Thursday, March 28, 2013

Whose Chair Is It?

In my last Pitt Parlor post, I indicated that a post detailing my research findings from the paper/presentation "Smell That?: Insider/Outsider Dynamics in the Writing Center Wait Area" would be forthcoming. And here it is--at long last!

"Musical Chairs" from
As a reminder, I wrote the paper as an undergraduate at Texas State in Spring 2012 and then presented it at the IWCA conference win San Diego in Fall 2012. My research for the piece involved observing the Texas State Writing Center wait area to look for instances of injustice against clients--particularly the kind that we tend to be unaware of as a result of our own insider positions as members of the writing center "community." My inspiration for the project was both practical and theoretical. First, after overhearing a group of consultants discussing a client negatively and within earshot of other clients, I reflected that such an atmosphere probably didn't inspire confidence in clients as they waited for their own appointments to begin. Second, I recalled McKinney's advice that "writing center professionals ought to examine [our] spaces critically in order to better judge whether [our] reading of a writing center is the same as the reading held by different users" ("Leaving Home Sweet Home: Towards Critical Readings of Writing Center Spaces," Writing Center Journal, 2005). As a result, I chose to examine critically both space and actions in the waiting area of the writing center. Findings from my research indicated that on occasion, clients may be negatively impacted by their experiences in the writing center before their consultations event begin.
A few of the themes that emerged from my analysis of the observational data were exclusivity in space, exclusivity in discourse, distracted and unhelpful receptionists, and food smells. To elaborate, although the design of the wait area was probably meant to encourage a sense of community, it tended instead to enhance community among tutors, but separate and exclude students. Furthermore, the behavior--discourse and actions--of tutors and students in the wait area continued to divide the two groups.

A specific example of this sort of divisive discourse from my observations occurred when the writing center was experiencing technical difficulties with their printer in the computer lab of the waiting area. Only three of the computers were able to print documents, so, to keep students from spending long periods of time on those particular computers when other students needed to use them, the tutors removed the chairs at those stations, imagining that students wouldn't want to stand up and work for longer than the amount of time it would take to print. One student, however, asked the tutor working at the reception desk whether she could pull up a chair because all of the computers that had chairs in front of them were occupied. The tutor responded, "Yeah, just don't take too long"; his tone was joking, although his meaning was serious.

After this, other students began to pull up chairs, and when tutors noticed, they began to laugh about the situation. One said, "I give up. They won... I'll just take away all the chairs!" Although, the comments were made in jest, the insider/outsider dynamics of the wait area are apparent--based on the tutor's ability to enforce control, should she wish to, over the environment and students' experience. The fact that she did not "remove all the chairs" indicates, however, that she recognizes that accommodating students is a priority. I think it's not a stretch to claim that when tutors are responsible for the running of the writing center's wait area, the decisions they make and their professionalism in handling certain situations can affect potential clients' levels of comfort and satisfaction, making them more or less open to talk about writing during an actual consultation.

Even though the writing center in which I now work does not have a separate room for a waiting area (we are smaller and only have three chairs along the wall in our consulting room for a place for students to wait), I have still been able to apply lessons learned from this research, most specifically that writing center workers need to increase our reflective practices, constantly analyzing the tradeoffs for our decisions before we make them. A few other suggestions for breaking down the existing insider/outsider dynamics between tutors and students that I would also offer to writing center directors are to 1) encourage tutors to generally increase their reflective practices by considering what the consequences to their actions might be, especially as they affect stunt clients; 2) coach tutors not to engage in negative discourse (which differs from constructive discourse) about student clients, especially in spaces where students and tutors cohabit ate; 3) recommend that tutors attempt to engage clients in friendly conversation while they wait for appointments, as long as the student appears open to such interaction; and 4) explain to tutors/receptionists that they should be as "helpful" as possible with the understanding that while they are at work, work is their first priority.


  1. So, on the spacial side of your research, I think it would be an interesting environment to view if a writing center was circular. While this is not really applicable in most situations due to the fact that circular rooms are difficult to create and much less fit in the normally four-sided spaces utilized in most universities, perhaps this would not only create a physical advantage with the students and tutors not being separated by "sides", but also a feng shui change would have an unconscious affect on everyone's mentality. Perhaps then the university would need to premeditate creating an entire section of a floor dedicated to this type of environment rather than the center having to just be assigned a room and "make it work".
    I think one of your most interesting points to me, which I've noticed happening in our center, is that tutors seldom engage with students outside of their assigned meeting time. Sometimes I will go into the writing center, see a student at a table ready and waiting, and the tutor is simply sitting in our "comfy chair corner" texting. Sometimes I do understand that the tutors are doing homework, or taking a break from their busy schedule, but I feel awkward whenever I see this situation happening. Personally, if one of my students comes early, I ask them if they would like to begin immediately or take some time until our assigned meeting time begins; almost always they reply immediately. I personally prefer this method because I don't have to let my client sit there awkwardly while I do the same in an opposite corner, or perhaps even right next to them. I also prefer this method since I'm usually able to end early thus leaving myself with more prep time before my next meeting.

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