From Combat Zones to Contact Zones: The Value of Listening in Writing Center Administration

Kristi Murray Costello

I was at work with an unrelenting flu, quarantined in my office amid cough drop wrappers and tissues working on payroll, when one of the tutors poked his head in to say, “There’s someone on the phone for you.” He paused, raised one eyebrow and then added, “She asked for the manager.”

Oh great, I thought, but when I picked up the phone, I said as cheerfully as I could muster, “This is Dr. Kristi Costello.”

“Is this the Manager of the Writing Center?” She inquired.
I was too tired to correct her so I simply said, “It is. What can I do for you today?”

If you’re a Writing Center Administrator (WCA), you’ve inevitably picked up the phone to a similar call. Typically the tones of these callers mirror the one I reserve for people who have their dogs off-leash in our neighborhood. Though it happens on occasion that a faculty member calls me at the Writing Center to say, “hey, I just wanted to say that I think you and the Writing Center staff are swell and doing mighty fine work,” more often than not, when faculty members call me at the Writing Center, I can assume they are calling to argue that the Writing Center tutors are not doing enough to help their students, that they are unleashed, untrained, and out of control.

During my first year as a WPA and WCA, I kept (outwardly) calm and diplomatic during these kinds of conversations though a stream of expletives was surely flowing through my mind. In my second and third years, it was not unusual for me to point out, equal parts collegial and agitated, their ignorance of writing proficiency, language acquisition, and composition pedagogy. I would half-listen, focusing as much on my own annoyance as their words, offering canned responses rooted in the values of our field. I would respond to someone saying “my student went to the Writing Center and her paper STILL HAS ERRORS” by explaining that if this student, who the faculty member has described as an “underprepared writer who has the diction of a first grader” left the Writing Center with a perfect paper in Standard American English (SAE), it would actually be evidence that the tutor had over-stepped.

Next, in the vein of our friend, Stephen North (1984), I would have likely launched into an [unwelcomed] diatribe about how our goal is to make better writers, not better writing (p. 50). I might have even pointed to the study conducted by Doug Hesse (2017) and colleagues at University of Denver in which they “gather[ed] and analyz[ed] a corpus of 500,000 words of student writing from classes across the campus” finding that “well over 90 percent of the sentences coded clear and error free,” even though I don’t think that’s the point either. Plus, then they would follow that up by reminding me that our rural state school in Arkansas is not University of Denver, which would lead me into discussing the ways in which writing is not so unlike playing a piano, ultimately encouraging the faculty member to consider the difference between assigning writing and teaching writing. By the time the conversation has ended, they’ve taken a few tips, I’ve taken a few punches, and we’re both exhausted.

Funny enough, I actually thought I was good at these conversations because I got the opportunity to share my knowledge of the principles of T.E.S.O.L., Writing Center Studies, and Composition, Rhetoric, and Writing Studies with the callers. Yes, the conversations would start off tense, but because they would end with the colleague and I setting up a classroom visit or a tutor-led presentation on APA or the instructor making a commitment to discussing the conventions of writing in their field the next time they introduce an assignment or attending a WAC/WID seminar, I categorized them in the win column. Sometimes, depending on the nature of their original concern and the route our conversation took, I’d follow up the conversation with links to NCTE Resolutions like the 1974 Students’ Right to Their Own Language or attachments containing John Bean chapters, dropping the mic and thinking to myself, nailed it.

And yet, a few weeks later their students would be back at the Writing Center with comments on their papers like “Your main issue is that you are an international student” or “I couldn’t read past the first page– take this to the Writing Center.” This may be because, as Steve Sherwood and Pam Childers (2013), point out: “as members of various disciplines mix, they may fail to make their intentions clear, often because they quite literally speak different languages or because their disciplines differ so dramatically that they do not share assumptions” (p. 6). In fact, just the knowledge that Writing Center Studies, like all other fields, is a community of disciplinary practice with its own discourse, values, threshold concepts, and stories alone can catch some faculty members completely off guard, which can lead to tension from the start. Sherwood and Childers (2013) have explicitly acknowledged this tension and have offered strategies to ease it. In “Mining Humor in the Writing Center: Comical Misunderstandings as a Pathway to Knowledge,” they suggest using humor, in some circumstances to ease such tensions, suggesting, “One of our first orders of business—to prevent the wounded feelings or outright hostility misunderstandings can bring—is to relieve social tensions and build rapport with those we serve” (p. 6). I suggest the best way to build this rapport and set the stage for real work, real improvement, and real talk is to begin with listening.

Without so much as an exchange of pleasantries, the woman on the other end of the line, who I will refer to as Sue, leapt into a rant about her students and their lack of language proficiency, particularly one Japanese student who she characterized as an incredibly hard worker, but a “terrible writer.” This student, who I will call Henry, came to the Writing Center, but the paper he subsequently turned in to her “still had errors.” Because the department has a fatal flaw policy (three or more errors on a page result in failure of the assignment), Sue “had to fail him” on the paper. She discussed how she’d worked with Henry on several drafts and “just [doesn’t] know how to help.”

In Cheryl Glenn and Krista Ratcliffe’s (2011) introduction to Silence and Listening as Rhetorical Arts, they share a maxim from a 25th century B.C. Egyptian official: “to make a lasting reputation among those who hear you, listen” (Fox qtd. in Glen and Ratcliffe, p. 12). While it can be uncomfortable to invite someone to complain about us, our work, or our staffs, doing so shows them that you are taking their concerns, and by proxy, them, seriously. Faculty may have a lot they want to say, maybe even need to say. And some of it they mean, some of it they don’t, and some of it, they have no idea how it sounds. Nevertheless, listening and not jumping in to correct, scold, explain can help us get to the root of the issue in line with Anne Ellen Gelder, et al.’s argument that writing centers “[accomplish their] goals by saying less and doing more, in subversive and deliberate ways” (qtd. in Glenn & Ratcliffe, 2011, p. 6).

Perhaps it was this moment I started to see, just as Anita (2009) discusses, how the writing center can become a site for “negotiating politics of difference” and so too can the conversations writing center directors have with frustrated faculty colleagues (p. 31). Similar to the lofty goals we have for our writing center tutors—to oscillate between students, coach, and sometimes even therapist while negotiating the discourses, conventions, and expectations of multiple faculty, disciplines, and students— there is much to do, much at stake, and much potential in these conversations with concerned, possibly even confrontational faculty members who necessarily have different practices, hold different ideas, and have different expectations than we do. Particularly as we become more confident in our roles and our knowledge of the field, it can be natural to approach these differences promptly and head-on, perhaps even through condescension or agitation—I know I have done so on occasion.

Three common approaches to these conversations are: 1) getting angry/ defensive; 2) responding didactically (what a few of my colleagues and I have sometimes joked could be called adminisplaining); or 3) as a means of keeping the peace (and perhaps the business), resorting to typical people-pleasing behaviors, which might include not speaking up when or as much as one wants/needs to. Martha Cooper and William Nothstine explain this phenomenon further, discussing how when faced with discomfort, it is not uncommon to “naturally move (consciously or unconsciously) to reduce this unpleasant experience of tension by changing our attitudes or behaviors, thereby reestablishing equilibrium” (p. 69, qtd. In Sherwood & Childers, 2013, p. ). However, as Lorraine Code has pointed out, the “issue is as much about response as it is responsibility—response-ability” (qtd. in Qualley and Chiseri-Strater, 2007, p. 179). As Donna Qualley and Elizabeth Chiseri-Strater (2007) further explain, “Our responses to complex questions and situations are determined both by our “responsibility,” our ethical obligations, and our “response-ability,” our ability to respond and act in each situation” (p. 179).

So far I’ve been the hero in my stories about the interactions I had with frustrated faculty, the underdog Writing Center Director who protects her tutors and all student writers at all costs, who fights for fair and reasonable pedagogies and comprehends the nature of language acquisition. And maybe I am a hero, but certainly not an uncomplicated one, because the truth is that when engaging in these tense phone calls or meetings, I pretended to listen (and until recently, I even really thought I was listening), but really what I was really doing was waiting for my turn to speak. Additionally, while I tried to appear calm, I was often anything but. My natural instinct when hearing colleagues disparage my staff, our methods, or our student writers was to get angry, protective–anything but calm. I could hear my heart beating in my ears and I could feel my pulse racing and face reddening. If I’m being honest, my previous mantra was less about having a mutual and understanding dialogue, and more of Walter’s I‘m-calmer-than-you-are-approach from The Big Lebowski. Ratcliffe (1999) addresses this, asking the following questions:

Why is it so hard to listen to one another? Why is it so hard to resist a guilt/blame logic when we do listen? Why is it so hard to identify with one another when we feel excluded? Why is it so hard to focus simultaneously on commonalities and differences among ourselves? And how do the power differentials of our particular standpoints influence our ability to listen. (pp. 197-198)

I might offer as a response, at least, in terms of WCAs and other WPAs, that part of the difficulty of listening is the emotional and invisible labor expended on proving the worth of our work, our discipline and its values and threshold concepts, our centers, and, in some cases, our jobs on a consistent basis. Jackson, Grutsch McKinney, and Caswell’s (2017) study led them to “identif[y] three significant forms of labor our participants engaged in: everyday (administrative), disciplinary (knowledge-making), and emotional (relational and performative)” (para 2). The conversations I’m discussing in this piece can fit into all three of these categories.

So what now? Qualley and Chiseri-Strater (2007) explain, “it may be in the moments of vulnerability, these moments when our understanding seems tenuous, our knowledge and theories suspect, and our intentions questionable that we eventually find or invent a new rhetorical approach that will allow us to continue to do this work ethically and effectively in conjunction with others” (p. 172). This is where I believe/ hope/ suggest listening rhetorically comes in.

I’d like to say that I began taking such detailed notes because I was so interested in what Sue was saying, but it was more so because I was worried that the cold medicine I had taken was going to make me lose track of what she’d said, so she continued quickly and with intensity, while I took notes and listened:

I just keep marking the same things over and over and yet, there they show up again and again and again and– guess what, again. We talk after class for hours and it does nothing. Nothing. He’s only one student of a hundred and forty I have right now. I don’t even know why the university brings these kids in. They work so hard, but kids like Henry need more than I can do and if the Writing Center can’t help these kids, I’m not sure what your purpose is. All I want are smooth sentences that flow. And, these sentences! Did anyone even look at his paper? I mean what kind of training do these kids have to not be able to spot these mistakes– missing articles, everywhere. Comma splices. Misused prepositions. I want to be able to read the paper without marking the paper at every few words so I can focus on their ideas. He’s a smart kid. If I fail Henry, he’s on the next plane to Japan; if I pass him, my colleagues will see that I passed him and doubt me and my abilities and I’m not tenured. I’m good at what I do. I can’t risk everything for this kid. I’m in a real pickle here.

There was a time that I would have more clearly seen what she wasn’t doing in her classroom to support student writers than what she was doing. However, this time I was there, with her, present only in the moment, and nowhere else. I listened to the subtext of what she was saying and didn’t interrupt my listening with thoughts of counterarguments or suggestions.

Krista Ratcliffe (1999) defines rhetorical listening “generally as a trope for interpretive invention and more particularly as a code for cross-cultural conduct” (p. 17). In her book, Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender, Whiteness, among other things, such as showing how rhetorical listening can provide a foundation for “classroom practices that resist student resistance to conflict-ridden classroom discourse about race,” she engages in the important and specific task of establishing “rhetorical listening as a possible way for black and white women to work their way through, around, or past the impasse that has stalled productive dialogue between the two groups for decades” (Gerald, 2007, p. 145, 142). Though the rhetorical listening for which Ratcliffe (1999) advocates is not specifically centered around conversation and is instead viewed “on equal footing with the tropes of reading and writing and speaking” (p. 196), many of her points are still applicable and can provide a framework for a communicative path through another impasse: faculty members and Writing Centers. Ratcliffe(1999) further explains that rhetorical listening “may help us to hear discursive intersections of gender and race/ethnicity’ (including whiteness) so as to help us to facilitate cross-cultural dialogues about any topic” [emphasis added] (p. 196). Thus, if we replace “gender and race/ethnicity” with “disciplinary ways of seeing,” it becomes more clear how her framework can inform conversations with frustrated colleagues. While it would seem the work she is doing is incredibly different than the work I am doing here (and it is), Ratcliffe’s work provides several tenets that can serve as a theoretical basis for communicating the value and benefits of listening, in general:

  • Listening as “signif[ying] a stance of openness that a person may choose to assume in relation to any person, text, or culture” (Ratcliffe 17).
  • Listening as a means for “people to recognize the partiality of our visions and listen for that-which-cannot-be-seen, even if it cannot yet be heard” (Ratcliffe 73).
  • Listening as a contact zone of identification (identifications, disidentifications, and non-identifications), “a place to pause, a place of reflection, a place that invites people to admit that gaps exist” (Ratcliffe 72).
  • Listening as a means of recognizing “that a text or a person is associated with—but not necessarily representative of —an entire cultural group” (Ratcliffe 78).
  • Eavesdropping “as a form of listening rhetorically, with an ear to the purposes of language, speaker, and self, to a place where the listener is not addressee” (Gerard 144).
  • Listening as a means of encouraging others to share their stories and learn from each other (Ratcliffe, Chapter 5 “Listening Pedagogically: A Tactic for Listening to Classroom Practice”).

As Amy Gerald (2007) expertly summarizes in her review of Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender, Whiteness, Ratcliffe “articulates the concept of rhetorical listening as a hyper-awareness of our language and our identifications that can be a means of overcoming this binary thinking and increasing the likelihood of productive communication in resistance-prone discourse” (p. 142). In its ability to create a space for openness, hyper-awareness, attentiveness, and self-reflection, this method is not only effective in creating spaces for cross-cultural dialogue, but also in navigating and negotiating the cross-disciplinary conversations engaged in frequently by WCAs.

While I pull much of my theoretical framework from the work of Ratcliffe, Cheryl Glenn, Andrea Lunsford, and others, I also firmly recognize where and how my work is a more literal application of their scholarship than they likely anticipated, and I sincerely hope that my doing so in favor of better, more productive conversations and heightened mutual understanding with colleagues entrenched in different disciplinary cultures is in no way seen as minimizing the importance and innovativeness of their noble aims. Therefore, an important distinction is that, while they are setting the stage for rhetorical listening, I am drawing from their work to simultaneously illustrate the need for listening rhetorically. I define listening rhetorically as being present in the moment, not allowing your mind to drift to possible responses or unrelated matters, listening for understanding– not as a means of judgement, taking the time to process the information shared before responding, and, to borrow directly from Ratcliffe, listening as a means for “people to recognize the partiality of our visions and listen for that-which-cannot-be-seen, even if it cannot yet be heard” (p. 73). I further suggest that, if we take the time, patience, and care to listen closely and rhetorically to our colleagues and think through and respond to them rhetorically, instead of reactively and, to borrow from Shawn Wilson (2008), acting, instead of reacting (pp. 12, 16) , we can create the sorts of enriching cross-cultural dialogues for which Ratcliffe and Glenn (2011) advocate. We can also create cross-disciplinary conversations that will, as Joyce Irene Middleton (2011) suggests, “promote critical transformation, intervention, and honest conversations (rather than pointless agonistic debates)” (p.164). Further, expanding and improving our communication with and understanding of our colleagues toward creating a new, shared disciplinary culture–one that values and seeks to learn more about the knowledge, stories, and threshold concepts of not just Writing Center Studies, but also of our colleagues’ disciplinary communities–will help to create a new disciplinary and material reality because, as Wilson (2008) points out, “relationships do not merely shape reality, they are reality” (p. 7).

After about five minutes straight and two single-spaced, double-sided pages of notes, she finally stopped and said, “SO?!”

I used to think that I needed to address the whole rant. All of it. I thought that I needed to respond to every intentional or unintentional disparaging remark and every hypothesis that has been debunked in our field, that doing so was doing right by our students, my staff, and the profession. Now I realize that, in addressing the rant–all the things said out of frustration, anger, and exhaustion and unfamiliarity with my disciplinary culture–I wasn’t doing right by them and their concerns. In fact, I was often missing the real message. In her article, “When the First Voice You Hear Is Not Your Own,” Jacqueline Jones Royster (1996) asks, “How do we translate listening into language and action?” (p. 38). It was when I later sat down with my notes, reflecting on my conversation with Sue and how and why it had gone so much better and farther than similar conversations with colleagues in the past, that I realized that I had responded using basic counseling/ communication techniques and, in doing so, I was providing a response to Royster’s question.

I started to notice themes in my notes and even picked up on, despite her attitude, a genuine concern for her students, particularly Henry. In my notes, I had already started marking with stars every time she stopped talking about exclusively Henry and started talking about multi-language students, in general, signaled by her using pronouns like “they, their, and them.” She’d said, “I don’t even know why the university brings these kids in. They work so hard.” So the first thing I said was, “It sounds like you really care about your students.”

She sighed, “I do. I really do,”

I could tell that, in this moment, she felt relieved, seen, and heard, and we had forged an alliance.

Listening rhetorically can help validate the feelings and frustrations of our colleagues, while also, more importantly, helping the WCA better recognize the real issue/s that have led to their feelings of frustration. As Glenn and Ratcliffe (2011) explain in Silence and Listening as Rhetorical Arts:

individuals, as well as entire political parties, professions, communities, and nations, can more productively discern and implement actions that are more ethical, efficient, and appropriate when all parties agree to engage in rhetorical situations that include not only respectful speaking, reading, and writing, but also productive silence and rhetorical listening. (p. 3)

As Ratcliffe explains in her 1999 College Composition and Communication article, “Rhetorical Listening: A Trope for Interpretive Invention and a “Code of Cross-Cultural Conduct,” “the dominant trend in our field has been to follow the lead of popular culture and naturalize listening–to assume it is something that everyone does but no one need study” (p. 196). It seems to follow naturally then that WCAs spend more time reading about what to say during conversations with frustrated colleagues than when and how to listen.

I continued to acknowledge what had been said, using my notes, but moved forward with a re-framing of the issues using phrases like “it sounds like…” and “I heard you say…”

“It sounds like you’re saying that you are worried about this student and want to do right by the student—”

“Uh huh.”

“— but you are also concerned about what your colleagues in later classes will think if you pass this student.”

“Exactly.”

“It also sounds like you feel more comfortable working with the best writers in your classes, because you can focus on their ideas instead of their mechanics and grammar … is that correct?”

“Absolutely. I’m not an English teacher; I’m [a business] professor.”

Re-framing her statements in a more positive way gave the faculty member not only an opportunity to hear her concerns echoed by someone else, but it was also an invitation for her to interject without compromising the respectful discourse that had been fostered thus far in the conversation. I actually followed much of the same advice I give daily to our tutors for dealing with difficult or distressed students.

“Alright,” I said, looking at my notes, “I have some questions for you that I think will help me best help you and your student so just bear with me.”

“Okay,” she said.

I asked her to tell me about the goals of her class, how writing fits into those goals, what kind of writing she wants students to be able to produce, and about the best writers in her class, being sure to ask only one question at a time. This was a solution-focused approach; in explaining an excelling student, she was clearly identifying what she saw as not different, but deficient, in other students and was working toward a definition of what success looks like.

“So what do you focus on when you comment on Henry’s papers?”

“I can’t get past the grammar, not a single sentence goes by without me having to mark it.”

“What kinds of things do you mark?”

“Everything: word choice, punctuation, words that aren’t supposed to be there that are and words that are supposed to be there that aren’t. I mean you should see some of these papers.”

This questioning, “[simple, purposeful, and direct] open-ended questions that le[ad] to self-exploration” (Gladding, 2016, p. 64) is quite similar to the pretextual conversations Murphy and Sherwood (2011) encourage our tutors to use when beginning a tutoring session (p. 5) and include “any interactions between consultant and client that take place during the consultation but are unrelated to the paper at hand (Varma, 2009, p. 31). When it felt appropriate, I used socratic questioning to encourage her to critically examine and problematize her own ideas, beliefs, and practices.

Normally, I would have jumped in here and talked about different multicultural language patterns– specifically reflexive pronouns, articles, and verb tenses. I might have schooled her on the differences between accommodations, assimilationist, and separatist pedagogies. I certainly would have pointed to one of my go-tos: that “a foreign language relatively remote from English, may require a native English speaker 2,400 hours of intensive training under the ideal conditions provided by the Foreign Service” (Myers, 2003, p. 53). But I didn’t. Instead I asked, “So what is your goal for Henry?”

“Huh?”

“What does victory look like here? In an ideal world, if we had world enough and time, how would Henry’s writing be different, how would he sound when he left your class?”

“In an ideal world?” She asked, unsure.

“Yep. In an ideal world,” I reiterated.

She paused. I think she realized here that she didn’t actually have an outcome for Henry: “I want him to write… smooth, fluid sentences. Diction that makes sense. I guess I want him to sound… fluid… his prose more confident… you know…” There was a long pause. “American.”

“Is this realistic?”

She laughed. And, for the second time in the conversation, I could feel her releasing tension. “No. I guess not.”

“Why not?”

“Because he’s not an American.”

And this is when I knew we’d just done something great.

Together we’d clarified her concerns and expectations toward “grasping the essence of a message… [and] simplifying by focusing on the core of the message” (Gladding, 2016, p. 64). Another basic counseling technique.

I stepped back in, “Unfortunately, we can’t really do anything about admissions or how students are placed in your class today, though that may be something your department can address; but what we can work on together today is supporting Henry and other multi-language learners who are struggling with writing in your classes.”

“That sounds great,” she replied.

“So we know we can’t make Henry sound like a Native-English speaking American student, so let’s work together to figure out what can we do for him.”

“Thank you,” she said.

We agreed to set aside the problems we couldn’t do anything about and I summarized, or “pull[ed] together the important elements of [our] interaction,” to synthesize and reframe her concerns in the context of the director’s and the writing center’s role (Gladding, 2016, p. 64). In doing this, we narrowed the issues into manageable ones and brainstormed and problem-solved what the Writing Center could do and what she can do, as a teacher.

And this was when the conversation shifted from problems to problem-solving. I informed her about a patterns of error approach and she listened. Like really listened, asking good questions and taking notes. We also talked about what progress would look like, discussing this time not immediate perfection, but improvement over time. These were the same suggestions I’d often made to faculty members during such conversations, but because this time they came after I’d listened to and validated the faculty member’s experiences and frustrations, the suggestions seemed much more fruitful.

Acknowledging that she knows more about her class, students, and discipline than I do, I asked more questions, this time about her current practices and how they could be improved, occasionally but carefully speaking up when her response was antithetical to the fields of Writing Center Studies; Composition, Rhetoric, and Writing Studies; and T.E.S.O.L. Now that I’ve been using these methods for a while, I’m no longer as prescriptive as I used to be in these conversations. Instead of suggesting practices the faculty member may already use, I ask questions like, “have you ever used peer review in your courses?” And “have you considered only focusing on one or two grammatical issues per draft?”

In most of these situations, this is the time when we both realize that her frustration with the Writing Center may have been the impetus for her calling, but it was not the root of the issue and likely not the root of the solution. In fact, since adopting these techniques, my experience has been that the real frustrations faculty members have seldom actually pertain to the Writing Center and are instead systemic. Without clarifying and reframing the concerns, the issue can become so big, overwhelming, and multifaceted that it becomes impossible for any one person to solve and even easier for the writing center to become a scapegoat for one’s frustration.

While talking about how she might be able to adapt her instructional practices to best support these students, I now talk about how the writing center and I can help. And it’s great because I don’t have to engage in the what we don’t do conversation anymore. I can simply focus on what we do and, even more fun, what we can do. I used to interject with this part early, perhaps in an attempt to defend the writing center or perhaps in an attempt to move the conversation along quicker. However, talking about what the writing center could do early often kept us from talking about what the instructor could do and led to us having this conversation before the faculty member recognized their own role in the issues, and thus, they often asked for things we couldn’t do, either based on resources or ethics and principles of our field.

I used to presume that allowing these faculty members to say too much or speak too long about their frustrations with the tutors, our methods, their “lazy” students, and their “foreign” students made me complicit with their ideas. Furthermore, “because speaking out has long been the gendered signal of masculinity, silence has long been gendered ‘feminine,’ as a lamentable essence of weakness” (Glen & Ratcliffe, 2011, p. 4). I saw not speaking up, and quickly, as a sign of my weakness. There were even a few times I interrupted a complaint I saw as being racist, sexist, xenophobic, ableist, or classist with a introductory phrase like “now, wait just a minute, if you’re implying…” In doing so, I wasn’t just silencing them, I was silencing myself. I was single-handedly keeping our interaction from becoming a contact zone, and, as a result, stifling the potential of us to collaboratively examine these ideas, our practices, and our pedagogies as being rooted in these institutionalized “isms.” I was putting a cap on how productive our interaction could be. Certainly, I don’t let a conversation go by without addressing racist, sexist, xenophobic, ableist, or classist comments, but I now try to get at the root of the feelings and dissect and problematize them with the faculty, whereas, if I’m being honest, there were times I used to shame them for having them in the first place. In “Arts of the Contact Zone,” Mary Louise Pratt (1991) defines contact zones as “social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other” (p. 607). By beginning these conversations with listening rhetorically, our ideas meet, clash, and grapple with each other, but we don’t have to.

Among others, Ratcliffe, Glenn, Jessica Enoch, Frank Farmer, Nikki Giovanni, and Deborah Tannen have discussed the important and inevitable interplay of silence, listening, gender and ethnicity. In her article, “Rhetorical Listening: A Trope for Interpretive Invention and a “Code of Cross-Cultural Conduct,” Ratcliffe (1999) summarizes and ponders Tannen’s claims:

In our culture speaking is gendered as masculine and valued positively in a public forum while listening is gendered as feminine and valued negatively. Tannen further argues that our culture socializes men and women to listen differently: men often listen by challenging speakers to a verbal duel to determine who knows more and who is quicker on his feet; women often listen by smiling, nodding, asking questions and providing encouraging verbal cues (yes, uh huh, is that right?, hmmm) (142). In other words, men are socialized to play the listening game via the questions “‘Have I won?'” and “‘Do you respect me?'” while women are socialized to play it via the questions “‘Have I been helpful?'” and “‘Do you like me?'” (129). Thus gendered, listening subordinates not only women to men but listening to speaking. (p. 200)

While there is a lot to unpack, so much so that it would likely deter me from the point at hand, I provide, instead, my own trepidation with encouraging anyone–particularly anyone who is traditionally marginalized–to be silent given the many forces always working to silence women, women of color, men of color, men and women with visible or un-visible disabilities, those of us who identify LGBTQIA, and others. That being said, I also see listening rhetorically and the silences that can accompany it as rhetorically powerful, adhering to Glenn’s view that silence can be “a deliberate, positive choice” (qtd. in Glenn and Ratcliffe “Introduction”). Further, Joyce Irene Middleton discusses how “silence as a form of rhetorical delivery,” a concept theorized by Glenn, “is both provocative and useful in fostering honest cultural and personal human engagement” (qtd. In Ratcliffe and Glenn 5). Thus, I strongly believe that our listening, and, at times, even our silence, can lead to new ideas, relationships, and deeper, more sustained dialogue. In these moments, I don’t see myself as weak, silenced, or meek, but instead, strong, savvy, patient, and powerful.

That being said, I’ll be honest with you, particularly at first, these conversations were tough. The first time was easy because I was sick and exhausted and didn’t feel like talking, but during the subsequent couple of times, for the first several minutes of the conversation, I felt like a Kristi-shaped punching bag. Then, after a few tries over several months, I started to get the hang of it. Like any other method, it took practice and patience, though I would say no more so than it took to learn to put my pen down and read a student’s paper all the way through without making marks when training for my first job at a writing center.

I have also learned the hard way that the three steps I’ve outlined here, practicing listening and silence rhetorically, clarifying and re-framing, and narrowing and problem-solving, are not the right approach for every situation, every day, and there are ways to adapt these methods, if needed. For example, in instances where time has been an issue, I have stopped the caller when the logic started to get circular, being very careful not to seem silencing and recognizing that there may be consequences to halting the conversation. I recommend doing so through acknowledging and validating their frustrations through phrases like, “wow, that sounds frustrating.” Listening rhetorically is not an approach to use if we’re already feeling a little wounded, punchy, or hangry, because active listening and listening rhetorically can’t be faked [subtext: I’ve tried]. Just like they need to be ready to talk, we need to be ready to listen. In fact, one day, upon learning that the Writing Center was likely to lose about half of our staff, I said to a faculty caller who was venting, “are you finished?” I wanted it to come out like, “tell me everything, get it all off your chest. I’m here.” Instead, it sounded like I was challenging her to a duel and she responded in kind.

And, of course, there are some faculty members who aren’t ready to talk solutions. They want to roll around in the problems and will contradict or problematize all of our suggestions. Though I am often able now even to get through to these colleagues, there was one time that I finally said, “if you don’t want to send your students to the Writing Center and you don’t want to talk about your teaching, I’m not sure how I can help you. If you think of any specific ways I can be of help or want me to help you generate some options, my line is open.”

In the end, the real shift is that I’ve finally given up on being right and, in doing so, am finally doing right by our students, Center, university, and discipline. Approaching interactions with disgruntled faculty as contact zones and sites for listening rhetorically has enabled me to share disciplinary knowledge without seeming like I’m disciplining my colleagues. Wendy Bishop said, “All of us make a difference, moment by moment, one person at a time, in how we teach and learn. Follow and lead. Read and understand. Write and change—ourselves and others” (qtd. in Bloom, 2002, p. 68). Along these lines, I am finding that as news of these conversations travels, more and more faculty colleagues, departments, and even colleagues want to have real conversations about how to foster not only better student writing, but also better student writers. In fact, I credit several of these conversations, at least in part, to some of our writing program’s recent and rapid growth, specifically in our increased tutoring sessions (we are now consistently seeing more than a third of the student body), embedded tutor relationships (increased by 50%), grant partnerships (two new partnerships in the last year), and discipline-specific upper-level writing courses (Writing for STEM will be a requirement of all STEM students as early as next year). Faculty members’ frustrations used to sometimes lead them to sharing the narrative with their students that we couldn’t help them (perhaps driven by our previous too-forceful resistance to being seen as a fix-it shop). This too seems on the mend. The new narrative seems to be, “have you tried the Writing Center?”

So it’s happening less and less these days, but when I do hear the voice on the other end say, “Is this the manager of the Writing Center?” instead of retreating into my shell or taking the gloves off, I’ve come to look forward to them, seeing them as opportunities instead of workplace hazards, which enables me to approach these instances and my colleagues with the same level of understanding, kindness, and patience that we ask our tutors to practice in their sessions everyday. And, yes, their tone may begin akin to that I reserve for people who have their dogs off-leash in our neighborhood, but I now try to keep in mind that I use that frustrated, agitated tone not because I am anti-dog or anti-mirth (there are in fact few things I love more than dogs and mirth), but because I love my dogs and want to protect their safety at all costs. These colleagues are taking time out of their day to call or come by because they care deeply about students. Since I do, too, we can begin the conversation knowing that we have at least one thing in common. Or at least I can. And, if I play my cards right, soon they’ll see it too, and then we can really get somewhere.

References

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