Social Justice in the Writing Center

Bridget Draxler

Earlier this year, my small, Midwestern liberal arts college was on the front page of Inside Higher Ed after renaming an art building that bore the name of a late faculty member found to have committed repeated sexual misconduct. “Sometimes the darkest and most brilliant aspects of a college’s history are embodied in the same person,” the author notes, an observation that resonates as I grapple with simultaneous pride and sadness for my institution, which is also my alma mater (Flaherty 2017).

My Journey to the Writing Center

Being back at St. Olaf as director of the Writing Desk is unexpected, to say the least. But the journey here is so deeply entwined with my approach to making the Writing Center a “brave space” that I want to begin with a bit of personal history.

When I was a student at St. Olaf, I wasn’t a writing tutor–in fact, I didn’t even know that we had a Writing Center on campus. But as an undergraduate, I was confronting, for the first time, a morally complex world where there were no easy answers. Instead of facing these issues on the front of buildings, though, I was finding them in books. As a result, I was much more interested in reading than writing, and I devoured Rousseau, Descartes, and Voltaire. I became an English major because I believed in the power of books to transform their readers. I believed that reading was how you made sense of this complex world, and most importantly, how you learned empathy. But at the time, it was all abstract and theoretical, tied up in old books, dead thinkers, and hypothetical scenarios.

This philosophy of reading drew me to graduate school in eighteenth-century British literature, but also left me somewhat alienated once I got there. I ended up pursuing a career rooted in civic engagement, as a public scholar and community-engaged teacher committed to bringing historical literature into my local community. I curated a local museum exhibit on British women writers, had students write and perform original stage adaptations of Gothic literature for a children’s Halloween event, and hosted community reading groups at local public libraries co-facilitated by my students.

When I went on the job market, I faced the conundrum that you might imagine anyone with a PhD in eighteenth-century British literature might face: big pool, few jobs… you do the math. In addition, I narrowed my opportunities further because, as someone deeply invested in community, I also felt committed to returning to a liberal arts college in the Midwest. And the more I became involved with public scholarship and teaching, the less devoted I felt to eighteenth-century studies altogether. The stars seemed to align for me when I was hired for a tenure-track job at a small college in Illinois to develop cross-curricular support programs that would draw on my background in civic engagement. There was just one problem: because, at small schools especially, faculty wear many hats, this job also included running a Writing Center. I had never stepped foot in a Writing Center.

I mentioned during the interview that the small percentage of the job allocated to directing the Writing Center wasn’t a particular interest of mine, and I’d be happy to pass those responsibilities off (as I heard might be possible) to the staff person in charge of academic support. But when I arrived on the job the following fall, and faced my twenty peer tutors, I had a lightningbolt realization that I had come home.

The philosophies of civic engagement that resonate most with me–creating reciprocity and mutual benefit through collaborative work that empowers all participants, working with rather than for community partners, focusing on the process over the product, building relationships above executing projects, supporting grassroots efforts to make social change through active listening and radical empathy–these were the same values I saw driving the Writing Center (Scobey 2011, Jay 2010, DelliCarpini 2010, McTighe Musil 2003). I didn’t come to run a Writing Center out of a love for writing directly, then, but out of a commitment to social justice, and a belief in the written word as a means to make change. The intellectual generosity I have found in my professional networks have only strengthened my belief in writing centers as deeply supportive communities committed to the greater good. When I applied for the position at St. Olaf, which still includes several hats but is primarily focused on running the Writing Center, my vision was to train peer tutors to support their peers as writers, but more importantly to perform critical acts of empathy.[1]

Educating Tutors about Social Justice in the Writing Center

At a liberal arts college, with a Writing Center staffed entirely by undergraduate peer tutors, I see my primary role as supporting and educating my tutors. If I mentor them effectively, good writing tutoring will follow–but almost as a happy byproduct. So for me, tutor training is my most important task.

Most of my training syllabus looks like any training syllabus: we read Brooks and Carino to talk about directive and nondirective strategies, we learn about looking for patterns of error with lower order concerns, and this past fall, our inner citation nerds reveled in a session on the new MLA style.

But, I work hard to include, as much as I can, a bigger picture perspective of the work we do as ethical, political, and radical. For example, we have sessions focused on the politics of listening, where we talk about the ways that listening is gendered and racialized, and the ways that rhetorical listening (Ratcliffe 1999) allows us to affirm various intersectional identities of writers. To a student who may usually find themselves in the position of a listener, our listening itself can be an act of empowerment. We have a session where tutors complete a reading survey, then think about the preconceived judgments they carry about writers whose reading practices differ from their own. What factors might prevent a student from practicing the reading strategies we assume are most effective? We talk about the privilege inherent in these habits, rather than framing them only as issues of merit, self-discipline, and work ethic.

When we talk about working with writers who want “grammar help,” we frame that question within the more complex negotiation tutors make between the conflicting desire to help a student gain cultural capital through the rules of Standard American English without silencing their voice. When we talk about “sticky scenarios,” I have tutors role-play the situation they fear the most (a student who cries, gets angry, flirts, plagiarizes, or is determined to have the tutor do all the work)–but instead of playing the tutor, they play the writer, and get in the shoes of the person they fear working with most.

In a session I call tutors as writers, tutors use creative non-fiction as a way to think more reflectively about their tutoring practice and more compassionately about their (and others’) developing identities as writers.[2] We have a series on vocation, where tutors situate their tutoring experience on their larger career path, but also within their larger sense of purpose and meaning in life and their social conscience.

The Tendency Toward Avoidance

Recently, I read “Theory In/To Practice: Addressing the Everyday Language of Oppression in the Writing Center” (2011),[3] an article in which authors Mandy Suhr-Sytsma and Shan-Estelle Brown create a heuristic to talk about how language can perpetuate oppression, and how tutors can challenge oppression through attention to language.

Using this article to develop a training session on the language of oppression in the Writing Center, I first asked the tutors where they are from, and how that informs what they notice or fail to notice in terms of oppressive language. For instance, one tutor talked about how he grew up ignorant of educational privilege, despite living in a community that was racially and economically diverse. Another tutor’s mother was an immigrant whose accent opened doors for her, which made the tutor uncomfortably conscientious of other immigrant groups in her community whose accents closed doors. One tutor grew up in south Chicago thinking oppression was the norm, while another grew up in a Minneapolis suburb thinking oppression was in the past. Starting by naming both our own privileges and our own experiences of oppression, where we are sensitive to systemic oppression and where we are blind to it, immediately laid the groundwork to acknowledge the diversity of our staff and our common fallibilities, knowing we all have particular issues that hit home for us, and issues we need to work on recognizing.

Then, we talked more specifically about the language of oppression that we see on our campus, and in our tutoring sessions. One tutor talked about the importance of giving students a vocabulary for what they are talking about, because sometimes they dance around an issue without calling it what it is–and sometimes it is because they don’t know what to call something like “racist cultural appropriation.”

The training took place the day after Angela Davis was on our campus, and it picked up on the energy and nuance from the evening before; we were able to talk about misogyny not just in an abstract sense, but in understanding difference between getting women into leadership roles versus transforming our understanding of leadership.

One common theme we noticed was avoidance–in a well-intentioned effort not to offend, writers sometimes avoid saying anything controversial. In papers that seem to cry out for attention to issues of race or class or privilege, the tutors lamented, writers would politely abstain.

However, when we started talking about how we respond to these situations, this theme of avoidance showed up continuously. For example, when we treat the singular they as a way to avoid clunky language rather than a way to be inclusive, or make assumptions about groups of people as an issue purely of logic rather than of social justice, we are relying on a system of avoidance too–and sometimes, we miss an opportunity. The article we used advocates for a mixture of direct and indirect approaches, but I wanted the tutors to see that the stakes of this choice are high. They weighed carefully the pros and cons of when to frame these issues as pure writing issues and when to bring up bigger issues like implicit prejudice or unintentional racism.

One tutor worked with a student who praised a female character who discovered that she “didn’t have to be ‘just’ a stay at home mom”: a comment the writer meant to be empowering for women, but that the tutor found belittling because her own mom had stayed home to raise her and her siblings. That one small word–“just”–was easy for her to critique as an unnecessary modifier. But she made, what I think, is a brave choice: she told the writer about her mom, putting them both in a vulnerable position by acknowledging the hurt feelings of a real reader.

Another tutor talked about a session with a vocally conservative student writing against political correctness, helping him to draw out a more sophisticated position that recognizes there is no universal politically correct language because every individual is unique. She helped the writer to frame an argument that was more nuanced, more attentive to audience–and ultimately more compassionate.

The theme of avoidance is a resonant one for me too. Growing up in a homogenous, underprivileged rural community, I didn’t have the experiences or vocabulary to enact the ideals that I read about in books during college. Even in my first few years of teaching, I avoided talking about difference–purportedly as a form of well-intentioned colorblindness, but in reality because I was (and am still) deeply uncomfortable having conversations about injustice and prejudice. As a white woman, I felt I had no place to lead conversations like this one, and frankly, I didn’t know how. I was terribly afraid of saying the wrong thing or using the wrong word. Avoidance was, in my mind, my only chance of giving students a safe space.

But the longer I have taught, the more committed I have become to having these conversations with my tutors, precisely because these issues are ones I’m grappling with myself. I want to give them space to talk, because I need space to figure it out too. I am learning, I still make mistakes; I am upfront with my tutors that my motives for including social justice topics in our training are rooted in my own fallibility. That’s why I like the idea of a brave space rather than a safe space. I still have a lot of work to do before “safe” means something different from “avoidance;” but if we’re all willing to be patient with one another, and willing to be brave enough to ask questions of each other, I think we can make our community of tutors—and our writing centers—brave spaces.

This particular training was a meaningful one, but a difficult one. I had tutors wanting to process things afterwards, not just professionally but personally. I want to have conversations like this one, but I am also constantly asking myself if the tutors want them too, and looking for signs of the tutors taking ownership of this philosophy. I can talk all day about how writing tutoring is inherently an act of social justice, but in the end, I want the tutors to take on this opportunity—and responsibility—for themselves.

Tutor Voices: Analyzing Surveys

When I surveyed the tutors about their training experiences, I explicitly asked if they saw their work as a form of social justice, and their responses went beyond the issues we addressed together. For instance, one tutor wrote:

Because we are working with writing, that is both a powerful tool and a form of self-expression, we are constantly engaging with deeply personal works, no matter what the subject matter is. Helping students to articulate their thoughts and understand how their thoughts are perceived by others I think can be an extremely productive form of social justice… the words on the page are, in a sense, an extension of who they are.

Other tutors described their role as being a “bridge and ally” or “advocate,” “helping to strengthen the voices of those who don’t feel heard,” and giving writers “a space where individual voices can be heard without… judgment and expectations.” Many of them talked about how their work as tutors contributed to their own empathy and understanding for others, renewing or deepening their commitment to social justice. “I think I’ve had a shift in priorities,” wrote one tutor, “which has led to a shift in practice.”

This semester, my tutors presented research at a regional writing center conference on the topic of social justice in the writing center, in presentations that ranged from exploring how their personal commitments to feminism and intersectionality play out in their tutoring practice, to questioning how we can give writers access to standard written English without endorsing it. One tutor, Sarah Gruidl, researched how post-process theory as writing center praxis can give us a vocabulary to name inclusive tutoring strategies (Gruidl 2017). She articulated a developmental model of tutor training that requires substantial, reflective experience to cultivate; her argument has become part of how I justify hiring first-year students with potential over seasoned upperclassmen for tutoring positions, knowing tutors need months or years to develop a flexible, praxis-based, and contextually sensitive approach. It has also given me a way to talk with new tutors about being patient with themselves as they learn to navigate a complex role shaped by its fundamental, in Gruidl’s words, “in-betweenness.”[4]

My tutors also coordinated a strike for International Women’s Day, and grappled with how to both make a statement and maintain writing support for the writers, especially women, who were relying on us that day. When students on our campus boycotted classes to stage a sit-in, in response to a series of anonymous threats against students of color on our campus, the tutors had a thoughtful, open email conversation about whether the Writing Desk could support their peers best by relocating our services to the administrative building where the sit-in was taking place or by participating in the boycott. After a thoughtful discussion via email over several days, they chose the latter, with my full support–but the decision was theirs and theirs alone. The ownership these tutors have taken at the Writing Desk inspires and humbles me.

The mantra of our writing center, like so many others, is better writers, not just better papers. But this activist approach to tutoring lets us think about making better people, not just better writers. My tutors want to be politically active and they want to promote social justice, and they crave outlets to do that. I do too. My college is trying to be a brave space right now by changing the name of an art building, and that’s a big splashy change. I want them to know that writing tutoring is a smaller, sometimes more invisible, but critically important way to promote civil discourse and social justice, by doing something we do already: talking about the nuance of language in a one-on-one setting with students built on a relationship of openness, respect, and trust. We don’t often make front page news, but we are uniquely positioned to have difficult conversations about language, which give us our own unique opportunities to be brave.

Works Cited

Barnard, I. (2014). Upsetting composition commonplaces. UT: Utah State University Press.

DelliCarpini, D. (2010). Coming down from the ivory tower: writing programs’ role in advocating public scholarship. In S. K. Rose & I. Weiser (Eds.), Going public: the WPA as advocate for engagement (pp. 193-215). Colorado: University Press of Colorado, Urban Institute.

Flaherty, C. (2017, March 15). Confronting light and dark: how St. Olaf decided to scrub the name of a revered late professor recently accused of sexual misconduct from his namesake building. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/03/15/how-st-olaf-scrubbed-building-name-revered-professor-accused-sexual-misconduct

Gruidl, S. (2017). The writing center as a place of composition praxis [handout]. Northfield, MN: St. Olaf College.

Jay, G. (2010). The engaged humanities: principles and practices for public scholarship and teaching. Journal of Community Engagement and Scholarship, 3(1), 51-63.

Lape, N. (2008). Training tutors in emotional intelligence: toward a pedagogy of empathy. The Writing Lab Newsletter, 33(2), 1-6.

McTighe Musil, C. (Spring 2003). Educating for citizenship. PeerReview, 4-8.

Ratcliffe, K. (1999). Rhetorical listening: a trope for interpretive invention and a “code of cross-cultural conduct.” College Composition and Communication, 51(2), 195-224.

Scobey, D. (2011, September 21). Civic engagement and the copernican moment. Paper presented at the annual meeting of Imagining America, Minneapolis, MN.

Suhr-Sytsma, M., & Brown, S. E. (2011). Theory in/to practice: addressing the everyday language of oppression in the writing center. Writing Center Journal, 31(2), 13-49.

  1. I am neither the first nor only person to find service learning as a model for empathy in the writing center; for instance, see Lape (2008). Thank you to one of my writing tutors, Katie Bickley, for this reference.
  2. Thank you to Caroline Ledeboer for this assignment idea.
  3. An excellent recommendation from Carol Hayes (George Washington University) on the [wcenter] listserv.
  4. Thank you to the editors of this volume for calling my attention to Ian Barnard’s 2014 Upsetting Composition Commonplaces, and particularly the chapter on “Ethnographies” where he advocates citing and analyzing student work with the professional respect it deserves (pp. 94-95).
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