Bodies that Matter: Why Writing Center Consultations Should Not Be About Writing

Photo by aegishjalmur on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license

As writing center consultants, our main “job” is assisting clients with their writing, whether that writing is an essay or a video project. However, at times, it is necessary to focus not on the product (writing) brought in by clients, but on the body (the client) that brought in the product. While I am not suggesting that focusing on client writing is not important, I am suggesting that the very bodies that write these documents are affected by the same discourses that impact us all, and it is these discourses that can, and often do, show up both in client writing and in client consultations.

The majority of our MSU clients are, indeed, students of the university. These students are often given challenging assignments asking them to write about various issues ranging from more common topics (e.g. Why did you choose to come to college?) to more complex topics (e.g. Do you believe queer bodies should be protected under anti-discrimination laws?). When clients encounter these types of assignments, client biases—intentional or unintentional—often reveal themselves in writing. However, while tutors may be urged to discuss the biases within the text, I argue we need to interrogate and question the biases within students. By interrogate, I do not mean to suggest that clients who express racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, and so on in their writing are intending to be racist, sexist, homophobic, or classist—though at times, they most certainly are. I do suggest that clients, just like consultants, are impacted by the very same discourses surrounding these and other sets of people, cultures, and careers.

These discourses perpetuated by the media, the government, the police, the justice system, the educational system, and yes, the family, live within our clients as they live in us. In other words, while we live in systems of oppression, systems of oppression live in us. Therefore, to help to begin to cut the threads of a dominant system and its discourse, we should begin to ask clients “Who told you this?” “What brings you to this conclusion about these sets of people, culture, and so on?” as well as educating them through literature (scholarly); pop culture (media intended to disrupt certain dominant narratives); and conversation (with consultants when in the consultation). It is easy to focus on the product (text), especially in a capitalist society that seeks to own and in some ways has commodified its entire populace. It is harder to focus on the commodified bodies—the client and the consultant—who write problematic texts that can be harmful to a community of people, as well as to the client. How else do clients begin to question the complex bodies who produce problematic, if not utterly offensive, text documents? And how might questioning the body instead of the text enhance, or even lessen, the effectiveness of the consultation?

What Was the Point of This?: The Emerging Scholar Series

When I started this Emerging Scholar series, I was having an existential crisis, questioning daily my place within the academy. I wasn’t so much questioning my place within the academy intellectually, as much as I was questioning my place in the academy in terms of whether or not my work, and by proxy I, was valued. Most scholars I encounter tell me my feelings are normal and everyone has to prove the value of their work to someone, somewhere. I do not disagree that all scholars have to prove the value of their research; however, all scholars are not Black lesbians. All scholars do not live a “colored” life. All scholars do not have to constantly prove their worth and their value (as humans) on a daily basis.

Because of the struggles I faced proving myself and my work publishable (translation: valuable) in the academy—three rejection letters and counting, I decided I wanted to write about the difficulties I had in this journey to becoming a “scholar” and how the entire process made me feel that I, as a Black woman, had to prove I mattered. Every rejection and every insistence from a colleague, mentor, or instructor to give more of myself, to do more with myself, felt as though I was being asked to do more, being pushed more. However, the rejections from journals felt racial, homophobic, and sexist. When I submit on the lack of Black lesbian images and work in Queer Studies, I hear, “YOU have to PROVE DISCIPLINARY EXIGENCY.” (Translation: Black women don’t matter.) When I submit research suggesting Black women would not favor a National Language Policy, I was told, “This is NOT RESEARCH. You just have the OPINION of BLACK WOMEN.” (Translation: Black women don’t matter.) And while I understand that some of these instances are just the wrong journal or the right journal but the wrong time, this type of dismissive rhetoric placed upon my body by other bodies from the dominant culture feels raced, and this feeling is real and it’s valid.

Yes, one day I will be published. Yes, one day I will be the scholar who intellectually pushes her students and not the student who is intellectually pushed. But in this moment, I am neither of those things. In this moment, I am chasing my dream. I do not know what the stories on the other side of publishing, research, and teaching will be for me once I experience them. However, I doubt the feeling of having to constantly prove I matter will wane, if anything, and most likely, it will intensify. I wrote this series to understand where and who I am in this moment (feeling unappreciated), so I know who I can be in the next moment (a Black lesbian scholar that matters). Because Black women matter.

Motherhood and the Academy

Confession: I was supposed to do this a long time ago.

Technically, I don’t need to confess to anything here. It’s not like you know. But it’s important, I think, to put this out there. Because over the course of last semester, I heard so many students say the same thing. With guilt and shame, with frustration and with stress clear through their voices.

Wonderful addressed this beautifully in her last blog post about how we can take care of ourselves when life gets in the way. Life certainly got in mine.

Many of the people I work and go to school with know that my life is often overwhelming and very busy. I commute, I work, I go to school, and most importantly, I am a mother of two really freaking cute little boys.

Coming back to school after a 10-year break was a really hard decision to make because my husband and I knew the transition from staying at home with my kids to being gone for entire days, sunup to sundown, was going to be a challenge and struggle for all four of us. Ten years out of the academic life is hard to come back from—for me at least—because it involved retraining my brain to click into academic mode.

As a mother, I’ve found that my brain is always “on,” particularly when I’m around my children. Even when they aren’t in the room, I’m always tuned in to the whole house, watchful and waiting and curious. (I overhear some fantastic imaginative play, it’s funny and weird and sweet.) When I’m here, being my school self, my brain is on in a completely different way; learning to switch between academic/work Tania and Mommy involves a lot of conscious effort. I suppose my kids are old enough that I might not always need to be tuned in so much but it just happens anyway.

But the truth is, I don’t want to. When I can’t switch out of academic and work mode, my mind is never truly at home. And the first thing I promised myself when I decided to take this on was that no matter what, my children would come first.

Now, I’ll be honest here. Other mothers in the academy and I have talked about this: going back to school and figuring out how to juggle and sacrifice and not sleep and not have a social life are sacrifices we are making to better our lives. And living a willingness to do these things models so many things we want our children to learn. Right now, my children are watching me work hard. They are watching me learn and fight for the things I am passionate about.

They are watching me believe in myself.

But I don’t always get it just right. I get frustrated and I’m tired and sometimes when I’m home, it’s so hard to enjoy my family when my brain is always being pulled toward the assignments and projects I have to do, or staying on task with my job. It’s that learning how to balance that wears me down more than anything.

But what this means is that there are many, many times I have to make choices about what I can and cannot do. Sometimes, I have to choose not to do that reading, or assignment, or make myself wake up at 5 am just to fit it all in. And when I choose not to do the thing, so that I can do this other thing, most important thing—enjoy and love my children and be present in their lives while I can—I have to deal with that guilt and shame and frustration with myself because of the things I’ve dropped.

So often we in the academy here push and push ourselves to do better, to get it right, and to never drop the ball. And we say things like, “I fail,” or “I can’t do this,” and “I suck.” I hear it all the time. And lately, on my long freaking commute, I’ve been wondering if all the kindness and love and self-worth I work so hard to give my children isn’t something I need to give myself.

So this long, long blog post works in a few ways. To paint a little portrait of what it’s like to be a mother in the academy. To talk about the many things we’re all asked to do, and how hard it is to do them all. But most importantly, so ask each of you to be as kind to yourself as you are to others.

When Life Gets in the Way

I did not intend for this last post on emerging scholars to be about self-care; however, after my own recent struggles, I feel it important to discuss ways in which scholars—emerging or entrenched—can take care of their mental and physical health when life gets in the way. October freak-out is over, but there still remains a residue of pain, struggle, and fragmentation. Normally, I refuse to allow my outside life to negatively affect my academic life. However, this fall, Life got in the way.

During this semester, I have experienced extreme highs of enlightenment, friendship, and community. However, I have also experienced severe lows with depression, loss, guilt, and shame seemingly etched on my skin and inscribed into my psyche. Somehow within this semester Life got in the way. So what does one DO when life gets in the way?
Sure I could give some standard advice about making sure you talk to someone or find a way to take your mind off the whole mess. However, I want to offer something new. I want to offer a story:

I entered a History and Theory of Rhetoric class and all I wanted was to NOT read Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, the Rhodes scholars, etc. But I read them because I had to, because they matter—still, even though I don’t want them to. But when I began to look at Indigenous Rhetorics as a practice, I noticed that it calls us not to think about the thing, but to do the damn thang. So I began to wonder by what means emerging scholars take care of themselves when life gets in the way.

This is a story about pain, shame, and guilt and how one Black body found a way to deal. Sometimes, I just can’t with Life. The only thing I do well is the academy. My Life, it falls apart. Recently, a Life event so depressed me and consumed me with shame and guilt, I thought I would never recover. But there were 6 weeks left in the semester.

Life CANNOT get in the way.

What is to be done when you feel nothing can be done?
Through this struggle I realized I had a process of doing that led to my recovery: talk about it, think about it, hear advice about it, and then dance on it. All of these acts are acts of doing and making the doing creates the making and the making, in turn, replenishes that which could not be replenished. These are things I had to do when Life got in the way. These are things I had to make when Life got in the way. And these are the things that made me whole when Life got in the way. I do not pretend that these measures I have mentioned can help every scholar who needs to deal when Life gets in the way. However, I do suggest that it is in the doing and the making—the habits and hobbies we choose—that can help us heal:

When Life gets in the way.

How to Choose the Best Music for Writing

Koalas music comic

Writing is hard. We all have different processes on how we do it. It’s almost impossible for me to write in silence (but maybe you do). In order to begin the process of writing, I like to choose a good playlist. There are tons of free ways we can access music, and personally I like using Spotify. The cartoon above illustrates the importance of finding the right playlist or music station. Likewise, I have to pick the right sound for the kind of writing mood that I’m in.

There are some pitfalls to listening to music while writing. For example, I occasionally chose a station that includes some of my favorite artists. It’s important to avoid these Spotify playlists because it furthers procrastination as I get caught up in the melodies, rather than focusing on writing. I sometimes pick a playlist with a sluggish beat and it negatively affects my writing pace. If I’m trying to make myself excited for a writing assignment, I frequently choose a loud, upbeat Spotify station.

However, what works for me won’t work for everyone. And what works for me today may not work for me tomorrow. Sometimes I need to try out a couple of stations before I find something that’s just right. The space that we place ourselves in is very important, and sound is a vital spatial element. Sound influences us in ways that we may not recognize, but I think that we can all agree that music plays a major role in how we think and feel. I need an enjoyable sonic space so that I can produce a piece of writing that I’m proud of. I consider music a tool to use during the writing process, as it is something that inspires and helps me make meaning.

When Assignments Exclude: Consultants & Damage Control

Working through the tension of when it is wise to inform a student that all writing, even the very assignments they receive in class can, and sometimes must, be interrogated is no small canal to dredge. Often students are asked to write papers that are culturally insensitive or ethnocentric. For example, it may seem wise to assign students to find cultural artifacts unique to the U.S. legal system and articulate its importance to current U.S. ideologies regarding justice. However, to ask an international student to articulate how a U.S. legal artifact is related to a U.S. ideology of justice puts this student at a severe cultural disadvantage. What am I to do in this situation? How am I to assist students new to this culture articulate how a symbol signifies a U.S. ideal? How can I not spoon-feed them the information?

I am not at all suggesting that these types of assignments are intentionally microaggressive against or purposely excluding those persons wholly unfamiliar with U.S. culture and ideology. However, it is important to understand that all writing carries inherent assumptions, biases, and exclusions that can, and do, render certain bodies to the margins of academic writing and the academy at large. When students receive these assignments, they receive messages—messages about not only what should be done in the assignment, but also messages about how much knowledge the professor assumes they bring into class.

When clients enter the Writing Center afraid and confused, seeking assistance if only to show that their confusion is a cultural and not a cognitive one, I wonder what damage we can do with one simple assignment. I also wonder, what damage control must I do in a matter of minutes, minutes that may not be sufficient to stymie the damage of an exclusionary assignment?

Writing Music Recommendations: Andrew Bird’s Useless Creatures

I first heard this album in a terrarium store in Portland, OR, the kind with overpriced airplants and ephemeral glass ornament-like bulbs meant to hang from the ceiling with no holiday in sight. Probably a one-word store name like “Stone” or “Amour,” though I don’t remember it now. Lovely store, anyhow. Multicolored rocks, feathers, little clay mushrooms and beautiful, vibrating violin coming from the boombox. (Yep, boombox.) I asked the store clerk what the album playing was. “Andrew Bird,” he said, as though I should’ve already known. I didn’t recognize the sharp, vibrating violin as him, since his easily identifiable voice is completely missing from this entire album, beyond a few lyric-less lines of whistling. I usually love lyrics, but for distraction-less writing, this album is absolutely perfect.

Tutor or Teacher?

Becoming a Scholar—capital “S”—is a vast undertaking which include encounters with cognitive dissonance at every turn that manifest themselves in the texts we read, the research we conduct, and the writing we produce. However, the becoming of a scholar is frustrating—rife with feelings of intellectual inadequacies, performance (teaching, researching, and publishing) anxiety, at times, an ever changing sense of belonging or exclusion. These encounters and feelings are not unlike those feelings of clients who enter the writing center. Although many clients are not grappling with teaching, researching, and publishing, they are often grappling with being a productive and good student, as well as learning how to read, critique, and write academic prose. Often, clients seek our assistance with helping them to fully understand both what they are reading and not only what they are supposed to write, but HOW the academy wants them to write. However, as a consultant, where does one ethically drawn the line between consultant and teacher?

I am not at all suggesting that writing center consultants do not, at times, function as a type of tutor/teacher hybrid; however, when clients, and in particular students, are given an assignment on any given topic, Queer issues, socioeconomic issues, class structures, etc., how much are consultants to challenge students to interrogate their own body of knowledge with regard to the topic, as well as challenging and critiquing the body of knowledge of their peers and teachers? Is there an educational line consultants should not cross when tutoring clients? What issues in client writing are best “left to the instructor” and how do we decide?

Writing Music Recommendations: Beat-Heavy Playlist

When I study, I definitely need music that keeps me on track, and honestly, awake. I am a serial playlist hopper—perhaps it is symptomatic of my incredibly short attention span. My playlists tend to be a mix of recent songs I’ve heard on the radio and some old favorites. I like music with strong, heavy beats or with some sort of majestic upswell (what can I say, I’m a majestic creature). I get tired of things pretty quickly so these things are ever-rotating. Which is why I love being able to follow other people’s playlists on Spotify. Spotify is the bomb!

 

The Construction of Identity in Digital Consultations

Something to consider in online writing consultations is your process of identity construction, the power relations these identities rely on/reify/endorse and how this all affects the goal of peer revision, collaborative meaning-making and the writing center consultation.

When we engage in online writing consultations via Twiddla and discuss writing with a student by chatting and engaging the text (without audio or video) we are engaging writing through writing, as opposed to in-person consultations that sometimes involve very little actual writing. The creation of a writing space through online, real-time, digital communication is affected by similar pressures that exist in parallel online, constructed environments—like social media, blogging platforms and discussion boards. One such guiding pressure in this writing space is the construction of identity through written text. In an online setting as a writing center tutor, you are expected to endorse an attitude of peer revision and collaborative meaning-making, while also constructing an identity to engage with another peer in revision. Engaging in collaborative meaning-making requires people, and so both (sometimes more) people in the online writing center consultation are engaged in revision and are constructing their identities simultaneously, all through text.

This could be said of an in-person consultation too. I would argue that in person, though, we rely on bodily cues to signify identity. We rely on physical interactions and performative indicators to relate to each other as bodies and people. Considering the dynamics of identity construction in a virtual space can open up possibilities of change and awareness in the online consultation setting. What identity are you presenting/creating/relying on? Is your process active or assumed? What identity are you inferring about the “student” or “client” or “peer” you are working with and does that affect how you work with them?