Big Happy Family

Dianna Baldwin
Lauren Brentnell
Elise Dixon
Jerrice Donelson
Kate Firestone
Rachel Robinson

In the fall of 2016, we, a group of graduate writing coordinators, consultants, and one of MSU’s Writing Center directors, set out to create a survey to better understand concepts of “peerness” among consultants—both undergraduate and graduate—in our writing center. When we began this research study, we hoped we could better understand how we could create deeper bonds between graduate and undergraduate consultants, following the assumption that bonding would be a commonly held desire. Essentially, we hoped to learn more about how we could increase feelings of collegiality and closeness among our consultant peers, to help us to become “one big happy family.” In this way, we unintentionally conflated peerness with family and the writing center with home. Peerness, we reasoned, had the potential to alleviate the strains of the in- and out-group divisions resulting from our lived experiences and professional aspirations all living “under the same roof” of our center. Many of us graduate assistants in the study, in particular, wanted ways to call in undergraduate consultants—to mentor them into our perceived family so they might have similar opportunities for research, professionalization, and input on our Center’s many projects and structures. Indeed, the core of our mission was to find ways to make incongruous pieces fit; to use the Writing Center’s unique positionality as an oftentimes marginalized unit within the university hierarchy to work toward flattening the reproduction of those hierarchies in our own organization.

However, listening to the stories told by both undergraduate and graduate consultants, as well as sharing our research story with our fellow consultants not involved in the study, revealed that the concept of a “happy family” within the writing center is complicated and, in many ways, unattainable. As we examined consultants’ responses to the surveys we sent out, we were surprised to see that consultants had multiple reasons for deciding to work in the writing center. Very few of those reasons had to do with making friends or cultivating relationships outside of professional endeavors. Additionally, when asked about interpersonal interactions with each other, consultants were generally ambivalent toward the social aspect of the center, regardless of whether they perceived social interaction to be of high or low quality. As a group, we began to acknowledge that, instead of assuming this community had a set of common goals and desires, it was important to listen to their individual stories to better understand what people wanted in their community. In the process of studying existing relational models in our Center and attempting to engineer new ones, we realized such work was impossible without first interrogating our own, individual experiences of peerness in the Writing Center. Without understanding these experiences and the assumptions we formed from them, how could we empathetically (and accurately) understand how current consultants conceptualized peerness? In our response to this question, we acknowledge that stories constellate our relations by “putting us into relationships with people, their stories, and their histories” (Dixon, 2017). Listening to the stories of community members and telling our own stories of what it means to attend to them is a critical goal of this piece.

We approach this article with the belief that stories are central to meaning-making and community building. For us, telling and interweaving the stories of our relationships to family, peerness, and the writing center as home has allowed us to see that the “grand narrative” of writing center as a comfortable home is inadequate. In this way, stories sometimes reveal difficult or unpleasant truths. Our practice of storying families and home allows us to challenge the writing center community’s lore around peerness, family, and comfort. Storying is a community practice that is valued in a cultural rhetorics framework. A cultural rhetorics orientation toward writing centers might suggest that

cultures are made up of practices that accumulate over time and in relationship to specific places. Practices that accumulate in those specific places transform those physical geographies into spaces in which common belief systems can be made, re-made, negotiated, transmitted, learned and imagined. (Powell et al., 2014, Act 1).

Thus, writing center communities are created, defined, and perpetuated through practices that accumulate over time to create commonly held belief systems. The concept of a writing center as a cozy home, then, has been developed through years of scholarship, lore, and practice. We share our stories here as a way to highlight our own intersections and practice the very thing our study attempted to engage: the creation of a community of empathetic peers willing to share.

While we asked for some of these stories from others who worked in the writing center during our study, we also want to reveal our own relationships with the writing center because these stories can help reveal our sense of relationality and illustrate how we view peerness and community within writing center spaces. In doing so, we visibilize our connections to each other, but also reveal the messiness that writing center work and relationality can feel like, a messiness that we find productive. Each of us has asked of ourselves a few questions: How do we view the writing center space? How do we interact and relate to others who are also in this space with us? In what ways do we see the people we work with in the center as members of our own family? How do we fit into a familial role in this space? Do these roles help intensify the “home” lore of writing centers?

Our stories show that there is no one way to describe peerness or relationships in the writing center. Each of us has a different approach to what this work feels like as an embodied experience. For some, the writing center has been a space of home and familial relationships. For others, it is instead a corporate space, one in which we do our jobs and then go home, relating to others only as co-workers. Many of us fall somewhere else as well, viewing the writing center as a safe/brave space, or an unsafe space, or a place with centers and margins like so many other spaces. In telling our stories, we offer each of these perspectives, but then we also reflect on what that means for our sense of relationality to each other. What does the writing center constellation look like when so many of us approach this work differently?

Kate’s Story:

As a transnationally, transracially adopted person, family, home, and peerness have always been loaded affairs for me. Born in Korea, I was adopted at three months of age by a white family and raised in the predominantly white rural suburbs of central Pennsylvania. I have always known my family’s love and support, yet I can say now that it was easier for me to recognize when I was younger. Daily affected by the starkness of my racial difference, in those days I did everything I could to avoid racialization by my mentors and peers. I distanced myself from all things and all people “Asian”; I refused to attend the annual Korean adoptee and adoptive family dinners hosted over the holidays by the adoption agency; I tried to be and look like my friends; I tried to be and look white.

Indeed, I am a person who is always looking for family, home, and peerness. I have unconsciously and consciously dedicated my life to finding, making, and maintaining them, and the Writing Center at MSU is one of the many places where I’ve been able to do this. While serving as the Coordinator of Graduate Writing and a consultant for the center, I have been fortunate enough to work one-on-one with several Asian and Asian American graduate students. Working with these folks has been monumental to my personal and professional development, as our sessions shapeshift throughout the hours from professional to personal and back again. Together, we’ve cultivated relationships that intentionally go beyond the tutor/client construction. We hang out outside of the Center. We go shopping together. We cook together. We talk about our lived experiences. We support one another.

I realize now that these relations, just like the ones of my upbringing, are partial; a reality that the cultural rhetorics practice of constellating helps me negotiate. Phil Bratta and Malea Powell (2016) note constellating recognizes that knowledge is “accumulated through collective practices within specific communities” and that these collective practices “are what create the community; they hold the community together over time even when many of them are no longer practiced day-to-day but are, instead, remembered as day-to-day events” (para. 12). These relationships with my peers have been and continue to be instructive to me, pedagogical. Additionally, they are sustained in a variety of places and spaces across time, of which the writing center is one.

The Korean international students I work with, in particular, have helped me negotiate family, home, peerness, race, ethnicity, and national identities. For instance, a standing appointment I have with one particular Korean international student usually looks like this: We work on her job application materials, then take a break to talk Korean media, cooking, and, sometimes, she teaches me Hangul and vocabulary. She always comes prepared and sends me home with Korean snacks. She, as well as two other Korean international students I work with on a regular basis, have offered, repeatedly, to host and show me around Korea if and when I decide to return for a homeland tour. I am indeed familiar with the ways writing centers are and have been problematic; yet, experiences like these remind me that they, just like family, peerness, and home, are also many other things simultaneously.

Lauren’s Story:

While working for the writing center, I often take on positions that place me outside of the main writing center space/home. For example, I have run several graduate writing groups, which meet in different spaces both on and off campus, facilitated the writing center’s outreach through campus-wide freshman orientation where I talk to incoming students about the center’s resources, and currently work for a writing center WID-type program where I run writing studios for freshman students enrolled in the health sciences’ version of first-year writing. In addition, I work hourly for the writing center, which means that I am in the center less than those on a full assistantship. These experiences have often made me feel like I am outside of the writing center’s main “family”—something akin to a distant cousin who shows up occasionally on holidays.

Because I exist in this kind of marginal writing center role, I am often left out of the “main” writing center’s conversations and activities. While MSU’s writing center strives to create social events like game days and bowling nights that include everyone who works in the center, I rarely (if ever) attend these, partly because I feel my position in the center is liminal. I love the jobs that I do with the center—my graduate writing groups have created friendships that extend beyond our group itself, and my writing studios this year have connected me to students on a part of campus I rarely see as a humanities PhD student—but when I attend large WC events like our semesterly orientations, I often feel that I have little to contribute to help those who have more normal writing consultant positions.

Like Elise explains in the story she tells later, I have experienced harassment by other writing center workers that includes both physical harassment as well as judgment and questioning of my bisexual, queer sexuality. My positive connections with writing center workers have often occurred because of relationships outside of the center itself—through connections in classes, shared office space, or other areas. In other words, the “center” of the writing center has never been where I found my home or my family. Instead, I live on the center’s margins, which contains its own kind of political and social difficulties, while also simultaneously allowing for incredible experiences with folks who also often exist outside of the center.

The original research project we undertook surveyed writing tutors, many of whom were on assistantship or who worked in the center for a long time and who felt strong connections (whether positive or negative) to the center. My involvement in this project has often made me wonder what my contribution to the writing center space is and can be. What can the distant cousin offer to the family, who has their own traditions and conversations that exist outside of the work that I do?

In order to answer this question, I found myself adopting a cultural rhetorics approach to the center that meant reforming how I approach these writing center relationships. If we view the center as a constellated network of relations, rather than as a space of centers and margins, then perhaps those in roles like mine can find ways in which we both contribute to the dialogue of the writing center as a whole and to our individual relationships with people within it. I have other stories to tell—stories about how my writing studios have influenced my approach to both pedagogy and to facilitating writing groups, stories about how working freshman orientations has helped my consulting because I have become more aware of the questions that new students come into the center with—and the importance of listening to these stories, which occur outside of the main center but still influence the work within it, is underscored by cultural rhetorics work.

Elise’s Story:

There was a time when I thought of the writing center as a kind of family. I’ve worked in four different writing centers over the course of ten years, and in each one I developed intimate friendships with my fellow consultants and some clients. Writing centers have been an integral part of my undergraduate and graduate education, and because of that it’s hard not to conflate my peer-to-peer relationships in the center with family, and, therefore, with comfort. That being said, writing centers have also been a source of deep discomfort for me. As I have written in previous pieces, I’ve experienced sexual harassment from both clients and fellow consultants that have caused me to question the comfortable, familial community that writing centers are sometimes known for in writing center lore and scholarship (Dixon, 2017).

For example, writing center lore already suggests that writing centers are supposed to replicate cozy homes. Borrowing from Jean-François Lyotard’s conception of the metanarrative, Jackie Grutsch McKinney (2013) argues that writing center scholarship and its accompanying lore has, over time, created a specific “grand narrative” about what writing centers are (supposed to be). In particular, McKinney (2013) cites the contention that writing centers are “comfortable, iconoclastic places where all students go to get one-to-one tutoring on their writing” (p. 3). However, most writing center practitioners would suggest that such a dynamic replicates harmful gender stereotypes about women and heteronormative family structures. Additionally, scholars have since argued that indicators of home, like couches and plants, replicate white, middle-class domiciles; indeed, these cozy centers are still

culturally marked. If a writing center is a home, whose home is it? Mine? Yours? For whom is it comfortable? Everyone, likely more than once, has entered another person’s home and immediately felt uncomfortable, however welcoming the host or however strong our desire to be there. (McKinney, 2013, p. 25)

Thus, the concept of the homey writing center that houses one big, happy family of consultants and directors is problematically tied to images of a white, middle-class family replicating itself to perpetuate the means of capitalist production (Foucault, 1976).

I know these problematics all too well. What does it mean that writing center scholarship and lore sometimes mirrors the creepy, capitalist, white, cis family structure? In my own experiences, it’s meant that I’ve done a lot more labor as a woman in the writing center than my male counterparts. It’s meant that I’ve seen trans, non-binary, and gender deviant friends get misgendered, ignored, and avoided in writing center spaces. It’s meant that I’ve seen my friends of color get mistaken for other people of color by clients and consultants in common micro- and macro- aggressive behaviors. It’s meant that my bisexuality has been undermined, disrespected, and hypsersexualized by fellow consultants in hushed gossip in the corners and conference rooms of the center. To act as if we who work in the writing center are all one “big happy family” ignores the disparateness of our experiences, the ugly moments where oppositional ideologies bump up against one another, the sad and scary experiences that are swept under the rug in the name of creating cohesion.

Dianna’s Story:

I began my writing center career like most, as a consultant. But that is where the similarity between my experience and that of most ends. After joining the writing center as a 40+ year old multi-career woman, the rhetoric of writing centers as places of home and/or family began to trickle through the day-to-day job of tutoring. We had bi-weekly staff meetings where we might read pieces from leading writing center scholars such as North and Bouquet, and while the language might not directly use words like home or family (although that too exists), that idea seemed to be written between the lines in many scholarly pieces.

It wasn’t, however, a rhetoric that I thought about much. I mean, I had a home and a family. I barely had time for what I had, why would I want the responsibility of extended family?! Of course we had a coffee pot and a bowl of candy in the center, and when I wasn’t consulting I sat and chatted with other consultants, but that’s where it ended for me. A sense of peerness with these younger graduate students just wasn’t there. I didn’t hang out with fellow consultants during off hours, and I only attended end of semester gatherings because it was frowned upon to not do so.

And why would I want to? No one knew me. No one knew that my family consisted of a partner of 15+ years, three dogs, and three cats. When I decided to plan a surprise commitment ceremony for her and I, I told no one at school. I had come from the military where “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was key in surviving gender politics. In discussing writing centers and gender politics, Harry Denny (2010) notes that writing centers do not “have techniques and strategies to cope [with gender politics] because the sort of pedagogical enforcing of gender happens in compulsory, hegemonic ways” (p. 102). This certainly felt true of the writing center I worked in at the time, and in the South I wasn’t about to start taking chances with my new career before it even got started.

Fast forward to that new career where things are quite different. I’m no longer in the closet in any part of my life and that feels good. But what I keep reminding myself is that the idea of home and family and of who or what that consists of isn’t the same for everyone. McKinney (2013) warns us that to think of writing centers as cozy homes obscures who we are and where we come from, our social class, our race, our gender, our stories (p. 28). Can some writing centers be a place where people find meaningful relationships that feel like family? Of course they can, and they do. But that is much different than thinking of writing centers as places where family just exists. It doesn’t, not for everyone. And those left on the margins can leave the center with a very different experience from those in the center. I went from a writing center where I never felt like it was anything more than a job, to one where I can at least say I feel at home in myself. My story, my one little part of the bigger constellation of our writing center’s identity, can now be told. This highlights the importance of stories and why each person’s is required, no, needed to make up this constellation of writing center experiences. No one story is more relevant or important than another, just different.

Jerrice’s Story:

My experience with seeing family and peerness in the writing center was not a concept I saw as imperative to working in the writing center. As a Black returning adult student, I accepted a position in my previous university’s writing center as an opportunity to work with students’ writing as a teaching major in English. Coming from a corporate work environment, I experienced peerness often as performative, purposely lacking a sense of genuine humanness. As one of the only Blacks and graduate student consultants at my previous writing center, my role morphed into activism and leadership with more frequent associations with cross-campus faculty and administrators. Viewing this experience retrospectively, this change in association may have been the catalyst that caused a distancing between me and the other consultants, leaving me with the sense of feeling alone while attempting to create an actual “work” community among the other consultants. This distancing feeling was often echoed with the lack of participation from the consultants in creating and facilitating cross-campus community initiatives and writing center events along with a lack of interest with wanting to collaborate ways to enhance visibility of the work we did in the center. In turn, I saw the idea of continuing writing center pedagogy as the only positive, as being a consultant among consultants did not leave me the impression of the “warm and fuzzy” as a work space or as a co-peer environment.

When I decided to pursue advanced research in pedagogy and writing studies, the excitement of going to yet another university’s writing center was met with anxiety and was more hopeful than expectant of a differing experience. Once becoming a graduate coordinator at my current writing center—although somewhat open to the “one big happy family” in theory—I was reluctant to experience this new environment any differently than any other workplace, corporate or otherwise, as I found myself once again in the minority being one of the very few Black consultants. Seeing the lack of diversity in the writing center as well as observing the existing “cliques” was definitely reminiscent of both my corporate workplace experiences and previous writing center, fortifying my feelings of unwillingness to interact beyond workplace performances. Although there were instances of engagement where it was intentionally presented to be “one big happy family,” those who were already familiar with one another projected a monopolizing vibe of “equal but separate,” mirroring my previous workplace observations and experiences. Collectively, it is safe to say my experiences are also inclusive of my own behavior and willingness to interact or present my identities or parts of in a way I feel comfortable. However, in my opinion, doing so would be just as performative as those I have observed, which is not a role I am eager to take on as I see no benefit for me or the “family.”

Rachel’s Story:

I started working in writing centers in the fall of 2002. During that time, my writing center—the “developmental lab” that mainly served student athletes on scholarship and in developmental classes—did not feel welcoming to me; it wasn’t home, and I didn’t feel a kindredness towards my fellow tutors. We were there to do a job—mostly edit—and go about our business. The room was a former classroom with four rows of computers, so I engaged with my peers across and over screens and monitors. The following year, when I began graduate school, I started working in our school’s main writing center, and my feelings about every aspect of the center changed. Not only did this place feel like my academic home away from home, these people felt like more than peers; they felt like family. I honestly knew—because of our shared struggles and successes, because we shared with one another—that the consultants going through the daily slog of graduate school with me in the writing center were my compatriots. From my point-of-view, we (undergraduates and graduates mingled together) were the poster children for the grand narrative of the writing center family: we worked together, played together, loved together, fought together, failed together, and succeeded together. What made that feeling change when the space changed?

Coming back to the writing center as a consultant in the fall of 2016 was markedly different. In my eleven-year absence as a student, I’d been a faculty member and writing center administrator. Returning to the place of my scholastic roots was humbling, and it also made me realize how much “home” can change within the writing center and how my own association with peerness had become complicated through my life experience. In this way, I had to relearn how to exist in writing center spaces; my own embodiment based on my past understanding was not working any longer. Now, I had to remember how to “‘dwell’ and ‘inhabit’ [writing center] spaces” instead of simply moving in them (Monberg, 2009, p. 26). I was no longer at the same institution, but the nostalgia around the narratives I knew drew me back. This return created in me a sense of longing for what I’d had eleven years ago, and I worked hard to establish it, but I was different. This difference prevented me from finding my family, and my peer relationships in the center became diffracted by my own baggage. Several times during my first semester back, a consultant—undergraduate or graduate—would come up to me with a question and, once I answered it, would then say something like, “How long have you been here? You know everything!” While the compliment was ego-boosting, it was also difficult to situate because I wasn’t in the position to “know everything” again; I was in a position to (re)learn. My peers saw my experience as a tool, and I saw it as baggage. How was I ever supposed to create a family with people who would never see me as an equal? Was that even something I still wanted?

Finale:

While this article originated as a story of a research study’s problems, “the practice of story doesn’t always feel good, and the stories produced in that practice aren’t always happy celebrations of our community’s accomplishments” (Powell et al., 2014, Act II, Scene 3), precisely because they implicate and call us to action, or at the very least recognition. For this reason, stories help us to “critique the discipline and produce new ways to participate in it” (Powell et al., 2014, Act II, Scene 3). Indeed, the practice of storytelling reminds us of the “interconnectedness of the human experience” (Boylorn & Orbe, 2014, p.15), whether we are a happy family or not.

Yet, how are we to think about community, family, and peerness in our own writing center moving forward? Essentially, we have to ask ourselves the question: Does the grand narrative of a writing center as family oversimplify or overlook our consultants’ individual stories of their relationships in and with our center? When we began our original study of peerness in the writing center in the fall of 2016, we thought we’d perhaps uncover data that supported the grand narrative of the writing center as a cozy, comfortable, welcoming home for everyone, and in that home a family of peers, peers of different educational levels, yet peers with a common interest in helping writers. We assumed all consultants would see our center as a space to make friends and create a kind of family within the “home” of the writing center. We wanted to know if consultants valued flattened hierarchies, if everyone who worked there felt comfortable and familial toward one another, and if working together in an environment as intimate as a writing center naturally fosters bonding among consultants. What we found was more complicated, and our own stories of “finding” or not finding family in the writing center experience are perfect examples of that complication.

One of those specific complications arose when we examined peerness among graduate and undergraduate consultants. Consultants reported feeling like the writing center felt more populated with cliques, and that each of our locations, staffed by both undergraduate and graduate consultants alike, felt uniquely different—not always in a positive way. When thinking about this data in terms of our expectations, the clique critique was perhaps surprising, but ultimately understandable given the unique nature of writing center work. Centers bring together a diverse group of people, all with individual stories to tell, and attempt to harness them under the umbrella of a community. Centers try to force a simpatico narrative around their consultants, when, in actuality, the narrative should be problematized by the individual stories contained therein. Thomas King (2003) warns us about the stories we tell because they could set a path in motion that changes our orientations. He says, “Stories are wondrous things. And they are dangerous” (p. 9). At the beginning of our original research project, we didn’t consider the individual stories of the consultants in our center and instead relied on our assumptions that the grand narrative of writing centers would also be our narrative. We approached our research in an objective way when the ethos of interpersonal relationships—those a writing center is built upon—calls for individuality. Our own individual experiences in the centers should have been indications of this danger; however, in our desire to see a family, we missed the members.

Shawn Wilson (2008) cautions that being objective in one’s research brings with it “the idea of separating before we can unite, or of looking for the smallest individual component before seeing ‘the big picture’” (p. 56). The “big picture” of our writing center is that consultants might not feel like peers due to different workloads, different demands in their schedules, different social groups, different age groups, and different levels of experience. In our rush to “objectively” call ourselves peers and family, we neglected to look at “the total person and the complexity of the connections and relationships that allow that individual to function” (Wilson, 2008, p. 56).

Broadly, this project has made us question what it means to perpetuate the family narrative in our writing center space. In our quest to create a comfortable space that provides a homey atmosphere for our clients, we realize that we might be missing out on the bodies in the center doing the actual daily labor. Dorothy Allison (2016) says,

Those of you who work with trauma survivors know that yes, creating the story, creating the narrative, is useful and it has the possibility for a lot of healing work to be done. But it fixes nothing; changes nothing. That work we do in engagement with our story is separate from the narrative we construct for it. (p. 250)

Applying this idea to writing center studies, we believe that, in order to truly cultivate worthy and valuable consultant-to-consultant relationships, we need to engage with those individual stories and let them organically create our center’s narrative, as risky as that act might be. Recognizing stories as embodied practices that may not always resonate with grand narratives (of peerness or of family, for example) means recognizing the need to engage with bodies and stories before these narratives. Simply, it means being willing to share our stories with one another and to listen to those shared—and silenced—stories even in their messiness. Doing so just might help us (re)see each other anew.

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