Imagine a busy day in a writing center. A graduate tutor works with a senior on his application to be a commencement speaker for one of the university’s graduation events. He is one of her favorite regular clients, and because she helped him on medical school applications, she knows a lot about his background: he’s the son of Indian immigrants who settled and opened a campground not far from where the tutor herself grew up. She knows the student is in awe of his parents for having surrendered the status that their educations conferred in India to move to the US where their schooling isn’t recognized but where their children would have more opportunities. In his application essay, the student writes about being able to identify with his peers because of his various life experiences, including having done “blue-collar work” at his parents’ campground. The tutor helps him with his essay, and then he asks if he can work on it alone while the tutor does something else. While the tutor answers emails in the staff room ten minutes later, the student comes in, looking a bit sheepish. He points out the sentence about blue-collar work and tells the tutor, “I don’t think this is what I meant. How do I talk about my family struggling with money so much when I was younger?”
Another busy day, same writing center, same tutor. She works with one of the students who holds a work-study position in the writing center as a front-desk assistant. The student is applying for a summer travel scholarship that will help pay for an overseas class trip in LGBTQ studies. The scholarship is specifically for disadvantaged students, and the student asks the tutor how she should phrase her family’s economic situation. “I am paying for everything myself,” the student says. “My parents can’t really help me out with college much.” She also wonders if she should bring up what this particular class trip would mean to her on a personal level. She tells the tutor, “My family is really conservative. I don’t know how to mention what this trip would mean to me because of that.”
On another Monday in the center, the graduate tutor sits down with an international undergraduate student applying to graduate school. The essay goes on at length about the student’s father’s business, and the tutor finds the tone a touch conceited, particularly during a brief mention of the student’s father paying for college so he can return to take over the business someday. During the weekend, the tutor went to a party where a fellow graduate student bragged about her family inheritance. The graduate tutor is the first person in her family to go to college; when her grandparents or parents pass away she knows she will only inherit debt. Thinking about her mom’s recent pay cut and her own worries over her bank account and emptying pantry, the graduate student finds herself getting short with the student working on his statement of purpose. She and the student talk past each other for the entire half-hour session.
For each of these experiences, the crosscurrents of wider social, economic, and cultural relations could easily make a session go badly. The Indian-American student signals a discomfort with naming “blue-collar work,” in part because it represents what he must perceive as a stigmatized economic state. Under what circumstances and to what end might a tutor push back and challenge a lurking shame in his rhetoric? For the work-study student, “paying for everything” herself is a code that signals her family doesn’t have the means to support her, and the comment about conservativism hints at the ties and pressures of family along with the autonomy that college provides to explore and celebrate sexuality. Together, pushing the student to unpack the family dynamics is a risky request, and responding just as daunting. And the graduate tutor encountering the everyday performance of privilege testifies to the need to hone strategies for engaging students where they are and to resist the temptation to school them on tone-deaf rhetoric. Our tutor training guides and theory monographs offer writing center practitioners little guidance on how we address critical dynamics pulsing in the background of sessions. How do we avoid scaring students away, dissuading them from working with us because we broach or unpack uncomfortable topics spurred in a session? How do we dialogue plausibly when it’s risk for the tutor or student alike? To what degree can we maintain a productive session if it veers into territory that’s fraught with conflict or taboo? We must balance the reality that neither student nor tutor goes into a session to be proselytized, to get schooled on a belief system, or to have their consciousness raised, but neither seeks out a teaching, mentoring, or learning environment that diminishes them. How do we make a space for understanding and addressing class while ensuring a space conducive for dealing with learning needs?
While the dynamics of economic class may not play out in a writing center as visibly as issues of race, gender, or sexuality, they are ubiquitous and are not entirely separable from other politics of identity. The experiences above can easily happen in a week’s span, and they are always emotionally exhausting for both the student and the tutor involved because the disclosure of one’s own socioeconomic class or background can be fraught with embarrassment in academic circles. Writing centers, paradoxically, ask tutors, students, and professionals teaching and learning in them to both conceal and foreground their identities, depending on the moment, the context, or rhetorical purpose. The units act as agents of institutional force relations and as collaborators in subverting those very same dynamics. For every Asao Inoue who pushes against the coercion implicit in the role of writing centers to normalize and reinscribe “standards” of academic English, countless other directors and consultants uncritically help interpolate clients into a discursive system that flattens out difference and erases individuality. Writing in college often is an incredibly personal act, and seeking help for or sharing one’s writing is already fraught with tension over authority, control, and power. For first-generation and/or working-class students coming to a writing center, who often lack assumed economic, cultural, and social capital for college success, help-seeking behavior represents both risk and reward, compounded all the more when negotiating the material and emotional hardships that many peers do not share or readily understand. This essay works to explore the complexity and intersectionality of working-class identity in the broad context of the (im)possibility of creating brave(r) spaces within writing centers. Our goal isn’t to discharge writing centers from the Herculean task of attending to this aspect of identity, among others, as futile; instead, we argue, the difficult dialogue of how class implants on nearly every interaction in writing centers, like the multitude of other differences circulating around sessions, is long overdue, if not fraught with discomfort and pain. Of course, such conversations promise revelation, transformation, and an environment for a more inclusive space. After unpacking our own experiences, we work to dig into the concept of class in writing centers, address how it plays out at our institution, connect the conversation to notions of brave(r) space pedagogy, and close with suggestions for action readers might take in their own local context.
Skin in the Game: From the Frontlines of First-Generation Writing Center Directors and Academics
Both Beth and Harry come to these questions as writing center professionals with skin in the game. We are first-generation college students, adults from working-class childhoods, and first-in-our-family academics. We required student loans to get through college, we had to work part-time to pay the balance of education and living costs, we knew that our bodies and our language didn’t always signify privilege in the same ways some of our peers did. At the same time, we have succeeded through college, graduate school and into the profession. We stumbled through learning the rules to the game that governs academic life, and we know people offered us opportunities that might not have otherwise been presented. We are rubes done good, but never forget that for the drag that our economic class places on our progress, we never stop being white, Harry doesn’t stop being male, and Beth doesn’t stop being a woman or straight. We both speak and write in a vernacular that’s closer to the preferred middle-class academic sensibility than others. We never forget that we have privilege, most of which we’re acutely aware and some which we admittedly haven’t inventoried or examined. We always already are liminal creatures: Consummate, reluctant insiders yet recalcitrant, guilty outsiders. We never know just when to expect a moment when our pedigree is checked, and we are never quite aware when our progress confers comfort or ease in the ivory tower. For all our background, we’ve entered a domain where cultural privilege distinguishes us from our families, though we share intense filial connection. We disclose our backgrounds not just to win cred as individuals who know of what we speak, but also to draw attention to liminal experience of college and “brave” spaces.
Beth is a first-generation student from a family that crossed back and forth across the poverty line throughout her childhood and teen years. While her family was supportive of her academic pursuits, she felt (and still feels) alienated from what were considered the cultural norms of the rural area where she grew up and the people she grew up with: getting married, having children, and settling in or near one’s hometown. Going to college, and, worse, continuing through graduate school continued to set her values apart from the people she grew up in proximity to. In particular, her pursuit of an MFA in creative writing separated her from the idea of “practicality” that extended family and high school friends focused on, a separation that would continue to feel acute when she began her PhD. While her mother is a lifelong Democrat and her father is largely apolitical, her extended family and the majority of the people from her hometown are conservative Christians who vote Republican and are persuaded by bootstraps rhetoric. When Donald Trump was elected in November 2016, the academic social circles she belongs to all said the same thing: If you have friends or family who are conservative, don’t understand systematic racism, or won’t engage in political conversation, drop them. For working-class students from more conservative backgrounds who hear these messages, the cognitive dissonance is staggering. It can sound like: To belong in an academic setting as a first-generation student, one must give up what’s familiar, comfortable, and known. Worse, students at a large STEM institution like Purdue are often not given the advantages Beth had in her liberal arts and humanities-focused education to begin exploring ideas about identity and systems of oppression, resulting in students who only see the gulf between academia and their families, with no idea how to traverse it.
Harry is tenured in English at Purdue, a research extensive university. Harry’s salary and standing is a far cry from a time in his past when his family was on food stamps and living in public-assisted housing. His parents and sister and his partner’s family are all solidly working-class people, often never a missed paycheck away from economic insecurity or crisis. Getting through college and graduate school weren’t easy or smooth for him. As an undergraduate he split his time between classes and studying by driving city and school buses to pay tuition and living expenses; coursework often took a backseat to earning enough money to survive, so his GPA was mediocre and haunted him later in graduate school. When he began studying for his Master’s, Harry took on steep student loans and served as a campus telephone operator to pay the bills. Later, in doctoral coursework, he got his start in working in writing centers because his home program didn’t trust the grades from his MA program; his old undergrad performance represented a warning sign about whether he was disciplined enough to warrant funding. Even once he gained a graduate fellowship, he still accumulated student loan debt. Years after graduation, he continues pay off those loans he accrued, even as he encounters other peers who lack debt, a material reality that further differentiates the privilege that their educations from pedigreed institutions confer. Harry’s experience with college education was all that it sells itself to be: transformative, empowering, and political. It also has an underbelly of dubious access for “people like him,” students not cultivated to understand the social, cultural, political, and economic rules of higher education. That awareness comes at a cost, an ongoing tax that first-generation students uniquely pay both while in school and long afterwards. When he encounters students like Beth, he is acutely aware of the tensions they face and the futures they must negotiate.
Like us, the students we describe at the beginning of this essay readily disclose awareness of their socioeconomic backgrounds, even as they betray degrees of embarrassment about them. They are the lucky ones because they have a critical awareness, if not a critical sensibility. Other students coming to the writing center may face similar personal challenges but never disclose their own identities to their tutors (or are tutors who never disclose to clients). Class can often be invisible to the average eye, especially in a writing center-type context when students may pop in and out of the center for only an hour of their entire academic careers. With the exception of personal statements or narratives, a student’s background may never organically come up in a session and may not even particularly matter to that session’s success. Every once in a while, a student or tutor will disclose about feeling overwhelmed (working too much, having too little time to study), or they will express surprise at praise for writing they have shared or a response that’s particularly helpful. They might be taken aback at an invitation to join a writing center staff or to be recruited as a collaborator for a research project.
And yet, class is always underneath the surface. It might be the cause of a rushed session for a student who works multiple jobs on and off campus. It may be a student who turns surly after a tutor mentions getting writing help from parents. Perhaps it is a tutor who is hyper-aware of the type of code-switching they do between “authoritative tutor voice” and the accented language they use at home or away from school. Maybe it’s the freshman who wants to shout and pound his hands on the table in the writing center as he expresses his frustration that his first-year composition instructor continues to grade down his essays for being too rooted in experience and not sufficiently dispassionate or failing to use enough “peer reviewed” evidence. He sighs, “This guy just doesn’t get me, and I just don’t get what he wants.” Or maybe it’s the tears that well up in a tutor’s eyes with she hears her writing center faculty director say, “people like us,” when counseling her on her feelings of being an impostor in college. Assumptions made by both tutors and students about the path to and through college can damage a session in ways that perhaps are not fully visible to any of its participants.
Whether embodied or not, class is ubiquitous in writing centers. Of course, class may refer to any number of economic, social or cultural phenomena. By some measures, class represents how much currency and capital one has, while others, like Pierre Bourdieu (1984), argue that class represents a far more complex dynamic where people distinguish themselves (and are distinguished by) their tastes and consumption and how they collectively and socially identify. In this sense, class is as much about how much you make in salary as it is about what you eat, what you wear, where you go, how you get there, and with whom you associate. The style by which we signify our class position is always already discursive and performed. Just as other codes imprint us with our class positions, our very ways of arguing, of advocating, represent “classed” ways of doing rhetoric. Julie Lindquist’s (2002) ethnography of a working-class bar maps the ways in which participants signal their belonging just as clearly as a bourgeois manner or affect is signaled through cool, dispassionate reason. Donna LeCourt and Anna Rita Napeolone (2013) have made a similar argument about the performative dynamic in the teaching of writing and its class affect. Lynn Bloom (1996) famously argues that composition classrooms are arenas where a middle-class sensibility of expression is cultivated; some might argue made interpolated.
From Safe Harbors to Brave(r) Spaces in Writing Centers: A Contradiction?
Brian Arao and Kristi Clemens (2013) work to reframe the praxis of the safe space movement on many campuses and enacted in many writing centers. Activism to create “safe spaces” works to make teaching and learning environments (from residence halls and student organizations to units like writing centers) more inclusive through consciousness raising with elective workshop participants, who learn to become more aware and sensitive to a variety of identities and issues. The goal of “safe spaces” is about supporting the best environment to enable “participants in the challenging work of authentic engagement with regard to issues of identity, oppression, power, and privilege” (139). People who attend these sessions learn appropriate language, role play potential flash points, come to understand the perspectives of those who share different identities and beliefs, and learn ways to engage in productive and respectful interaction. Arao and Clemens point out that no amount of sensitivity programming can create a truly safe arena for interaction; spaces can only ever be more or less safe. Or as Beth Boquet (2005) concludes about the safe/risk continuum, “Most days we wind up caught somewhere in-between” (p. 65). Learning, Arao and Clemens argue, is often incompatible with safety; it requires challenge, risk, and indeed discomfort. Instead, the researchers advocate for what they term as brave or braver spaces, focusing less on safety and more on helping “students better understand—and rise to—the challenges of genuine dialogue on diversity and social justice issues” (p. 136). For “brave space” workshops, a premium is placed on having participants understand the ground rules, even collaborate on their development, before proceeding further on whatever learning activity around identities and hot button issues. Arao and Clemens cite Boostrom (1998) who cautions that true learning, especially around flash point issues, must involve “the pain of giving up a former condition in favour of a new way of seeing things” (p. 399).
Brave space requires disclosure in order to work. To make a space “brave” its participants must be willing to speak openly about their identities, biases, and experiences. Embodied identities, such as race, gender, and physical disabilities are already on the surface (for the most part), even if its participants are trying to avoid them. But more hidden identities, such as class or sexuality, must be verbally disclosed in order to move into “brave space” territory. While we can strive as writing center administrators or tutor educators to create spaces in which students and tutors alike may be comfortable with disclosure, we cannot guarantee that we have actually done so. What right do we have to call our spaces “safe” or “brave” when the institution that surrounds students and tutors on a daily basis is neither? We can teach and nurture practices that make our centers more open and inclusive, but we cannot presume to ask students to disclose or discuss identity when they acutely feel the effects of imposter syndrome or even physical danger (as in the case of many LGBTQ students who might otherwise “pass”) in their “coming out” within a space that can never escape the institution and the systemic oppression it often represents.
Writing center staff education and academic courses typically introduce consultants to the history that makes the units possible; to the theory that helps tutors understand teaching, learning, and collaboration around writing; to the everyday practices that make the nuts and bolts of conferences work well. It remains unclear whether recent critical scholarship about identity politics both within and outside of writing center studies has translated into a greater awareness of the ubiquity of social justice issues within tutoring spaces. A pedagogy of safe or brave spaces requires a certain willingness, a commitment toward exploration of difficult, even uncomfortable, conversations about hegemonic privilege and institutional or systemic operations of oppression. When a tutor signs on to support writing or a student comes into one of our spaces for tutoring, we wonder whether they are also committing to another sort of transformation. We also wonder whether one could ever jettison, or truly separate out, all the complex interplay of oppression and the barriers to equitable learning and education in our society. Harry remembers once being at a national writing center conference once and witnessing a frustrated director exclaim in the midst of a panel on identity politics, “I’m just not interested in these issues [of making our spaces more inclusive]. I just want to make sure my tutors address grammar correctly.” We need to think about the ways in which our everyday practices in writing centers reinscribe the academy’s antipathy toward working-class students, treating them as creatures that need to be scrubbed of their identities and performativities, telling them that their experiences aren’t welcome. But on the flip-side, we also need to be wary of the “bootstraps” lessons that tell working-class students that middle-class identity is an ideal persona, that one must leave behind community of origin, that we can never go home again, that our families back home are flawed, deficient, and that our new lives will have perfection.
That shaming of filial background and the implanting of a desire to transform into another (preferred) identity set doesn’t just rest with class. All of who we are is under constant symbolic and material struggle. Intersectionality, popularized by Kimberle Crenshaw (1981) and paralleling third-wave feminist theory, enables deep interrogation of even more problematic assumptions about class and the ways in which class can be visible or invisible in any given moment of a tutorial or in a tutor education course or staff interaction. The intersectionality of class identities and the identities of race and nationality, religion, and gender all play a role in tensions that arise in writing centers: A tutor assuming a black student is poor because African-American people are the face of poverty in conservative messages about welfare abuse; a student assuming a tutor will speak with perfect standard English grammar because they are a “white” tutor, despite that tutor being from an Eastern European country and having an accented voice; a student seeing out help with their writing so that it doesn’t sound like they speak; or a director assuming tutors have family resources that offset demands for free labor. These microaggressions come out in tutor education or staff meetings, too: A director may automatically assume a well-dressed, female-identifying Asian-American student is more capable in a situation than a T-shirt-wearing, white male student who has talked openly about wanting to go back to the family farm when he has finished with college. Every day, writing center interactions are fraught with class tensions that are invisible, intersectional, and deeply felt.
Class, despite being ubiquitous, is not necessarily an addressed phenomenon, even at our most social justice-oriented writing centers. At Purdue, our tutor education courses openly discuss diversity at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Students are introduced to issues of race and ethnicity, sexuality and gender, and language diversity in these courses. And yet, despite those responsible for the tutor education classes being themselves first-generation students from working-class backgrounds, class rarely emerges as a set topic for discussion. We just don’t talk about how socioeconomic class is a variable affecting sessions, the unit, or the institution. We also don’t talk about how intersectional identities include class as part of a larger identity spectrum in and out of our centers. Class identity may come out organically in discussions or if a student or tutor self-discloses, but, otherwise, it may never be spoken about. We do not prepare future tutors for “classed” encounters in the center because, frankly, it does not match up with the type of brave space rhetoric that currently occupies social justice discussions in the classroom. We actively work to make the Writing Lab at Purdue brave(r) for students of color, sexual minorities, multilingual students, and international students because we see them, hear their struggles, witness their frustrating experiences with the institution. But the challenges and luggage of class suffer from benign neglect.
As a land-grant institution, Purdue’s historical mission to address the educational and vocational needs of Indiana students, particularly in response to shifting economic currents, appears quite responsive to the needs of under-represented and first-generation students. Its Office of Institutional Research, Assessment, and Efficacy has a deep dataset on Purdue, and one report is particularly meaningful. First-generation students, it says, have similar, but slightly lagging “academic qualifications” for college; they have gaps around math and critical reading scores on the SAT. Just as telling, an incoming student form documents students’ anticipated needs. The form indicates first-generation students suspect they will need help on a variety of fronts (study skills, math, writing, chemistry, physics, test anxiety, and biology). They also go on to have significantly lower grade averages and persistence rates (toward graduation) than their non-first-generation peers. In the Writing Lab, our own internal study confirms what the “big data” research is finding: Students who make use of the writing lab lag behind their peers in terms of those entry standardized tests. We have also noticed parental income differences that are more dramatic when cross-tabulated with ethnicity (students of color are far more likely to have dramatically lower family incomes) and residency (Indiana students come from more economically disadvantaged families than undergraduates who are out of state). But just as important as the reality of the lag or differences between those populations, students who make use of the Writing Lab and those who make more frequent use of it have higher grade averages and persistence to graduation than their peers who don’t. Or, to say it a bit differently, the very students who are not supposed to do as well end up out-performing their peers who have, on paper at least, every advantage working at their favor.
If first-generation and working-class students are some of our most successful (by institutional measures) visitors to the Writing Lab, then how do we use our space and our resources to better advocate for them across campus? How do we address the glaring gaps that still exist between them and their non-first-generation peers? More importantly, how do we better understand and advocate for intersectional approaches to class issues in our Lab and beyond, across campus and across writing centers more broadly? There are both theoretical and practical ways in which we can help first-generation students while also lessening the burden on them and placing it more where it belongs: on the institutions that purport to serve them but often leave them in the dust. Boquet (1999), among others, has argued for the need for writing center scholarship to look at how writing centers fit within their institutions and the institutionalized instruction of writing. Jackie Grutsch McKinney (2013) asks us to question the grand narratives that structure our missions, both local and across writing centers. How might refusal to be directive actually end up harming people who lack access to necessary cultural and social capital required for success in college? What difference does it make giving students agency to decide to refuse knowledge of the “rules of the game” versus withholding them in some ill-conceived faith that students’ must own their path toward self-actualization? We would argue that writing centers—with our data, our tutor and administrative experiences, our unique position to see cross-campus writing, and students who are often otherwise invisible to the university—are able to better advocate for what writing is and what it should be, as well as for the students doing that writing. Rather than police, we ought to leverage our experience, our local knowledge, our common scholarship, to support students’ and tutors’ literacies, both owned and those to be acquired, not as a Faustian either/or but rather as testament to the diversity of understanding and practices we all need to be successful in an increasingly complex world.
“We are the change we seek” (Obama, 2008): An Agenda for Action in Writing Centers
In keeping with the need for a more consciousness-raising scholarship, writing centers such as our Writing Lab at Purdue, should not only be collecting data but using it. Arguing for more resources, as writing centers have used data since data began being collected by directors, is all well and good. Data is often not shown to the tutors themselves or the students who visit the Lab. Making that data public and visible to all Lab stakeholders, including clients and graduate and undergraduate tutors, is incredibly important for not only advocating for the Lab’s usage but for the students who use the Lab, as well. Again, it makes students who are otherwise invisible to the institution a vital part of what is often the most visible place for writing on a campus. Posting data on writing center websites and in public places (bulletin boards, marketing materials, et cetera) creates space for dialogue about first-generation and working-class students on our campuses. Additionally, comparing the center’s data with the institutional data (about economic demographics, among other data sets) opens up those conversations even more. Locally publishing this data allows for first-generation students to see themselves within the university structure, too. Perhaps it may even make them more comfortable about self-disclosure. At the very least, it allows for them to understand their positioning without having to disclose if they would rather not.
At Purdue, our collaboration with the local office for institutional assessment has sought to determine how GPAs and retention are affected by use of the Writing Lab, which is fodder for inquiry for coursework in the graduate-level writing center administration course. During monthly meetings between the Writing Lab’s administrators and graduate student leadership, discussion focuses on how to understand and visualize the data for various publics and provides occasion to collectively explore patterns in the data and schemes for better coding it. This shared inquiry has spurred tutors to “come out” as first-generation students themselves and to share how that perspective affects their view of the data. Bringing together this type of personal experience (what we know as working-class students, or as tutors, or as mentors) and empirical research allows for revealing conversations about both theory and practice to arise. We assume similar conversations with undergraduate tutors may produce similar results; while they may not have the disciplinary expertise of the graduate coordinators, they do have the day-to-day experiences and ear-to-the-ground knowledge that may illuminate some of the data. Beth is experimenting with an undergraduate research group in the Writing Lab for the 2017-18 academic year, and she plans to bring this data into those meetings and discussions. Beyond the walls of the Writing Lab, our institutional research enables conversations with academic units who seek to think critically and innovatively about student learning and the variety of tools and interventions that can impact on student success, retention, and persistence to graduation. Our professional organizations, like IWCA, could be more aggressive in fostering a culture where this commonly cultivated data might be aggregated and studied across the country to discern patterns writ large but also at particular institution types (research-1s, regional comprehensive, SLACs, two-year colleges). Most immediately, Purdue Writing Lab is committed to making this data open-access and transparent (https://owl.english.purdue.edu/research/usage).
The writing center may also serve as an advocate through workshops and open dialogues that aim to directly benefit institutionally-vulnerable students. Topics such as financial burdens like loans or managing a work-school balance could be discussed within the physical space of the writing center. Workshops could facilitated about topics like applying for scholarships or graduate school that are geared directly for first-generation students, many of whom will be approaching application materials very differently from students with a family history that includes applying and going to college. In order to reimagine the writing center as a “brave” space for working-class students, it is necessary to actually let them through the door, which they may be reluctant to do if it involves the possibility of making a faux pas or accidentally revealing their tenuous positions. As Donna LeCourt (2004) has argued, one of the challenges faced by working-class students is the separation between their classed identities and the academic discourse, a discourse made even more difficult to master because of American’s rhetorical culture of denying class as even being an identity category worth self-claiming. That lack of ability to self-disclose without denying one’s identity as something embarrassing or unworthy of discussion is a reason why writing centers should consider themselves as firmly entrenched in class issues, and why those class issues should be put on the table by the center itself. Making space, not even braver or safer space, just space itself for working-class students within the operations of the writing center could be vital to our efforts to be more inclusive or diverse.
Of course, this must all be done with intersectionality at the forefront—of our tutor training, of our data-collection and data-publishing, of our programming. If we continually slice off identities, then we have denied the inherent role that class plays across broader spectrums of identity, or how class is often tied to race and systemic oppression of minority students and their families. As the authors of this article began looking at Purdue data sets on students from low-income households, it was remarkable how much race and ethnicity played a role. At Purdue, a startling number of low-income students who struggle in school are from minority populations (particularly startling because of how un-diverse Purdue is outside of its high number of international students), and those are the students for whom visiting the Lab is an important part of retention and graduation. Intersectional approaches, and the understanding that what we think the “poor kids” on our campuses look like, is often highly problematic; intersectionality forces those of us who work in writing center administration to look at our data differently, and to look too beyond the data, to what people’s actual life experiences are—especially the ways in which positive and negative academic experiences affect the lives of working-class and first-generation students. This intersectional approach has been brought into the undergraduate and graduate tutor education courses at Purdue. In the undergraduate course, students are introduced to scenarios that involve intersectional identities after visually mapping their own intersecting compasses of identity. Undergraduate students are asked to read pieces such as Harry’s “Queering the Writing Center” or Vershawn Young’s “Should Writers Use They Own Voice?” to discuss how identity and language intersect. New graduate tutors spend a significant portion of their education course reading language and identity theory and applying it to their experiences tutoring in the Lab. Part of the work of these courses is not just introducing students to new ideas, but to help them develop clearer eyes for the spaces they inhabit on Purdue’s campus. Perhaps the recognition of different ways of being in academia can help tutors better understand the need to respect the inner and outer lives both of the students who come to the Lab.
Perhaps most importantly, we recognize that we cannot have a conversation in writing center studies about the socioeconomic class identities of our students until we have solved our own labor problems. There are two factors writing center administrators need to begin considering in order to truly think of their spaces as brave or even welcoming to working-class students: First, we need to hire students from diverse backgrounds, including students of working-class or first-generation identities. Second, we must advocate for a living wage for our tutors. Additionally, we have to find space in our centers for dialogue and debate about those wages and other working conditions. As graduate student unionization has become something of a hot topic in higher education, it is important to remember that graduate and undergraduate tutors alike work in our centers for money and not just experience. At Purdue, the very low base-level graduate TA stipend spurs graduate students to compete for spots in the Writing Lab so they can make enough to afford rent, groceries, and the necessary conference travel and other professional fees. Meanwhile, undergraduate tutors are often assumed to be taking tutoring jobs for the resume line or to improve their own writing. However, of Beth’s undergraduate business writing consultants (BWCs), she knows at least several for whom the pay is vital. This is especially true of the BWCs who have self-disclosed as working-class or first-generation. Many of the BWCs work multiple jobs in order to help pay rent and groceries, too. And yet these undergraduates make significantly less per hour than the graduate tutors despite often tackling many of the same responsibilities. According to the most recent Writing Center Research Project (2016) survey, the national average for undergraduate tutor hourly wage ranges from $8.00 to $13.00. Undergraduate tutors do not make a living wage, and neither do the graduate tutors. In order for us to talk about socioeconomic privileges and lack thereof in tutoring sessions and in our centers at large, there is a need for us to get our own houses in order.
The issue of fair labor practices in writing centers must of course move beyond our own individual centers. Our labor practices should be discussed and even fought over at regional and national writing center conferences, in our publications, and in graduate writing center administration courses. To keep quiet about writing center labor practices while advocating publicly for “safe” and “brave” spaces is both hypocritical and unethical. If our own professional organizations do not allow for brave conversations and acts, then what are we doing having the conversations in this very journal issue? Our scholarship should also allow room for working-class research and discussions of fair labor. Writing center publications about working-class and first-generation students, as well as most publications about safe and brave spaces, are largely anecdotal. More concentrated efforts to research and publish work that more critically studies and engages with issues of socioeconomic disparity in our centers and institutions are needed, and that work needs to be rigorous. Scholarship that is tied to practical assessment and institutional goals and programs would directly benefit the students and tutors we have focused on in this article. Balancing the theoretical and practical has always been critical to writing center studies, so we renew a call for practitioners to tell their stories and to push them toward sustainable inquiry. Often, people are critical of lore for lore’s sake. We agree. But we also see tremendous value in bridging authentic stories to hypotheses and research questions that can spur our insight, understanding, and practice. We need to know more, not less, about the working-class student in writing centers. We need to hear more from people like us, to combine our stories and discover their patterns, problems and successes. We need to explore the nature of those problems and successes, discerning what variables interact and confound. We need to take up that kind of scholarship and use it to continue to challenge or affirm what theories and practices work with a range of students, tutors, and writing center professionals. Most importantly, we need to make our writing centers braver spaces for working class students, tutors, and professionals, not just because it’s brave to reclaim pride in one’s socioeconomic identity, but also because writing centers are richer spaces when we keep deepening and moving toward being and becoming more inclusive.
About the Authors
Harry Denny is Associate Professor of English and Director of the Writing Lab at Purdue University. Harry’s scholarship focuses on writing center theory and practice, cultural studies, and research methods. Harry is the author of Facing the Center: Towards and Identity Politics of One-to-one Mentoring, and a co-editor of a forthcoming collection, Out in the Center: Public Controversies, Private Struggles (with Lila Naydan, Rob Mundy, Richard Severe, and Anna Sicari), both with Utah State University Press.
Beth Towle is a doctoral candidate at Purdue University, specializing in writing center administration. She currently serves as the Business Writing Coordinator at the Purdue Writing Lab and teaches the tutor education course for undergraduate tutors specializing in professional writing.
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