Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Space, Race, and Saving Face

Last month during Pitt State's fall break, I traveled to San Diego--not for the great weather, beach access, or authentic Mexican food, but for the International Writing Centers Association conference (although I might have enjoyed a couple of those other things as an added bonus...). At the conference, I met several other writing center professionals and had the opportunity to listen to and discuss some great scholarship that's happening now in the field. I also presented as a member of the panel titled "Space, Race, and Saving Face: What Writing Centers Can Do to Minimize Division."

In our disciplinary literature, writing centers are frequently presented as comfortable, safe, and student-centered. This is in contrast to the larger academic institution that's portrayed as sterile and competitive. Our panel, as a whole, problematized this common narrative that claims we exist as an "idyllic oasis" in the midst of the Academy. Instead, discrimination can surface in various ways in writing center tutorials and spaces, both physical and virtual. We shared our individual research as it relates to this issue and proposed some strategies for countering threats to social justice and pedagogical effectiveness in the writing center.

Dr. Nancy Wilson, the director of Texas State University's Writing Center, discussed her attempt to "de-colonize" the writing center several years ago--the changes she made, how those changes were received by tutors, students, and faculty, and her suggestions/cautions for other writing centers as they attempt to become more inclusive and equitable spaces. In her presentation, she focused on one particular example: As an effort to show that Texas State's Writing Center values students' diversity, including their native cultures and languages, she posted an excerpt from the 1974 Students' Right to Their Own Language statement on the website. Consequentially, more than one professor took issue with this, one of whom voiced his concern to the English Department Chair directly, asking why he should send his students to the Writing Center if tutors wouldn't teach them the conventions of standard American academic English. Even thought there was hardly a reason for this man to be angry, Nancy was forced to remove the statement from the website. Her commitment to valuing students' diversity, however, did not waiver. She found other ways to subversively advocate for students' rights in the writing center, such as through hiring practices, decor of the physical space, and the inclusion of a description of different kinds of Englishes on the website.

Panelist Megan Boeshart, a graduate student new to the Master's in Rhetoric and Composition program at Texas State this semester, shared her experiences working as an undergraduate tutor in a university (Ohio State University-Neward) with a large Somali student population. An effective strategy her writing center used to smudge the alienating line that sometimes gets drawn between "international" and "native" students was to openly express interest in the Somali students and their culture--not just the texts they brought in. Megan explained that because the Somali students visiting her writing center tended to feel strongly about their home communities, talking personally with their tutors at the beginning of their sessions accomplished the goal of helping them to then open up about themselves, especially the difficulties they faced in their writing. Additionally, learning about the culture of the Somali students was beneficial for the predominately white American tutors.

I discussed some of the research I had done for a paper I wrote, "Smell That?: Insider/Outsider Dynamics in the Writing Center Wait Area,"* as a graduate student, also at Texas State. In brief, the research I did for this paper focused on the writing center wait area space and what happens in that space with the purpose of demonstrating that students can be negatively impacted by their pre-tutoring experiences. The paper's title comes from a specific example in my research data under the theme of "food smells" in the writing center wait area: Texas State's Writing Center has an attached kitchen where the tutors often heat up food to eat while they're at work. One evening right before my graduate class was about to begin in the classroom attached to the writing center, someone heated up leftover squid in the writing center's microwave, and it smelled terrible. Throughout the writing center and beyond. For a long time. This example is just one of many instances I observed in which clients might have been distracted or put off by the writing center environment before their session even began.

All together, our presentation segments worked to highlight how injustice can occur in the writing center environment in ways that are often difficult for us, in our immersed positions, to see from a critical perspective. We have purposefully pushed ourselves to locate such problematic situations, all the while discovering and implementing strategies and solutions that attempt to create a more equitable space and practice for the diverse writing center clients with whom we work.

* Look for my findings from this research project, as I presented them in our panel at the IWCA conference, in an upcoming blog post!

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