Category: Consultant Diaries

Decolonize This! Writing as Embodied Double Consciousness

Often in the writing center tutors are trained, as are many students, that writing is an object—both a product and that which must be produced. The arguments over “good” and “bad” writing are arguments based on neoliberal capitalist discourses surrounding the selling and consuming of texts, be they written, digital, or multimodal. Therefore, “good” writing is writing that can be produced for the purposes of selling it to consumers (academics, the public, and so on). While writing is a product and does serve a larger capitalist goal, writing is not only a product. Writing is not only an object, but an action—a type of cultural practice and way of doing. Though these cultural practices of academic writing is deeply tied to classed (upper-middle-class) and raced (white) assumptions and ideologies, this cultural practice is a useful discourse to learn and one that is taken on or embodied in scholars neither identifying as upper middle class or white. It is in this embodiment—this “putting on of the White Hat”—that I argue a feeling of double consciousness is created that is or could be portrayed in writing or in the works of those writing from the margins.

For many scholars of color, this elitist academic discourse creates a type of double consciousness within writing, where they question: To whom am I writing if not my own? For what purposes am I writing if not for those not in the academy? To which community should I speak when I write and to what discourse community do I need to preference, suppress, or speak across equally? These questions are not outside writers’ heads when they write. We cannot automatically silence the discourses—of teachers, tutors, parents, friends, employers and employees—that tell us what acceptable writing is and what it is not, and while one can (and many do) argue that standard writing is nothing but a rejection of discourses of resistance, e.g. Black Language and Rhetoric, Working-Class Rhetoric, Queer Rhetoric, and so on, these rejections create an embodied response. This effect can cause a state of double consciousness that can present in clients as “I don’t know how to say this the way the teacher wants. Help me say what I want the way they want” to “Why do I have to write about Keeping Up with the Kardashians as a representation of American culture? I’m an American. I live in America. That’s not my life.”

I could ask the conventional question of how we should train students to answer these questions and others like them in a relatively short writing center consultation (a question of time)? However, I want to ask by what means should tutors be trained to address the colonizing practice of academic writing, its purpose in neutralizing discourses from communities deemed undesirable, as well as its democratic functions? Moreover, what tools do tutors need to teach clients rhetorical disguises which would “involve using dominant codes of language in expected ways, to speak and write in ways that might otherwise appear to be covering or assimilating to white standards of conduct” (Denny, 2010, p. 54)? How can the embodied experience of navigating double consciousness, not only in writing but also in the public arena, be useful in teaching clients ways to counteract such psychological damage within their writing?

Decolonize This! Interrogating Academic Literacy Practices

While taking the Writing Center Administration course offered here at MSU, I have found myself questioning writing center pedagogy and practices, specifically with regard to ushering clients into various forms of academic literate practices. These academic literacy practices (clean, concise, effective writing, most often written in Standard English) are laced with politics of exclusion—the exclusion of marginalized bodies, their rhetorical practices, and their various language(s) and dialects. While many scholars do challenge longstanding academic literacy practices, writing center tutors and directors, if not interrogating these longstanding practices, may—in fact, are—re-inscribing oppressive literate practices on the bodies of the students entering the writing center for tutoring. Grimm (1999) argues, “writing centers need to be more fully engaged with the paradox of literacy—the way that literacy both dominates and liberates, both demands submission and offers the promise of agency” (p. xiii). In other words, literacy, like all “standards” is “a socially constructed modifier” that “systemically bases policies and practices on those mistaken judgements” about standards and clients abilities to meet them (Greenfield, 2011, p. 35).

It may seem a large undertaking for writing center directors to take on the task of educating and disrupting academic literacy practices, particularly if those practices benefit them in the advancement of their own lives and careers. However, educating clients about and encouraging them to use rhetorical practices of their own choosing that allow their concerns, inquires, theories, and resolutions to be heard is productive for expanding not only the rhetorical skills of tutors, but also the larger ideas surrounding literacy, literate practices, and what counts as such in the academy.

While I encourage clients to resist within assignments if they wish, I also educate them about the costs of such resistance. Let me be frank: some instructors have power issues; some instructors believe they can learn nothing from their students—no matter their age, class, sexuality, or lived experience they may have. Some teachers cannot handle challenges from students with regard to assignments given or texts read. These teachers are the least likely to support such resistance and the most likely to give students performing this resistance a bad grade. However, there are teacher who welcome such resistance and the insight it can give them about their own pedagogical practices. These teachers are often more willing to allow students to push at boundaries in writing and reward them, usually with a good grade. Educating students about the real consequences writing has also teaches them that writing can and does have immediate impact and affect and is important for clients to learn.

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?

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?

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?

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?

To Fellow Writing Center Noobs:

Not only am I a first-year graduate student, but I’m also a new writing center coordinator. Being a first-timer, I had a great deal to learn from experienced writing consultants and students that visit our center. Although orientation prepared me for the job, I still wasn’t confident in the skills that I can offer as a writer. I am in no way the best writer or consultant out there, so I doubted how much assistance I could provide to clients. The first client I had was just as nervous as I was during our first consultation and it was then that I realized there is no way that any consultant can be perfect. I know now that if I’m unsure about something, then the client and I can work together to find an answer. In fact, I realized that I am constantly utilizing the boundless resources that the writing center has to offer. My biggest resource in the center comes from the support I receive from other staff members, and not to mention the endless amount of coffee.

Because this is a new experience, I often feel like I never know if I’m doing something right, however, it has been incredibly easy to ask anyone in the center for advice. I trust that the people working in the writing center care about me and this is something that I want to offer to clients that visit our center. I relate to every struggle and question a client brings to me because I have encountered these issues in my own writing. Even though I’m a new writing consultant, I feel as if I’ve been doing this work for a lifetime because not unlike my clients, I am still learning new things about composition every day. The equal relationship that the client and I have is what allows us to work on something as a team, rather being looked to as the expert. This multicolored writing center that houses diverse writers, and sometimes a dog, is a safe place we can all share, make mistakes, and collaborate together in order to create something meaningful.

When Non-directive Tutoring Fails

You’re likely familiar with the concept of non-directivity, even if you don’t know the word for it. A lot of writing center scholars call for tutors to be non-directive with their clients. This mainly means, avoiding telling the client what to say or specifically what to add or delete to a paper. Some ways to be non-directive might be avoiding ever holding the pen, making sure the student is the only one to write on the their paper, or when a client asks you how to do something, you might respond with “Well, what do you think?” These strategies sometimes work very well for clients and tutors. However, instead of thinking of non-directivity as one strategy of many, a great deal of writing centers in universities around the US teach and talk about non-directivity as the only way to be student-centered, another writing center buzzword that means being focused entirely on the needs and well-being of the client.

The trouble here is that almost every tutor has had a session where non-directive methods don’t work. Perhaps the student really needs to be told and shown a particular kind of writing move than she just doesn’t know. Or perhaps a student has come in asking only for help with grammar. Regardless of the reason, when a session isn’t working, and the only thing a tutor has been taught is that non-directive tutoring is the only way to tutor the “right way,” we run into trouble because they tutor is immobilized and the client doesn’t know what to do. That’s what my presentation was about. I presented, at least partially, on a study I performed at Ohio University, where I surveyed writing center consultants about when they felt guilt as tutors in the center. An overwhelming number said they felt guilt when they thought they were being too directive. This, to me, is a serious bummer, because non-directivity is but one strategy of many, and we as tutors should feel confident in our ability to shift our methods as needed in a session without worrying if we’re breaking the rules or ruining a client for life.

At this year’s IWCA conference, the keynote speaker, Ben Rafoth, the writing center director at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, discussed the importance of deviating away from Northian tradition in order to meet the needs of all students coming to the Writing Center. Rafoth’s suggestion is all at once revolutionary, and also part of a conversation that has been going on for years among writing center circles, a conversation that I added to in my presentation: “The (R)evolutionary Space Between: Considering the Conflation of Non-directivity and Student-Centeredness.” Thinking about these ideas at IWCA prompted me to share a little with other writing center consultants.

A little on Northian tradition. In 1984, Stephen North’s essay “The Idea of the Writing Center” was published in The English Journal, and in this essay, North coined the oft-cited (and likely at least a little familiar to most tutors) statement “Our job is to make better writers, not better writing.” This statement, along with the rest of his essay, has been highly revered and elevated to near holy-status by many writing center scholars as the main ethos of the writing center world. That ethos is, essentially, that the writing center is not a fix-it-shop but rather a place where tutors help clients with their papers through conversation, and guide clients to make their own writing choices, rather than telling the clients what to do. This facilitative, conversational philosophy, then, has also paved the way for non-directive tutoring to become the main strategy taught to tutors.

I was pleased to see that at IWCA, many others besides me and Dr. Rafoth discussed the importance of diversifying tutoring methods and reorienting ourselves to our relationship to key scholarship that informs those methods. Many of these sessions focused specifically on identity as well—for if we only have one tutoring method for all different kinds of people from all different subject positions, we are likely not serving quite a few student populations as well as we could. Seeing these presentations was refreshing because I was able to see a shift in thought about what the “rules” for tutoring are or should be—I hope next year’s IWCA conference can continue the conversation.

The Consultant Diaries: If Types of WC Candy Were Types of Writing

One of the best things about The Writing Center is our candy. It’s like a box of chocolates (pun intended)—you never know what you’re going to find each day. Consulting is like a box of chocolates, too. No two appointments are ever the same. There’s always a new client to help and a new piece of writing to help them with. So what if different types of writing were different types of Writing Center candy?

Nerds would be research papers. Nerds go everywhere and you always lose the little bits. With research papers, you lose all the little pieces too: the quotes, the citations, your sanity…

Milky Ways are things you write for non-academic reasons. They don’t have the weight of hardcore candies. They feel light and fluffy, like heavenly clouds, like the types of writing that don’t stress you out.

Laffy Taffies are dissertations. They get stuck in your cheek and you just CAN’T. GET. THEM. OUT. Just like dissertations that hang over your head that you can’t ever escape from.

Mints are reflection papers. Like mints, I find reflection papers refreshing. I like learning about my clients, and reflection papers can be a nice, interesting break from academic papers.

Twix are whatever your favorite pieces of writing are. Twix are my favorite type of candy: they’ve got chocolate AND caramel AND nice crispy wafers. When I’m eating one, I enjoy every moment of it. When I’m helping clients with résumés, too, I completely enjoy it. I love helping them with pieces of writing that could give them new opportunities and potentially change their lives.

What’s your favorite thing to write? What’s your Twix?