Creating Brave Spaces in South Texas

Nadya Pittendrigh
Eric Camarillo

        The Peer Review, Volume 1, Issue 2, Fall 2017


In the following discussion of the role of writing centers and instructors, in extention of what Brian Arao and Kristi Clemens have called “brave space,” (2013) we understand writing as taking place within a layered atmosphere of social forces, which include not just our intentional instructional practices, but everything that went into shaping each individual student before they got to our institution, the communities and experiences they forge on campus with one another, as well as elements of regional history and its ongoing influence on power structures and student identities. In other words, unseen factors can influence writing education and its spaces.

We examine a series of composition classes taught by one of the article co-authors (Nadya Pittendrigh), and the role of the University of Houston-Victoria (UHV) Writing Center, under the leadership of the other co-author (Eric Camarillo). Several students in the classes in question confessed privately, during office hours or in written reflections, that the discussions they encountered in the class, many of which focused on race, made them feel both uncomfortable and personally implicated. Taking seriously students’ resistance to what was demanded of them in these classes, and taking the classes themselves as a case study, we consider the boundaries and responsibilities for educators involved in potentially uncomfortable, potentially brave conversations about race, as well as the implications for writing center praxis. We analyze both the classroom and the writing center together because cultivating brave spaces requires collaboration between various layers in an ecology.

Using our experiences at our own university, particularly our collaboration, we argue that writing centers and classrooms can and should function as brave spaces, encouraging ongoing exchange, analysis, and questioning of ideas. Universities in the South, as we observe, may struggle more than other types of schools due to volatile or unexplored feelings on topics such as race, gender, and social justice. Thus, we have learned that the aims of brave spaces can be extended through a writing assessment ecology approach. Our experience suggests that such an approach calls for deeper strategic collaboration, discussion, and alignment of goals between writing centers and instructors.

UHV grants both undergraduate and graduate degrees within three schools: Arts and Sciences; Business; and Education, Health Professions, and Human Development. UHV serves a significant number of first-generation students: 25% of undergraduates surveyed in 2016 said that they represented the first in their families to attend college, with another 18% reporting having parents who had completed some college without finishing, and another 24% did not know if their parents had any college (Sharon Bailey, personal communication, March 13, 2017.) Additionally, in the fall of 2016, 48% of first-year students identified themselves as Hispanic, 26% identified as Black, and 20% as White.

Research suggests that direct engagement with the existence of racial disparity helps students belonging to marginalized groups. And, given the call by Asao Inoue (2015) and others for integrating such considerations into writing instruction, UHV’s diversity cries out especially urgently for the cultivation of brave spaces.[1] For Arao and Clemens (2013), a brave space “emphasize[s] the need for courage rather than the illusion of safety” in order to “accomplish our learning goals and more accurately reflect the nature of genuine dialogue regarding these challenging and controversial topics” (141-142). Arao and Clemens seek to create a new paradigm, shifting away from the notion of safety, specifically because so many students conflate safety with comfort (135). The researchers alter safe space rules in order to create the concept of a brave space.

Expanding the Writing Center Grand Narrative Through an Ecological Approach

A capacious conception of the writing center framework can accommodate the brave space concept. Indeed, a writing center may not be complete without incorporating the notion of brave spaces, and writing centers as a field of study are certainly incomplete without it. In her conclusion to Peripheral Visions for Writing Centers, Jackie Grutsch McKinney (2013) argues that “the writing center grand narrative has outlived its usefulness” (p. 91), implying that we need to move writing center discourse in new directions. In her analysis of writing centers, she posits that the grand narrative is that “writing centers are comfortable, iconoclastic places where all students go to get one-to-one tutoring on their writing” (p. 3). At the same time, she nuances her analysis of writing centers in order to show that the grand narrative may not be truly universal.

In her analysis of writing centers as iconoclastic places, Grutsch McKinney emphasizes the role of the writing center as a potential site of anti-hegemonic activity. As she asserts, “The writing center…resists the university system as an institution” (p. 36). However, writing centers tend to maintain their status as sites of conformity, by reinforcing the rules of privileged discourse through writing consultations.

As Grimm (1996b) notes, “the scope of writing center practice is focused on changing students rather than changing teachers or academic practices. Writing problems are located in individuals rather than in assumptions embedded in academic discourse…Tutors, in general, aren’t supposed to question the wisdom of academic practices” (p. 13). This practice helps writing centers define and package themselves to the university, making them valuable in times of tenuous budgets (Grutsch McKinney, 2013, p. 66). Partly, this definition privileges a certain kind of discourse, usually considered white and middle- to upper-class (Grutsch McKinney, 2013, p. 25). Like proteins within cells, educational structures assist the dominant culture in replicating its values and power structures.

In this way, we might see the writing center as a focal point of a larger university ecology or ecosystem. In his Antiracist Writing Assessment Ecologies: Teaching and Assessing Writing For A Socially Just Future, Asao Inoue (2015) explains his idea of what an ecology is “namely a quality of more than, interconnectedness among everything and everyone in the ecology, and an explicit racial politics that everyone must engage with” (p. 9). Inoue’s indictment of writing assessments as inherently racist demonstrates the difficulty of creating brave spaces. He states:

We live in a racist society, one that recreates…racial hierarchies in populations based on things like judgments of student writing that use a local Standardized Edited American English (SEAE) with populations of people who do not use that discourse on a daily basis—judging apples by the standards of oranges (p. 6).

Here, Inoue engages the essence of the habitus, or structuring structures, that endeavors to reproduce at the expense of other values or beliefs.

Inoue’s emphasis upon writing as contextual resists the notion that anyone can write in a vacuum or with true detachment; rather, he sees this kind of coldness as a feature of the white racial habitus (p. 47). When students write, they bring to bear all of their experiences, their histories, genders, races, ethnicities, homes, families, and languages. While college students are often critiqued by conservative media for being “special snowflakes,” it is true that intersectionality creates unique individuals, much as each snowflake forms as a unique, irreplicable lattice structure.

Yet, it is the job of writing consultants to shift those lattice structures and force them into a standardized position. At least, this is the case when writing centers are more beholden to faculty than to students (Grimm, 1996a, p. 533). We are trying to melt snow in the hopes that we can re-freeze it into a more “acceptable” form. Yet for Inoue, such aims enact the white racial habitus, with “racist effects in the classroom” (2015, p. 50). Such effects sublimate racial and ethnic identity so that students may more fully engage in commonly held academic standards and perform at satisfactory levels for their professors.

These standards also preclude the acceptance of peripheral visions in writing centers, encouraging them to continue to privilege culturally dominant forms of writing (which seems to contradict the grand narrative’s notion of writing centers as iconoclastic.) This contradiction becomes increasingly clear in Grutsch McKinney’s chapter on writing centers’ ostensibly welcoming stance. She writes, “We say we want all students to come to our centers, to feel ‘comfortable’ in our ‘non-traditional’ setting, but when we narrate normal and abnormal tutoring scenarios in tutor training manuals, we reveal our unease with working with a vast array of students” (2013, p. 70).

That writing centers define what a normal session looks like indicates what they think a normal student looks or acts like. As Grutsch McKinney briefly acknowledges, “writing center practice…is raced and potentially racist” (2013, p. 70). Given these expectations of “normal” or even conventional writing, can writing centers really be iconoclastic? At what point does the non-traditional become traditional? Grimm notes, “as places historically intended to preserve the system by shaping students to suit the system, writing centers will experience anxiety if they begin to probe at the contradictions of practice” (1996a, p. 533). If so, is that anxiety productive or worthwhile?

The Potential Complicity of Writing Centers

Acknowledging writing centers as potentially racist can cause anxiety and distress to writing center practitioners, but we risk much more if we do not bring these kinds of discussions to the surface. As Inoue argues, “This practice of ignoring racial habitus in our lives, in reading and writing practices, and in our dispositions for judging, is essentially an attempt to negate much of what makes all of us who we are and how we communicate” (2015, p. 45). When professors and writing centers do not consider race, we ignore an entire dimension that forms the student before us, a dimension that may help us assess the student’s writing in a fairer way than holding it to an arbitrary, dominant standard to see how closely it matches.

In our unexamined alignments with professors’ or university assessments, writing consultants participate in racist writing assessment ecologies. At the same time, Inoue points out, the problem is not individual racists, but the system itself that creates standards and assessments (2015, p. 16). As he fervently argues, the individual intentions of “teachers or readers” who may (or may not) “read student writing with prejudice or with a preference for whiteness” are less important than systems that produce unfair effects (2015, p. 16).

In fact, his proposal to generate fairness in writing assessments takes on a revolutionary tone: “Racism is an assessment problem, which can only be fully solved by changing the system of assessment, by changing the classroom writing assessment ecology” (2015, p. 15). That is, the invisible structures, the habitus, that create the standards must themselves change in order to create a more equitable environment in which fair writing assessments can occur. As Grimm (1996a) states, writing centers “are expected not to change what students learn but to get students to conform to institutional expectations and values” (p. 530). These expectations and values, implicit in the university, become the standards.

Discussing race and racial justice, and allowing the necessary discomfort involved to challenge the dominant habitus remain crucial first steps in destabilizing the dominant discourse, which suggests that cultivating antiracist writing ecologies is imperative to creating brave spaces. While implementing brave spaces in the writing center would be valuable for any student who comes to work with us, stronger partnerships with writing faculty members, who face their own challenges when teaching their respective courses represents a move towards cultivating a wider antiractist ecology at the university.

Teaching Social Justice in a Conservative City

Currently, Victoria, Texas cuts a conservative profile. The vast majority of voters, 68%, voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 elections (Texas Presidential Election Results). The region also has low educational attainment, with a mere 16.9% of people aged 25 or older holding a Bachelor’s degree or higher, a percentage that falls well below that of the state of Texas, 26.7% (Existing City, 2015), and below the United States, 33% (Ryan and Bauman, 2016).

However, we find our students’ identities complex, hybridized, not totally predictable, and not tidily understandable in terms of oppressor and oppressed. The six sections of freshman writing, for instance, which provide the impetus for this analysis, include a local student who said he was both Mexican American and black, introduced himself as “Blaxican,” and invited us to think of him as “The Black Bart Simpson”; a white student who grew up with both parents in prison, who associated it with happy memories of visiting loved ones there; and a Mexican American male student who wrote a paper about feeling estranged from his more poorly educated Anglo buddy, partly because of their difference in educational attainment. The complex intersections of race and power in such classrooms, combined with improvisational adjustments to the curriculum, meant that conversations addressing race in the courses discussed in the following pages took surprising and, in at least some moments, counterproductive turns.

This section of our analysis looks at the evolution of four composition courses (taught by Nadya) in the fall of 2016 and spring of 2017: one “Composition I” course; two “Introduction to College Writing” courses, geared toward students who test below “college-ready” on a state standardized test; and a spring research paper course (Composition II), which included students from the fall, and continued conversations from those courses.

Having just moved to Victoria from Chicago, Nadya initially crafted a syllabus that needed to be adapted for the local UHV context. Her initial syllabus for Comp. I centered around the idea of using rhetoric and writing to co-create democratic spaces, and incorporated reading excerpts from Aristotle’s Politics, Alexis de Toqueville’s Democracy in America, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” The writing projects included an interview, a profile, an argument, and a restorative justice dialogue.[2] For the “Intro. to College Writing” class, a modified “writing about writing” syllabus focused on literacy and discourse communities. Yet it rapidly became clear that the syllabi for both classes were naively out of phase with what would actually engage UHV students, and the class had to be retooled.

Early in the fall, when the students in one section were asked what would engage them, a few people said they enjoyed engaging in political debates on social media, and after some discussion, the students voted for a more political emphasis, and for more exciting readings. Following that discussion, Nadya re-tailored all of her sections around an upcoming town hall organized by the Black Student Union. At the townhall, students and faculty were invited to weigh in on NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s recent protests against police shootings, and students extended that conversation in class. Those discussions circulated around racial profiling, Black Lives Matter, the nature of protest, and whether it is possible to end racism or worthwhile to resist racial hierarchy. Based on those conversations, students developed ideas for the remaining writing projects.

Through these readings and writing projects, the students and Nadya, along with the writing center tutors who interacted with the students, dove haphazardly into the most hotly contested topics on students’ social media feeds. The process was haphazard because the “brave space” that was created was neither carefully scaffolded nor strategized (at least not in the manner recommended by Arao and Clemens). Consequently, there were questions about how it could have been done more effectively; whether diving into such conversations is itself antiracist; and what can be learned from this sequence of classes for future similar courses.

Lessons from the Classes

After the Colin Kaepernick townhall, one white student (one of two in the class) made a provocative presentation. He (we’ll refer to him as “Mitch”) argued in his discussion paper presentation that there is no such thing as structural racism, that the idea of structural racism is paranoid, and if there were racism involved in recent police shootings, wouldn’t someone be able to produce evidence or be able to point to it? When another student ventured, “Well, what about Donald Trump? Isn’t that evidence of racism if you ever saw it,” Mitch quipped, “How is Donald Trump racist? Show me! I don’t see it!” A few students, along with Nadya, attempted to “show” racism, but there was a sense that even the most persuasive evidence would neither satisfy Mitch nor dissipate the stunned and guarded feelings suddenly instituted as that class’s unrelenting mood, which lasted for the duration of the semester.

Immediately following the presentation, prompted by Nadya, the class defined some key terms, including structural racism versus racial prejudice. One black student, referred to here as “Dae,” became increasingly exasperated at Mitch’s suggestion that we all overestimate racism, and brought up the shooting of Michael Brown. Nadya recalled reading that the officer who shot Brown testified that he felt intimidated by Brown, like “a five-year old holding onto Hulk Hogan,” citing it as an example of the racialized hysteria that can fuel police shootings (Sanburn, 2014). Dae sputtered, “Thank you! I mean Michael Brown was shot in the back!” And just as the class wrapped up, Dae stood up and loudly declared, “I hate white people,” and left.

Later that week, Dae came to office hours for help on his paper: what he had written described his family’s work, through a religious organization, on behalf of civil rights in Texas. The paper’s point was that the antiracist community events that he attends routinely include many white antiracist activists. His impulse may have been to complicate his own declaration of hatred across the board for white people, or perhaps to demonstrate an alternative mindset to Mitch’s.

While discomfort within learning is necessary and not definitely a sign that things have gone wrong, Nadya believes that the discomfort involved in the incident described above was counter-productive, since it didn’t open up dialogue in the context of the class, but in fact, did the opposite. Based on the class described above, based on other interactions with students (below), and based on our conclusions through collaborating, we believe that it’s important, in classes that confront uncomfortable truths, to seed the ground more explicitly, in a sustained way, with compassionate listening as a core guiding concept. Such guiding concepts can be built into the syllabus, emphasized in assignments, and incorporated into class activities and their explanations as central tenets of writing course content.

Currently, Nadya is experimenting with the concept of compassionate listening in her fall 2017 courses, as a rhetorical skill central to the process of writing. Additionally, as part of the impetus to increase collaboration and alignment between the writing center and composition at UHV, or at least better communication, Nadya has been talking to Eric about not only her courses, but also her conception of compassionate listening, and he has asked her to present to the writing center tutors about it later this semester.

Emphasizing Compassionate Listening

The social justice commitments in the writing classes described here emerge, in part, from the desire to cultivate compassionate listening. The aim is to persuade students, through the experience of the class, that they have a part to play within social ecologies, or as part of increasing their awareness and sense of responsibility for their rhetorical/social impact on others, that they have effects on each other within that ecology. In other words, the class encouraged students to discuss and write about race, based on the belief that such discussions can contribute to creating the conditions for transformation. The goal is to open up conversations, and to engage students with questions and multiple perspectives, particularly those that challenge their own.

In our ongoing conversations, not only with each other, but with the tutors who work in the writing center, compassionate listening has come to refer to ongoing engagement with others in the learning community, regardless of their worldviews. The concept emerges, in part, from Krista Ratcliffe’s (2016) conception of rhetorical listening, which she describes as “a trope for interpretive invention,” characterized by “a stance of openness” (p. 17) in which “listeners may still disagree with each other’s claims, but they may better appreciate that the other person is not simply wrong but rather functioning from within a different logic” (p. 33).

Here, Ratcliffe emphasizes recognizing the overall context that sponsors someone else’s differing position, not just the rejected position itself. Our use of the term “compassionate listening” in lieu of rhetorical listening is based on the intuition that teaching, perhaps especially in a volatile, potentially divided context, requires a normative commitment to giving others in the learning community the benefit of the doubt. Compassionate listening requires not only acknowledgement of differing life experiences or worldviews as the context for differing positions, but also engaging with a prior sense of commitment to the shared society in the classroom.

Compassionate listening posits that, in order to understand what someone meant, you have to imaginatively inhabit their subject position, not just what they said. This means teaching students to supply information from the white space, imagining the suspicions, concerns, uneasiness, and fears of their interlocutors—in essence, the opposite of compassionate listening, what Walter Kaufman describes as a particular kind of intellectual dishonesty. Kaufman explains, “Dishonesty says, my views are what I mean, your views are what you said” (313) The opposite of compassionate listening is holding others legalistically to what someone else said, while being nurturing to oneself in conversation. Listening to one another in precisely such a nurturing (or pedagogical) spirit might have allowed the tense class described above to forge forward together into potentially uncomfortable conflict, but with the possibility for growth.

If we reimagine the tense incident through the lens of compassionate listening, we can see how students with radically different world views might have been able to challenge each other more productively. Imagine the same scene, for instance, with the same students, and same differences in world view, but without Mitch being so provokingly positive that he was right just because the rest of us could not prove him wrong. Instead of saying, “I don’t see it, show me the evidence,” he would ideally have signaled to his immediate audience that he recognized their likely reaction to his position, even while presenting his own as important to him and worth exploring.

Instead, he seemed driven to enact a conception of intellectual inquiry, described by himself and others in the class as “debate,” understood through the frame of social media, in which Mitch and others had said they were interested, in the context of the 2016 election. Mitch’s argument followed an impersonal, abstract, gladiatorial style familiar from social media, without acknowledging the reality of his immediate audience. This effectively sent the message that he did not care about his connection to them. The concept of compassionate listening, by contrast, not only requires that individuals show some sense of having listened to the other side, but enacts a sense of care for others in the conversation.

In that sense, as a practical matter of pedagogy, compassionate listening requires us to push beyond procedures, ground rules, and our pedagogies of ritualized engagement with the other. In the same way in which compassionate listening seems to go one step further than merely teaching students to engage with counter-arguments, Ratcliffe’s (2006) conception of rhetorical listening, and our elaboration on it as compassionate listening, adds dimension to the ground rules outlined in Arao and Clemens (2013).

Insofar as this notion of compassionate listening recognizes listening as an important form of participation, it aligns with Arao and Clemens’ third rule of brave spaces, challenge by choice, which acknowledges that even though students “may not externalize” their engagment in the class discussion, that doesn’t mean that “they are not wrestling with difficult questions” (2013, p. 146). This idea, that within brave spaces listening counts as a form of active engagement, also builds on Inoue’s discussion of inter-being as a form of labor, which “connects us in tangible ways through our labor, our work, our doing of things, through our bodies, not just our minds” (2015, p. 190) Inoue goes on the suggest that “when students share in the ontological essence of locally diverse writing, they have a good chance at confronting difference from a white racial habitus and posing problems about the nature of judgment to each other. (2015, p. 190)[3].

Compassionate listening, then, is not only a valuable rhetorical skill, but an essential form of rhetorical labor, required for creating antiracist writing assessments and brave spaces. If we want to spur students to “share in the ontological essence” of their own and each other’s writing, or to participate in forging antiracist writing ecologies by questioning and analyzing the dominant discourse, engaging with one another critically, but also compassionately, enacts that process.

As we have discovered, the writing center embodies compassionate listening and enacts it as its core labor. Certainly, writing consultant training at UHV incorporates listening as a key strategy because, as much as offering writing strategies is helpful, asking questions of students can get them to interact with their own ideas in a more meaningful way. Yet as the collaboration anecdotes below demonstrate, the listening and conversation practiced in the writing center is far from passive or non-interventionist. The writing consultants are often doing more than strictly helping with a particular writing assignment.

The Potential Social and Emotional Risks for Students

Though some may wonder if it really takes bravery for students to withstand a certain amount of discomfort in taking a class that handles social justice issues (as opposed to, say, a sculpture class) students themselves argue that there are real risks involved. In response to a survey in the courses discussed here, in which students were asked if they participate in class discussions (and if not, why), many answered along these lines: “I just stay quiet because I would not want to start anything.” As one student commented, “I just need to keep my opinions to myself. It’s not hard to talk. These issues are just very opinionated.” Others said they feared expressing their beliefs because they knew theirs would be unpopular, “and I have other classes with these people.”

Although students’ fears of alienating their peers didn’t seem like they ought to preclude inquiry into uncomfortable issues in their classes, some marginalized students expressed feeling vulnerable in class conversations. When the survey asked, “What motivates you to stay quiet in the class,” one undocumented student wrote, “With the new president, everything seem to get worse for me.” During office hours, a few African American students also expressed their sense of vulnerability. In that spring 2017 course, which featured several readings related to incarceration, one black student, (referred to here as “Charlie”) became frustrated and left class. In a written explanation for leaving early, he expressed the desire for a new topic to write about:

Please give me a different subject. I’m tired of talking about my people being incarcerated. Is that all your class is about? If so, I don’t want to be a part of it. I know what’s going on. I live where it’s happening. I see it every time I go home. The system is corrupt and built against me, woopty doop tell me something I don’t know. I got friends doing life from he said, she said. My dad was offered 35 to life in the 70’s. I don’t care about incarceration. That’s the whole reason I left the hood. (Personal communication, February 23, 2017).

Charlie’s comments represent a challenge to the brave space move to make incarceration (and race) the focus of the class. Yet later, in office hours, he made it clear that he wasn’t urging Nadya to cease teaching on race and incarceration—and even if he had, it’s not clear that Nadya should cease doing so.

Even in the case of relatively marginalized students expressing vulnerability or distress, such distress indicates the kind of discomfort that frequently plays a starring role in learning. Especially in order to talk about social justice issues, people are going to experience some measure of distress. Isn’t it only through the experience of such distress that growth can occur? As Grimm (1996a) notes in her discussion of Vygotsky, “language is learned by participating in human relationships, not by sitting on the sidelines and listening to the rules being explained” (p. 535). If we want students to become stronger thinkers and writers, we need to cultivate environments where they can form real human relationships that go beyond the surface level, which necessitates discomfort.

However, Nadya’s emphasis upon cultivating both compassion and listening as part of writing instruction pushes us to refine the vocabulary of “brave space,” raising questions about which kinds of discomfort and bravery actually advance the goals of either inquiry itself, or creating antiracist writing ecologies. The syllabus for the course that Mitch was in, for instance, highlighted bravery, or “putting it out there,” in encouraging active participation in the class, which may have licenced Mitch’s denial of the existence of racism to a class of non-white peers. Also, the course’s framing of inquiry as “getting outside one’s comfort zone” may have encouraged the students’ enthusiasm for debate, with bravery understood in terms of provocation and battle.

In precisely this sense, it was brave for Mitch to say what he said, and brave for Dae to announce that he hated white people. Yet, the sudden materialization of these forms of bravery severely narrowed the possibilities for collaborative inquiry in lasting ways, and were not helpful to the aim of shared inquiry. In other words, fearlessness is not necessarily always to the purpose, not if our purpose is using rhetoric and writing to create mutual understanding.

In such a tense context, the writing center offers an escape valve, which perhaps not even an instructor can offer, where both Mitch and Dae could have benefitted from informal, tentative explorations of ideas, outside of the formal pressures of either class or office hours, with potentially less defensive hostility: if students do not always feel that they can rely on other students, particularly in a classroom or performance situation, to explore or test ideas without having to absolutely own them, the writing center can reliably provide such a space.

Talking about racial inequity also risks reinstating racial hierarchies or failing to substantively challenge them. For instance, two students in the classes reported that conversations about racial inequity make them feel self-conscious because they call attention to their group’s lower status. Charlie, mentioned earlier, actually described himself as being triggered by the class context:

As you know, I don’t like [talking about] incarceration or segregation, because I feel like every talk, I will be defensive, because I take pride in my culture, where I’m from and what I’ve seen. Keep your head up and keep teaching because I never learned about it and it might be the reason I am triggered.

This student reminds us that when we highlight disparities, part of the discomfort emerges from feelings of vulnerability, in the context of inequality, and tensions between target and agent groups (Arao and Clemens, 2013, p. 145). Similarly, Inoue teaches us to regard educational environments as places that function as part of ecologies of power, or as “ borderlands that inherently have the potential for violent racial and cultural collisions, wounding, and change” (2015, p.165).

Arao and Clemens modify safe space rules in order to enact positive change in these borderlands and avoid this violence. In particular, they modify the safe space rule, “Don’t take things personally”, which tends to shift “responsibility for any emotional impact of what a participant says or shares to the emotionally affected people.” Instead, students should own their intentions and impacts (Arao and Clemens, 2013, p.145). In future classes addressing racism, Nadya intends to feature this principle as a central theme, perhaps as part of making brave space itself the central inquiry from early on: how can we have these conversations? What does it mean to take things personally? Is it entirely on an individual not to take things personally?

At the same time, it must be said that ground rules can only take us so far, and we can’t entirely strategize our way out of discomfort, high emotions, and high stakes within such conversations. Indeed, the fact that no individual instructor can be expected to “scaffold” ideal conversations about race in the context of a racially problematic society, highlights the need for an ecological approach. Instructors who seek to create antiracist learning environments should work with receptive collaborators at the university to extend the reach of antiracist practices. In other words, creating antiracist ecologies requires collaboration between instructors and writing centers.

Making Space for Collaboration

Though perhaps we were not aware that we were collaborating at first, and we would not have classified it as such, our collaboration actually began in the fall of 2016, when Nadya’s students started visiting the writing center, on a voluntary basis, for help on their papers about both Colin Kaepernick and Ta-Nehisi Coates. In fact, as we elaborate below, the student tutors and the nature of their engagement with Nadya’s students turn out to be essential to our conceptualizations in this analysis. As we argue below, the tutors were already practicing much of what we came to refer to as “creating brave space” and “compassionate listening,” but these conversations pushed both of us to practice what we were learning through our discussions, and institute something more like antiracist writing pedagogy in the UHV context.

As the new Director of Composition at UHV, Nadya had introduced herself to Eric in the fall of 2016, but as we discussed brave spaces, antiracist writing assessment ecologies, and their implications for UHV, our two institutional areas, previously relatively separate, began to cross-pollinate one another. As it happens, our collaboration coincided with a time of great change for the writing center at UHV. Unlike its counterparts at many other universities, the UHV Writing Center was, for decades, housed within the Division of Student Affairs rather than in an academic unit. This placement made it more challenging to connect to those in Academic Affairs.

However, in spring 2017, the Student Success Center, of which the writing center is one part, formally moved into UHV’s new University College, which is in the Office of the Provost, and within Academic Affairs. In the context of these larger shifts, and as a direct result of our growing rapport, and our ongoing conversations about brave space and antiracist writing ecologies, Eric and Nadya have initiated a move away from “developmental” writing courses at UHV towards instituting a co-requisite course, focusing on challenging, college-level content for those students. Eric has also played an active role in conversations about the direction and goals of composition at UHV, and has helped to articulate a pedagogical philosophy, emphasizing not only teaching students the dominant discourse, but also empowering students to question or adapt it. These conversations have influenced meetings with faculty about potential shifts in curriculum and outcomes and may well continue to influence the culture of writing at UHV.

At the same time, Eric reports that our conversations about brave space and antiracist practices inspired him to revise his training and orientation of writing center tutors. The critical eye that we brought to bear to our own practices through conversation, helped him to see the impact that writing centers have on students, particularly in the role that writing centers play in reinscribing norms. Now, as a result of our collaboration, Eric is encouraging the writing consultants to consider precisely that function. Specifically, his training and his documentation tools ask writing consultants to consider the flow of power within writing consultations.

Previous to our collaboration, Eric says, he tried not to intervene directly in instructors’ classes and believed that this somehow made the writing center neutral. Yet after Grimm (1996a), he reminds us that writing centers are essentially sites of conformity, and such sites cannot be neutral. Working with Nadya has shown Eric that there’s a difference between interference and collaboration, that communicating with faculty doesn’t necessarily mean the writing center is encroaching on a class or on an instructor’s discretion.

By the same token, Nadya suggests that her commitment to making brave space and compassionate listening explicit in her writing pedagogy is inspired not only by researching with Eric, but by the practices already operating in the writing center. Specific tutors at the writing center, and their interface with her students provide concrete examples of what it means in practice to cultivate brave space as pedagogues, through compassionate listening.

Patty’s Story

Patty[4] is an older, non-traditional female student and a long-time inhabitant of nearby Goliad, a town about two hours from Victoria. She wears two hearing aids. When, during the first two weeks of classes, Nadya made it clear to her students that the course content would be somewhat controversial, Patty openly considered dropping the course. In fact, she left class during the second week in a state of agitation, just before the final date to drop. When Nadya spoke to her, Patty explained that she was disturbed that she would be reading about incarceration in class. She ultimately chose to stay in the class, but expressed continuous discomfort, and frequently expressed her belief that talking and writing about criminals was itself immoral. As Nadya sees it, the writing center played an important role in helping Patty survive in the course, not only academically, but on an affective level.

In order to survive the course, Patty needed the writing center, and in fact, needed so much support that Eric had to modify how consultants worked with her. Generally, Patty would come in twice a week, before class with Nadya, and stay for three or four hours each day. To accommodate this usage, Eric assigned Patty to a veteran writing consultant, Vanessa.

According to Vanessa, the first part of the semester with Patty went smoothly. However, she notes, “as the content became more complex, Patty was mostly confused with and didn’t fully grasp the content…If information or a question required her to make a connection between several ideas, she would often immediately give up on trying to understand” and even ask Vanessa to answer or complete something for her. There were a few times during the semester when Patty grew frustrated and irate, both with the class and with Vanessa. At these points, Eric stepped in and offered some direction, but Patty’s frustration was palpable.

In one memorable incident, Patty had a meltdown about completing a paper. She often complained that Nadya’s class, a basic composition course, was the hardest class she had ever been in and threatened to drop the class and enroll at the local community college instead. In this particular instance, Eric messaged Nadya to alert her that Patty was more frustrated than usual. Moments later, Nadya arrived and talked Patty down, citing Patty’s early decision to stay in the course as evidence of a desire to be challenged and to grow.

Eventually, Vanessa had Patty generate outlines before she came to her appointments, so Vanessa could see what Patty understood or didn’t understand. Vanessa notes, “This helped Patty to understand the content enough to create her own main points in essays since several of them were opinion-based.” However, the process was time-consuming and didn’t always work. Vanessa says, “Patty would often begin guessing at what she thought I wanted to hear by repeating phrases I said instead of trying to learn the content.” Vanessa’s work paid off, though. Patty didn’t just pass the class. She earned an A and won a poem contest in class on the final day.

On our analysis, the writing center performed the essential role of running interference on an affective level, reassuring Patty, not only that she could pass the class, but also normalizing the work for Patty. Vanessa’s reliably non-judgmental readiness to engage with Patty on her assigned coursework reassured Patty. Partly, it reassured her that reading and thinking about alternatives to incarceration was a legitimate enterprise and not in itself threatening.

Cassie’s Tutoring Tactics

Probably by necessity, Vanessa’s method for helping Patty bracketed the controversy inherent in the course content to some extent, while breaking the work down into manageable tasks, thereby framing the work of writing as less personal. In that sense, Vanessa maintained a sense of neutrality and professionalism that served her well in interacting with Patty. Another tutor at the writing center, by contrast, uses a much more interventionist style.

Cassie has been tutoring at the writing center for over a year, and she has brought an openly activist ethos to her tutoring from the moment she started. She was born and raised in Victoria, and is headed for graduate school. She cuts an impressive figure, as a leading voice on social justice issues on campus and as a community activist. As an activist, Cassie has been involved in organizing relief for displaced families in the wake of the recent hurricane. Cassie has deep roots and connections to the community of Victoria, and embraces an ethos of ongoing engagement with its more conservative members. She routinely models an unusual role: local progressive activist who has not written off the more conservative locals that she remains connected to. She engages with them on Facebook, in her family, and in the writing center.

When Nadya’s student, Lucy, sought tutoring from Cassie, Lucy was initially very self-conscious and timid, not only about her ideas, but also about her identity as a mixed-race woman. Lucy was one of the students who expressed that discussing race, racism and racial disparity made people “of that same race” feel self-conscious. And in fact, Lucy seemed reluctant at first to identify with black causes or black activism early on during her two semesters in Nadya’s classes. Yet prompted, in part, by wide-ranging conversations with Cassie, which included discussing Fred Hampton, the war on drugs, hip-hop music, and the dehumanization of black men, Lucy came to identify an ongoing historical pattern of racial discrimination as part of her own father’s history. At the same time that both Cassie and Nadya witnessed a kind of personal, intellectual awakening in Lucy, she also began to explicitly identify herself in conversations with us as African American.

Cassie also mentored another one of Nadya’s students, Richard, a local Victoria police officer. Richard was Hispanic, but he had been adopted by a white military family, and he was deeply invested in the idea that calling attention to racial oppression only made racial inequity worse. When his initial draft of his Colin Kaepernick paper focused on the idea that on the football field, there are no differences between races, and that we should all emulate that race-blind mentality, Cassie challenged him, and Richard later reported to Nadya, “Man, that Cassie doesn’t kid around.” Yet he continued to meet with Cassie, sometimes multiple times on every paper. He said he appreciated how much she challenged his beliefs—that was how he knew she was helping him.

Like Patty, both Lucy and Richard went to the writing center with anxiety about Nadya’s class, and the writing center performed an essential function in helping those students bravely explore uncomfortable inquiries. Yet in Cassie’s case, her role went beyond running interference between students and their anxiety. In mentoring students, her interactions with them embodied the writing center’s potential as a brave space characterized by compassionate learning.


While Arao and Clemens specifically discuss brave spaces as ways to discuss social justice issues, writing itself can be an act of social justice. What’s important is that dominant power structures, whether in the classroom, a writing center, or somewhere else are questioned, analyzed and problematized. We see brave spaces and antiracist writing assessment ecologies as symbiotic. Creating one creates the other. Brave spaces promote social justice and equality, one of the goals for antiracist writing assessment ecologies (Inoue, 2015, p. 3) and antiracist writing assessment ecologies generate a greater understanding of power, privilege, and oppression, a core goal of brave spaces (Arao and Clemens, 2013, p. 149). Both, then, are essential to creating a fairer, more equal classroom experience for students who inhabit a variety of cultural intersections that may or may not align with the dominant discourse, the white racial habitus.

Through our growing collaboration, through increased connections between our classes and the writing center, and through writing this paper together, we have begun to put forth a shared vision for revising both writing assessments and our valuation of brave space at UHV. It will require time, labor, and commitment. We have already begun this process by incorporating brave space and discussions of power into writing center training, creating class contracts in certain composition courses, and having the manager of the writing center attend English Department meetings.

However, more is required. It will require buy-in from faculty members and writing center staff. Most importantly, it will require a shift in thinking, a shift in our habits of practice. We must learn to trust our students more, to treat them as partners in their learning rather than as recipients of it. Finally, the onus of creating brave spaces, of creating antiracist writing assessment ecologies and, potentially, a more just future, inevitably falls to the students themselves. They will have to question, analyze and problematize. And they will have to reach their own conclusions about justice, equality, and fairness.

About the Authors

Nadya Pittendrigh is Assistant Professor of English and Director of Composition at University of Houston-Victoria.
Eric Camarillo is  Manager of the Student Success Center and the Testing and Tutoring/Tutor Coordinator at  University of Houston-Victoria.


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  1. See Courageous conversations about race: A field guide for achieving equity in schools, Singleton and Linton (461-464). See also, Racial microaggressions and difficult dialogues on race in the classroom, Derald Wing Sue, Annie I. Lin, Gina C. Torino, Christina M. Capodilupo, & David P. Rivera. See also Face race head-on to close achievement gaps, What works in teaching & learning, Price & Stumbo; and ‘Courageous conversations’ on race are one way to close Lodi Unified’s achievement gap, Lodi News-Sentinel. (2007.)
  2. Students were asked to write a dialogue between two people with some kind of substantive conflict.
  3. For a related discussion, see Diane Davis’s conception of rhetoricity as our being already rhetorically receptive to one another: Inessential Solidarity: Rhetoric and Foreigner Relations.
  4. Names of all the following students have been changed.