“What Can You Possibly Know About My Experience?”: Toward a Practice of Self-Reflection and Multicultural Competence

Robert Mundy
Rachel Sugerman

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

From the Center

Early in my career, working as an assistant writing center director at a small state university, my primary role was to be on the floor, to act as a presence and offer support to our staff, a group comprised of mostly undergraduate students. Given the college’s demographics, our writing center did well to represent the student population, a diverse blend of majors with varied sociocultural backgrounds. What unified the staff, however, was their economic standing, many the first in their individual family to attend college, and, subsequently, a desire to achieve, to learn the system in which they were now a part of, to take advantage of the purported meritocracy of the academy and to grow academically and financially (emphasis on the latter). As first-generation students and largely underrepresented members of the academy, the staff saw their work as less liason between the communities of home and higher ed, as I had imagined they would, and more de facto professors, authoritative figures, determining who belonged and who did not, according to how they perceived writing/academic acumen. Once these students learned the dance steps, the overt and hidden expectations associated with academic identity and writing, their tutoring felt punitive. Suddenly, diversity gave way to some sense of apolitical standing; staff members somehow saw themselves as being outside of race, class, and ethnicity, as if to suggest that writing, and tutoring for that matter, functions as an attachment to be added from the outside and not a product of the lived experience.

In speaking with the staff about what was transpiring, they made their case. They achieved some sense of success in a world that was not originally their own, perhaps not even designed with them in mind, and felt obligated to support students on a similar trajectory. And, as they noted, they would do so by any means necessary, including chastising their peers. I would assume that the staff members had been indoctrinated into the academy by a similar trial by fire, and this was their attempt at “tough love,” something the staff was prepared to dole out at a moment’s notice, for any student who resembled their “former” selves. As a white, middle-class, male administrator with great privilege assigned to such standing, I was for the first time watching how marginalized students function as gatekeepers, how they internalize institutional demands, regardless of how unacceptable they may be, and perform accordingly, asking other students, similar in race, class, and/or ethnicity to suffer as they have. Reflecting back, I am left to wonder, was I prepared to have conversations about these issues with staff members? And, at the same time, had the consultants been afforded opportunities to consider how their own backgrounds and upbringings affect their work in the center?

From the Counseling Session

During my first counseling internship I became aware of the many challenges I would face in my journey toward multicultural competence. Early in my career, I was still grappling with my own feelings of insecurity about my counseling skills in general and my ability to help others solve their problems when I so often struggled to deal with my own. One of my first clients was a middle-aged, working-class Black man, and I was a middle-class White woman in my early twenties. He was a recovering addict, one who spoke openly about his experience and informed me matter-of-factly about the various traumas he had endured during his lifetime. I listened empathetically to his story, making a conscious effort to appear unassuming and nonjudgmental. I offered little feedback during that first session, aware that I felt judged by him. At one point during the session he looked at me, sort of tilted his head to one side and sat back in his chair, looking thoroughly unconvinced. We sat quietly for a few moments before he said bluntly, “No offense—you seem like a nice girl, but how can you possibly help me?  What can you possibly know about my experience?”  I thought about this for a moment, aware that now I was fidgeting with my hands and squirming in my seat. I felt my face flush as I sat there wondering to myself if I could help this man. I thought back to my training, thought back to how I was taught that addressing our differences was important to the therapeutic process. I sat back in my chair, now feeling more grounded. He had just made my job easier by being the one to broach this subject—the one to mention the elephant in the room. I said slowly, “You’re right. I don’t know about your experience, and I would never claim to. I do believe I can help you, and I will need to try my best to understand your experience in order for this to work.”  He looked intently at me for a long time and then nodded his head. “You’re right,” he said, satisfied with my response. Together, we got to work.           

I spoke about this exchange many times in the weeks that followed, both during sessions with my client and during clinical supervision. My client disclosed his preconceptions about me during our sessions; I processed my own doubts and insecurities about working with this client with my supervisor. I worked to understand what preconceived ideas I had about my client and how I could prevent these biases and assumptions from playing out in the work we did together. What I have learned during my years as a counselor is that this dynamic plays out in all sessions and with all clients. There are moments when I identify with a client’s experience, at times to a fault, while still during others I find myself dumbfounded and uncertain with how to proceed. What always remains the same, however, is that I will undoubtedly have a reaction to what is said during those intimate moments. What I take from these experiences is the importance of remaining self-reflective, mindful of countertransference, and of having the courage to have uncomfortable conversations.

In thinking about these two experiences as one running narrative, we ask you to consider the elements of the work done in the writing center that reflect a counseling perspective, components of the job that call for a set of skills and standpoints that may exist outside of our field’s training. The parallels between writing center and counseling work are copious. Both find their essence in collaboration, a strengths-based perspective, and the promotion of client autonomy. In contending with the latter, providers of service, in both circumstances, must be patently cognizant of mitigating any attempt to impose and/or project their values on the second party. Clients often come to these services either of their own volition or because they have been directed to do so by those in power due to a perceived deficiency, a sense that students need to be “fixed.” Both engage others in conversations that may unearth feelings of “vulnerability” (Murphy, 1995, p. 45), moments in which the client may divulge sensitive and emotionally-driven information, interactions that may prove to be traumatic, and dealings that inevitably elicit a reaction that potentially triggers unexpected feelings for the client, consultant, or both. Similarly, interactions between consultants and administration may result in the same processes. The tensions associated with writing center work are not left in sessions; rather, they spill over and out into the center. Such tensions are never isolated; instead, like the bodies to which they are attached, they circulate in and out of the center, in and between all involved parties. They are products of the space’s interconnectivity and require staff to be equipped, at all levels, from first-year consultants to directors, to understand and properly engage with the strong cognitive and affective reactions that emerge from these interactions.

In this article, we first trace the trajectory of writing center scholarship as a means to provide context for a dialogue about the issues of identity that arise in the center. Next, we explore the field’s training guides to review how such texts understand and approach multicultural issues, noting that they commonly lack a totalizing perspective, more times than not seeing “identity” as a writerly issue, one that is brought into the session by the client, and not a concern that consultants must be aware of and contend with themselves, about who they are and how they approach their work. We further explore the need to view the identities of writing center supervisors and administrators as being salient, taking into account that writing center dynamics are multidirectional in nature, and that failing to consider the complexity of these issues can have serious implications, for all who navigate this space. Finally, we problematize our practices, first highlighting aspects of our work that often go unnoticed and turn to training and supervision suggestions in an attempt to better equip our staff members and ourselves to contend with these complex issues. We understand supervision outside of a top-down dynamic. Instead, the process functions as a collaborative endeavor—a relationship that provides opportunities to engage in open dialogue in order to co-construct the supervision experience. Supervision can help the consultant organize, evaluate, and create new knowledge by enabling them to talk about themselves and the writers with which they work in new and different ways. Accordingly, the supervisor exists not as an expert but instead helps to provide an environment in which the consultant can think critically about their work. In considering how to promote a social justice imperative, our work looks inward, towards the center, promoting an introspective approach by investigating relationships between writing center work/scholarship, multicultural competence, and consultant intersectional identities.

A Bridge That Exists

Jenny Suffredini (1998) has drawn a parallel between therapist and writing center practitioner through a consideration of the “triangular relationship of student, professor, and tutor” (p. 5). In fact, much of her thoughts mirror our own position with regard to the setting, subject matter, and introspective nature of the work. However, she goes on to suggest that writing center practitioners should be wary of engaging students in any dialogue that exists outside the mechanics of writing. She cautions consultants to consider the following:

Remember that we are not psychologists, and we are not expected by the writing center to be psychologists. As Chloe Diepenbrock…puts it: ‘We are writing therapists, not people therapists.’ We are not responsible for any of the student’s problems that fall outside the discussion of their writing. (p. 6)

While we are certainly not suggesting that writing center consultants provide counseling services or act outside of their competencies, we do question this notion of “writing therapy.” Such a position suggests that writing functions in a vacuum—that the personal is somehow isolated from the act of discourse. Although consultants are by no means expected to resolve emotional distress, they will certainly have to engage in potentially tense moments and conversations beyond the immediate scope of the position—contend with client’s frustrations, determine benefits of self-disclosure, negotiate issues of power and privilege inherent in the institution, to provide just a few examples.

Working with people, particularly in this capacity, requires an understanding of the emotional input and output of writing center work and an ability to negotiate the inevitable friction or hostility that may manifest itself during one’s hours on the clock. “Tutoring Writing From the Psychiatrist’s Couch” attempts to verbalize this aspect of the profession, an intersection of colloquial psychiatry, asking: “What do we do… when in the act of writing a person realizes the intensity or magnitude of a personal problem and is overwhelmed by it?…How do we address the student’s paper under such circumstances?” (Spaeth, 1991, p. 107). Muriel Harris (1986), too, has taken note of the counselor identity the consultant enacts:

Like other counselors, teachers in writing conferences also look at the whole person, not merely the perpetrator of fragments or rambling paragraphs. To move beyond the observable errors on the page, it’s necessary to inquire into the writer’s previous experience, prior learning, motivation, outside problems, attitudes, and composing processes in order to form an adequate picture of how to proceed. (36)

Although the thinking presented in both texts is indeed valuable, they fail to address the complexity of the consultant’s experience and how that may shift the dynamics of a writing session. The purpose of our writing, therefore, is to continue building off of this connection so as to support writing center staff members as they engage with the complexity of identity, with regard to the students who enter the center and with their own. To do so would be to act in a culturally competent manner, an aspect of writing center work that has yet to be explored in great depth, a concept that asks consultants to immediately consider both themselves and their students as cultural beings and how this affects the dynamics of their interactions.

Garret to the Global

In considering the trajectory of writing center theory and pedagogy, we can trace a transition in the understanding, expectation, and subsequent complexity of its motives, nuances, and overall identity. As Andrea Lunsford (1991) wrote, centers began as “storehouses” and transitioned into “garrets.” Both examples prove to be problematic, however, seeing as centers, in terms of the former, are positioned as “fix it” shops and, as the latter suggests, function, incorrectly, in complete isolation. Eventually, per Lunsford’s writing and design, centers became synonymous with “Burkean Parlors,” spaces associated with collaborative teaching and learning. Her description of this approach to tutoring maps several beneficial outcomes to such a practice, from aiding in problem finding/solving to engaging students in active learning. For the purposes of this discussion, we focus attention on the parallel she has drawn between collaboration and the understanding of others: “The idea of a center informed by theory of knowledge as socially constructed, of power and control as constantly negotiated and shared, and of collaboration as its first principle presents quite a challenge” (97).

Lunsford’s use of the parlor metaphor, as she has noted, presents distinct issues similar to previous tropes associated with writing center best practice. Although seeming egalitarian, parlors only provide an illusion of equity. Centers are not spaces outside of the world beyond its borders; they are not locales quartered off from what goes on in the larger institution, or, for that matter, outside of academia; they are not emblematic of social, cultural, and economic tensions, but rather sites in which these issues unfold, doing so in “contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power” (Pratt, 1991, p. 34). Writing centers, therefore, act as “points of contact,” to borrow a term from Mary Louise Pratt, between what can be considered the “outside” and the “inside”—the lives that are led before entering the center and the experiences had after taking such a step. Such a binary, however, is of itself troubling, as it suggests that these experiences are mutually exclusive to one another, that identity and all that is attached to it exists outside of the work done in writing sessions, that if we stick to what we know—argument, organization, syntax—we can effectively avoid, well, the person sitting across from us or who we are ourselves.

Sessions and the consultants connected to these moments tend to shy away from such conversations, instead opting to maintain the integrity of students’ “academic identity kits,” a persona developed so as to remain in line with academic expectation, completing the work professors “want to hear” about rather than interrogating how students’ classed, raced, and/or gendered experiences intersect with some aspect of a given assignment (Grimm, 1999, p. 54-55). For Nancy Grimm (1999), identity and its subsequent maintenance is a product of modernist thinking: “But because writing centers are funded for modernist reasons (to improve the clarity, order, and correctness of student writing), writing center workers too often must avoid questioning taken-for-granted university assumptions in order to fulfill their designated function” (p. 2). Through such work, the design and dialogue may indeed be collaborative, even Burkean if you will, but the presence of institutional power locates the consultant in a precarious position, one rife with tensions as the purported authority, the body closer to perceived academic ability, and therefore the “right” way.

However, in “postmodern” times in a “postmodern” writing center, or what James Berlin (1997) and Lester Faigley (1992) have coined as the “social turn”—consultants are still asked to engage with a set of circumstances only partially represented by the request of the institution to function as mechanisms promoting homogeneity. “To fix” as the university requests is no small order, seeing that those who enter the center are not homogenous beings. Beyond the obvious notion that students work from various academic levels and such levels are often byproducts of racial, economic, ethnic, and/or social markers, what transpires during sessions often deviates from the institution’s preferred script, delving into issues of identity and the politics attached to such lives, “radically discontinuous and multidimensional realities” students embody and staff must understand (Grimm, 1999, p. 3). A case could be made that those who fund our centers remain unsure of our work. Maybe these same people have never considered all that takes place during an interaction between peers when writing exists as a point of focus. Regardless, writing centers quite commonly are places in which individuals, consciously or unconsciously, divulge who they are. Perhaps such an appeal is not forthright, as students make pleas to “get me through the assignment or class” more often than not, rather than making a request to “get to know me.” Whispered through pursed lips, however, students covertly couch talk of “transitional phrases” or “verb usage,” opting to instead offer some greater glimpse into their own private stirrings, and they do so with consultants whom they know only in passing or not at all. Moments such as a student of color who feels isolated by their white professor or classmates, a female who feels silenced by domineering male students, a self-proclaimed conservative who is angered by what she considers to be a liberal academic agenda in her classes, a man who is struggling to reconcile his private sexuality and his public writing are only an appointment away in our writing centers, with consultants who they themselves enter into these dialogues with a set of experiences, assumptions, biases, and values all their own. Here, consultants are faced with circumstances that exist off of the page, and are left to grapple with their own understanding of a session, moments that may cause their own traumas to emerge or cause them to second guess the appropriateness or safety of self-disclosure.

To what extent are we prepared to support clients, consultants, and ourselves in these muddied, at times, tumultuous waters? According to Harry Denny (2010), not well:

Veiled at every turn—whether the object of concern was a center’s staffing, its clients, administration, mission, philosophy, structure or process—were bodies in the center, bodies with identities, bodies with faces, politics and implications. With rare exception, nobody was talking about them, a collective denial no doubt rooted more in inability than refusal. (p. 4)

Just as Denny (2010) has noted, identity, in all of its manifestations, requires further interrogation by our community, particularly with respect to staff dialogue/development. Writing center research has done well to explore the experience and the identity of the client; however, only a few authors (Denny 2010; Godbee, Ozias, & Tang 2015; Rafoth 2015; Sloan 1997) shed light on the affective, intersectional dimensions of consultants, their writing center work, and their emotional labor. As such, the field needs further engagement with the following questions: How are consultants emotionally affected by their work? How do consultants’ past experiences impact their interactions? How do consultants negotiate the politics of the space? To what extent are consultants aware of their own acts to cover and/or pass? To what degree do consultants surveil others, their languages and/or performances, or feel policed themselves for similar reasons?

We, therefore, ask you to consider the other side of the tutor/tutee dynamic, unpacking the internal world of the consultants and how their embodied and/or performed identities are affected/challenged through the course of the work they are asked to complete in a given day. Just as clients are shaped by the dialogue of a session, so are consultants. They do not enter their work tabla rasa; they too bring with them to sessions lived experiences, along with the biases and anxieties the writer may carry forth just the same. Consultants project and are projected upon, often times without sufficient training or provided outlets to process such events in a manner that is beneficial to their own and their client’s well-being. Similar to Anne Geller, Michele Eodice, Frankie Condon, Meg Carroll, and Elizabeth Boquet (2007) and the work done in “Everyday Racism,” “we ask what kinds of learning our current system of staff development offers, what kinds of learning we want to promote, and what moves we want to make with tutors and the writers who use our centers?” (p. 89). Indeed, as noted in this work, “racism cuts through multiple identities and magnifies the effects and impact of other manifestations of oppression” (p. 92) and that “our profession has done little to date to complicate tutors’ or our own understandings of racism in relation to our individual and professional identities, our teaching, and tutoring work, or our institutions” (p. 96); however, we aim to cast a wider net as related to the attendant identity politics of the center, challenging writing center staff members to look within, to consider the “difference” they themselves embody and to refrain from seeing “difference” as somehow an issue to be grappled with only by the client (Grutsch McKinney, 2013, p. 71).


Difference manifests itself in a myriad of ways, including interpersonally and as a response to an internalization of a larger cultural context. In regard to writing centers, difference paradoxically extends from our individual experiences outside of the larger culture and as participants in that very same space. Given such complexity, we will first discuss a concept that originates in psychoanalysis but is now understood in broader terms, the concept of countertransference. Countertransference, as we will refer to it here, is a counselor’s reactions to a particular client that stem from the counselor’s own unresolved personal issues (Gelso & Hayes, 2001; Hayes, 2004). Such feelings can include emotional, behavioral, and cognitive experiences, both conscious and unconscious, and can manifest in both positive and negative forms. Countertransference can result in either over-involvement or under-involvement with a client, and can be either managed or unmanaged, depending on the practitioner’s own level of self-awareness. In cases of over-identification with a client, the practitioner may lose objectivity or perhaps boundaries may become blurred. For example, the practitioner may feel a need to protect the client or may be overly complimentary. Conversely, the practitioner may exhibit feelings of boredom, avoidance, or guilt in cases of under-involvement with a client (Gelso & Hayes, 2007). Countertransference finds its origins in the field of mental health; however, we assert that by virtue of one’s humanity, any individual working with people will experience similar reactions to the clients they serve. Because of this, those who train and educate should talk to writing center consultants about countertransference, while working to promote a safe environment to normalize the experience.

To provide a deeper understanding of how countertransference is manifested in the writing center, we consider the interpersonal implications of the following scenario:

A student comes to the writing center visibly angry and aggressive in his demeanor. The student makes many unreasonable requests during the session and degrades the consultant’s skills as a writing center tutor. The consultant finds himself reacting passively—becoming silent, uncomfortable, and intimidated by the student. Later, after speaking with his supervisor, the consultant realizes this kind of passive behavior occurred in his relationship with his father, who often belittled him during fits of rage. The consultant learned to back off as a way to cope with his father’s behavior. In processing the interaction with his supervisor, the consultant realizes that he did the same thing in his interaction with this student.

Similarly, writing center scholarship has broached such scenarios; however, the limited attention it has received calls for further interrogation so as to provide opportunities for writing center administrators to talk about the importance of self-reflective practice during the training and supervision of staff. In Grimm’s (1999) example, a scenario is presented in which a tutor’s desire to be a “good teacher” may be “projected onto the student in ways that foreclosed learning for both of them” (p. 66)—an idea that in essence is what we have suggested as being a countertransferential reaction of the consultant. The consultant’s desire to be viewed as competent, along with the accompanying anxiety that perhaps she is not, inevitably has an effect on the interpersonal dynamics and outcomes of the session. The consultant may feel the need to “prove” her competence, perhaps by being overly directive, or, perhaps by failing to consider portions of the student’s writing that falls outside the realm of mechanics or sentence structure in an attempt to take on the role of “instructor.” Countertransference may leave practitioners with unresolved thoughts at a session’s conclusion, asking staff to work through these issues even when they are “off the clock.” Countertransference left unexamined can lead to burnout or compassion fatigue, and, in some cases, vicarious traumatization. How do we equip our staff to handle these situations? How much time is spent, either during training or supervision, discussing outlets for dealing with the strong emotional matter that can arise during writing center sessions?

As Kenneth Pope, Janet Sonne, and Beverly Greene (2006) have suggested, even within the mental health field, where an understanding of countertransference is a vocational necessity, discussing countertransference can be an uncomfortable conversation for all involved, often causing training programs to neglect such important dialogue. Therefore, we are not surprised to see its omittance from writing center scholarship. However, regardless of whether we choose to look at and talk about the ways in which countertransference affects each and every session, it is a phenomenon that nevertheless exists. By electing to ignore the emotional aspects brought to the session by the consultant, we fail to consider an entire half of the dynamic—events and experiences that have shaped the consultant and now contribute to the unfolding of the writing center interaction. Training writing center consultants, along with administrators, to appropriately identify, normalize, and work through feelings of countertransference can lead to more self-reflective writing center practitioners.

Multicultural Competence

Within the matrix of student-consultant interaction lies cultural forces that exist beyond, while at the same time inform, interpersonal manifestations of difference. So what does it mean to provide multiculturally competent service? Beyond training staff to be aware of feelings of countertransference, multicultural competence involves staff becoming aware of themselves as cultural beings, while working to simultaneously become introspective about their own culturally-based reactions to their clients. According to Patricia Arredondo et al. (1996), the provision of culturally competent service is dependent on the practitioner’s ability to critically identify how their own cultural heritage may “personally and professionally affect the definitions of and biases about normality/abnormality” (p. 482). As such, the training and supervision of writing center consultants should incorporate techniques that help staff to, as Grimm (1998) describes, “develop awareness of the ways they have internalized the belief that a particular form of discourse is ‘right’ or ‘natural’ or ‘better,’ and that those who depart from this form are ‘wrong’ or ‘not normal’ or culturally deprived” (p. 67). Currently, the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) complements the ethical standards set forth in the American Counseling Association’s (2014) ACA Code of Ethics with regard to the training and supervision of counselors as it relates to multicultural competence: “Counselor educators actively infuse multicultural/diversity competency in their training and supervision practices. They actively train students to gain awareness, knowledge, and skills in the competencies of multicultural practice” (Standard F.11.c). We assert that such training is needed for writing center practitioners as well, serving to inform consultants of their own culturally-charged positionality, while also challenging hegemonic structures that have long existed within the academy.

Similar to our previous section that looked at countertransference, we again turn to an example of what a lack of cultural competence looks like in the midst of a writing session:

A Pakistani-American student makes an appointment for an hour-long session. Before her arrival, the consultant looks at the appointment information as a way to prepare. He recalls having had a class with this student two semesters ago, remembering that the student, who wore a hijab, had quietly sat in the back of the class, rarely saying anything. In conversation with a fellow consultant, he remarks that “he will have to do much of the talking during the session if anything is to get accomplished.” Without much knowledge of the woman, other than what he remembers from class, he considers what has been said about Pakistani culture on the news. He thinks to himself, “Pakistani women are subservient and are not considered equal to men. She will probably require a very directive approach and will feel most at ease if I take the lead.” Fifteen minutes into the session, and the writer has yet to say a word. Instead, she is forced to sit back and to listen to the consultant as he argues points for her, suggests sources, and anticipates possible flaws in the overall topic. The woman, who has many ideas herself, becomes angered by his overly directive approach and ends up leaving the session before its scheduled conclusion, deciding not to return to the writing center again. The consultant, puzzled by the student’s reaction, assumes she left the session because he had given her enough direction to write her paper, and does not consider that this approach lacked cultural competence.

As we can see from this example, the consultant’s preconceived ideas about Pakistani women contributed to a breakdown in communication between the two parties. The consultant, who decided to base his techniques on incorrect assumptions, made a grave misstep in relying on casual interactions and generalized notions presented in the media as grounds to facilitate a writing scenario. This is similar to what Paula Gillespie and Neal Lerner (2008) described in that both students and consultants have “cultural expectations for behavior, particularly those that have to do with communication…It is quite likely that many writers you’ll work with [as consultants] will not share your cultural experiences or will attach different value than you do to certain kinds of behavior” (p. 48). As writing center scholarship demonstrates, students and staff alike come to the writing center not as monolithic beings but as amalgamations of rich and complex intersectional identities. These markers are not organized or stratified, but they rather are fluid and move individuals from positions of authority to marginality, given time, place, and context. Denny (2010) has also looked at these identity markers and the contributions they make to the writing center dynamics: “students, tutors, administrators and faculty must confront who they are, whether the identity in question is one from the margins or whether the context forces awareness of one’s privilege or position in the center” (pp. 16-17).

In looking at how identity plays out in this space, we must also consider the asymmetrical power relations of the consultant-student dynamic. Far too often, the student is asked to do the heavy lifting. As Carol Severino (1992) has written, “usually, when we speak of crossing boundaries, it is the student who is on the journey, not the teacher, and the implication is that the student has only a one-way ticket” (p. 8). Instead, as Severino has suggested, further exploration of the bidirectional nature of the interaction, including the consultant’s role, is needed. However, a lack of bidirectional awareness exists within the consultant-student dynamic, with consultants often perceiving “Others as objects for whom practical and instrumental learning applies, not figures for whom learning is necessarily transactional and collaborative (‘we’ can learn from ‘them,’ ‘they from us.’)” (Denny, 2010, p. 5). Here, Denny points to the salient issue we have identified throughout our research. Much attention has been given to understanding the complexities of student/writer identities, such as how privilege and authority affect the students’ understanding of their own positions and whether their voices “deserve” to be heard in the academy. Along similar lines, consultants have been reminded to remain vigilant—to avoid placing students in compromising or marginal positions. Rarely, however, has writing center literature inverted this very paradigm to consider all that the consultant faces—the complexity of their own identities and the circumstances they are asked to navigate.

To exclude the direct use of the term cultural competence, along with the subsequent training associated with such a term, places consultants, who are asked to accomplish some arduous tasks, at a great disadvantage. They are on the frontlines, but are often ill equipped to manage the intricacies of their assigned duties. Far too often, they are placed in emotionally taxing situations without the language or knowledge of how to be successful, in providing productive, equitable sessions, advocating for the self, and supporting the Other. The overall center and the academic community also suffer without a wholesale understanding and implementation of culturally competent training. Additionally, as is seen in the counseling scholarship, the practitioner’s credibility is enhanced in the eyes of the recipient when cultural factors are acknowledged (Atkinson, Casas, & Abreu, 1992; Gim, Atkinson, & Kim, 1991). Furthermore, the recognition of cultural factors contributes to client satisfaction and willingness to return for follow-up sessions (Sue & Sundberg, 1996).

Grimm (1999) has advocated for an interrogation of sociocultural and socioeconomic barriers that tethers the Other to the margin through a “willingness to scrutinize one’s own implication in social power” (p. 56), and to put forth a “willingness to scrutinize our role and responsibility as change agents within the institution” (p. 79). Perhaps this is easier said than done, seeing the dearth of scholarship on the topic of cultural competency in our field. How familiar are we with concepts such as broaching behaviors? How often do we engage our staff in reflective conversations about the multicultural issues that they themselves face as a result of a session? Are we prepared to talk to trainees about the importance of knowledge, skills, and awareness associated with social justice competencies? How should writing center professionals (WCP) incorporate such practices into their training and daily responsibilities? What protocols are in place to address consultant needs, particularly with regard to supervision?

Multicultural Competence Training

The culture of the writing center, very much a community of practice, is informed by the way we collectively talk about our work. By extension, “it is reasonable to assume…that tutor training manuals are among the most important texts for authorizing writing center lore, our collective knowledge of ourselves” (Kail, 2003, p. 74). However, as Geller et al. (2007) has noted, “glaring gaps” do exist in these texts, with particular regard to “incorporating meaningful considerations of race in our staff education practices” (p. 96). As we have done previously, we build on the meaningful work of critical race theory, considering the scholarship of Laura Greenfield and Karen Rowan (2011) and Frankie Condon (2012), as a means to explore the various intersections of experience. We aim to answer such a call in the sections that follow, looking to how we as a community address identity and focusing our attention on the consultant, who they are and how their alliances and biases disrupt their work, and by extension their sessions and the work of their clients, as Anne DiPardo (1992) has suggested, “the need to monitor one’s ethnocentric biases and faulty assumptions” (p. 142). Through a counseling lens, we next turn to “tutor training” texts and staff development models in order to consider how identity is being framed and to what extent multicultural competence is being discussed, as the provision of multiculturally competent service within our writing centers is dependent on continued education, training, and supervision of our staff in these areas.

Many of the tutor training texts we reviewed emphasize the logistics of a session, offering little guidance for tutors with regard to the intricacies culture plays within a session’s dynamic. These texts often discuss that expectations and etiquette may vary according to culture, but avoid an exhaustive exploration of how a consultant’s understanding of culture (both of their own and of the student) affects the direction and outcomes of a session, with the exception of sections dedicated to English Language Learners (ELL). In such instances, the barrier that language presents serves as the focus of the discussion rather than the cognitive and affective experience of working with a student who may be different from the consultant. Turning to a broader association of culture in the center, outside of second language learners, The Longman Guide to Peer Tutoring addresses potential culture-based discrepancies with regard to verbal and nonverbal communication, focusing specific attention on the relationship between social roles, expectations, and session goals (pp. 47-51). Throughout the section “Communication Breakdown,” Gillespie and Lerner (2008) draw our attention to the possible tensions that may occur in a session given the cultural dynamics at play, yet they only engage as so far as asking tutors to be aware of what may transpire during a session. The guide does not address the complexities of asking tutors to be culturally introspective, nor does it offer specific training or supervision strategies that would enable tutors to gain such insight.

Leigh Ryan and Lisa Zimmerelli’s (2016) The Bedford Guide for Writing Tutors goes a step further in that it addresses multiculturalism more directly in its examination of writers with different learning styles (p. 54), writers with writing anxiety (p. 56), writers with learning disabilities (p. 66), writers with physical challenges (p. 67), and nontraditional students (p. 69). This text does not, however, address the multitude of other cultural issues that may arise during a session (race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and issues of mental health), nor does it speak to the emotional reactions that may be elicited in the consultant. Although the guide does offer specific strategies and techniques for working with the various writers mentioned above, the text omits dialogue related to the significance of culture in their own development and worldview and that of the writers with whom they interact. Lauren Fitzgerald and Melissa Ianetta’s (2016) The Oxford Guide for Writing Tutors: Practice and Research provided the most comprehensive review of said topic by expanding the scope of the dialogue to include all of the stakeholders of the center, and how these actors’ identities influence the interactions of the space (p.112). Unlike the previous texts, Fitzgerald and Ianetta effectively swing the pendulum to consider how tutor identity also influences the dynamics of a session (p. 113). While issues of difference are brought to the reader’s attention, there is little discussion of how to support consultants as they come to understand the complexity of their identities and how to process these “cultural moments” after they have occurred. Despite the fact that the identity of the consultant is addressed, the tutoring strategies suggested focus on the identity of the writer, leaving the consultant with little guidance for such complexities (pp. 115-127).

Here, we turn to counseling literature as a means to engage writing center practitioners in an interdisciplinary dialogue to understand, develop, and implement training protocols that engender multicultural proficiency. We do so, again, through the lens and language of counseling but have selected concepts and protocols that can extend directly to the operations of the center. Originated by Derald Wing Sue, Patricia Arredondo, and Roderick McDavis (1992), and later operationalized by Arredondo et al. (1996), the Multicultural Counseling Competencies (MCC) model was originally developed primarily to address racial and ethnic factors in counseling. MCC standards assert that counselors need to be self-aware by being conscious of their values and biases, possess an understanding of client worldviews, and have the ability to provide culturally-appropriate interventions. The model includes three overarching MCC dimensions related to the counselor’s attitudes and beliefs, knowledge, and skills (Sue, Arredondo, & McDavis, 1992). Since the inception of such thinking, an understanding of multicultural competence has extended to include other cultural identities, such as gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, and religion and spirituality. In light of this transition, along with a greater understanding of intersectionality and context, the Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development (AMCD) established a committee to revise the MCC, which culminated in the development of the Multicultural and Social Justice Counseling Competencies (MSJCC; Ratts, Singh, Nassar-McMillan, Butler, & McCullough, 2015). MSJCC merges an understanding of multiculturalism with a social justice perspective, one that examines issues of power and privilege, forging a better understanding of client-counselor dynamics. The model goes beyond the knowledge, skills, and awareness of the MCC design to include action as a necessary component to multicultural competence.

According to Ginger Dickson and Brett Shumway (2011), “components of effective multicultural training include 1) a culturally sensitive program training environment; 2) instructional strategies that are (a) traditional, (b) participatory, and (c) expose students to different cultural experiences; and 3) multicultural clinical experiences (practica and supervision)” (p. 2). Traditional methods of training include the use of lectures, readings, and self-reflective writing assignments designed to help trainees develop a cognitive understanding of multicultural topics and the constructs of power, privilege, and control, as well as gain insight and awareness into themselves as cultural beings. Participatory strategies, such as role-play activities, games, and group discussions, as well as exposure strategies, such as presentations and immersion activities, enable trainees to challenge their biases and assumptions about particular cultural groups (Arredondo & Arciniega, 2001; Dickson & Shumway, 2011; Mitcham, Greenidge, & Smith, 2013; Sheely-Moore & Kooyman, 2011). Ginger Dickson and David Jepsen (2007) found that among counseling students “perceptions of program cultural ambience or environment were significant predictors” of the students’ multicultural competencies. We argue that creating a culturally sensitive environment that emphasizes a dedication to multiculturalism will have similar effects within the writing center, seeing as the created culture, of any space, is dependent on the construction of shared values.

Another skill development strategy cited in the counseling literature as being essential to the provision of multicultural services is broaching. Broaching refers to “the counselor’s ability to consider the relationship of racial and cultural factors to the client’s presenting problem, especially because these issues might otherwise remain unexamined” (Day-Vines et al., 2007, p. 401). Norma Day-Vines et al. (2007) has drawn on the work of bell hooks (1992), noting that our society has repressed and denied cultural factors, while also making the claim that a “colorblind” attitude, one that de-emphasizes difference and treats people as part of one homogenized group, may in fact serve to disguise hidden biases (as cited in Patton & Day-Vines, 2005). To provide services with the attitude that “we are all just people,” minimizes the experience of marginalized groups and contributes to asymmetrical distributions of power. Broaching “creates an opportunity for healing this legacy of silence and shame by providing an environment of emotional safety within which the counseling relationship can transition from a level of superficiality toward a measure of intimacy that is crucial to embracing difference” (Day-Vines et al., 2007, p. 402). Day-Vines goes on to describe broaching behavior as an ongoing process in which the counselor offers opportunity for the client to address cultural issues. Such practices have been shown to improve the client-counselor relationship and to enhance counselor credibility (Sue & Sundberg, 1996). Broaching and broaching behaviors, as well as multicultural competence in general, exist on a continuum, and are generally associated with the developmental stage of the counselor. In the context of the writing center, broaching and broaching behavior can be used both during tutoring sessions and during conversations that administrators have with staff to promote a culture that does not shy away from conversations about difference.

Multicultural Competence Supervision

Counseling supervision is a unique, multifaceted, and dynamic process that helps to guide supervisees through their development as counselors. Counseling supervisors function as educators, role models, consultants, and gatekeepers to the profession. The role of clinical supervisor encompasses a wide array of responsibilities, including “modeling, supporting, teaching, coaching, directing, and evaluating a supervisee’s development” (Hird, Cavalieri, Dulko, Felice, & Ho, 2001, p. 118). Supervision can also be a vehicle for counselors to engage in conversations about cultural issues, and to gain multicultural knowledge and skills (Borders & Brown, 2005; Milville, Rosa, & Constantine, 2005).

Supervision serves as a context within which supervisees can reflect upon and gain insight into their practice. It can enable supervisees to process emotional and cognitive reactions to their clients and help them to consider alternative perspectives and/or approaches. Supervision encourages reflection of cultural differences between the client and counselor as well as between the counselor and supervisor. Several supervision interventions can also enable supervisees to become more cognizant of countertransferential reactions. One such method is the use of role-plays during supervision. When applied to writing center practice, role plays can enable consultants to identify with the client’s experience, which can lead to increased empathy and greater understanding of differences. Angela Sheely-Moore and Leslie Kooyman (2011) suggested that the use of role-plays could also enable supervisees to practice broaching skills to try out “language and responses that invite a discussion on cultural difference” (p. 106). While many of the tutor training texts we reviewed also considered the use of role-plays or “mock” tutoring scenarios, their use was limited to the technical aspects of the session. We suggest that incorporating role-plays that emphasize multicultural and social justice issues will enable tutors to gain a greater understanding of difference, increase empathy, and enhance the ongoing process of self-reflection.

Another supervision technique that can enhance introspection and self-awareness is the use of Interpersonal Process Recall (IPR). IPR is a technique developed by Norman Kagan (1980) that involves a supervisor and supervisee reviewing a video recording of a session in order to explore the psychological responses of the supervisee. While watching the video recording, either party can stop the tape to give the supervisee an opportunity to voice what he or she was thinking or feeling at that particular moment in time. To facilitate such reflection, the supervisor takes on the role of nonjudgmental examiner, asking questions to elicit the supervisee’s recollection of cognitive and affective responses during the session. The use of IPR invites the supervisee to “re-experience the counseling session without the distractions and pressures of being with the client. In fact, we suggest the recall be expressed in the present tense as a way of helping the counselor really be present in the actual here-and-now” (Borders & Brown, 2005). IPR enables supervisees to examine their internal reactions to clients in a non-evaluative manner. The use of this technique enables supervisees to examine their practice more closely, drawing attention to the bidirectional nature of the counselor-client dynamic and the counselor’s role in the exchanges that occur during a session. Again, writing center administrators can borrow this supervision technique as a means to help tutors gain insight into why they do what they do during sessions in a non-evaluative manner. Such insight can lead to improved multicultural competence and can contribute to an atmosphere that focuses on issues related to social justice within our centers.


There is no denying that conversations about oppression, social injustice, and privilege tend to make people uncomfortable. Because of this discomfort, conversations about these issues are often avoided. From transparent racism, to less obvious discrimination, to the even less obvious micro-aggression, discrepancies exist in the way people treat those who are different from themselves. Although many of these issues stem from ignorance or fear of “the other,” these issues are also due in large part to a lack of self-awareness. To disregard individual differences with the attitude that “we are all just people” is not only a problematic approach, but also one that serves to perpetuate inequality. Notions of “safe spaces” may function just the same. The term operates as a misnomer—a story we tell ourselves as a means to find some sense of solace, fleeting as that may be. Safety suggests comfort, but only when a blind eye is turned to the simple truth that spaces are rife with conflict, just as individuals themselves struggle to negotiate who they are within the social matrices in which they interact. Discomfort can, and often does, lead to growth. We cannot be social justice advocates unless we remain introspective and have the courage to have potentially uncomfortable conversations.

Identity is a complex, multidimensional, and ever-evolving expression of cultural belonging and individuality. Individuals cannot, and should not be treated as if they exist within a vacuum; various cultural, temporal, and political factors largely affect each and every individual and their development. Culture, race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, and age all impact an individual’s understanding of the world. Cultural identity arises at the intersection of each of these aspects of self and is woven together by the various influences of power, privilege, and oppression. Writing centers tout their commitment to diversity and inclusivity, from the selection of consultants to the manner in which they interact with the campuses they find themselves. Yet, culture, and to a greater extent, multicultural competency, is treated rather superficially. Centers are prideful of cultural awareness but often lack the clearly articulated conventions to support students as they embark on work that will require a great sense of self and societal awareness. They are microcosms of what lurks just outside their doors, and thus can and should be viewed as opportunities to establish practices that challenge the larger culture of their universities and beyond.

To function as agents of change, measures to ensure multicultural competency are imperative. “Brave spaces” (Arao & Clemens, 2013), therefore, are, in fact, spaces of honesty, about our practices, our successes, our struggles, and our selves. Bravery, however, may indeed be a prerequisite of those who staff our centers, but bravery alone will not suffice. As we have discussed throughout this work, the experiences of writing consultants, in and out of the center, requires additional attention. Too often we turn away from these young men and women, leaving them vulnerable, by way of gaps in our training and day-to-day dialogue, to a space that is not necessarily safe. In order to engage in practice that emphasizes a social justice perspective, we need to prepare our staffs to have potentially uncomfortable conversations—conversations that will enable them to gain a deeper understanding of themselves as individuals and writing practitioners.

About the Authors

Robert Mundy is an Assistant Professor of English and Writing Program Director at Pace University. His research focuses on composition studies, writing center theory and practice, and gender/masculinity studies. He has published on the intersection of gender and class, multicultural competence, masculinities in the media, and rhetoric of leadership communication, and has recently completed a coedited book project titled Out in the Center: Public Controversies and Private Struggles.

Rachel Sugerman is a doctoral student in Counseling at Montclair State University. She is a Licensed Associate Counselor and has worked in both hospital and community agency settings as a psychotherapist, mental health screener, and clinical supervisor. Her research interests include multicultural competency and social justice issues, counselor identity formation, counselor burnout and vicarious traumatization, and ethical issues in counseling.


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