Sexual Harassment, Dirty Underwear, and Coffee Bar Hipsters: Welcome to the Virtual Writing Center

Robby Nadler

Part I. A Pathetic Appeal

It was during summer 2015, my first month into being newly in charge of the University of Georgia’s writing centers (WCs), that I met X through our synchronous online consultation (SOC) service. Based on his pre-filled appointment questionnaire, I knew that he was a social sciences graduate student, that he wanted help revising his first rejected academic article. Nothing stuck out; his was a request that I had assisted a number of other students with over the years. Only after logging in and speaking with him did I understand the emotional depth that our work would entail: new to higher education’s standards and publishing demands, he took the rejection personally. The reviewer who had declined to publish X’s article included a list of twenty(!) detailed points to consider. Whoever the reviewer was, he/she clearly understood that the submission belonged to a young scholar. In devoting hours to marking up the article, the reviewer had attempted to put forward a kind face to a world that often deals in silent rejection. Unfortunately, X considered the copious notes as reason after reason elaborating his failure.

Worse, X internalized the article’s rejection as a compounding element concerning the issue of belonging. He came from a community where people did not attend post-secondary education, let alone graduate studies. As he voiced these thoughts in conjunction with statements about how he felt that his rejected article was proof that people like him did not belong in academe, he confessed to contemplating leaving his program. I had never worked with a student so close to Mike Rose’s “edge”—those students precariously enrolled in our institutions and who often only succeed when met with retention efforts that go the extra mile. While I care about every student who visits our WC, because X identified as queer, and as I am a fellow queer man then living in the South who too navigated a heteronormative university experience, I felt particularly connected to aiding him as a person. I strove to ensure that he knew my helping him was not only about bettering his writing skills but also about conveying how much the university valued his presence.

For the next six weeks, we navigated the reviewer’s comments. We would begin the session with him reading a point that the reviewer had made, explaining what he thought the reviewer had communicated, and locating where in the article that point was applicable. We would then move to those highlighted areas, and I would have X recount what he intended the writing to communicate, what had been communicated to the reviewer, and how the passage could be rewritten to address both parties’ wishes. Sometimes my contributions were directive—explaining why his results section erred by mimicking the findings and analysis integrated format common to humanities writing and not a scientific format of results and discussion separated—but often I functioned as a guide and a cheerleader a la the nondirective Beverly Clark model (1985). When I was not asking questions, I shared anecdotes of my own publishing failures and stumbles in academia. It would be fair to say that the human element of our work was just as important as the written one.

Perhaps he misconstrued my kindness as something else—though that is the same paternalistic logic behind so much sexual violence. During what would be our final session, he logged into the appointment, shirtless. The whole time he lay on his bed—ever so subtly repositioning his laptop’s screen to drop further down his torso as if daring me to guess if the rest of him were naked, too. I suppose that I could have demanded that he put on a shirt, or even sheepishly admitted that his bare chest made me uncomfortable and requested that he cover himself before continuing. I could have simply lectured him on the inappropriateness of the context and ended the session then and there. I did not do any of those things. First, I was, for lack of better words, thrown off my game. To me, there is nothing shocking about seeing a man’s chest, but in the context, I was so startled that the stern and quick-thinking administrator that my consultants peg me for devolved into a consultant without any sense of agency or power. Classic deer in the headlights. In devoting so much goodwill into our sessions, I felt betrayal pricking my watery eyes, for how could he place me in such a position? And yet, my second concern dealt with X. Conscious that such behavior was unacceptable but aware that an outright attack could push him out of the university, I was afraid to do my job as if in doing so I would be harming him. Driven by guilt, I consciously ignored the situation and consulted as if nothing were unusual. As the session progressed, my refusal “to bite” irked him. But no matter how much he tried to draw attention to his body, I only saw his article. When our sixty minutes were up, we both disappeared without a goodbye. He never again utilized our WC services.

Part II. Fact: The Air in One’s Home Can be 2-5 Times More Polluted Than the Air Outside

I believe that sexual harassment can provide an avenue to further our discipline when we use our experiences to inform our work, overtly. I do not mean this in a way to suggest that we must draw strength from our encounters or have these episodes define us, which can feel like platitudinous imperatives. Rather, what I encountered with X was and will always be a major influence in how I experience WCs. My recounting what happened is important for addressing a conversation not yet started (I, at least, have not come across in the literature others who have been harassed in virtual WCs). But X is also the impetus that triggered my interest in pursuing the rhetorics of these SOCs—from a perspective that I would have otherwise never considered. In that sense, my personal experiences have provided a vantage that enhances this specific academic conversation. Many of us who have guarded our experiences of being harassed do so for multiple reasons, but I fear the one where we do not acknowledge these uncomfortable truths in academic contexts because of the perceived disconnect between our personal lives and the pedagogy/scholarship of what we do. This article, if nothing else, attempts to suggest otherwise by demonstrating that our experiences do more than just connect with academic considerations but inform them in substantial ways.

But I would also argue that there is something more corporeal to this philosophy. As someone who has needed to file a police report (not related to my experience with X), I can attest to how shocking it is to have a life-altering moment reduced (if not entirely changed) when put into a dry, legal context: Participant logged into session with no shirt. Consultant felt uncomfortable. The end. That description is 100% accurate and to the point, but what about everything such brevity elides? My reasons for helping the student. The shame I felt/still feel. To tell the episode separate of how it fits in my world seems to disavow my experience of being harassed when I read that condensed transcription. And yet, in its extended form, I struggle with the length and non-academic focus, which reads solipsistic by virtue of its reliance pathos and lack of logos. It is every bit the “feminine-”produced work that rhetorician Michelle Ballif (2001) describes when she writes how logos became aligned with a masculine techne and sophistry was relegated to a feminized spaced through tuche-derived narratives. In other words, to use experience and emotion as evidence, as a foundation for a claim, is to be a “female” trickster. And because so much of sexual harassment lacks “evidence” beyond a person’s words, what else is there but the surplus of experience to confront the dry “facts”? Worse, knowing that sexual harassment is rampant in our discipline (discussed later) but is largely invisible in our scholarship can make one—speaking for myself—feel “unprofessional” when attempting to discuss the matter precisely for this reason of being labeled “unacademic” in bridging the experiential with the cerebral.

I have been harassed many times in my life—arguably in ways much worse than what X did. As a cis-gendered man, I have never felt compelled to discuss these episodes because 1) same-sex harassment is probably the only matter that receives even less attention than the already ignored opposite-sex harassment, and 2) the kairotic nature of these episodes seemed to deny me any avenue for catharsis. Groping in clubs. Strangers shoving their hands into my pants during Gay Pride festivals. There was even the doctor who performed a digital prostate exam on me as part of a physical required to complete my Fulbright paperwork; only months later when talking to my fellow grantees did I learn that none of them needed to undergo a prostate exam per the medical paperwork. These acts committed on my body were then not unknowable violence but prophecies come true, and I have made a disgruntled peace with the knowledge that anytime I step into a situation existing beyond the safety of my own home, I am vulnerable.

That is why my encounter with X was so shattering. When you are harassed on a public street, you can at least return home, to the one place in the world where you expect guaranteed safety. But what happens when home is the site of your attack? One is not only then confronted with the assault but also the stolen security of one’s sanctuary. In that moment with X, I forever lost my exalted vision of WCs as purely spaces where some of my most meaningful teaching experiences have happened. In the immediate weeks following the incident, every time I logged into our website, every time I stepped into my office, every time someone e-mailed our WC that required my response, I had to enter a rhetorical space that I did not want to embrace. As an administrator, is there anything more defeating? How could I vouch for the joy of working in WCs to my new staff when I was internally wishing that I could take the semester off? Worse, if I as an administrator (i.e., the most empowered person in the WC) was not immune to harassment (and sat on that information out of shame), what did that entail for my consultants? They were then exponentially more vulnerable. Or had consultants already been harassed and, like I did, kept that information to themselves? And the cruelest of thoughts: as much as I did not want to consider it, what if they were the offending party? X had done more than merely harass me. He had come into my WC home and forced me to reconsider my entire WC world by burning down the space. This is why I did not want anyone to know what had transpired. I did not want them know my pain. I did not want them to see WCs as anything but magical spaces. But the truth is that homes—those sites where public personas recede from societal view—are where we are most vulnerable, are where most transgressions occur precisely for the perceived separation that makes them so guarded.

Part III. Let’s Talk Literature

The current disciplinary landscape has largely yet to fuse the personal with the academic in terms of sexual harassment. If you search for “sexual harassment” in the archives of College Composition and Communication, fewer than a dozen hits will appear. Of those, most only use the phrase in passing. For instance, Cheryl Glenn’s chair address from the 2008 Cs, reprinted in the journal (2008), states, “We and our students inhabit a school culture of physical danger. Even on the most placid campuses, gays, lesbians, and heterosexual women remain the targets of sexual harassment and physical violence, acts that are too often and too easily blamed on alcohol (think back to gay victim Matthew Sheppard)” (pp. 430). But this point (an important one) is subsumed by the larger narrative that Glenn makes about the state of violence in this world, which is to say that she acknowledges sexual harassment to be just as deleterious to our education missions as school shootings; however, without expanding on the topic, the issue recedes as quickly as it was mentioned. The implication is that people already understand that sexual harassment is horrible, and nothing else needs be done with the topic. Such utterances, regardless of how genuine they are to the speaker, then function as performative lip service because the intersection of sexual harassment and our field is never broached, i.e., sexual harassment never becomes more than a bogeyman we warn against instead of a cancer to be biopsied and studied.

There are, though, a few articles that do more than state the obvious, but in each instance the possibility for academic discovery is curtailed. Sanford Tweedie (1997); Michelle Gibson, Martha Marinara and Deborah Meem (2000); and JoAnn Campbell (1992) all acknowledge the concept in various manners—at times even drawing on personal experience to illustrate the point. However, for the purposes of this article, which explores sexual harassment as a focus to engage the discipline, such pieces are unhelpful for they stand as summative encounters. They, briefly, invoke the pain of harassment but only in the sense that said moment existed—not as a lens to study our field. I cannot help but reimagine if sexual harassment were replaced with another lens, e.g., race; would a tentative launch into the complex waters of how one’s identity affects composition modes be tolerated? Of course, the onus of a full discussion of sexual harassment should not be placed on these women, for my critiquing their work occurs only because theirs exists for critique. Such a critique would be unnecessary if there were a robust conversation to supplement these asides, but the sad truth is one of the discipline’s preeminent journals has, in almost seventy years, never published a single article focusing on sexual harassment.

And College Composition and Communication is not an exception. A similar trend emerges in searching through the Writing Center Journal. Only Nancy Welch’s article on Julia Kristeva’s concept of exile being applied to a student utilizing a WC to navigate writing about her experiences being sexually harassed at a workplace surfaces (2010). It is an interesting read, but it is also hauntingly passive. We, as readers, reflect on Welch’s talents in helping a woman navigate the complexities of filing a real-world sexual harassment case; however, as spectators, the issue of sexual harassment becomes a focus to mine the pedagogical implications of the article—sexual harassment an academic lens to view the writerly exercise. Sexual harassment could have been replaced with any traumatic experience, and the article would have largely stood the same. Thus, nowhere in what could arguably be called WCs’ most popular publication is the issue of sexual harassment itself discussed as a topic needing attention.

I single out these two journals because when I seek to study an issue within composition (and more specifically, WCs), I turn to these publications with the expectation that big conversations receive top billing in big journals. But in my Bechdel-inspired[1] test to find meaningful scholarship on the issue in our discipline, I was at a loss for articles that:

  1. Discussed sexual harassment as the main pedagogical focus of the article,
  2. Presented it from an active perspective, and
  3. Recounted the author(s)’s experience(s).

How could it be that these premiere journals never tackled issues of sexual harassment given how ours is one of the few disciplines that commonly focuses on the personal as site of scholarship? Shortly after the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke in late 2017, dozens of WPA Listserv members bravely shared their own experiences of being harassed as students and by students, by colleagues and harassing as colleagues. Given these numerous accounts stretching decades, it was clear that the lack of scholarship had no correlation with a lack of encounters. Furthermore, reflecting on the intimate nature of WC work, where consultants meet with students in one-on-one contexts, it felt that the lack of discussion about sexual harassment—from the pedagogical implications to the shop talk of preparing consultants for the possibility of such interactions—was a negative space as noticeable as the silence in John Cage’s 4’33”.

But there are exceptions.

An early text that sought to sound the alarm specifically on sexual harassment in digital spaces for compositionists (the only one I could find that melded these halves) was penned by Pamela Takayoshi (1994) for Computers and Composition. She begins by laying the groundwork for why technology needs to be run through a critical lens: we tend to adopt an instrumental theory of technology (Blythe, 1997) in instructional spaces to praise technology but not publish on its deleterious effects when they are human-induced. From there, she explains how women are vulnerable in digital communications and how she herself was harassed via e-mail after participating in a graduate seminar’s listserv created to discuss the course’s content. What I find notable about this work is twofold. First, Takayoshi references an e-mail exchange published in College Composition and Communication depicting one student’s failed attempt to “pick up” a female peer (who is unaware of the sender):

Dear Fox:

Caught your username at the Diablo when you printed your descriptive essay. Could we get together and collaborate? How about Friday?

Yours,

STUD

Dear Studmuffin:

You got the wrong number! No collaboration here. I did write to Fox though and we’re going out Friday. Thanks!

Not yours,

STUD #2 (Kinkead, 1987, 337).

What is striking about this passage is how Takayoshi repositions this episode as an instance of sexual harassment—which the original article did not frame it as. Reading the original article, the following immediately proceeds the excerpted exchange: “Although our writing program does not encourage a dating game interface on electronic mail (known as E-mail to its users), we do not discourage it” (337). This is to say that Kinkead in no way represented this exchange as harassment but as a moment to discuss how students use technologies in ways that educators do not anticipate. The lack of the phrase “sexual harassment” in the entire work (including keywords) reinforces this reading.[2] Such a point not only buttresses my contention that our field is ripe with undiscussed episodes of sexual harassment but also accounts for why we must discuss it. How else can we explain a clear instance of it occurring and not being able to see it as such?

The other key point brought to light in respect to the existence of Takayoshi’s article regards time; in the almost twenty-five years since Takayoshi’s account, I could find only one other relevant article discussing the importance of sexual harassment in composition spaces, which happened to be published in TPR. Elise Dixon (2017) presents an episode of her being harassed by a fellow WC consultant, which I appreciated because it acknowledged the inconvenient truth that being the best and brightest title (how I often hear WC staff described by faculty at nearly ever campus I visit) does not preclude harassment (and how turning a blind eye to such considerations only allows for possible situations to develop). Aside from discussing the experience at length, Dixon provides a queer lens to frame the episode to explain how queer bodies (specifically bisexual women) are susceptible to a pernicious form of harassment that can be excused as part of de jour work patterns in a WC. Or, in her own words, “Such one-sided representations paint unrealistic pictures of the moments that make up an individual writing center’s identity. To adhere to, perpetuate, and publicize such a one-dimensional and tidy portrayal of the center without also presenting its messiness keeps us from engaging with the possibilities of such unsettling moments in the center.” I found this article particularly rewarding because it not only presented the act of harassment in detail, but also it managed to connect the episode to a larger theoretical consideration for those of us who might escape such harassment (but not its implications).

So why could Dixon accomplish what scholars of greater notoriety over many decades did not? You have to want to talk about it. It as sexual harassment—the moment of assault. But it also as aftermath. It as reaction to the event and the accompanying influences. By shortchanging the “surplus,” i.e., the personal element, there is no context to approach the transformative element, which is where the nuanced discussion about our field in relation to sexual harassment must occur. Hence, the majority of the aforementioned scholarship could never do more than allude. If we are to ever benefit from what sexual harassment can teach our discipline, we must first open ourselves to feeling it. Then we can extrapolate.

Part IV. The Virtual Frontier

Because I want to believe the best in people, let us say that X had no ulterior motives when he logged into that session, shirtless. Let us say that he was wearing pants, that it was a hot summer’s evening, that perhaps his AC was broken (and even I am known to walk around my house, chest exposed). While the harassment might have been unintentional, there stands an important element to the scenario: virtual spaces. Had X tried to enter one of our physical WC locations, campus security would have stopped to interrogate what a shirtless man was doing trying to enter a library or an academic building. This is to say nothing of the stares and social cues that would have immediately descended upon him had he strolled into the student learning center. This is, in part, the result of our society having a codified expectation of what is appropriate in a physical space. While society’s panopticon does not prevent all these incidents from occurring, it does a good job at policing individuals from acting against proscribed social behaviors. In other words, a (possibly) naked man walking into a WC could happen, but our social fabric polices against public nudity. Compare such a scenario to online video streaming contexts where such behavior can be desired, where digital and virtual spaces lack communal censoring protections. Thus, by altering the type of space in a consultation, WCs are not merely moving from physical to digital representations but are being welcomed into different worlds. If there is one thing that my encounter with X has taught me, it is we need to understand how such a student-oriented welcoming in SOCs can upend traditional practices and result in various kinds of harassment. This article now seeks to establish how these harassing circumstances arise through the SOC context.

In a physical WC, we as administrators have power in assembling use-narratives, i.e., coded frameworks that communicate to the engaged. These narratives inform users, who are not party to the construction of the space, how to encounter a given space according to the desires of the space’s architect. For instance, designing a space to be welcoming is a rhetorical decision that relies on use-narratives. A couch invites a very specific narrative of how a space is to be used versus a bench versus a chair versus no aid for sitting. And so do our dress, our greetings, our buildings that house our WCs, our mission statements, our policies, and any number of factors that we control/influence. This is not to say that students follow our designs’ constructed intentions to the letter for transactional experiences can never be guaranteed to be similar—and often are not because space users and space designers operate from different narratives (Eco, 1972 and Blythe, 2001). Still, part of our work is to secure these designs, further their implementation, and revise them when they fall short.

But what of the virtual WC?[3] Neaderhiser and Wolfe (2009) pointed out almost a decade ago that “…even as writing centers are being encouraged to embrace new technology, there are ways that this technology challenges the traditional ethos of the writing center” (50). That is why the virtual WC, a site where students are provided with the opportunity to design the space of the consultation, can feel so unsettling from an administrative vantage: it is they who welcome us. Not only do we as administrators (and our consultants) lose the ability to design “homes” in these fronts (unless we are personally developing the software for these programs), but also we are confronted with student clients who exist as selves mediated by the virtual.

One reason for a shift in virtual from physical behavior relates to the general (assumed) privacy people are welcomed with when they log out of the physical world and relocate to a virtual home of sorts (Scott, 1999 and Suler, 2004). Home a la that distinctly American (and largely white and middleclass) Fourth Amendment conception of being barred from unreasonable search and seizure. A home where visitors are welcome—if they hold an invitation. And when safeguarded by (the expectation of) anonymity, we transform. Perhaps such a transformation is as minute as, say, those of us who only sing in the privacy of our showers. But many virtual behaviors result from transformations that operate in contrast to physical-world representations—within the same person. Why this matters is that it helps to explain how something like X’s behavior could manifest in the first place. As a result, every SOC must consider that while most people will utilize the resource cognizant that there is a human on the other side, the medium inherently displaces human agency (Cover, 2012). Once that displacement occurs, behaviors can be unpredictable in that they are not typically emblematic of a side that we see from people outside of the virtual world. But when measured within the context of what one does in the privacy of one’s “home,” such behavior is likely welcome.

For instance, while we might stake a puritanical disposition in our public lives, consider that Netflix, Instagram, and Amazon, which we know are wildly popular websites, were, according to SimilarWeb’s March 2018 data, each out-visited by three popular pornography websites. At first glance, such websites are seemingly relegated to the physical home, where sexual behaviors are proscribed to be housed. But such an assumption is erroneous in that homes are now virtual and can be accessed from shared office computers to cellular phones and even while riding public transportation (De Souza e Silva and Frith, 2012 and Farman and Frith, 2016). At all moments of the day, people now publicly engage in traditionally private behaviors—behaviors that can be observed with as little effort as looking over a person’s shoulder. Bear in mind, this is not a hit against pornography as much as a reconsideration; imagine if our public discourse and media reflected our consumption of pornography proportionally to how we discuss Jeff Bezos, Amazon founder and world’s richest person. What if, instead of another headline proclaiming Mr. Bezos has an opinion on some subject he decides to speak to, citizens were presented with an article that discussed the newest trend in pornographic search terms? The latter presents as more applicable (by quantity) story to our world, so why our collective avoidance of such topics? It is because while who we project, how we behave, and what we desire are elements of ourselves that greatly fluctuate with digital and virtual spaces, society operates, by definition, outside of one’s home. In this regard, rather than viewing X’s behavior as some aberration of self, I see it as the private excised by the virtual. Welcomed, even, by the medium.

In SOCs, authority (in designing use-narratives) fluctuates because, administratively, WCs surrender full ability to build their welcoming spaces. This results from both parties joining the session from each’s chosen location, opposed to the predetermined site that physical WCs host. Theoretically, both parties would log into a session, cognizant of the rhetorical implications of where the session will be conducted. But this awareness, which we can drill into our consultants (and highly request from our students), is not absolute for many aspects likely go unconsidered by students when scheduling online appointments. Like the facebook user who overlooks how personal posts in personal spaces are still public, intimate discussions in virtual contexts staged in physical arenas are primed to be exposed unintentionally. Additionally, if a viewer touches a piece of technology and recedes into a casual complacency further reinforced by the use-narratives of that space, how do we reify the pedagogical structures that we impose for student (and our) safety? More importantly, how do we do so without chasing students away?

Consider the very practical manifestation of such considerations: because I conducted online evening appointments, I always held them in my home. When I invite new staff to a welcome dinner at my house or end a semester with a class reading in my backyard, the experience conveys a narrative: our relationship now has a more personal aspect to it. They see where it is I park my car. They know which books line my shelves. They can judge my taste in furniture and breakfast cereal. Aside from being details, these things reveal a great deal about who I am—socially, culturally, economically. This is not insignificant information. Therefore, factoring into these exchanges is trust, which is why these moments are more powerful than if I were to host the gatherings in spaces where their routines normally unfold. This is why I, like I assume most people, take thought into deciding whom I welcome (and how) into my home. But in those SOCs, the decision was forced. I had no idea who these students were as people, and now I was allowing them visual access to a personal sphere separate from my professional life. I had to decide two questions: Where would I set up my laptop to broadcast the most professional background? and Where was I most comfortable letting a stranger enter my home? The answer to both questions was my home office because it set a formal tone and is intentionally designed to lack the personal flair that all the other rooms of my house retain.

I have counseled other consultants who handle SOCs in deciding where it is that they should log into from using my office example, and I hope (and have no reason to believe otherwise) that they make smart decisions. I cannot always say the same for students. A shirtless X lying on top of his bed is one example, but it is one of many. I have been welcomed into dozens of bedrooms—replete with unmade beds, leftover food containers, and dirty laundry strewn around. I do not believe that these students intend for me to gaze upon their soiled underwear, and I can pretend not to notice as we work through our appointment, but, to be clear, this (underwear example) is a form of harassment. I give these virtual episodes far greater leeway than I would had I entered a professor’s physical office and found it in a similar disarray—imagine the horror of seeing a pair of boxers or panties on a department chair’s desk! But why? Is it because I recognize the person as a student and hold lower standards? No, for if I were to hold a face-to-face (FtF) consultation in the same space, I would immediately extricate myself from the scenario just as I would with the professor. It is the medium. By changing the quality of the interaction, SOCs enact a liminal space where one can be unsettled by where one is welcomed to—but not to the extent where one can leave (as one technically is never there). It is why I recoiled from X but did not banish him the way I would have done in a FtF consultation.

Even if a consultant is welcomed into a safe space, that does not mean that the consultation is immune to ethical considerations. As Yergeau, Wozniak, and Vandenberg (2010) explain, WC personnel must always consider how a SOC, with little choice of where it is broadcast from, can force students into disclosing details about their lives revealed through unintentional visual information. For instance, most students that I work with in SOCs welcome me into their bedrooms, where something as innocuous as a poster taped to a wall can reveal personal information about the student’s politics, class, sexuality, and so forth. While I am openly queer, I am also conscious about whom and how I share this information. It is why I keep a reproduction of Lucian Freud’s Sunny Morning—Eight Legs in my bedroom and not my office. Yet, throughout my undergraduate career, I shared a prison-cell-sized room with two other people; what is this luxury of an office you speak of? Study lounges are often occupied with other bodies and require quiet time, which is counter to the speaking element embedded in the appointment. Residence hall hallways are uncomfortable and trafficked. Living with a family can provide its own set of privacy obstacles. And it is not as if students can enter campus buildings in the evening and enjoy personal spaces. In many cases, bedrooms double as the only (semi)private spaces students have to welcome consultants into. Messages and all. Aside from the moral question of whether such a forced reveal is ethical to our work, at the very least this point merits a separate training consideration from FtF consultation work in that consultants need to be prepped how to ignore/respect these exposures.

Physical space for virtual needs holds implications beyond those directly controlled by the student. Returning to the conundrum of the limited options students have in hosting a SOC, consider a ubiquitous alternative to the dorm room: the coffeeshop. With its free Wi-Fi, bathrooms, air conditioning, outlets, and caffeine, these have become the modern equivalent of the public square. My concern with these public squares, as the name suggests, is that they are public—in both directions. The obvious issues are that consultants must contend with background noise and the distraction that is moving scenery, which Whittaker (2003) pointed to as a concern with the visual as interruption. Or, more bluntly, harassment (not of sexual nature), for these nuisances degrade the intimate nature of consultations. I do not want to raise my voice to compete with the barista yelling for Rebecca that her latte is ready. Similarly, it is difficult to embody the mental one-on-one interstitial space (Berry and Dieterle, 2016) of the consultation when other people pass in my line of sight. This is the very logic behind why WCs (and learning spaces of all kinds) operate in walled classrooms, offices, and private locations: the ability to construct a rhetorical space for learning wanes with interference. Such worries are reinforced by research that suggests the visual element in SOCs, unlike in FtF consultations, is less effective than audio-only consultations (Bradner and Mark, 2001) due to what is presented (e.g., a background is captured but not body language) not enhancing the interaction.

While these points get to the heart and soul of effective consulting, bear in mind that they may also be largely ancillary to the pedagogical problems that accompany public setups. While students might sign off (likely unintentionally) to FERPA concerns in having their work discussed/overheard publicly, consultants who log on and find themselves staring at a cappuccino maker (or any public landscape) consented to no such exchange. To execute our duties and meet with students, lest we turn students away then and there, we then sacrifice our privacy and work in plain view of others. To some consultants, I imagine this could be intimidating in a stage fright scenario and result in lackluster performances. And for others, like myself, I see consultants being very careful about what we say and how we work because 1) while we might say or do things in intimate moments with a student (e.g., when I shared my queer identity with X in an effort to bond with him), we will hold back in contexts where that intimacy is breached, and 2) we are attempting to minimize disclosing the student’s personal information by avoiding questions/conversations that approach topics such as professors, grades, and personal history. In certain ways, these scenarios are not new. Sibylle Gruber (1998) discussed the complications involved when various allegiances conflict for WC personnel (e.g., when a student plagiarizes and refuses to make the appropriate changes, to whom is the consultant responsible?). But in her exploration, the focus remained on the difficult choices WC personnel make as mediators (e.g., does a consult report the student to the professor or keep silent about the plagiarism?). What strikes me as different about these virtual scenarios is that consultants are positioned to “just lie back” until it is over. When consultants lose agency because of undesirable circumstances they have no choice in entering, how is that not the ultimate form of harassment? Is that what virtual WCs welcome us to?

Part V. Coda

Nontraditional students, post-secondary students not enrolled in traditional four-year institutions, students of lower socioeconomic backgrounds, and students of color—students who routinely are graduated at lower numbers their more traditional/privileged counterparts and are considered the ideal student for virtual writing centers—often have poorest digital literacy skills (Bancroft, 2016). Given a lack of digital fluency combined with the already mentioned concerns of SOCs, one might be tempted to ask why even bother? After all, the literature supports the position that when given the chance, consultants overwhelming prefer the quality of FtF consultations over virtual ones for the reasons that this article has highlighted as drawbacks to virtual spaces (Wolfe and Griffin, 2012). Yet, for all the benefits WC personnel tout with FtF consultation, a divide emerges because students themselves respond just as positively to SOCs and specifically praise them for their convenience—a key factor in distance education endeavors (Diaz and Cartnal, 1999 and Hannay and Newvine, 2006). Convenient for whom, though, and at the cost of what?

In the face of such points, I believe it essential to consider the words of J. T. Dempsey (2017), who offers a succinct and powerful rejoinder for the imperative to continue virtual work:

The students who have the hardest time utilizing a writing center are usually those who cannot attend or benefit from the traditional face-to-face consultation and need their writing support to take place online. This includes not only students with disabilities but also those handling depression, anxiety, and/or stress; taking online courses; or living in separate time zones. Additional factors include time restrictions (e.g., student athletics, full-time jobs, family obligations) and learning/writing processes (e.g., needing longer amounts of time to write or process feedback) (69-70).

Essentially, just as WCs have never been about making writing perfect but assisting writers to be better, SOCs are not about replicating reality as much as they are about offering assistance in their own ways. As Thomas, DeVoss, and Hara (1998) sum up, in WCs, we embrace technology when it complements our work and want to reject it when it makes waves, but rarely is an outright acceptance or shunning feasible (or desirable). Realistically, we must learn to inhabit the gray by applying a critical eye to the ways in which technology disrupts practice in order to figure out strategies for moving forward.

Beyond being practical advice, I cite this point because it echoes my own experiences with sexual harassment and how sexual harassment can serve as a lens for building critical frameworks to better WC work. When I finally regained my footing and sought to reclaim my WC after the incident with X, I determined to understand how what happened could have happened. In my search, I found some answers to justify his behavior, but I also discovered questions to issues I had never given any thought to (I for one never integrated conversations on interstitial space into consultant training). As unpleasant as the encounter was, it is why I have a better conception of virtual WCs and am a better consultant during SOCs.

Our WCs are not (and never were) metaphorical homes of the Bradys, Cleavers, or Huxtables. They are real ones filled with real people where bad happens. The lone house with the overgrown lawn nestled amidst a manicured neighborhood—where we warn others of visiting despite it being a part of our larger community. Life seems simpler if we pretend such homes do not exist, praying that these neighbors simply move away and a better-behaved family moves in. But such behavior is myopic. I hope that my example informs how others might similarly engage our field through the lens of their experiences to welcome us into the homes we have for so long avoided.

Author Biography

Robby Nadler is the Graduate Writing Specialist for the University of California, Santa Barbara.

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  1. The Bechdel test is a representation metric popularized through a cartoon strip by Alison Bechdel. It calls for a work (typically in the context of film) to consider if 1) two named female characters 2) talk to one another 3) about something other than a man. Given how basic these criteria are (and how easily attained they are if the genders are reversed), the test serves to elucidate how limited female representation is in media given the vast number of works that fail said test.
  2. It is important to note, however, that this was pre-Anita Hill. Using today’s standards are improper given the discussion of sexual harassment (and even knowledge of it as thing) was highly limited and often resulted (and still does) in severe workplace repercussions for the harassed.
  3. In discussing virtual WCs, it is important to distinguish between websites that offer content to assist writing (e.g., The Purdue OWL) and writing center consultations mediated through virtual means (Breuch 2005). This article deals with the latter distinction.
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