Department of State.” This is false. The CAPA writing center was created by Dr. Ron Martinez as a professor of UFPR, initially directed by him and vice director Eduardo Figueiredo (also of UFPR), completely independently of any government involvement (US or Brazilian). The center was opened in October of 2016 within the School of Humanities of UFPR, without any influence by the Department of State whatsoever, and never directed by anyone outside of UFPR. There is no source of information anywhere, including the bibliographic and media sources cited by the authors, in which CAPA is said to have been “created” or “directed” by the Department of State. Indeed, there is a notable lack of rigor with which basic facts —facts essential to the article’s entire thesis— were checked by the authors.  

In the end, he wrote: 

the mischaracterizations and prevarications presented here are serious. Under normal circumstances, it would behoove us to simply write a rebuttal to the article. However, there is no point in debating when the basic facts are unquestionably wrong, and can be proved to be so. In their own words, the authors of the article posit that writing centers are being “commodified” and “exported” by the US government —their central thesis. However, the data on which they base that assertion largely rests on the precarious examples provided from Brazil, especially. It has been established in this letter that CAPA did not originate in the US and therefore could not have been “exported.” Likewise, the Russian NWCC was created in Russia, by Russians, for Russians. These are verifiable facts that would have been easily discoverable by the authors. Indeed, all of the Brazilian initiatives mentioned in the article emerged endogenously in Brazil. Throughout —but especially in pages 55-57— most of the examples the authors provide to support their thesis are either outright falsehoods or, at best, half-truths. In that light, the entire thesis of their article is undermined. It means that readers of Writing Center Journal are being persuaded to sympathize with a position based on spurious information. 

Martinez told us: 

the errors were quite obvious, and that is not even counting the selective omissions of facts. I do believe the editors could have easily caught the issues in advance; what the editor wrote was as follows:

When authors submit to the WCJ, they certify to the veracity of their facts because the journal is a completely voluntary staff without labor to provide such review in its own right. 

In other words, they allege that they did not have the “bandwidth” to have caught the falsehoods and simply relied on the integrity of the authors. However, I believe that the nature of the content of the article —which bordered on personal attack— should have compelled the editors to proceed with more caution to avoid possible libel exposure. In this case, it was not only myself and the organization that I created that was maligned, but also organizations in Russia and, especially, the US Department of State. In all cases, the evidence the authors presented in the article was based on errors and half-truths.  

Martinez did commend the editors for acting promptly in the case, but he expressed concern that the posting of a corrected version of that paper might obscure the fact that the original had been retracted: 

If the authors want to submit a new article, it should be considered a new submission and not a “correction” — the errors the original article contained were far too egregious for a corrigendum. 

We emailed the journal for comment but have not heard back.

The retraction marks the second we’ve seen about colonialism – only this time of a paper with a leftward tilt. 

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5 thoughts on “Paper on writing centers as ‘neocolonial tools’ is retracted”

  1. So where are all the anonymous comments about censorship of political viewpoints that inevitably show up when a paper pushing a right-wing point of view gets retracted?

  2. As someone in the hard sciences, sometimes I forget just how low the bar is for scholarship in the social sciences. This blog is always a nice reminder of that. Haha

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