Constellating Writing Centers and Stories: Relationality in Practice

Ezekiel Choffel

As this issue is focused on understanding the role stories play in the formation of culture and the constellating of relationships, it is necessary to provide an example of what this can look like. When I first transferred to MSU in 2010, I was ready to take on the world. I was a budding economist (so I thought) and was lucky enough that someone from my community college was also starting at MSU and working in the writing center.

Within the first few weeks, I found myself in classes of 300+ students and working a job as a receptionist for the writing center. At first I struggled with this position because I had been a writing tutor at my community college and didn’t quite understand how it could be all that different at a 4 year university. Needless to say, I was extremely grateful for the financial gains as I was supporting myself through my MSU journey, just as I had at the community college, but saw the work that was happening between consultant and clients at MSU and wanted to be a part of that intellectual community in a more involved way.

After a few weeks, I began asking questions as to how I could transition into becoming a consultant. At first I gained little traction or knowledge because I didn’t really know who to talk to. I didn’t know the directors at this point and that seemed ungrateful and possibly unprofessional. I didn’t really know of the consultants, besides my friend who I wasn’t working with at the time.

One late evening during midterms, the library location was booked solid. We needed more people consulting, but one of the things I was realizing was the culture of midterms brought about an obsessive need to tighten every sentence. Lower order concerns were extremely high order concerns, given the context.

To be honest, I am not sure how it really happened, but once I realized that we had to turn away so many walk-in appointments I began asking a few additional questions, like: what are you working on? What are your concerns? Would it be a short or longer consultation? Getting a feel for what students needed, I began using the time in between check ins to help with seemingly quicker appointments, those appointments that wouldn’t fill in a full thirty minutes, but given the stress levels at the time the clients obviously needed someone to talk to.

One of the funny things about being a receptionist at this that time was that once the initial 5-15 minute blocks of each hour were over, I often would just work on my homework, but given the current situation I saw this as a chance to expand and possibly work my way into consulting.

The location of the highest consistent stress was the library, and it was only when I worked at the library did it seem that we had more potential clients than consultants available. After making it through midterms, Ben, the coordinator of the library center, started mentioning how I should really try to be consultant. He had been paying attention to the smaller troubleshooting tasks I had been taking on and when we first started working together, we discussed my previous history with tutoring writing, among other things, at my community college.

Ben encouraged me to talk to Trixie and Dianna and to try to get into the class that would allow me to become a full-fledged consultant. He helped me craft an email that was fitting and appropriate and, after the meeting and registering for the class, I thought it was just a matter of time before I could work as a consultant. What I didn’t realize was that the seemingly small tasks I was helping clients with when there wasn’t an available consultant demonstrated an ability to consult and, while am not exactly certain how or why, Trixie and Dianna agreed to let me consult as I was taking the class (an exception rarely given and I have a feeling that Ben talked to both directors as well).

The class wouldn’t count as credit toward my degree, but I had done the math and realized after one semester it would pay for itself. I really needed the pay increase, and that first year at MSU was not going as I thought it would. The Economics department had seen a 250% in enrollment the year I started MSU (according to one of my professors), and I wasn’t doing well in the huge class sizes as the biggest class I had ever taken before was 30 people. It was hard to get face time with any of the economics professors, and I did marginally well. However, the burden of these small failures was eased by the culture I was becoming a larger part of through the writing center. Ben and I had become friends, and we started hanging out more. I started to feel like an intellectual community was finding me, rather than me find it.

Time passes, as it always does, and I wasn’t an Economics major for very long. As my sense of community grew in the writing center, so did the clarity of the path I believed I should follow. I switched my major to Professional Writing and kept a minor in Economics. I immersed myself in Rhetoric and digital writing and continued to build my friendships. At the time, Ben was undoubtedly my closest friend, and I was slowly becoming friends with more people within the center. I loved the culture of learning when I would come in on wintry days. I was grateful for the continual trading of books to read on the sunny days. I had found a place where I belonged.

But, belonging is a weird thing. It involves risk and vulnerability, which were things I have never been good at, and people in the center always come and go. After Ben moved on to teaching we still saw each other fairly regularly, but I found myself working with new people in the center. One of these people was Elena (Lena). Lena brought me in on the developing of a few workshop projects, which helped me understand the larger structure of graduate school, which, for the first time in my life, was looking like a possible future.

It took longer to get to know Lena than Ben, as Lena was much further along in her PhD life, dissertating and working on specific projects that were really the only point of contact. Funnily enough, when Ben and Lena moved in together and became a couple, I was surprised but happy for them.

Things carried on. Shortly after finishing my first semester in the Professional Writing program, I started taking graduate classes. These courses were preparation, just in case I decided to go to graduate school. I wanted to know I could do it. In the meantime, Ben graduated and moved back to North Carolina to be a teacher and Lena needed a roommate for one semester. I was in a similar boat, as I needed one more class to have the credits to complete my major requirements. Ben suggested Lena and I live together for this last semester, and it was during this time our friendship began in earnest.

I got to see what PhD life looked like. I got to build a friendship that came about through a friendship. Lena was there for me when I was taking two graduate classes and two 400-level classes (financial aid would only cover my tuition if I was full time) and working as many hours as possible in the WC. We bonded over the difficulties of school just as Ben and I bonded over Magic: The Gathering cards. In many ways, we were becoming family.

Luckily for me, this has carried on. When I proposed the special issue on Cultural Rhetorics and the Writing Center to the TPR board, I knew I would need co-editors. I didn’t hesitate. I knew Lena was about to transition into the WC director position at her institution, and Ben had been active in the WC while teaching various Comp classes. These two people, despite 1,000+ miles of distance, had become part of my constellated academic family. While neither focused their work on Cultural Rhetorics, per se, both had a wide understanding of the theory and scholarship in writing centers. Our knowledges and experiences would complement each other as we brought this issue together. We would continue to build on our existing relationship to engage with, and expand, what it means to meaningful work and shift/continue the conversation of how various cultures impact how the writing center functions.

In many ways, this isn’t an academic story on the surface. It is a story of a friendship that required multiple navigations and particular sets of timing to be able to happen; however, what we are arguing is that these are the very stories that become increasingly valuable in systems where stories are often viewed as just that: stories.

I could have spoken to the incredible amounts of pressure and inability of the economics department to actually meet with their students beyond one or two office visits per semester and how the university structure in this department only had enough space for a few students and was unsure of how to move forward with such a rapid increase of students. However, these numbers are not unique, nor are they actually available as they came from word of mouth from one professor fairly high up in the Economics department.

I could have shown the writing center as this beautiful space for fostering relationships (which it often is), but not all the people I met there did such a connection make. Further, I could specifically point out the marginally special treatment I received being able to both take graduate classes as an undergraduate and consult while taking the gateway class to consulting.

I could have spoken to a lot of things, but here I chose not to. Not because they are not important but because sometimes a story is just that a story. (Powell) Here I ask readers to remember the quote often cited by Cherokee scholar, Thomas King, “The truth about stories, is that’s all we are.” (5)

What this story implicitly shows is three different people working in, through, and with an organization that works hard to establish its own sense of culture. Sometimes, this culture feels isolated from the rest of the university because of the unique position of being a resource that specifically focuses on helping people, but at the end of the day it is still part of the same university structure that often asks students to learn in classes of 300. How the writing center was constellated for all three of us at MSU was near center, but we each had networks that branched out and connected us to other nodes that constellated different. This is my story and, in my story, there are details that have been forgotten, but the affective response, the memories that are clear as day, still have meaning. I offer this story because it makes me vulnerable and that is something we need more of, so much so that the previous special issue TPR takes on the braveness required to be vulnerable. I am specifically breaking the expectations of an introduction in order to demonstrate that while no single experience, no single story, can peel back the manifold factors that allow culture to be built or function.

Much of my current work focuses on networks and understanding the constellating of factors that establish a greater meaning when looked at as a whole. That is my personal goal for this issue: to humanize the authors and to show how different approaches to cultural rhetoric, story, and relationality play out in everyday life. In order to do so, I had to provide an offering, a constellating of self in order to make sense of what follows.

We, the editors, have chosen to break up this special issue into three main parts due to the fact that our call for papers functioned on three levels. Since Cultural Rhteorics is relatively new (in namesake), we wanted to provide as many ways into this work as possible. We isolated two specific methods, storytelling and relationships, as means for seeing how others’ works fits within a Cultural Rhetorics framework. We knew, based on our constellated network of scholars, there would be those that would see direct connections to the larger principles of cultural rhetoric, but we also knew that since this definition functions on many levels, there would be scholars who would initially not see this connection but they had meaningful research on the stories of the Center and the relationships developed within.

In Fall 2016 I attended the Cultural Rhetorics Conference (CRCON) hosted at Michigan State University (MSU). As a former MSU graduate, I have played various graduate student roles in helping the conference organize its first meeting in 2014 and, in many ways, this was a homecoming for me. At the 2016 conference, I found myself wanting to explore further connections between the work of cultural rhetorics and the few sub-disciplines in which I have grounded my thought and theories. Surrounded by my academic family, I started to think about what my relationship to cultural rhetorics is. The conference itself has consistently been one of the most important events in furthering my interest in how the field of rhetoric and composition shapes and builds relationships with culture.

Specifically, I wanted to understand how culture becomes a slippery word that has vast potential for adaptation and application, yet is often seen as a static thing. I struggled to understand the homogenization of white culture and the implicit deployment of covert hegemonic strategies by structures much larger than myself: how a white male cis-gendered student passes through hegemonic structures and the surprise of scholars outside of that CRCON community when I mention my work in decolonial theories, Indigenous methodologies, and cultural rhetorics. In many of these cases, this hegemony is racist.

Institutions of higher education implement course structures that “teach” Americanism, often for no credit towards degree. It is impossible to not acknowledge the billion dollar industry that colleges can become. One of the primary locations where I saw this play out was in the Writing Center. While I am not quite so pessimistic that universities are all for profit, there is something to this claim. Many writing center scholars struggle to work through the seemingly never ending barriers of what to do with multi-languagers and international students. In an almost catch-22 situation, too much help means these students cheat; however, not enough help means that the system prevents much, if any, sense of achievement.

As often cited, but sometimes misunderstood, the aim of writing centers is to “help make better writers, not necessarily better writing.” Reflecting on my CRCON experiences, I wanted to explore how better writing is coded within university dictates and expectations. I wanted to know if better writing actually means a more thorough expression of Americanism and ubiquitous white culture. Yet, herein lies part of the difficulty of doing this work: What do we mean when we say culture? Is it a singular or plural concept? Is it the culture of the students coming into the writing center or the writing center’s culture? Is it the culture of the writing center, the department, or the larger university? We can easily follow this line of inquiry to conversations regarding the culture of a given university, and while this work is extremely important, it arguably provides little insight to how all of these cultures are constellated to and with each other.

Simply put: cultural rhetorics are the rhetorical devices deployed by a given culture to persuade, make meaning, or otherwise communicate. But as we see from “Our Story Begins Here”, this simple definition only peels back enough layers to start the conversations of institutional power.

Writing centers have long been hubs of both writing cultures and institutional cultures (see North, Grutch-Mckinney, Grimm, Denny, Idoche, and many others that discuss the intersection of institutional expectations and the cultures individual WCs attempt to build). Writers from across disciplines come to the writing center for clarification, help with their writing, conversation of topics and assignment sheets, etc. This list could potentially go past the point of having any real meaning, and I say this not to diminish this work, but rather the lived day-to-day reasons for writing center visits are nearly incalculable. Throughout the last decade or so, important topics to writing center research have come to foreground some of these consultation reasons to varying degrees, but at the end of the day writing centers are positioned as locations for institutional access and success.

The more seemingly grand narratives that are pervasive in writing center work, such as a “safe place” or “home-like,” uniquely position the writing center to engage in difficult conversations concerning writing, as well as conversations concerning the “humanness” of the writing center community.

One of the larger claims this special issue makes is that in order to maintain the integrity of the writing center as an agent for social change, it is absolutely necessary to understand the various agents at play in discussing and working on writing. What this looks like varies based on context, but what we are focusing on here are the various intersections of cultures meant broadly (certainly not just based on ethnicity or primary language, though these are extremely important factors in understanding university cultures), the stories that come from these intersections, and how these intersectional points become constellated relationships.

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