Burn the House Down: Deconstructing the Writing Center as Cozy Home

Eric C. Camarillo

Introduction

In her identification of the writing center grand narrative, Grutsch McKinney (2013) analyzes writing centers as physical spaces. She posits, “writing can happen anywhere, but writing center work implies a set location” (20). As a physical space, then, a writing center must be inviting and warm and un-intimidating to students. However, the neutral rhetoric writing centers use often cloaks their true purpose, which is to get students’ writing to align with an academic standard, which is a problematic goal if part of the grand narrative is to provide a cozy place. That is, these two goals, one to welcome and one to correct, are incompatible without some larger framework. Elbow (2011), in his attempt to invite the “mother tongue” into his English classroom, notes, “if the words that come naturally to our mouth or pen are labeled wrong, we feel ourselves to have a problem” (642). Similarly, while writers may welcome various dialects of English into their spaces, the ultimate goal is usually conformity with standard written English.

This positionality of the writing center is problematic because the purpose and mission of writing centers is not engaged in a critical manner in terms of a larger framework. What results, then, is writing center praxis that actively oppresses writers who come from different discourses: “the ‘exchange’ is hegemonically constructed when dominance is called a service; in accepting the service (in this case, instruction in ‘good writing’), the oppressed consent to their own domination” (Bawarshi and Pelkowski, 1999, 51). Critically engaging with and challenging the cultural assumptions behind this exchange is one way to create a less oppressive, more welcoming writing center. Bawarshi and Pelkowski (1999), in “Postcolonialism and the Idea of a Writing Center,” offer the cultivation of a “mestiza consciousness—a consciousness marked by the ability to negotiate multiple, even contradictory, subject positions while rooted in the dominant discourse” as a solution (52). Their goal is to help students understand their experiences as they are acculturated into academic discourse rather than mindlessly accepting the superiority of a single form of communication. This critical questioning is also a key feature of cultivating antiracist writing assessment ecologies.

Utilizing Asao Inoue’s (2015) ecological theory can give writing centers the framework they need to get a better sense of how they welcome or un-welcome students. In his work, Antiracist Writing Assessment Ecologies: Teaching and Assessing Writing for a Socially Just Future, Inoue provides readers with seven inter-being ecological elements: power, products, purpose, process, parts, people, and places. The last two layers are of particular importance. Inoue states, “Occupation, in fact, constructs places through an association with the bodies that rest in those places” (160). That is, a place can be defined by the kind of people who go there, and people can be defined by the places they go. Inoue positions places as central to the idea of ecological theory because “they inter-are the entire system” (159). In this way, writing center administrators can see the role the writing center as a physical place plays in welcoming (or not welcoming) students. Additionally, focusing on the ecologies of writing centers allows administrators and other staff members to define, articulate, and potentially modify, the implicit functions of a writing center.

This article explores, through an antiracist ecological lens, the challenges writing centers face when creating a welcoming place for all students. This paper has two goals: to problematize the notion of a cozy home as it relates to writing centers and to offer ideas on how writing centers can burn the house down, so to speak, before discussing strategies for making this home more equitable and authentically welcoming. While the article uses Inoue (2015) and Grimm (2011) to set up a theoretical framework, it uses Romeo Garcia’s (2017) work on “Unmaking Gringo-Centers” to articulate some concrete steps writing centers can take. Some writing center scholars have already laid the kindling, and the article will draw on their wisdom in deconstructing what it means to make a writing center “cozy” and, therefore, welcoming.

Burning the House

The problem with “cozy” is that, in writing centers, the word comes loaded with cultural assumptions. As Grutsch McKinney notes, “one problem is the fact that homes are culturally marked. If a writing center is a home, whose home is it? Mine? Yours? For whom is it comfortable?” (25). If we think of the writing center as an actual home, then it seems it should be cozy for the people who “live” there: the writing center staff. Yet, Grutsch McKinney identifies how welcoming the people who work at a writing center is not the same as welcoming a broader university student population. She claims, “Like it or not, when we fill our writing centers with touches of home, we may be marking it as familiar and comfortable for directors and tutors, are often…of a certain class (upper or middle class) and cultural background (white American)” (25). Garcia puts it more bluntly: “Let me remind you, [the writing center] has been historically, culturally, and rhetorically marked by whiteness and white culture. For me, the writing center is neither my safe space nor my home” (48). As our campuses become increasingly diverse both in terms of class and race/ethnicity, then relying on these cultural markers may no longer be sufficient ways in which to welcome students.

It follows that, while we overtly invite students in, our underlying goal might be considered at odds with this welcoming attitude. Grimm (1996) in “The Regulatory Role of the Writing Center,” asserts “that literacy practices reproduce the social order and regulate access and subjectivity” (5). She offers a brief history of writing centers, noting that they were designed to “deal with” students who had not typically been a part of the fabric of a university (6). While she remarks how writing centers have shifted from their original remedial models to more contemporary notions of writing center work, she also highlights the contradictory nature of that work. Specifically, she asserts, “When we teach literacy, we want students to think independently and critically, but we also want them to present their thinking in culturally accepted forms of academic discourse” (6). We want students, then, to develop and write in their own voice, but only if it’s the right kind of voice. Writing centers may try to create welcoming spaces, but this sense of welcome is somewhat undone by the activities that occur in that space. Namely, Grimm argues that “writing centers correct, measure, and supervise abnormal writers in order to meet the standards set by the institution. Because power circulates in the normalized writing practices of the institution, it cannot be challenged” (7). Without the ability to challenge the standard discourse, students will always be oppressed by the regulatory function that writing centers fulfill—even as writing center staff attempt to make their centers more homey.

Furthermore, the notion of an “ideal” standard of language is problematic. If there is a standard or ideal dialect of English, that means there are subaltern, alternative, and inferior versions of it. Greenfield (2011), in her “The ‘Standard English’ Fairy Tale,” highlights these arguments while maintaining her own stance that there is no such thing as a standard or ideal form of English. In particular, she calls into question the apparently benign idea of “respecting” a student’s home language while still insisting on adherence to the dominant discourse. She posits, “the idea of a standard language as an equal-opportunity tool for advancement works as a perfect foil for the institutionalized racism actually to blame for contemporary racial inequities” (39). She dismisses out of hand the ways in which other educators misinterpret their actions as helpful. Similarly, this notion of a standard English gives rise to the idea of a standard welcome, reinforcing the idea that all students will react in the same way to the same type of “welcoming” environment. This is because, as Greenfield notes, marginalized students are not just trying to learn the dominant discourse. They must also “rid themselves of all linguistic features that may identify them with communities of color” (46). Writing centers, then, become part of this process of un-racing students, a necessarily racist project reinforced by a standard ideal.

Inoue posits that the notion of an ideal language is problematic precisely because it enacts racism. He asserts, “Racism in schools and college writing courses is still pervasive because most if not all writing courses…promote or value first a local SEAE and a dominant white discourse, even when they make moves to value and honor the discourses of all students” (14). Purporting to value different discourses as equally valuable in different contexts can put the instructor in a strange position, however, when what’s being assessed is how well a student can approximate this dominant discourse. In “Inviting the Mother Tongue,” Elbow (2011) points out, “The problem is that students cannot have that crucial experience of writing inside our classrooms unless we can also show them how to be safe outside—that is, unless we can also help them produce final drafts that conform to Standard Written English” (643, emphasis in original). Elbow envisions a classroom that allows students to write in a way that feels natural without fear of penalization, an admirable goal that may risk the instructor being seen as equivocating. Elbow outlines a strategy for how to invite difference among students into the classroom, but the end goal is the same: create a product that adheres to the standard ideal.

If the way writing centers welcome students is tied to this dominant ideal, then students who are already acculturated to it (that is, white middle-class students) may feel more welcome than those who are not. For example, in “Where did English studies come from?” Miller (1990) asserts, in his discussion of the genesis of composition studies at universities, “[earlier] students did not need to be taught the taste and style of the cultural elite because they were the cultural elite” (66). That is, when attendance at universities was exclusive to the rich and powerful, instruction in writing was more or less unnecessary because the students already knew how to communicate in the agreed upon manner. They did not need to be taught the language of wider communication because it was their language. Further, Miller acknowledges that composition courses serve an acculturative function that is essentially superfluous for students who are already familiar with, or hold themselves to, the values of the dominant culture. If our way of welcoming is tied to this ideal, this means students who are not acculturated to it (students of color, students from poor economic backgrounds, etc.) are less likely to feel welcome. As Grutsch McKinney posits, if writing centers have a grand narrative, other narratives are necessarily pushed to the side (89). Similarly, if writing centers are object-coded to perform welcome for a certain kind of student, then other students are pushed to the side.

In her work with basic writing programs, Shaughnessy (1977) details having to serve these students pushed to the margins. She discusses three groups of students who enrolled at the City University of New York in the spring of 1970. The first two groups were not strangers to the faculty. However,

The third group contained the true outsiders. Natives, for the most part, of New York, graduates of the same public school system as the other students, they were nonetheless strangers in academia, unacquainted with the rules and rituals of college life, unprepared for the sorts of tasks their teachers were about to assign them. Most of them had grown up in one of New York’s racial or ethnic enclaves. Many had spoken other languages or dialects at home and never successfully reconciled the worlds of home and school, a face which by now had worked its way deep into their feelings about school and about themselves as students. 388

Though she writes from decades ago, in many ways her description of these “outsider” students mirror the type of students who seek out or are referred to the writing center. In her description of this endeavor, Shaughnessy uses the language of immigration and borders such as “first encounters,” “territory,” “settlers,” and “frontier” (389). For the underprepared student, one who is not accustomed to academic discourse or its approximations, college is a new frontier, a new country. They seek out the writing center to better learn the language. Yet, in learning this new academic language, students are often asked to abandon certain features of their own dialects, their own senses of self, within spaces like the composition classroom and the writing center.

English departments and writing centers have a history of attempting to flatten difference and homogenize students. In his “Toward a Social Justice Historiography of Writing Assessment,” Hammond (2018) analyzes a series of English Journal articles from 1912 to 1935 and the various ways in which scholars work with, around, and through racial differences in writing instruction and assessment. In particular, he explores the issue of what he calls progressive racism, a term that describes an “attempt to contain or eradicate racionational difference through assimilation or ‘Americanization’” (43). There is an explicit othering that occurs in these EJ articles when it comes to instructing immigrant children in English. Specifically, differences in speaking and writing are usually treated as deficits, and the students are considered deficient. Students are labeled this way, Hammond contends, because of their distance from Standard English, which is another way of saying their distance from whiteness. Hammond asserts, “Within American society and schooling, whiteness is hierarchically privileged and regularly taken as an unexamined standard, with departures from it coded as deficits or defects” (49). In order to challenge this hierarchy, to come closer to truly valuing difference in our classrooms and writing centers, we must find ways to examine the standard and critically engage with it.

Putting the Fire Out

The idea of welcome in writing centers is not new. Grimm (2011), in her “Retheorizing Writing Center Work to Transform A System of Advantage Based on Race,” offers a clearly viable option for writing centers. While Grimm does not draw on antiracist ecological theory specifically, she enacts it in her writing center’s practices. In particular, Grimm and her colleagues question cultural assumptions about the work of the writing center:

that students of color needed our help; that they would find our services useful; that the university and thus the writing center were race-neutral and benign spaces; and that the literacy education offered by the university and the writing center contributed to leveling the playing field, allowing them to become like us, thus (ahem) “better” and “equal.” 75

She notes that, while individual staff members may not have personally believed in things like the superiority of one type of discourse over others, these cultural assumptions nevertheless impacted their practice (75). Ultimately, Grimm argues against the individualism that informs university educational practice as well as writing consultations in a writing center.

To counteract this individualism and arrive at a more welcoming center, Grimm (2011) utilizes a theory of social learning from Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger. Grimm states, “Wenger’s work has contributed to the restricting of the writing center I direct in many ways but primarily because he offers an alternative to cozy conceptions of communities, restricted notions of practice, and limiting understanding of identity” (90, emphasis added). Grimm uses Lave and Wenger to break down what is often seen as a core mission of writing centers: to create independent writers. If the goal is to create an independent writer, then the utilization of the writing center becomes a point of weakness. Frequent visits indicate a weaker writer. Students understand this logic, whether intuitively or otherwise. If writing centers can move beyond old fashioned individualism, beyond the writing center as garret, by focusing on the collaborative and interdependent nature of learning, they can begin to re-brand the purpose of visiting writing centers. Grimm posits,

Depicting regular writing center users as hard workers rather than people who ‘need help’ would also create a more hospitable environment for students of color who may avoid writing centers because of…the concern that they will reinforce negative stereotypes about their race by making use of resources designed for people who “need help.” (86)

For Grimm, who sought to diversify the students who visited her writing center, it was not enough to simply increase the number of minority students who came to the center. The purpose, the reasoning behind the visits, had to shift first. In turn, this shift potentially un-remediates the writing center.

Through Grimm (2011), we see the careful balance between three of Inoue’s (2015) ecological elements: purpose, people, and places. These are the key elements to help redefine welcome in writing centers. If a writing center director wants to modify the type of students (people) who enter a writing center (place), then the director must examine the students’ purposes for using the writing center in the first place and the kind of dialogue in which those students engage. There might also be a case for a broad view of dialogue, one that extends to the physical space itself rather than to just the communication between student and consultant. Spaces, after all, communicate and, if writing center directors furnish their centers with touches of “home,” it is only so that they can persuade students to enter.

The individualism that Grimm (2011) modifies in her center is an extension of the white racial habitus that Inoue (2015) dissects. In essence, the white racial habitus is a mode of sociocultural reproduction, one that privileges certain cultural touchstones that have, historically, belonged to white, middle-to-upper class men. Antiracism is one way to counteract this habitus and the racism it encourages in composition classrooms and writing centers. Inoue claims, “Racism is an assessment problem, which can only be fully solved by changing the system of assessment, by changing the classroom writing assessment ecology” (15). While his work focuses on the classroom, it can also serve as a critical lens through which writing center directors can view their writing centers.

Yet, to the extent that writing center directors want their centers to be more welcoming, there is one ecological element, more than any other, that must be critically examined and reckoned with: that of power. One of Inoue’s (2015) goals is to get students to problematize their existential writing situations and the key way to do this is to question the notion of power. Inoue uses Foucault to dissect and define this term:

Foucault’s description of Bentham’s panopticon demonstrates how power operates through the disciplining of bodies and creating of spaces that reproduce docile behavior as consent…Power is consciously constructed and manipulated, used by constructing spaces and experiences that by their natures are or feel like surveillance, or a constant assessment of bodies. (121-122)

The essence of power, then, is the ability to get bodies to conform with certain expectations and to obey commands. Inoue argues that the traditional academic layout, with professor at the head of the classroom and the students facing him or her, mirrors the function of the panopticon, which, by virtue of allowing continuous surveillance, reinforces the roles of prisoner and guard, or who has power and who does not. In the classroom, Inoue calls for students to “understand, complicate, and challenge” this notion of power (123).

Writing centers, though, are not classrooms. This can be a strength and a weakness when viewing centers through an antiracist ecological lens. However, as Ozias and Godbee (2011) claim, “Writing centers are uniquely positioned to work simultaneously as institutional agents and amplifiers…of students, staff, and community members who remain un(der)served and oppressed” (159). Writing centers exist in a kind of liminal state between the institution and the student, working with students from a variety of disciplines and backgrounds. The instructor will generally only work with the students enrolled in his or her class. Yet, the strength of the classroom is that professors can redistribute power at will, encouraging, over time, the type of critical questioning that Inoue calls for. Writing centers, on the other hand, can only redistribute power within the confines of a consultation, which lasts a relatively short amount of time. It’s also possible that a student may only visit once, which limits the benefits of deploying this type of strategy.

However, the work of writing centers goes beyond the consultation. The way power moves through a writing center, between the director, coordinators, and consultants is something that can be engaged with over time. In some ways, power redistribution is already part of writing center praxis. The notion of the student doing all the work or limiting the comments writing consultants make on students’ papers are strategies for ensuring power remains in the hands of the student. This is especially important for students who would like nothing more than to relinquish power, and responsibility for the paper, to the writing consultant.

To undo prescriptive notions of power, and to enhance the welcoming atmosphere of any center, usually requires shifting power away from the consultant and into the hands of the student, clearly defining their role in the consultation. More than that, though, it also requires moving away from examining papers for errors and areas for improvement. While Grimm (2011) seeks to re-cast people who visit the writing center as “hard workers,” Inoue (2014) focuses on the idea of labor as opposed to quality. Inoue defines labor as “work and time put into something. It often signals the quantity of time put into a project or activity…US culture usually rewards and defines labor by the hour, and this paradigm of labor is familiar to my students” (73). If a student thinks of the writing center as just another place where someone else can tell them how to fix their writing, they may be disinclined from visiting even if they do need help. However, if students re-conceive of the writing center as a place to work hard, as a place where their efforts are taken seriously and not overshadowed by the so-called quality of their work, perhaps they would feel more welcome.

For specific steps that writing centers can take to create empowering writing centers, we can turn to Garcia (2017) in his “Unmaking Gringo-Centers.” Garcia’s focus is on making the needs of Mexican American students more visible in order to complicate the black-white race paradigm and move writing centers toward a decolonial framework. Enacting antiracist ecologies in every writing consultation would be a daunting, perhaps impossible, task. However, Garcia focuses on consultant training as the key to creating a more equitable center. The next few paragraphs will explain Garcia’s initiatives and how they are implemented at the University of Houston-Victoria, in southeast Texas.

Garcia posits that “Tutors need to cultivate a mindfulness of difference and be mindful of spatio and temporal attributes” (48). This concept connects to Inoue’s notion of ecological power (121) and his call to be mindful of, and to serve, local diversities (68). That is, we need to cultivate an awareness of who our students are and how to provide them agency in order to engage in effective writing consultations. Garcia stresses the importance of social justice and developing this mindset among writing consultants.

Writing center administrators, then, should strive to understand the histories of their institutions and how these histories impact the students who enter our centers. For example, there is a point in UHV’s history where the student population changed dramatically in a short amount of time. Until 2010, students at UHV were mostly non-traditional, white, and commuters. When UHV expanded downward in 2010, it became a Hispanic Serving institution, with a large number of traditional, residential Latino students. As one can imagine, the needs of these two populations were quite different, and it’s taken some time for the writing center to learn to adequately serve the new students.

To address Garcia’s call, then, our training includes this history of UHV as well as readings and discussions that are framed around issues of race and the writing center, which are described in more detail below. However, consultants must also be aware of power and agency. One of the first questions I pose to new consultants is this: Who controls the consultation? From the outside looking in, because the consultant is the one asking all the questions, is he or she somehow primarily in control of the tutoring session? Certainly, this may be the view of many students who come to the writing center hoping to get their papers “fixed.” The first thing a consultant is trained to do, then, is adjust student expectations and lay out what the consultant’s various roles are in the consultation: a reader, a listener, and so on.

Next, Garcia asserts, “Tutors need to become decolonial agents” (49). This assertion ties into Inoue’s (2015) notion of developing a critical assessment, one that can “assess the dominant discourse and not just the discourse of…students” (75). Inoue is asking faculty and administrators to pay attention to the patterns their institutional and classroom assessments create in order to challenge those patterns and interrogate them. Similar to Elbow’s (2011) goal of creating a safe place for students to write in their home languages, Inoue asserts that the dominant discourse should be placed alongside other types of discourses, which “become the ways toward critical examination, toward critical assessment practices” (75).

For writing centers, this means examining our practices and traditions when it comes to the consultation. If assessment is an act of reading, as Inoue (2015) says, then reading is also an act of assessment (15). To create a more welcoming center, to become decolonial agents, we must change the way that we read. Deviation from a standard does not denote a deficit, something we have to be careful to remind the students with whom we are working. Garcia claims, “We cannot just accommodate difference nor should we approach differences as that to be solved” (49). At UHV, we focus mostly on larger order concerns as Elbow outlines: “sticking to the topic…having good ideas of one’s own; reasoning carefully; giving enough arguments, evidence, and examples…” and so on (666), while limiting our discussion of the cosmetic features of writing. As Elbow asserts, “it is possible to give students feedback on all these criteria and help them satisfy everyone—and never once talk about surface features of language” (667, emphasis in original). If consultants and instructors spend too much time correcting a paper’s syntax, grammar, and mechanics, these items loom larger in the student’s mind and take on an overinflated sense of importance. This can be a problem because, while a grammatically incorrect paper can still present a strong argument and compelling ideas (core features of strong writing), a paper that’s mechanically perfect can still be poor writing. Part of our job as writing consultants at UHV, then, is to decouple the idea of grammar from the idea of “good” writing and show students how their arguments are still effective—even if their commas aren’t all in the right places.

In short, if we want to make students welcome in the writing center, we must turn it into “one of the most hopeful of all sites of language use” (Elbow, 2011, 668, emphasis in original). The notion of ecologies makes visible what is normally invisible: the institutional and cultural forces that act upon students, writing centers, and writing center workers. Once these forces are made visible, we can more easily manipulate them, change them, to suit our purposes. It’s not enough to merely edit papers to acculturate students to an academic discourse. Writing centers should also strive to help students question these exterior forces, when possible. We must be mindful of local diversities and know who our students are and where they come from. We must work to decolonize the writing center space, thereby moving away from the regulatory function the writing center has historically performed. The goal, then, should not be to just make writing centers “cozier” but to make them more equitable.

Author Biography

Eric Camarillo is the manager of academic support at the University of Houston-Victoria. He oversees all academic support at the university, which includes the writing center. His research interests include antiracism, social justice, and ecological frameworks. His work has been featured in previous issues of The Peer Review, and he has one forthcoming article for Praxis: a Writing Center Journal, and forthcoming book chapter on antiviolence. He also presented at several conferences including the Conference on College Composition and Communication and the South Central Writing Centers Association.

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