Tag Archives: race

Women of the Writing Center: Black, Female, On the Periphery—Being Black in a White Writing Center

The following interview was conducted with Writing Center graduate consultants Janelle Edwards, Ronisha Browdy, and Shewonda Leger.

What is it like being a black female in the Writing Center? Do you find this Writing Center oppressive in any way (think broadly here: clients, consultants, the overall look of the center, etc)?

Janelle noted that  “the Writing Center is not, in itself, oppressive; however, she has to “challenge a lot of clients perceptions.” She remembers a paper in which she was consulting with a client and the client was “talking about what a ‘normal’ American looks like,” and the consulant was talkin’ bout certain people in this country “wearing a towel on their head. And how ‘normal’ Americans were from the West” and “the West was Old America with its traditional values.” Janelle, kept her cool and educated the “blonde and White” client asking her “her what’s a normal American?” I said to Janelle, let me guess, the client ain’t know some of the first Black Cowboys were Black?” Janelle responded> “You know what I’m saynl. Know your history.” She continues, “Needless to say. It made the client uncomfortable. I never saw her again.” I responded “I know why.” She continues, “but I do think the center is open. Usually it is just the clients.”

I wonder: how should consultants respond to racist rhetoric in student writing?

While Janelle provides a perspective on how a consultation with the client can be used as a way to provide knowledge while having to navigate racist rhetoric in client writing, Ronisha sheds light on how the writing center makes her feel.

Ronisha posited, “I have had a limited amount experience at this particular WC, but the environment is inviting, but that doesn’t mean that I am not aware that I am a Black woman with different experiences and what I want to talk about is different. It’s not different from my everyday life. I felt like I was being singled out because I was new. It was different for some reason. I think if I was a Black man I would not have been approached by clients and consultants in the same way.” Ronisha admits,  I feel alone in the WC, which could have been because of the time that I was working. I just felt alone because I had no one to talk to.”

How can a Writing Center defined as “open,” lead to feelings of loneliness and disillusionment? And how can we implement a space where a Black female consultant does not experience this loneliness? How can we bring emotion back into the writing center?

Although Ronisha feels alone in the writing center, Shewonda believes that change starts with the individual.

Shewonda kept it short, direct and to the point, saying, “Nothing is wrong with the WC. A change begins with who u are. For now I see myself as the change. I will be the agent of change. I do not complain. I hate when people complain without intending to change anything.” I understand what Shewonda is saying, but if she sees herself as a part of change in the Writing Center, isn’t something already wrong?

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Women of the Writing Center: Asserting Knowledge in the Writing Center while White, Young & Female (part 2)

This post is the second of a two-part series of interviews with three writing center consultants, continuing our “Women of the Writing Center” series. The perspectives include:

    • Heather Young, a first-year PhD student in rhetoric and writing who hails from Robertson, Alabama
    • Sarah Johnson, a master’s student in critical studies in literacy and pedagogy, who aims to teach rhetoric and writing at the K-12 level
    • Sarah O’Brien, a master’s of social work student who is a former professional pilot turned technical writer

Why do you enjoy working in the writing center?

Heather Young says that “the Writing Center is an interesting liminal space, as its usually a stand alone which has inherent pros and cons.” There is “freedom to function as your own unit, though their are still policies and beliefs you have to account for. What the writing center gives me is the freedom to focus on work – my work both inside and outside the academy.”

While Sarah Johnson agrees with Heather, she also says the she likes “the kind of work and learning that happens around writing” because “I am interested in teaching in pedagogy and the intimacy here is nice, and there are skills I developed through intimacy that helped me think about my teaching process.”

But Sarah also likes the emotion that the Writing Center can invoke. The Writing Center as “a form of therapy” is helpful and generative for students. “It provides a service people need that they don’t know they need (around writing)”. But The Writing Center is not just about what it can give consultants or even students (on a meta level). The Writing Center is also about the different knowledges, philosophies, and ways of making meaning in the world that enter these spaces in the form of client bodies.

Sarah O’Brien says that she likes “the diversity of clients that come to see me. My client bio, in particular, attracts a lot of challenging papers and I have had the privilege of working with many PhD candidates. I find their research and study areas fascinating and often their dissertations help color the way I view the world. Additionally, I enjoy working with ELL students because many times they offer unique perspectives on what, in my life, is very ordinary. For instance, an ELL client last week devoted an essay paragraph to her disdain for American food (it was noted that we eat a lot of pizza, hamburgers and tacos).”

If you were in charge of this writing center, what would you change (in terms of practices, the overall look of the center, etc.) and what would you keep and why?

Heather is new to this particular Writing Center and freely admits that “this is a hard question” for her. But as everyone new or old to The Writing Center has an opinion, she says “I am doing outreach and I would love for us to have a presence in the community like we have in the neighborhoods.” She wants The Center to “offer writing coaching to adults, to places that do not have other outlets.” But Heather also genuinely loves “how this WC values playthe colors, decorations, toys. It does not seem traditional. It is open and experimental. It provides a feeling of comfortability.”

Sarah O’Brien is also new to The Writing Center this year and admits she has no issues thus far, and says “some of the nicest and brightest people I have met so far are in the WC, so I applaud the hiring practices.”

Sarah Johnson, however, has spent a few years in the WC and wishes there was “more accountability, especially as our staff continues to grow.” There should be “ways to have more of a sense of accountability through a greater sense of community.” We need “accountability to the organization and a sense of professionalism. It should feel like a big deal if something goes wrong. You should not want things to wrong because you don’t want it to reflect on an organization in that way, which can be hard because of the diversity here.”

How then can the Writing Center reach the outside community, as Heather suggested, maintain its lauded hiring practices Sarah O’Brien mentioned, while gaining or maintaining accountability when there are so many diverse bodies from diverse disciplines working in the Center? These are questions that make me go “hmmmmm.” 

Women of the Writing Center: Asserting Knowledge in the Writing Center while White, Young & Female (part 1)

This post is part one of a two-part series of interviews with three writing center consultants, continuing our “Women of the Writing Center” series. The perspectives include:

  • Heather Young, a first-year PhD student in rhetoric and writing who hails from Robertson, Alabama
  • Sarah Johnson, a master’s student in critical studies in literacy and pedagogy, who aims to teach rhetoric and writing at the K-12 level
  • Sarah O’Brien, a master’s of social work student who is a former professional pilot turned technical writer

As a white woman in the writing center, do you feel that your knowledge/credentials have ever been challenged by a client?

Heather keeps it real and simply says “yes.” She notices the transition from “being a teacher and then becoming a consultant does cause a loss of agency and authority. Clients will devalue questions I ask,” or “take my advice in passive aggressive ways.” For example, “when I ask students if they thought of this or that and if this might sound better, some of them will answer ‘I guess it would be better.’ And I think to myself, is it because I’m young or a woman. I am naturally bubbly and happy which people believe is not serious or intelligent.” Heather did not feel this way when teaching because “with teaching there is inherent power,” but in the Writing Center, “I think how I perform my gender devalues the information I give. It happens with both men and women and the closer in age they are to me the more it happens,” and this does lead to feelings of irrelevance.”

As the interviewer, I begin to think in a country where women are often put in positions that are inferior to men, how is a woman’s experience rendered less relevant in a spacethe Writing Centerhistorically populated by women?

Sarah Johnson also notes how her youthful look often backfires on her. “Some male clients do the whole talking down to you thing. I look young, so I get side-eyed for the most of the session because of my youth.The youth makes them question my experience and want to be bullying, though has not happened with me with women because I am more sensitive about gendered rhetoric with men than women.” Sarah’s biggest issue is assumptions that are made or placed on her body because she is white and some “white students come in” and make the assumption that “you’re white too so you must be the same racist dick as me. So assumptions based on that is a problem.”

As Sarah spoke I began to question, in what situations do people of all colors believe that a person of their same colorin this particular case, whiteis always already holding the same racist beliefs and assumptions? What causes this to discourse to even enter the Writing Center (a space where we would think it would not)?

Sarah O’Brien counters this experience with noting that nothing she has faced in the Writing Center has compared to what she faced when working outside the academy. “In my experience, the social construction of my gender, and then of my race and finally the combination of my gender and race most certainly play a part in a client’s interaction with me. In my former life I was a flight instructor—in fact, I was a 19 year-old white woman teaching older, established men of all ethnicities how to fly airplanes. I think these gentlemen prepared me for a world that is constantly challenging my right to be an authority on any subject. Therefore, in comparison, the small challenges to my knowledge I face from clients in the WC I am prepared to meet with patience and kindness built on an early foundation.”

I wonder: how do the oppressions of the outside world help one deal with the oppressions in the Writing Center and the academy as a whole? What space can the WC create to discuss and subvert these oppressions?

What type of WC pedagogies/practices have helped you navigate these challenges?

Heather says, “Attending to students as whole people with different experiences, backgrounds, and intellectual histories than me help. Any of these reasons could play into why I have had these experiences with clients. Creating a conversation, even if it is demeaning, is more easily navigated.”

On the other hand, Sarah Johnson believes in standing up for herself. She says, “I work from a self advocacy perspective. I believe in standing up for myself. and I believe in asking questions and offering a perspective through questions, especially when students write things that I just can’t figure out how the hell they came to the conclusion they came to. I also joke about things because I find it is unserviceable to be defensive about things, if that makes sense.

While Heather considers the different experiences of students, and Sarah Johnson is all about standing up for herself, Sarah O’Brien thinks making the client an ally is beneficial in these challenging situations. She says, “I do my best to meet the client where they are in their personal writing process. This seems to assuage any concern they have about my knowledge or credentials because I present myself at the beginning of the session as a ‘helper’ and not as an ultimate authority. In addition, I am happy to admit when I make a mistake and champion the client’s “catch” of my misstep. These are some techniques I use to form an alliance with the client as we collaborate on their project in the time frame they have chosen.”

How then can understanding differences in client experiences, self-advocacy, and building alliances with clients be used to further enrich how consultants deal with difficulties surrounding race and gender in The Writing Center?