Queering the Air: Increasing LGBTQ+ Inclusivity in the Writing Center

Nicholas Reich

The English department at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) requires students taking developmental writing courses to visit the University Writing Center (UWC) eight times during the semester. This requirement is in place to ensure students taking these developmental courses have one-on-one help figuring out assignments and planning, writing, and then revising their essays – at least two visits per major writing assignment. Visits from these students make up a substantial portion of the traffic our center experiences throughout the year. We welcome these students excitedly. We train our staff on methods for catering their advice to these students. We also host orientation meetings for each of these developmental classes – of which there are many – to explain all the ways we can serve them as they tackle their first college-level composition course. Unfortunately, our efforts to accommodate these students are not always met with the greatest appreciation. This is not to say we expect automatic appreciation from our clients; we constantly strive to improve our services by listening to students via anonymous feedback forms. But there is a particular tension that can and certainly does arise sometimes between our center and these students taking developmental courses, a tension that can deplete their appreciation of what we, as a center built on the virtue of peer review, can do for them.

I use the term developmental because remedial sounds to me like a punishment, a medicinal treatment to cure some shortcoming. No matter what we call them, though, students often respond to being placed in these courses with shame. Their placement is predicated on scores they received on the language portions of standardized tests. We give them the opportunity to test back into 101 or 102 by demonstrating their skills in an evaluative writing exercise. But few students successfully test up. Those who do not test up have to again be informed that they fail to meet average freshmen standards, a second disappointment. Once placed, they must not only attend a traditional discussion-based composition class but also attend weekly writing labs and visit the writing center eight times. The extra elements in these courses produce results in which both the students and composition faculty can take pride, but those results do not always diminish the shame associated with developmental courses and the resistance to required tutoring. We want all students who come to the writing center to want to be there, but that is sometimes not the case.

So, why am I beginning a conversation about queer and trans writers by lamenting this tension? There are two reasons. Developmental writers are a perfect example of students whose stories we approach with equal shares of rapt attention and caution; we always want to hear what they have to say to better accommodate them, but we know they do not always want to talk about their placement in those courses. Unfortunately, their shame can prevent us from hearing their stories; yet we work extremely hard to reach out to these students. Also, this tension is an appropriate introduction for the following anecdote about shame, storytelling, and a rather different but not altogether unrelated kind of tension. A tension that is much less visible.

Last summer, during one of our orientation sessions for a developmental writing course, one student – I will call him Mark – had a rather pronounced reaction to a newly included component of our registration protocol. Not long before this session, we decided that our registration form should include a “preferred pronouns” option. We make sure all students leave our orientation sessions with an active account capable of making appointments by going through the registration process together. Our form asks about major, class level, online coursework, English fluency, preferred name, and, now, preferred pronouns. When we, as a group, reached the question about preferred pronouns, Mark guffawed loudly, a sound somewhere between disgust and choking on laughter, falsely suppressed only to draw more attention to itself. He exclaimed what might have been a question if, in his tone, we could hear any expectation of an answer, “Pronoun?!” Mark’s reaction, his face twisted to a smirk, clearly communicated his belief that it was silly, unnecessary that we ask such a thing of students. He managed to keep his composure through all the other questions in our form, but when we arrived at the question of gender some fracture in his self-possession was exposed; he could not allow this question of gender to pass unnoticed, uncriticized. His compulsion to lash out against that question was so great Mark risked being embarrassed and reproached for his outburst.

I am a cisgender, white, educated, middle-class male full up with the privileges those markers entail. But I am also gay, a less privileging marker. Not only this, throughout my life I have expressed femininity in voice and behavior – in ways that I now embrace and celebrate, an acceptance of self I never anticipated when I was younger. My femininity ceaselessly created damaging rifts in my early experiences in grade school. Like Mark, I have been conditioned to raise an alert when gender is in question. As Judith Butler might point out, my femininity undercuts a traditional performance as man. I am a man. I have never experienced gender dysphoria. Yet, my position somewhere between masculine and feminine has created gender crises for many people around me, leading them to question their understanding of gender and treat me with both rapt (often negative) attention and caution, especially in my early educational environments when I was in such close proximity to my peers.

There is no evidence to suggest Mark’s journey to this level of gender sensitivity is any different than mine, though I might like to assume so. Nevertheless, our reactions to the question, “What pronouns do you use for yourself?” could not be more different. When I see that question, I know the group asking understands that bodies do not always speak for themselves, that Alabama legislation disenfranchises people who have a different sex or gender expression than those assigned at birth, and that asking up front is so much better than waiting until after using the wrong pronouns and thereby reinforcing deep-rooted anxieties about personhood and belonging. This question lets me know, even as a gay person whose gender expression matches my traditionally male body, that this group listens to people, lets them build their own stories. Is this not foundational to writing center principals? To help in the telling of stories?

Mark, unfortunately, felt that we were doubting his story, calling into question an aspect of him so intrinsic and immutable it is laughable to suspect otherwise. Dr. Jaclyn Wells, director of our writing center, skillfully used Mark’s reaction as a way to begin a conversation about why we include that question in our registration form and how we seek to welcome all students into our center without feeling the need to pass. If that question served no other purpose that day but to help Mark figure out the importance of pronouns, then its presence in our form was justified. Dr. Wells’ explanation may also have assuaged a reasonable anxiety in Mark about having his identity assessed, pigeon-holed. As a student in a developmental writing course, the last thing he needs is to once again be sectioned off as a particular kind of student through registration processes and forms, compartmentalized for study and management. This may not have been his thought process, but it was important that Dr. Wells explain our goal of inclusivity, rather than tolerance. As I see these terms, we have on the one hand tolerance which is passive; it is a kind of stillness in the face of something that may be undesirable (for that is really the connotation this word carries; we tolerate things that are undesirable), be that a person’s political or social views, or a person’s identity, their personhood itself, or even something comparatively silly like the music someone listens to. I, for example, tolerate people who do not listen to Sia as much as I do. I don’t take steps to remove them from my life, even if I might want to. If there is any actual resistance here, it is only in resisting an internal urge to not tolerate or to not allow that possibly undesirable something. Inclusivity, on the other hand of this dichotomy, is active. It is a kind of welcoming, a pulling into, a knowing move to take something outside and bring it inside. It is fitting a piece into the puzzle. It is like saying I am not just going to allow your presence; I’m going to encourage it.

Why is inclusivity towards queer and trans students the right approach for writing centers? I am going to digress into an anecdote that will contextualize this question. Louise Richardson is the first woman ever chosen to be Vice-Chancellor at Oxford University. She claimed this position after a line of equally illustrious appointments in some of world’s most exclusive schools, serving as Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of St. Andrews and as an executive dean at Harvard. She received degrees from UCLA and Harvard, focusing her poly-sci scholarship on peace and terrorism studies (which may seem either ironic or fitting after this anecdote). All of that to say, Louise Richardson is a person of immense influence, providing an always needed female perspective in university administration, and all this notoriety has resulted in her share (some might say more than her share) of controversy.

One of these controversies arose near the end of August 2017, during a Times Higher Education summit when Richardson was afforded an opportunity to express her views on student comfort, views that many people find provocative for good or bad. In an effort to, in her words, “resist those who wanted to stop the airing of controversial views,” Richardson issued this statement on whistle-blowing:

I’ve had many conversations with students who say they don’t feel comfortable because their professor has expressed views against homosexuality. They don’t feel comfortable being in class with someone with those views. And I say, “I’m sorry, but my job isn’t to make you feel comfortable. Education is not about being comfortable. I’m interested in making you uncomfortable.” If you don’t like his views, you challenge them, engage with them, and figure out how a smart person can have views like that. Work out how you can persuade him to change his mind. It is difficult, but it is absolutely what we have to do. (Shah, 2017)

These comments immediately fell under a firestorm of criticism. LGBTQ+ groups at Oxford were outraged, calling for further explanation or even for Richardson to retract those comments publicly. The BBC published a story on Richardson’s stance the very next day, suggesting she was horribly mistaken.

All this flack is a result of some rather glaring problems with Richardson’s understanding of why a student might come to her with that type of complaint. For instance, she seems to be rather naïve concerning the power dynamic between professor and student, as if a professor’s outright intolerance of a student’s identity will not have any bearing on that student’s ability to learn from that professor or make good grades in that class, especially if the student is vocal about their negatively-received LGBTQ+ identity. Richardson tellingly genders this theoretical professor as male – which might suggest patriarchal problems, as well. Also, she suggests that verbal assault on a student’s personhood within the classroom is fair game for academic debate and that it should be the student’s responsibility to play the defensive. I think the most important problem with Richardson’s comments, though, is that she is refusing to help students who clearly feel like they need protection. Richardson’s comments, I should say, are totally not in keeping with Oxford’s diversity and harassment policies. Still, she is in a position of great power within that school, and her comments seem to undermine those policies.

As much as the LGBTQ+ students at Oxford might want to send Richardson running for the hills, though, she is not the only university administrator who does not buy into student comfort or safe spaces. A handful of years ago, there was a wave of talk through education and college administration on safe spaces, trigger warnings, protection of student diversity, and so on. Almost as quickly as that wave crested, there was another wave that, while not necessarily disagreeing entirely with those who fought for such things, argued instead that it is not the responsibility of the college or university to ensure those protections for a student’s comfort. John “Jay” Ellison, Dean of Students at the University of Chicago, sent a letter to students at his school in the summer of 2016 that claims the following:

You will find that we expect members of our community to be engaged in rigorous debate, discussion and even disagreement. At times this may challenge you and even cause discomfort. Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own. (Strauss, 2016)

While Ellison’s comments are not nearly as topically incendiary as Richardson’s, I would argue that he falls into a similar problem, which is leaving too much room between assaults on personhood and fruitful academic debate.

In the end, though, whether you can sympathize with Richardson and Ellison or disagree with their claims, the college’s or university’s position on safe spaces or trigger warnings or whistle-blowing does not necessarily follow through the writing center, where peer review and collaborative processes are of higher order than debate. At UAB’s writing center, we have a slogan: Any student, Any project, Any stage. We love this slogan, by the way. And I’m sure that phrase is in keeping with all writing center mission statements. But, to pick on it for a second, does that slogan communicate tolerance or inclusion? Where should we, writing center personnel and administrators, fall on that spectrum? As active or passive players? We say, “Any student,” but do we mean every student? How do the students, who are uncomfortable in predominantly white, straight academic settings, know that they personally are welcome in our centers, that they can navigate our centers without worry or anxiety?

Harry Denny, whose name must inevitably be mentioned, is one of the very few writing center scholars who have dedicated a large portion of their research to this problem that I’m pointing out. In his 2005 article, “Queering the Writing Center” (to which the title of this essay alludes), Denny investigates the benefits of using queer theory as a lens for writing center theories. He claims that “regardless of the roots of writer self-awareness – as expression of inner self, as maturation, or as invocation – the production of identity is central to the mission of writing centers” (p. 40). In other words, we assist students in the production and maturation of identity – which is what queer theory is all about – as we assist them in their writing. And that is the epicenter of the problem. How can students produce an identity through writing if they cannot feel comfortable expressing that identity in an academic setting or, for our purposes, the face-to-face session? Toward the end of his article, Denny (2005) focuses on the idea of passing, that act of camouflage so many students must take on in order to fit the traditional academic mold, and we must agree that there is a mold. We teach students day-in, day-out the tips and tricks of “sounding academic.” But in what ways are we teaching them to sound, for instance, straight or male, simply by not making ourselves available to other perspectives? There is a balance, Denny (2005) argues, that we might strike. If we can create an atmosphere where both the tropes of academic language are taught and also discussion of sex and gender expression is not only tolerated but, perhaps, encouraged, we may help students understand how to navigate their identities within academia, how to step inside and outside that academic mold while injecting their identity all along. Denny (2005) writes, “Students should not come to see that their ‘home’ or ‘private’ worlds and languages are less legitimate or valuable. Instead, they need to read communication situations and make strategic decisions about conforming, resisting or subverting the existing patterns or conventions” (p. 52). In our tutoring sessions, we can help students understand these contexts and decisions. But how do we make students aware that we are willing to have these kinds of conversations, especially since the majority of writing center personnel consists of straight, white women?

We made the decision to include the “preferred pronouns” question on our registration form when the political landscape of this country was in distress and we felt that people who feared their voices were on the verge of slipping back into the dark needed a semblance of acknowledgement. We contacted people from UAB’s Multicultural and Diversity Program who helped us figure out exactly which options we needed to list under the drop-down menu for preferred pronouns. In addition to “he, him, his” and “she, her, hers,” we included “they, them, theirs” and “ze, zir, zirs” and “other.” The “other” category allows a student to write in any set of pronouns they choose. We were, initially, satisfied that this was an adequate step toward inclusivity. It was subtle but important step in the registration process no student could miss. Those with a high sensitivity to questions about pronouns – like Mark, myself, or, even more importantly, transgender or gender-nonconforming people – are particularly apt to notice that change. But, outside of reactions like Mark’s, we have no real way of knowing if this change is making the impact we desire. Four months after we made that change, only one student chose an option other than “he, him, his” or “she, her, hers.” It is possible this change to our form is working perfectly; it is possible students who might have felt wary of our help now know that we want to not only tolerate their presence in our center but encourage it. However, it is difficult to build an evidence-based argument around those results, especially considering the current focus on RAD (Replicable, Aggregable, and Data-Driven) research in writing center scholarship.

If our moves toward queer and trans inclusivity result in positive relationships between those students and our center, we want to be able to argue for similar moves in other writing centers. In Researching the Writing Center: Towards an Evidence-Based Practice, Rebecca Day Babcock and Terese Thonus (2012) argue that “while theoretical investigations build the foundation for writing center studies, and anecdotal experience points in the direction of best practices, empirical research will create a credible link between the tw0” (p. 3). Scholars like Harry Denny help us build a theoretical framework for these moves. And we have scant anecdotes from students like Mark. But how can we produce empirical evidence? Babcock and Thonus (2012) recommend “observations, recordings, microanalyses of actual tutoring session; analyses of session feedback forms and textual revisions; and interviews with participants when feasible” (p. 3). While UAB has an immensely diverse student body and Birmingham is often seen as one of Alabama’s few havens for LGBTQ+ people, methods like these could be extremely awkward and possibly damaging when obviously geared toward queer and trans students. The social climate of our state enforces a quietude on those students. In a recent blog post – “Queering RAD Research in Writing Center Studies” – for Another Word, Neil Simpkins and Virginia Schwarz (2015) also point out that “queer and trans ways of being in the world frequently resist creating patterns of data that are replicable and aggregable.” The statistics coming from our registration forms are negligible if we have no way of reading queer or trans identities from the results – which we do not, except for the case of the one student who chose the “they, them, theirs” option. This question in our form is, not for a lack of trying, “ill-equipped to address the non-binary and difficult to categorize identities that queer and trans people bring to our writing centers” (Simpkins and Schwartz, 2015). We could, of course, administer a survey with questions like: “Does the writing center accommodate LGBTQ+ students?” or “Did our question about “preferred pronouns” make you more or less comfortable using our center?” But these questions are clearly fishing for particular answers and are therefore useless.

We encountered the same issue with our second step toward queer and trans inclusivity: faculty training. Like many universities, UAB’s SafeZone group offers department training sessions. Our thinking was: since the “preferred pronouns” question is quite subtle, buried in the registration process, we will let SafeZone train our faculty to increase our knowledge of queer and trans students, making us more capable of engaging those students in meaningful writing practices. Our faculty could then advertise their status as “SafeZone trained,” which would be an even more obvious sign to queer and trans students that we want to include them in our center. The training session was effective; our faculty expressed gratitude for being introduced to these concepts. But, again, this was an effort to prepare ourselves and make gestures toward queer and trans students that, unfortunately, produces no empirical, qualitative evidence. In the end, we knew that in order for this kind of inclusive action to be arguable, we would need to hear LGBTQ+ student voices.

It is, by now, clear that there will be no queer or trans stories, apart from my own, told in this essay. Its inclusion in this special edition of The Peer Review may therefore be suspect. But this lack of stories is actually what makes my argument for queer and trans inclusivity in our writing center urgent and necessary. These stories are missing from both our lore and data, the two pillars of our research. It is difficult to say how detrimental this is to the writing center’s relationship with queer and trans student, but what should be clear is that we fail those students if we cannot encourage their storytelling. Our latest effort to combat this silence and boost inclusivity is a writing contest. We are calling it the “Reading Rainbow: LGBTQ+ Literacy Narrative Contest” – which we hope PBS will be kind enough to overlook. Here are the questions we pose to students in our submission prompt: “Did reading or writing help you come to terms with your sexual identity or gender expression? Did reading or writing play an important role in your coming out experience? Has reading or writing empowered your voice as an LGBTQ+ person?” We are hosting this contest in partnership with the Student Multiculturalism and Diversity Department, again demonstrating our relationships with organizations queer and trans students will know are working directly for them. Also, we think the answers to these questions can help us further understand how the writing center might play into queer and trans educational experiences. In the future, we may cater the prompt to address the writing center more directly. But, for now, this is our most practical, direct way of engaging with queer and trans students, opening a dialogue between them and our center and listening (finally) to the stories they can tell about building identity through writing. Our centers can only cater to these students if we know what they need and they can only tell us what they need if we listen.

Works Cited

Babcock, R. D. & Thonus, T. (2012). Researching the writing center: Towards an evidence-based practice. New York: Peter Lang Inc.

Denny, H. C. (2010). Facing the center: Toward an identity politics of one-to-one mentoring. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press.

Denny, H. C. (2005). Queering the writing center. Writing Center Journal, 25(2), 39-62. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/43442335

Shah, N. (2017). Stop pretending ‘challenging’ homophobic professors is part of academic debate. New Statesman. Retrieved from http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/education/2017/09/stop-pretending-challenging-homophobic-professors-part-academic-debate

Simpkins, N. & Schwarz, V. (2015). Queering RAD research in writing center studies.. Retrieved from https://writing.wisc.edu/blog/queering-rad-research-in-writing-center-studies/.

Strauss, V. (2016). So you like the university of chicago’s rejection of ‘safe spaces’ for students? Consider this. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2016/08/30/so-you-like-the-university-of-chicagos-rejection-of-safe-spaces-for-students-consider-this/?utm_term=.197b9a4583dc.

 

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