Gentle Excavations: Mindfully Shifting to an Explicitly Antiracist Writing Center

Kristi Girdharry, Babson College

Abstract

This reflection offers an example of how one Writing Center director decided to approach antiracism through practices of mindfulness. Rather than a “how-to guide,” it encourages practitioners to think about what would work best for their contexts and offers a couple flexible activities one could adapt for their center at any given time.

Keywords: antiracismmindfulness

On June 19, 2020, Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts observed Juneteenth for the very first time in its 100-year history. There was music, guest speakers, and about 300 virtual attendees who not only listened but also participated in challenging break-out discussions. Although I had only been hired as the Director of the Writing Center for less than a year at the time, I could tell it was an important historic moment for the Babson community, and it further cemented my commitment to ensuring that our Writing Center be an explicitly antiracist space on campus. 

Essentially, like many of us have felt over the course of 2020, it was another one of those “What can I do?” moments, and it felt incredibly urgent. With so much feeling out of my control and so much energy going towards immediate concerns over funding and safety, I turned to practices of mindfulness to ground the clouds of thought that were continually generating questions of what and how. I turned to breathing and writing, eventually making lists of the steps I could take: review the literature, talk to colleagues, survey my staff’s interest in pursuing this work with me, and reflect on my own position and motivations. For each task on the list, I broke it down into smaller steps I could take, realizing that, while the exigence was there, it didn’t have to happen in a day. 

That’s when it hit me: perhaps mindfulness could be the key. When hearing the word mindfulness, one might imagine a practice of “clearing your mind”; however, rather than pushing thoughts away, the goal of mindfulness is to be fully present—to be fully aware of one’s thoughts, feelings, and sensations of the body. This can be difficult, especially when experiencing difficult emotions, but our bodies are built with internal rhythms to help us relax and reduce spikes in cortisol (the stress hormone). Certainly, tools like guided meditation and movement can help when we cannot focus, but mindfulness offers something much simpler and accessible: slowing down and allowing space for your mind and body to connect, which could involve taking three intentional breaths or pausing for a few minutes to notice the sound outside your window. Mindfulness involves an intention and a goal to self-regulate—to honor one’s embodied thoughts and feelings before acting.

Theories and practices of mindfulness complement many of the tenets of writing center work in important ways regarding student emotion (see Johnson, 2018; Kervin & Barrett, 2018), mentoring current tutors (see Concannon et al., 2020; Mack & Hupp, 2017), and training new tutors (see Emmelhainz, 2020; Featherstone, Barrett, & Chandler, 2019; Godbee, Ozias, & Tang, 2015). Although the scholarship cited here paints a picture of something relatively new, we understand that contemplative practices have been a part of human existence for millennia. In times of trouble, it is not uncommon for a person to deeply reflect on a situation whether through breathing, meditation, prayer, writing, or other modes of thought. 

Similarly, a review of the literature may suggest that attention paid to writing centers and antiracism is relatively new (see especially the International Writing Centers Association’s antiracism annotated bibliography prepared by Godbee, Olson, & the SIG Collective, 2014) though we’ve long known in this field that the same systems that have allowed writing centers to flourish are some of the very same systems that perpetuate oppression. As a POC, I have had to think about my own complacency in such systems and consider how I can do better. Can we have a “cathartic repudiation of white supremacy” at Babson (Coenen et al., 2019)? How do I embrace the “willingness to be disturbed” (Diab et. al, 2013)? What informs an explicitly antiracist center? Given this topic explicitly centers around bodies, and thoughts and emotions associated with bodies, a potential entrance into this conversation could start from within our own bodies.

In their article “Reflections on/of Embodiment: Bringing Our Whole Selves to Class,” Trixie Smith et al. (2017) explain that embodiment scholarship “works to continually remind readers, writers, researchers, and pedagogues that bodies matter to the paradigms, perspectives, relations, and decisions one has in a given situation” (p. 46). Like with teaching—and perhaps even more given the interpersonal proximity and less hierarchical relationship—tutoring professionals cannot separate the mind from the body in this work. Since bodies feel and then act on those emotions, it is important to reiterate Micciche’s (2007) argument that bodies do emotions; emotions do not just happen. Moreover, Micciche (2002) reminds us that writing projects are “a training ground for emotional dispositions that coincide with gender, race, class, and other locations in the social structure” (p. 438). In essence, writing tutors are always engaging in an emotional space when collaborating with students, which has only furthered my thinking that perhaps mindfulness could be a way to honor our emotions and work together through both the joys and difficulties. As Christie I. Wenger (2020) writes in her chapter on mindfulness from The Things We Carry: Strategies for Recognizing and Negotiating Emotional Labor in Writing Program Administration, “Mindfulness helps develop resilience because it emphasizes agency; we practice mindfulness to cultivate resilience as a rhetorical choice and action in collective and communal networks” (p. 262).

While I’m certainly not the first to do so, I do find an emphasis on embodiment and mindfulness to be a radical move for our writing center, which I view as a fruitful place for social justice work for reasons articulated by Laura Greenfield (2019) given the ways we are able to question ideas of power, negotiate identities and experiences, and have meaningful engagements wherein we recognize, particularly when working with multilingual students, that “we all stand in some kind of relationship to each other—indeed that our experiences are mutually constituted—but that our experiences differ because we are positioned differently within the systems of power in which we all operate (globally and locally)” (p. 123). That being said, I do think this is easier said than done and that we need more spaces that allow for students and administrators to start from within.   

In Integrating Mindfulness into Anti-Oppression Pedagogy: Social Justice in Higher Education, Beth Berila (2016) discusses the necessity for embodying knowledge. She writes, “One can be an expert on the sociopolitical factors that cause something to happen and still not know how it manifests deep in one’s body or why it produces certain responses in others” (p. 45). In order to undo systemic issues, we need both knowledge and presence; we need both body and mind. We can read articles from scholars like Romeo Garcia (2017) and Asao B. Inoue (2016); we can try to understand the “new racism” that scholars like Laura Greenfield and Karen Rowan (2011) have put forth for us; but how do we embody the work especially as non-BIPOCs? Could, as Berila suggests, we make room to excavate ourselves in order to begin to recognize the power dynamics that we benefit from or that sustain our oppression? I started developing a way to do just that—to help our students look inward, perhaps uncomfortably, at the self in relation to our larger goals and communities. 

This ongoing project draws from practices of mindfulness to engage tutors and students in more-holistic approaches to antiracism in the writing center. It’s based on the idea that shifting a culture takes time, and I share its goals here now—in the middle of it all—not to showcase the findings of such a project but to perhaps inspire those who, like I had been, just aren’t sure where to start (particularly of the mind that we already try to design writing centers to be some of the most welcoming, most inclusive spaces). What are some small, concrete steps we could take based on the contexts of our own centers given the constraints of a global pandemic? 

As we weren’t building an antiracist center from the ground up, my first step was to get a sense of how my writing consultants viewed race in the Writing Center. When creating the fall schedule, in addition to the typical questions I ask about preferences for hours and if they’d be interested in visiting first-year writing classrooms, I asked consultants to freewrite on a few questions relevant to Fall 2020. Here are the instructions and questions I gave:

Please freewrite on the following questions for 2-3 minutes each. With freewriting, I want you to just jot down what comes to your mind—no need to worry about spelling, grammar, or getting it “perfect”; rather, I just want to get a sense of where your head is at before we start working together this fall. Please set a timer so that you don’t spend too much time on this! That being said, if you feel particularly compelled to keep writing, that is fine with me.  

  1. Mental: How are you feeling about working with students online? Do you have any concerns?
  2. Physical: How are you feeling about the return to campus? How do you plan on staying well?
  3. Social: This has been an extraordinary time in our histories for various environmental, political, and social reasons and has given rise to many demonstrations and conversations specifically regarding race in our country. What role, if any, do you feel race plays in the Writing Center and/or your tutoring?

The answers to the social question elicited some very thoughtful responses as one might imagine when thinking of their own thoughtful consultants, and, as suspected, there seemed to be a spectrum of students who were clearly interested in talking more and some who weren’t sure what to say. With Berila’s idea of embodying knowledge for social justice in mind, I planned to have consultants look inward by examining their own thoughts on race before moving our way to examining the larger forces at work within our institutional context. I had my first decision to make: do I fold this work into our regularly scheduled staff meetings, or should this be a separate series of workshops? As no one was studying abroad or otherwise taking time away from the Writing Center, I had already decided that having more small-group staff meetings for our much larger staff would be helpful in keeping a sense of community and giving everyone the space to speak, and I took my own advice to start small. When creating our small groups that would meet every other week to talk about tutoring, I asked for preferences on foci, which included antiracism, marketing, and online tutoring strategies. 

We had a core group of students who wanted to talk about antiracism and the Writing Center, and I figured we could co-construct ways to talk about race on a larger level with the whole staff eventually. Inspired by the article “Talking Justice: The Role of Antiracism in the Writing Center” (Coenen et al., 2019), I recreated a version of an activity from the antiracist workshop the authors described. I asked my consultants to freewrite on when they first became aware of race as a concept. After the time was up, I then asked that everyone turn their writing into a six-word story (or thereabouts) that we would share anonymously. In the workshop described by Coenen et. al (2019), participants wrote their six-word stories anonymously on sticky notes, which were stuck along the walls of the room; participants then walked around the room and responded to the stories, again anonymously with sticky notes, before having a larger conversation.   

Given our online environment, I used Pinup, a free online sticky note generator that allowed participants to be anonymous. Each participant typed their story onto their own individual sticky note. Then I let them comment on each other’s posts by simply typing below the original story. With permission, here are some of the stories we shared:

  • always there, felt ugly and foreign
  • Race has not been a discussion
  • Making our wii tennis “mii” characters
  • Show-and-tell, kindergarten, otherwise not much discussion
  • Brown things are brown unless it is skin, then it is black
  • All my prettiest Barbies were white.

Again, imagining your own consultants, you might have a sense of how compassionate they were with one another’s words and how much thought these short, gentle excavations could reveal when we started thinking about them more deeply. While my intention was to simply talk about what we noticed overall, some students took ownership over their stories—“Okay, that one was mine”—and generously answered questions.  

As my main goal for this project is to start by meeting consultants where they are in terms of their discomfort with looking inward and gently excavating to better understand the larger systems of oppression that most likely benefit the majority of our staff and students, my expected goal is for all individuals involved with the Writing Center to take one small step forward in being mindful of their current contexts. To meet this goal, we’ll continue integrating writing and discussion activities to investigate the role that race plays in writing and interpersonal communication. Although we do need staff meeting time to talk about tutoring, I have to prioritize these types of discussions to slowly shift the culture of students currently working there. 

The end goal is to gently excavate our embodied experiences surrounding social justice issues in order to challenge our own practices while potentially also implementing more structural shifts in our center. I see this happening on three levels to start—in our ongoing professional development (staff meetings) for current tutors, in our sessions with students, and in our training for new tutors—though I could see this being of interest to those beyond the center’s immediate reach. In addition to the steps outlined above for current consultants, for students coming in to work on writing assignments, another goal will be to see if a mindful turn inward to thinking of self (i.e. excavating on the fly) will complement their writing processes especially as we see an increase in assignments grounded in social justice. Based on what we learn from our consultants and students, we should eventually be in position to implement changes into the tutor-training practicum—a full semester, advanced course—thus developing an antiracist curriculum that comes from the ongoing experiences of those living and working within the context of our institution as opposed to assuming a one-size-fits-all approach. As a team, we will keep reading, writing, discussing, and excavating in order to develop the kind of center that continually looks in and mindfully builds out.

References

Berila, B. (2016). Integrating mindfulness into anti-oppression pedagogy: Social justice in higher education. Routledge.

Coenen, H., Folarin, F., Tinsley, N., & Wright, L. E. (2019). Talking justice: The role of antiracism in the writing center. Praxis: A Writing Center Journal, 16(2). 

Concannon, K., Morris, J., Chavannes, N. I., & Diaz, V. (2020). Cultivating emotional wellness and self-care through mindful mentorship in the writing center. WLN: A Journal of Writing Center Scholarship, 44(5-6).

Diab, R., Ferrel, T., Godbee, B., & Simpkins, N. (2013). Making commitments to racial justice actionable. Across the Disciplines 10(3). 

Emmelhainz, N. (2020). Tutoring begins with breath: Guided meditation and its effects on writing consultant training. WLN: A Journal of Writing Center Scholarship, 44(5-6).

Featherstone, J., Barrett, R., & Chandler, M. (2019). The mindful tutor: How we teach writing tutors. In Johnson, K.G., & Roggenbuck, T. How we teach writing tutors: A WLN digital edited collection.

García, R. (2017). Unmaking gringo-centers. The Writing Center Journal, 36(1), 29–60. 

Godbee, B., Ozias, M., & Kar Tang, J. (2015). Body + power + justice: Movement-based workshops for critical tutor education. The Writing Center Journal, 34(2), 61–112.

Greenfield, L. (2019). Radical writing center praxis: A paradigm for ethical political engagement. Utah State University Press. 

Greenfield, L. & Rowan, K. (2011). Writing centers and the new racism: A call for sustainable dialogue and change. Utah State University Press.

Inoue, A. B. (2017) Afterword: Narratives that determine writers and social justice writing center work. Praxis: A Writing Center Journal, 14(1). 

Johnson, S. (2018). Mindful tutors, embodied writers: Positioning mindfulness meditation as a writing strategy to optimize cognitive load and potentialize writing center tutors’ supportive roles. Praxis: A Writing Center Journal, 15(2).

Kervin, C. E, & Barrett, H. E. (2018). Emotional management over time management: Using Mindfulness to Address Student Procrastination. WLN: A Journal of Writing Center Scholarship, 42(9-10).

Mack, E., & Hupp, K. (2017). Mindfulness in the writing center: A total encounter. Praxis: A Writing Center Journal, 14(2). 

Micciche, L.R. (2007). Doing emotion: Rhetoric, writing, teaching. Heinemann.

Micciche, L.R. (2002). More than a feeling: disappointment and WPA work. College English 64(4): 432–458. 

Smith, T., Manthey, K., Gagnon, J., Choffel, E., Faison, W., Secrist, S., & Bratta, P. (2017). Reflections on/of embodiment: Bringing our whole selves to class. Feminist Teacher, 28(1). 

Wenger, Christie I. (2020). Navigating WPA emotional labor with mindfulness: Practical strategies for well-being. In C.A. Wooten, J. Babb, K. M. Costello, & K. Navickas (Eds.), The things we carry: Strategies for recognizing and negotiating emotional labor in writing program administration (pp. 251-269). Utah State University Press.

http://thepeerreview-iwca.org