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?

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