Race, Retention, Language, and Literacy: The Hidden Curriculum of the Writing Center

Wonderful Faison
Anna Treviño

Our Stories Are Not Anecdotes: Writing as One to Write as Two

When we began the process of writing this piece we realized how troubled we were. My mama would say, we were “troubled in our souls.” Our souls, our bodies, our very selves were troubled by the gap (the disharmony) between what the vast majority of Writing Center (WC) literature purports the WC to be and do—a comfortable, inclusive, anti-institutional space where students work on their writing with peers—and what the WC often is and does: reproduce upper middle-class white domestic comforts (Grutsch-McKinney, 2013; Grimm, 1999) that may often exclude those not from that class, race, or domestic space. Although WC scholars have begun to critique this common narrative of the WC as comfortable and anti-institutional, few critiques of the WC ideology or space have come from those people WC scholars argue may be unintentionally excluded from their space either through WC design or pedagogy: People of Color (POC) and, more specifically, Women of Color (WOC).

While we write this piece as one, we also write this piece as two. The reason we choose to write this piece in this way is so readers could discern our two different voices, two different styles, two different lenses, two distinct perspectives, two distinct languages and rhetorical practices that, though distinct, are not anecdotal. These stories are an attempt to begin to form an experiential preponderance of stories likely to accrue similar stories. Our work is an attempt to show that not all POC/WOC are the same. We are often collapsed into having the same struggle—seeing race or any oppression through the same lens. This is nothing more than myth. Our stories, our narrative, our critique is an attempt at a “bringing together.” Bringing these differing lenses (Latina and Black Lesbian) together to critique the discord between WC literature that positions the WC as anti-institutional and comfortable and it’s practical application of that ideal, not only can better refine how WC desire to position themselves, but also may bring more pedagogical and practical ways Writing Centers can better align with that ideal.

Mi Confesión

I must confess. I never imagined I would work for a writing center. My original understanding of writing centers and writing center work was formed by what I would now call an irresponsible, but perhaps well-meaning, first-year composition instructor. While I was a first-year student taking composition, he forced us to get our papers checked and validated. Upon submission, our papers needed to have, stapled to them, The Slip, which was signed by the tutor who always checked the boxes of The Things We Worked On and sometimes left additional comments in the space provided. If the proof of the writing center visit was absent, a penalty would be reflected in our grades. He weaponized the writing center, and I hated having to go because the sessions mostly consisted of tutors telling me where I needed commas. Once, I had the courage to state that I did not know “where to put commas.” The answer I received, of course, was no different than the same mumbo jumbo nonsense that had always been said to me: “where you pause or take a breath; between two independent clauses.” I never understood why, after admitting I did not know where to put commas, one would assume I could identify independent clauses in my own writing. Believe it or not, despite this major flaw of mine, I successfully completed all undergraduate writing assignments and even minored in English! Beyond my first-year as an undergrad, I never returned for writing tutoring, but as now obvious, I continued into graduate school.

I earned my BA and MA from a Hispanic Serving Institution[1] (HSI) in South Texas, where the students were predominately Mexican-American, working-class, first-generation college students (~65%). While a masters student there, I learned about Paulo Freire, Ira Shor, and bell hooks. I also rebelled against teaching first-year curriculum from pre-1960s which is still in place at too many institutions, good ol’ EDNA[2]. This rebellion was mostly silent; I used my thesis to research and argue against current-traditional rhetoric, especially in the context of class issues. In the classes I was teaching, I mostly followed the not-so-wonderful curriculum, trying to find spaces to subvert untheoretical teaching: beginning college-level composition courses by introducing the anatomy of the essay—the five-paragraph theme—was not acceptable; justifying that the current curriculum is in place “because most students are not English majors” is no justification at all. The students deserved better.

I was 22 when I first stepped into the college-classroom as a graduate teaching assistant, not much older than most of my students. I had more privilege because I held one degree and was on my way to completing my second, but in terms of socio-economics and ethnicity, most of my students as I were not too different. While there most certainly were white middle-class conservative students, they were not the majority. As a new teacher with no training, my in-class experiences my first semester teaching were terrible. I felt uncomfortable, lacked confidence, so of course, some students did not respond well. Most of the students who did so were white, middle-class women but there were a few Mexican-American men students who pushed back as well. With a bit more experience, age, and knowledge of composition theory and history, I grew in confidence and authority, and I learned that students were more responsive the more I shared my perspectives on teaching and writing with them—that is, why I did not agree with certain assignments, where and why I disagreed with the readings, why I was sneaking in readings, what rhetoric and composition meant to me, and so on. Teaching became a part of me and the way I saw the world.

After earning my master’s degree, I started a PhD program at a Midwestern University, where I am now working for the writing center. At this particular predominantly white institution (PWI) I first worked as a teaching assistant; my responsibilities included teaching two sections of first-year composition. The differences in attending and teaching at a HSI and PWI were particularly jarring. Since I have lived in South Texas my entire adult life up to this point, it was the first time I felt like a minority. The students I was now responsible for were predominately white, middle-class, and conservative. The program here has a legitimate writing program director in charge of creating and disseminating legitimate writing curriculum, and yet, I enjoyed teaching even less. I tried to make sense of this struggle and decided it was a transition issue; I had not “acclimated to the campus and its culture” (Scott, 215, p. 288). I was failing to apply the keys to success I had introduced to my first-year seminar students the academic year before beginning my doctoral program. As the semester continued, I decided on one thing—I could not bear teaching at a PWI much longer.

Fate intervened that semester. There was an opportunity for me to become a writing tutor. I even met with the Associate Director. She seemed nice enough, and the tutor I interviewed regarding his experience at the writing center seemed sincere in his responses, but ultimately I could not. The uneducated but personal beliefs I held of the writing center—a site of hegemony, of Standard English, of product-centered and current-traditional rhetoric—focused on the “the ways in which and the degree to which the academy echoes within the walls of the center” (Boquet, 2002, p. 52). This made me hesitant and ultimately reject the possibility of working at the writing center during the second semester of my doctoral program.

I still had half of my first-semester to go, and I struggled even more. I began to realize I was frequently moody, mostly angry. I began to cry on my drive to campus, during breaks and office hours when I was alone, and again when I stepped inside my apartment. The shift from attending and teaching in a HSI to a PWI took a hefty toll on me during my first year at the PWI. Mostly, I felt loss, an emptiness caused by the disconnect between my identity and my surroundings, as well as facing the reality of how much of myself, of my ties to family and heritage I gave up to be here; I betrayed myself, and it disgusted me. My academic success and accomplishments began to taste more like failure. I also felt somewhat afraid and vulnerable as a woman of color teaching at a PWI; struggling with teaching meant struggling with my values and goals, which represent aspects of my identity.

My heightened sense of struggle and identity, of otherness, as an other of the other, as more American (in the white sense) than Mexican, complicated my new teaching experience, and slowly my passion for teaching composition, first year or otherwise, disappeared that first semester. The conflict of who I was, who I am, who I should be, and who I am told to be led me to believe that composition classes could never be more than sites of hegemony, sites for Standard English. I went from sneaking works by Freire and hooks’ into first-year composition and first-year seminar classes at a HSI—from attempting to theorize about and practice liberatory pedagogies, from thinking about class issues because such pedagogical theories and considerations matched who I was and who my students were (it made sense!)—to attempting to comprehend that I was now at a PWI, where the classrooms are comprised of seas of Apple Inc. products, and where people have time to lay in hammocks or play frisbee in the grassy areas—literally things I had only seen in movies!

Despite the disconnect, I still tried to do the best I could for both my classes each semester, but it didn’t help that discussions of literacy and writing in the curriculum centered on and validated white, middle-class people’s typically positive relationships with and interpretations of the concepts. Nor did it help that the conversations of diversity and difference in the department solely centered on the Other students, not the experiences or struggles of (the single digit number of) POC instructors.

When I reflect on my first year at a PWI, my in-class teaching experiences are notably absent. My reflection steers me to relive the feelings I attributed to what I felt was a colorblind curriculum, the invalidation, that is, that the Grand Equalizer (colorblind ideology) boasts as kindness and respectfulness. Day in and day out, I played into the ideology. I performed whiteness (which to me meant to be emotionally absent from my teaching and learning so that people would not have to see my color) to the best of my ability for my students, peers, and professors, which I’ll admit, is not too hard considering I do not have a colored accent and my skin color, well, is light enough to make people wonder “what I am.” “The more passing I could present myself, the less students would challenge me,” I thought. My evaluations proved it to be true. The times when I said too much, when I was myself were seen as inappropriate. But, it was damaging, you know, especially because I had previously attended and taught at a predominately Hispanic HSI in South Texas, where of course performance of whiteness was still expected to some degree, but the border culture allowed for more opportunity to, as Cruz (2001) states, “[migrate] between First and Third Worlds,” and the students there seemed to appreciate it (p. 660).

Time, painfully, went on. I began my second semester with the baggage and failure of acclimation during my first, still scheduled to teach two classes. Identity was a hot topic in one of my grad comp classes that semester. It was also the topic of most of my counseling sessions. My counselor was a Native American man. He seemed to understand what is like to not be from a “legacy family” of the university, to not have parents who are pharmacists, lawyers, or any other middle-class occupation, to understand what it is to feel like a token minority at a PWI.

Fate intervened again, or perhaps, had mercy. The same position I had rejected at the writing center my first semester was still open. I met with the Director that time. She also seemed nice enough. I was still hesitant, but as the desire to teach first-year composition had fled my body and took along with it my perception of it as a space of possibility, I began to see the writing center as a more accepting space, a space where I “might amplify, even distort, the noise of the academy” (Boquet, 2002, p. 53). Most importantly, I also began to believe that the writing center would not only give me a new space in terms of exploring writing theory and pedagogy, but that it could make room for me.

Contemplando Las Fronteras de Writing Centers

Reflecting on my narrative, I see how I have attributed my struggles at a PWI to identity, but it is equally important to note that it is also a story of space. More specifically a story of the relationship between the mind-heart, body, and space. When I look into a mirror, a phenotype (my body) reflects onto me an identity, and everyday I live (at least) two stories: mine and the one projected onto me by the white gaze; some days, I too am complicit and internalize the white gaze, which pierces, denies, and rips apart my Third Space consciousness (Licona, 2005). I see, in the (dominant) eyes of others, the reflection of me as they see me: a Hispanic, Mexican-American, or Xicana and, hence, not someone with whom to engage.

The white gaze tells and expects me to be different (because I am not white). But not too different (because I am not white). Be myself (which is not white). But not the self (which is not white) that pushes against the status quo and makes whites, and therefore (non-dominant) me, uncomfortable. It asks: do you want to carry the weight of really being you, of having to own and reclaim your culture when Mexicans are “bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some [might be] good people” (Trump, 2015), while simultaneously demanding that I carry it (because I am Mexican) AND leave it behind (because I am also American—and the U.S. kind).

The weight(lessness) of the word culture (my mind-heart) depends on my self-description and identification, but my phenotype determines how the people in the world do or do not engage with me and I with them. My expression of the weight(lessness) of mi cultura también determina, o será mejor decir obstruye, la interacción. ¿Cómo me veo, cómo me oigo cuando hablo y escribo en mi lengua? Es más. ¿Cómo se siente? ¿Cómo sentirme? En mi casa y con mi familia no se siente raro. Ahorita, se siente rebelde. ¡Xicana!

Cultures and identities can be suppressed by spaces; rhetorical spaces can welcome some and push others out. But it is not always that simple. For example, while student retention efforts boast and claim to help college students succeed, many ableist, racist, classists, xenophobic, and/or sexists assumptions and institutional practices are embedded in student success initiatives, under the guise of generosity or altruism, which are a direct cause of student Third Space herida (Anzaldúa, 2012) hemorrhages. La justificación de esta herida dicen many in academia que es required acclimation to the campus and its culture. El cemento y los ladrillos tienen mucho más derecho de reclamar cultura.

Rhetorical spaces can welcome a person’s certain culture and identity while also rejecting a person’s other culture(s) and identities—the denial of the possibility of the Third Space and the severing of the Third Space into only two possibilities. The rhetorical spaces of PWIs are spaces of such violence for students who are not white, middle-class men because it is their cultures, identities, and even phenotypes that are embedded en los ladrillos y el cemento. Y es por eso que algo inanimate is considered to have a more valuable culture than minority students, faculty, and staff. Our funds of knowledge (Moll, Amanti, Neff, & Gonzalez, 1992) are checks not cashed by the PWIs.

Originally, I saw writing centers as merely spaces that echoed such violence and saw the first-year composition classroom as a space that provided room for distorting those echos, because that was true for me at my HSI; they were certainly not spaces that I would consider safe(r). A change in place, moving from TX to OK, did not immediately prompt me to renegotiate the relationship between my mind-heart, body, and space. The overwhelming noises found and echoed in a new space began to drown out the sound of my mind-heart, skewing my understanding of my own identity that I would hardly consider anywhere near complete or wholesome. The rhetorical spaces of the PWI—new department and first-year composition classes amplified echoes of whiteness, which filtered me, the other, out as distortion. One space’s distortion, however, can be a good fit for another’s melody.

Here I am now, a predominantly asexual, Mexican-American, working-class, first-generation college student in a Composition, Rhetoric, and Literacy PhD program at PWI who has worked for a writing center for only 8 months (during the time of the initial draft). Currently, I am the only non-white graduate student in the comp-rhet concentration, and while I would argue that my department did not actively engage in retention efforts, it always automatically engages in retention for specific groups; because white middle-class men and women are not minorities in academia, and are largely the representative body of faculty members, retention efforts for such groups regarding identity development and expression are inherently embedded in institutional practices, admittedly more so for white, middle-class men. In other words, these practices, or lack thereof, are “the default function…of center[ing] the experiences of dominant groups without naming it as such” (as cited in Rodriquez, 2016, p. 66).

Despite the fact that I am the only Mexican-American writing tutor, the writing center is considerably more diverse than my graduate program. Does this diversity make the writing center and/or this PWI a safe(r) space for me? No. One could argue it does the exact opposite as it provides a space where I can openly discuss the continual renegotiation of relationship between my mind-heart, body, and space, and where I can also openly discuss resistance to and possible ways to subvert problematic discourses and practices of exclusion with not only the other tutors, but writers who also need my support beyond writing.

Think back, for example, to my first ever experience with writing centers. Remember my first-year composition instructor that required all his students to not only go to the writing center, but to get a slip to show as proof (or be penalized)? He’s not the only one who engages in such practice nor has it ended. On more than one occasion, I have had writers express that their highest concern was grammar because that was the area their professors marked the most off their grades. I’ve had writers who were required to ask for my signature to show as proof of visiting the writing center. I’ve had writers tell me that if they had more than three grammar issues they’d fail their science papers. I’ve also had a writer express to me that her professor doesn’t like the way she speaks and doesn’t want her to write that way. I’ve had a writer talk to me about feeling harassed by her professor regarding a resume assignment. I’ve had a writer open up to me about being targeted by a racist and discriminatory professor.

As a writing tutor, I listen.

As a writing tutor, I know.

It is a well-documented fact that student writing is reviewed in particular ways[3]. It is also a well-documented fact that grammar doesn’t really mean one thing[4]. None of that is recent, like the abundant scholarship that exists which discusses the racist, sexist, and classist ideologies that inform the way a writer’s work is viewed and the way writing is taught. Having good intentions[5] or meaning well does is not make up for untheorized, uncritical pedagogies; having good intentions or meaning well does not excuse the reproduction of racist, classist, sexist or other oppressive ideologies. There is no substitute for informed, reflexive teaching.

As a writing tutor, I ask.

“What does your professor mean exactly when he/she/ze says ‘grammar?’” “Have you received any specific feedback regarding your grammar?” “What did your professor mean when he/she/ze said _____ to you?” “How do you feel about your writing?” “Would you mind if I speak to either the associate director or director about this?”

As a writing tutor, I share.

“Grammar doesn’t really mean anything. Typically, everyone means something different.” “In terms of grammar, I didn’t see anything too concerning, just the little things we talked about. I would recommend asking your professor to mark specific examples where he/she/ze sees grammatical mistakes.” “I don’t know what your professor means when he/she/ze said _____. That doesn’t make any sense to me.” “English is a difficult language. It’s borrowed from so many others that a lot of the times, the rules contradict each other.” “No. That doesn’t sound okay to me. There’s a website where you can report this incident.” “If you would like to, I am sure the associate director or director would be happy to listen and/or help in more ways than I can.”

Writing doesn’t just happen between pen and paper or during the clicks of the keyboard. It grows out of the renegotiations between one’s mind-heart, body, and space. It is evident in the sheer existence of my reflection that my writing center can be read as a brave(r) space. However, it does not merely exist as one. My writing center exists as a place of possibility for me, a place where I have decided to be brave, purposefully creating a braver space.

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner: The Writing Center as Home

As a Black, lesbian, working class, disabled woman studying in and working at a PWI, I sought a space where I could feel “at home.” A space where white shadows do not fall.[1] I was certain the practice of the writing center would match the “comfortable, iconoclastic places where all students go to get one-to-one tutoring with their writing” (Grutsch-McKinney, 2013, p. 3). However, what I saw were aesthetics (Sofas, refrigerators, coffee pots, plants, painted walls, etc.) all meant to serve those who inhabit the space the most: tutors and faculty. But aesthetics are never merely aesthetics.

Aesthetics are invested with ideas about not only who will populate a space, but also what they will find both pleasing and comfortable. Within this imaginary the dominant culture and its upper middle-class, white ideologies are often hidden in enacted on and inscribed within WC pedagogies that function, by and large, on an autonomous model, which insists “that the dominant literacy is neutral, but… also uses markers of this literacy for political purposes, ranking and sorting people based on features of their texts… in an attempt to maintain their own conventions are superior” (Street, as cited in Grimm, 1999, p. 30). Even Davila (2006), who urges writing centers to become more accepting of students from diverse racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds, positing, “… writing centers need to be aware of the values and ideology inherent in academic discourses and to rewrite the writing center space as a place where students of all races are able to negotiate the difference between their discourses and those of the academy” (p. 2), still suggests a type of assimilation that may be detrimental to students entering the WC from various ethnic, cultural, and racial backgrounds.

Working in a predominately white writing center at a Predominately White Institution in the Midwest, I constantly found myself asking “What is this space?” when hearing other tutors complain about having to work with another international student that “couldn’t speak English,” or when overhearing other tutors dismiss or ignore the suggestions of more experienced tutors of colors. This dismissiveness is a common practice by many white WC scholars who often disregard stories of racism, particularly from their colleagues and students of color, in an attempt to label such racism as a misunderstanding. For example, I have had other white tutors question what knowledge I had to assume I could tell POC that their home language is not respected by the academy because the academy prefers them to write like a white man—linear, direct, point-by-point, and with as little narrative as possible.

I have also had many tutees assume (1) I am the receptionist or (2) that whatever coffee I just made must have been for them. When talking with other white tutors about this raced if not racist response to me, I was often called sensitive, given blank stares, or a metaphorical wag of their fingers suggesting I should drop the issue and move on. However, Denny (2010) argues these responses exposed these scholars did not recognize their “power– agency, authority, gumption– in such moves” (p. 2). These power moves, I argue, are also reflected in the design of Writing Centers at both U.S. Universities and Community Colleges.

When working at another community college in the Midwest, I learned that many instructors had asked the Provost why the WC had so many sofas. The provosts’ response to this question was telling: “they deserve nice things too.” This response is embedded with—and, to some degree, unintentionally so—racist and classicist undertones. Often, race may/can be read through who one presumes has access to money, which would allow one to obtain/buy expensive furniture, appliances, etc. Therefore, following this logic, one can draw several assumptions from the Provost’s’ statement: (1) that whoever is served in the WC is somehow an othered body. After all, who is the “they” of which the provost speaks? (2) that whoever is served in the writing center does not have nice things; (3) that whoever is served in the writing center wants the same nice things as the director, tutor, and provost (in this case); (4) that anyone served in the WC is working-class/poor (the they who deserve these ‘nice’ things).

These classed and raced assumptions are embedded in the Provost’s’ discourse. While both class and race are cultural and geographic, i.e. working class southern white people and northern white people are not the same people even though they may both be of the same economic class. And similarly, the cultural differences can be the same if not more burdensome for working class Blacks with regard to geography and the racial perils that come with being Black in America.

However, the provost’s embedded assumptions, lead one to ask, when the provost notes “they deserve nice things, too,” who is the “they” of which the he speaks? Why does the provost assume “they” do not have nice things? Furthermore, why does the provost assume “they” deserve nice things and want the same nice things as the upper middle-class provost with the upper middle class income? Because community colleges historically serve the working class and the poor, would it not be logical to assume that working class and poor people may have different ideas of comfort and how a comfortable space may look?

I do not suggest a working-class space would be without its on issues. Class is also a cultural performance and to make a working-class space would collapse those various performances and would fall on the same homogenizing discourses that lead to Writing Centers as home and/or comfortable. Identities such as gender, class, race, etc. are inseparable from the individual. As Geller, Eodice, Condon, Carroll, & Boquet (2007) posit, “these dominant images of people of color in the white imagination are operative inside the writing center and that these images can impact how tutors recognize, receive, and respect (or not) one another” (p. 88). As such, it is logical to question the white imagination in the construction of the WC and whether or not POC were envisioned as inhabitants of that same space.

Some of the tutors of color (particularly those who identified as Black or of African descent) in the WC in which I work noticed and felt a similar discomfort of both institutional domination[2] and oppression[3] in this supposedly comfortable, anti-institutional space called the WC. While we worked in a PWI (Predominately White Institution), we were still at a loss at to why our WC employed and served few Black students/clients and I was at a loss as to why our WC seemed to suffer from a severe case of Black flight from our tutors. In other words, why couldn’t the WC retain the tutors of color it employed?

As an emerging WC scholar and researcher, my concerns grew as I listened to my fellow tutors of color openly wonder why there were so few graduate tutors of color on so few of the committees, especially those concerned with race, diversity, and multilingualism. I continuously wondered and questioned whether or not graduate tutors of color were less likely to serve in positions of power in the Predominately White WC? Essentially, we, as tutors of color, often wondered what mess had we gotten into? Who or what made the mess and whom or what was supposed to clean it?

It is through this critiquing of the physical space of the WC as home, comfortable, and anti-institutional that I began to listen intently not only to the discourse of the tutors of color, but the discourse of the tutors of color about this supposed comfortable space. In other words, I wanted to know how, or rather if, the WC space that is meant to be read as home or homelike is a may be embedded with dominant ideologies that could, under the right conditions, create a racialized space that can exclude POC from the WC. This exclusion, I argue, begins with the visual aesthetics: the Aloe plants, soft lighting, pastel colors, earthy tones, etc. one encounters in various writing centers across various PWIs.

Throughout the article we hoped to highlight, that as WOC, Wonderful and I do not share the same voice nor lived experiences. However, there are points in which our lived experiences intersect. I, too, struggle with concepts of home, hospitality, comfort, and even work. As I grew up in poor neighborhoods, as a welfare kid, I didn’t exactly live in homes that most middle-class individuals would consider comfortable, and this is not a judgement. I want to stress that feelings of familiarity, of knowing, and being used to things are a part of what makes spaces feel comfortable and homelike, but I did not grow up in a home surrounded by white middle-class comforts. Las casas en que he vivido tenían paredes blancas, which more often that not had paint chipping away from them, drafty windows, and nothing that resembled a plant would be found inside, plastic or not. All the houses in which I lived were old, worn; they felt inhabited in away that told me that my family was not the first nor only to live there, and as we were migrant farm workers, we would not be the last. Thus, middle-class comforts do not immediately feel comforting to me. In particular, white middle-class spaces typically feel sterile and unused—almost too perfect to me.

And Miles To Go Before We Sleep: Designing a Way Forward

Writing Centers are more than method and site (Boquet, 1999, p. 467). They are more spaces that perform or spaces that are read. Writing Centers are contact zones[6]. Writing Centers tell stories. However, some of the stories the WC tells to POC are another type of story: a lie. These stories are the hidden assumptions that middle class white domestic comforts are neutral and therefore desirable to POC, as well as people from lower classes. Accordingly, there is also the assumption that these bourgeoisie domestic comforts are desirable by POC who are, in fact, middle class. Thus, not only does WC design reflect the middle-class comforts of the dominant culture, it also dismisses the possible different cultural, racial, and ethnic middle-class comforts of POC, essentially rendering them invisible.

The WCs attempts at making itself a home by designing a space also shows a real disconnect from the body. A home is made a home through emotional labor and through acts of love, compassion, empathy. But we ask where is the emotional labor of the WC design? How can one make a home when the people who inhabit it have moderate, at best, and low, at worst, emotional connection to one another? Home brings emotional connotations and how one makes a home is largely dependent on those emotional connections one has to home.

When I came to Writing Centers, I came seeking nothing more a steady paycheck to get me through grad school. When Anna came to writing centers, as a doctoral student, she came seeking a workplace outside FYC. However, our years in the WC made the WC more than a place to work. It became a place of learning, a place of pedagogy, a place of praxis, a place of research. However, for me, it also became a place of racism (the constant inquiry about and workshops on how to fix Black Language writers), of isolation (being Black in a PW WC leaves one feeling like a fly in buttermilk[7]), of anger (at white faces that turn away from me upon my entering the WC), of discontent and disillusionment.

These feelings of isolation and disillusionment working in the WC came from a lack of diverse representations of consultant and staff as well as a heavy leaning on Eurocentric art to convey inclusivity, i.e. pictures of Madea, American Gothic, etc. It is not that these images never reflected inclusivity to us, but that they represented the inclusivity of one particular raced body and its ideologies of inclusive iconography. We claim that writing centers can further their diversity missions is by using images that are not Nationalist, Ethnocentric, or Eurocentric. Therefore, a concerted how consultants and clients view WC images assists us in further diversifying the overall look/image of the WC in a PWI.

Why We Stay: POC in the Writing Center

In terms of retention, our narrative exemplifies the lack of support we felt as both working-class first-composition instructors and as graduate minority students in our departments. As a site of retention, to some degree our writing centers and our institutions have failed us—not through a lack of desire or want to, but through a significant blind spot over ideas of domestic comfort. However, we stay in this space because there is a concerted effort to respond to the needs of clients, consultants, faculty, and staff in the WC. There is a concerted effort to assist students from a myriad of cultures and races to not only understand academic discourse, but also understand how to situate their own discourse patterns within academic discourse. And while we failed to fully acclimate, as a raced body never acclimates to racial erasure or silencing, it is also clear we were actively resisting this acclimation. To not have done so would have erased vital parts of our identity.

This erasure can occur casually, just like racism, take the form, as it did in our cases, of a lack of support for active identity development and expression. But while this erasure occurs casually, blatantly, or subversively, we, as historically marginalized and oppressed bodies, through acts of resistance can expose this subtle erasure and make visible those voices and experiences from the margins. Systemic erasure may never be undone because as one actively resists erasure, the very act(s) of resistance only reconstitutes the very systemic erasure and oppression one wishes to undo. Essentially, by referencing the very ideas, discourses, and practice(s) of racism through acts of resistance, we cannot effectively risk its reification.

However, we assert that not resisting racism, not publicly critiquing the ideologies of racism, not attempting to undo racial/ racist discourses, and not decrying the systemic treacherous practices of racism makes it significantly more insidious.

As such, we need to shift the way in which we orient to Writing Centers, so that WC research may begin to undo the hidden curriculum of the WC by (1) conducting research that focuses on the experiences of historically marginalized bodies working and receiving assistance/services in the WC, (2) by valuing those experiences of POC within a cultural context, and (3) by considering the experiences of POC both valid and measurable (Lindsay-Dennis, 2015, p. 2). By placing these experiences at the forefront of WC research, theory, pedagogy, praxis, and design, we do not necessarily disrupt common educational and WC practices, but we expand and alter those practices by making the experiences of marginalized bodies operating in the writing center the standard by which we theorize, critique, research, and re-envision the writing center as a truly brave-er space.

About the Authors

Wonderful Faison is a PhD candidate at Michigan State University in the Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures program. She specializes in Cultural Rhetorics, paying special attention to African American Language, rhetorics, and Womanist actions are enacted in academic spaces. As a writing center theorist, she also critiques and interrogates how writing center spatial design affects People of Color (POC), as well as how Black Language is used in the writing center space and within writing center consultations.

Anna Treviño is is pursuing a PhD in Composition, Rhetoric, and Literacy at the University of Oklahoma. Her primary research interest is the intersection of the politics of education and identity, and focuses on the dynamic relationships between the writing and literacy experiences of marginalized students and space (writing centers, first-year composition, and the First-Year Experience).

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  1. The U.S. Department of Education (2016) defines a HSI as having “an enrollment of undergraduate full-time equivalent students that is at least 25 percent Hispanic student.” Thus, a HSI can still be a PWI, but this was not the case for this institution.
  2. See Connors (1981) for more about the essay sequence based on teaching the modes of writing as independent of each other—and exposition, description, narrative, and argumentation.
  3. See Williams (1981)
  4. See Hartwell (1985)
  5. See Grimm (1999)
  6. social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power, such as colonialism, slavery, or their aftermaths as they are lived out in many parts of the world today.” (Pratt, 1991, p. 34)
  7. Baldwin, James. Fly in the buttermilk
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