Writing Center as Homeplace (A Site for Radical Resistance)

Kaidan McNamee
Michelle Miley

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

In “Leaving Home Sweet Home: Towards Critical Readings of Writing Center Spaces,” Jackie Grutsch McKinney (2005) critiques what she finds is the most firmly entrenched narrative for writing centers: that of home. Despite recognizing “home” as a central metaphor for writing centers, Grutsch McKinney and other scholars (for example, Melissa Nicolas, 2004) argue that the identification of the writing center as a domesticated, feminized space risks devaluing and disempowering the work that we do. Grutsch McKinney also questions the inclusivity of writing centers when “home” is our main metaphor: “If a writing center is a home, whose home is it?” (p. 16). Grutsch McKinney suggests that a metaphor of “home” is a comfortable one for directors and tutors, but perhaps is possibly less inviting to students who come to us for writing support.

For us , Grutsch McKinney’s critique of “home,” coupled with our own experiences, brings to the forefront questions of advocacy in writing center work. We understand writing centers to be sites that “make local, material and individual all the larger forces at play that confound, impede, and make possible education in institutions” (Denny 2010 p. 6). We believe that because writing centers are “institutional spaces that depend on the presence, engagement, and histories of individuals within a diverse community and on an honest accounting of struggles for justice,” they “matter to our institutions and in the struggle for social justice” (Geller, et. al 2007 p. 106).

We understand our call to advocate for our tutors as well as our writers, and acknowledge that difficulty when we experience our Center as a “comfy home.” We recognize that tutors feeling “safe,” which Brian Arao & Kristi Clemens (2013) note is often conflated with “comfort,” (p. 135) can “[contribute] to the replication of dominance and subordination, rather than a dismantling thereof” (p. 140).

As the director, Michelle has seen tutors create a space comfortable to them, with personal jokes on the wall and napping on the couches. She notices that tutors feel so safely at home, they speak loudly of their political views without thinking about the implications on writers who have come into the space. But she also recognizes the tutor who cites the “family” of the Writing Center, the comfy “orange couches” on which she spent her time learning to listen to other tutors (as well as to student writers) and to speak, as central to her educational and individual development (Miley 2016). She recognizes the potential of the writing center to be a transformative space for tutors―a space where they feel safe enough to “[engage] other ways of thinking and acting,” a space where they learn to pay attention “to the systemic and institutional context from which conflict emerges” (Geller, et.al 2007 p. 104).

For writing center tutor Kaidan, the Writing Center tends to oscillate between “cozy home” and “contact zone” (Pratt 1991), a space that is inviting at one moment and ostracizing the next. This is owed less to the institutional nature of the Writing Center itself and more to the many experiences, identities, and ways of knowing that come through our door. As a queer, trans person, Kaidan finds a place of belonging in the spheres of the Writing Center that emphasize the work of feminism and of nurturing identity; on the other hand, he also sometimes finds himself feeling like a guest in his own home space when the cultural voices of conservative Montana overwhelm his own. But the unspoken definition of “home” is “space where a family resides,” and as within any family, rhetorics of difference within the Writing Center are bound to flourish.

Both of us believe environments that allow one to develop the ability to engage in other ways of thinking are often places where one feels safe enough to take the risk of engagement. And we believe writing centers are particularly well-suited for offering the sort of environments that offer the nurturing care which encourages growth and development, environments in which students can feel safe risking engagement. Our director has argued that if we reject the nurturing attributes of our centers, we risk losing the ability to empower feminist values and resist our patriarchal institutions (Miley 2016). We wonder if a certain sense of safety can, in fact, nurture one’s courage to be brave.[1]

Wanting, like Shari Stenberg (2015), to repurpose feminine values as a means of resisting neoliberal structures, we follow bell hooks (2015) in re-visioning “home.” We draw on hooks’ image of homeplace as a site for resistance, as a place where one can “freely confront the issue of humanization … [where one has] the opportunity to grow and develop, to nurture our spirits” (p. 42). When imagining home, we also draw from Andrea O’Reilly’s (2007) work on feminist mothering, understanding that the nurturing we desire allows tutors “to grow outside and beyond the gender straightjackets of patriarchal culture” (p. 811).

By re-visioning home, we take a step towards actualizing the center as a political space where tutors can risk practicing critical consciousness and genuine dialogue, thus resisting entrenched power systems.[2] Our thinking has been greatly influenced by Krista Ratcliffe’s (2005) Rhetorical Listening: Identity, Gender, Whiteness. Because Ratcliffe argues that rhetorical listening includes “[p]romoting an understanding of self and other” (p. 26), we have turned to autoethnography as a means of understanding the self. Tony E. Adams, Stacy Holman Jones, & Carolyn Ellis (2015) describe autoethnography, translated as “self (auto), culture (ethno), and writing (graphy),” as a method that “stud[ies] and write[s] culture from the perspective of the self” (p. 46). For us, autoethnography gives structure to our reflexive inquiry, providing “balanced intellectual and methodological rigor, emotion, and creativity” (p. 2).

Because our autoethnographic narratives as a tutor who identifies as a queer, trans person and as a writing center director grappling with her own identifications as a feminist and social activist illustrate the tensions we feel in “figuring out what to do, how to live, and the meaning of [our] struggle” (p. 2), we have chosen to place our stories alongside one another, putting them in conversation as we imagine our Center as homeplace. Ultimately, we offer our stories as an example of the Writing Center as homeplace, where we both learn to be brave because we feel safe as we experience what are often transformative moments in our identities.

Homeplace: A Site of Resistance

In her essay “Homeplace: A Site of Resistance” (2015)[3], bell hooks honors the Black women who created and nurtured home spaces for African-American people, calling for a renewed commitment to empower the home. She describes her own memories of homeplace:

In our young minds houses belonged to women, were their special domain, not as property, but as places where all that truly mattered in life took place—the warmth and comfort of shelter, the feeding of our bodies, the nurturing of our souls. There we learned dignity, integrity of being; there we learned to have faith. (p. 42)

Because homeplace provided the nurturing environment where dignity and integrity of being were nurtured, and where young Black children felt their value and worth as humans, people learned to love and respect themselves in ways that they could not in the outside world. hooks writes against the narrative of Black women creating the domestic home as service within a patriarchal system. Instead she argues that “the task of making a homeplace” was “a radically subversive political gesture” (p. 43); it was “about the construction of a safe place where black people could affirm one another and by so doing heal many of the wounds inflicted by racist domination” (p. 42).

hooks’ memories of homeplace counters what she calls the “white bourgeois norms (where home is conceptualized as a politically neutral space)” (2015 p. 47)[4]. She argues that when Black people move towards the understanding of home within these bourgeois norms, they “overlook and devalue the importance of black female labor in teaching critical consciousness in domestic space” (p. 47). As we consider homeplace as a metaphor for writing centers, we acknowledge along with Stenberg (2015) that within the neoliberal environments of our institutions, feminized values are devalued and overlooked. When we associate writing centers with a domesticated image of home, and when we argue for our role in creating a nurturing environment for students, we risk being seen as the politically neutral space of the white, bourgeois home.

However, we believe (again with Stenberg and hooks) that feminized spaces are necessary for resisting the neoliberal culture that devalues our spaces. It is in this spirit that we “begin to reconceptualize ideas of homeplace, once again considering the primacy of domesticity as a site for subversion and resistance” (hooks 2015 p. 48), and consider just what that might mean for writing centers as we consider our role in creating safe and brave spaces. Our own experiences offer us one example of how our Center fluctuates between safe and brave, allowing us to explore the complexities of homeplace as a site of resistance.

Kaidan’s Story

All these long millennia, we…fought to uphold a crumbling system that had forgotten its most sacred truth—freedom is the right of all sentient beings. Freedom from oppression. From fear…So I will lay down my life…my identity…for my people. I have a world to set free.

—Optimus Prime, Transformers: Autocracy

My story—what little I have accumulated so far—starts when I am seven, a girl, and very much into Transformers. For reference, as I sit writing, I am twenty-three, a nonbinary transmasculine post-operative person, and still very much into Transformers.

Nearly every element of my life has been subject to change—to transformation. Over the last ten years, I’ve identified myself as a straight woman, as a bisexual woman, as a queer woman, as a gay man, and as a queer nonbinary person. My gender, obviously, has shifted dramatically—there’s really no part of the gender mosaic (and yes, it is mosaic, not a binary) that I haven’t occupied at one time or another. I was a cell biology student, and then a microbiologist; now I am an English student, a writer, and a tutor. I have changed locations, specialties, sexualities, even genders—what has remained constant has been the stack of Transformers comic books I’ve lugged from one home to another.

I’ve lugged it, of course, into the home I’ve found in the Writing Center. It’s a home very much unlike the one I grew up in, one that bell hooks might call “white and bourgeois.” I grew up in Helena, a “traditional” Montana town where the structures of whiteness and heteronormativity are particularly empowered and particularly visible if you’re not living within those hegemonic cultures. For now, it will suffice to say that Helena is not a safe or welcoming home if you are LGBTQ+. Therefore, my transformations didn’t begin until I moved to Bozeman and began to attend Montana State University. I was teetering on the edge of something profound when I interviewed for employment at the Writing Center.

I walked into that interview just a few months after announcing (via Facebook, most unwisely) that I was transgender. I had made every effort to cast off anything about me that was even remotely feminine; I had a new name, new pronouns, and a wardrobe of the clothes that very carefully avoided pastels and clinging fabric. At the end of my interview, our assistant director, Jess Carroll, asked me if there was anything I wanted to know about the job.

“Well,” I told her, nervously, “I’m transgender. I guess I just want to make sure the Writing Center is an environment that will be accepting of that.”

She assured me it was. And, unsurprisingly, it is. The Writing Center at MSU is the first place where I was “Kaidan” from the start, where my transness was explicit and visible. I realized in short order that I was not only in a place where my transness was acceptable—it was a place where my transness was valuable. I saw and understood things that other tutors didn’t; I was often challenged in a way that they weren’t. Reciprocally, the various identities and cultures embodied by my fellow tutors exposed me to paradigms I hadn’t considered and ways of knowing I previously hadn’t valued.

This is what Harry Denny (2010) means, I think, when he refers to writing centers as “nodal points where students, tutors, staff, faculty, and administrators alike [meet] wider institutional, and consequently larger, social, cultural, economic and political forces” (p. 8). In the Writing Center, I encountered the institutional powers not only of the university, but of heterosexuality, of cis society, of Christianity, and of whiteness. I learned to recognize the power and influence of these institutions in my interactions with writers, with my fellow tutors, and with our supervising staff; I learned to recognize institutionalization even in myself.

I found myself repeatedly challenged by the moments when my own identities and ways of being conflicted with the institutional mission of the Writing Center―that is, to provide writing assistance to all writers. As a trans person living openly as trans, I was used to a practice of separatist[5] activism; I made clear, with every piece of writing and every discussion, that I was not a part of cis society and did not wish to be. I was pre-operative but utilizing hormones to masculinize my appearance; I had a fledgling beard and a full, noticeable chest. I was most often read as female, and strangers assumed I used “she/her” pronouns. I was an aberration in a society that endorses the policing of gendered bodies, and was constantly aware of it. Separatism was the only avenue of resistance available to me; I could hardly accommodate or assimilate into cis society when I was so visibly not one of them, when my Otherness was as plain as—well, as the beard on my face. But the institutional mission of the Writing Center to provide assistance to all writers brought me into contact with writers who made my Otherness not just plain, but uncomfortable.

Michelle’s Story

Separatist. I was taught early on not to be a separatist. I was taught to accommodate, although as Kaidan and I have talked, I believe I was also taught to subvert. Subversion.[6] That’s a third option Denny (2010), referencing Cal Logue, gives us for writing center work. Rather than suggesting subversion as “on the margins,” Denny offers subversive as a breaking of the binary of “’selling out’ (accommodating the dominant forces or opposition) and being separatist/radical (rejecting the status quo or establishment)” (p. 15). In some sense, subversion, what I understand to be working within a system while working to challenge and change that system, allows one to exist both in the center and at the margins. I am much more comfortable with that positioning than with the separatist activism, activism which Denny (2010) describes as “maintaining autonomy” or consciously separating from the system (p. 15), that some tutors (Kaidan included) bring to our Writing Center.

Kaidan speaks of his own experience and how it shapes his identity. I, too, bring to the Center my experience and identity. In many ways, Kaidan and I have similar backgrounds. I also grew up in a geographically conservative part of the country: West Texas. In addition, I am a preacher’s kid. And my mother, a preacher’s daughter (and wife) herself, writes Christian books and is certified as a spiritual director. I see the intersections between my native home and my work in writing centers almost daily.

Growing up as a preacher’s kid, I learned what it means to live within institutions with deep roots made up of living, diverse people. I watched my father navigate and negotiate the diverse beliefs (and opinions) of the parishioners. I watched my mother as she negotiated her own identity as a woman and a writer with the expectations of being a preacher’s wife. And, because I grew up with parents who were “not that kind of Baptists”[7] but rather the kind that saw the dangers in fundamentalism and who taught me the importance of coming to my own beliefs, I learned to question the institutional status quo.

That said, I was not taught explicitly to be an activist or to be subversive. In fact, hooks’ description of the politically neutral home more aptly describes the appearance we were to maintain. We were to accommodate, to not make waves, to live and let live. Activism was not a readily accessible or acceptable concept.[8]

The first writing center I worked in mirrored the neoliberal values of the institution. Our Writing in the Disciplines program focused on developing models to make teaching writing easier for the faculty, and we charged for our services. Social advocacy was not a part of our mission. Because I was specifically working in Writing in the Disciplines, and therefore primarily negotiating disciplinary value systems, explicit activism was not an option.

As an administrator, I accommodated the neoliberal imperative of preparing students for the professions. I accommodated the disciplinary values I found countering my own—values like success being measured in monetary terms, or quantitative data being the only evidence of research—while subverting the system by working for student support models that at least gave students in the humanities and arts a voice.[9] Having learned to accommodate (perhaps a little too well), my colleagues and I embraced the “customer knows best” mentality of the neoliberal market.

When I came to Montana State University as the director of our Center, I became much more attuned to my responsibility to the peer tutors. I am increasingly cognizant of the writing center environment as one in which writers and tutors both develop as writers, but also in which peer tutors specifically begin to “come into their own.” A Facebook post from the graduating tutor, who likes our “comfy couches” and the “family” she has in the Writing Center, is one articulation of the importance of the Writing Center to identity formation. Kaidan’s story is another. And because of their stories—and their own commitments to activism—I have had to pay attention to and grapple with my understanding of the activist role of the Center. I have learned from the tutors and have become protective of the tutors, and yet still I feel the tension between making sure we are adhering to our institutional mission to work with all writers—even those whose values may conflict with our own and who may challenge the identities of our tutors—and protecting tutor identities and their desire for activism.

I am drawn to O’Reilly’s (2007) work on feminist mothering theory, a theory that seeks to empower the political act of mothering and to oppose the patriarchal experiences of motherhood, and how this theory can speak to tutor education programs insisting on feminist values. O’Reilly understands nurturing work as political work. I see my own insistence on practicing both reflective and reflexive practices as compatible with O’Reilly’s insistence that by teaching feminist values, feminist mothers create nurturing environments of empathy, care, and acceptance while encouraging growth and development. I want tutors to feel valued; I also want them to confront how and when they devalue the experiences and voices of our writers. I want them to be empowered to assert their own beliefs and values; I also want them to listen to and consider the values and beliefs of others.

Grutsch McKinney (2013) argues that the “confrontational and unsettling work” required by feminist values is often not comfortable (p. 27). O’Reilly (2007) speaks to the discomfort as well, noting that feminist mother’s insistence on teaching their children to resist patriarchal structures often puts their children at odds with their peers. She argues that feminist mothers, those mothers who choose to understand the politics in their nurturing, “must teach our children not only to resist patriarchy but more importantly how to keep safe and sane in so doing” (p. 811). I understand the work of creating a nurturing environment (or home) as one that is not always comfortable, that may be confrontational, but one in which care of others is constant. And I understand that creating such an environment is not possible in a space that is simply safe and comfortable.

Kaidan’s Story

The Writing Center is the most deeply interrelational space in my life (I prefer solitude when I can find it), and so my queerness and transness are particularly visible in this space. In the earlier stages of my transition, I experienced infrequent but upsetting transphobia in my work with writers; I compiled these experiences into a research project that I presented at NCPTW in 2016. One of the following continues to stick out to me: an interaction with a writer, Tiffany.[10]

In our last appointment, Tiffany was struggling to complete a personal statement prompt for medical school that asked her to critically examine how she represented “diversity,” and how her “diverseness” would impact (subtext: improve) her medical practice. Tiffany expressed a lot of frustration over this prompt; she told me that she’s just a straight white woman, and that she didn’t feel she was meeting the “diversity quota” implied by the prompt.

What she said next will stay with me long after my time in our Writing Center has ended. She said, “I get the need for diversity, obviously, but like—stuff like being transgender, or being a person of color—I wish that weren’t the focus. I wish we could just move on.”

I sat in stunned silence for several long seconds, and I could tell she sensed my discomfort, because she began to backpedal quickly. Haltingly, I tried to direct us back to her essay, away from the apparently touchy topic of diversity and its value to the people who fall into those ‘diverse’ categories. At some point—perhaps to help her understand why medical schools might approach this topic—I disclosed that I was transgender.[11] I told her that, speaking as a trans person, those sorts of identities, those aspects of human existence that we lump in under the word “diversity,” are ever-present in the daily lives of those who experience them; not a day went by for me when I wasn’t acutely aware of being trans.

Tiffany was apologetic and polite for the remainder of our session. She assured me that she knew a person who had transitioned “from male to female,” and told me a story about how she had once misgendered this individual; she told me about the apology she offered and asked whether I thought it was appropriate. She then talked, at great length, about how much she understood “the need for diversity,” and expressed that “diversity quotas” just made it hard for “people like her” to get opportunities in upper level education. I smiled and nodded throughout. When she asked me for my final thoughts on her essay, I came up blank. I told her she could come back anytime, and she left.

This interaction with Tiffany reveals a great deal about the person I was before I underwent chest reconstruction surgery, and about the life I lived. Unable to confront her initial devaluing of diversity, I offered her a safe space, working only on the technical underpinnings of her essay instead of giving her a space that might challenge its content—a space that would have required bravery from both of us. My disclosure of trans identity wasn’t an attempt at bravery, it was a last resort—a kill-switch that I knew would make her uncomfortable enough to leave. It was a function of my separatist worldview, an attempt to protect my trans self from a cisgender person by clearly demarcating the border between our respective worlds. At the time, my transition was too new, my identity too vulnerable, for me to be subversive, to invite Tiffany into the borderlands between cis and trans ways of being; in that moment, the only safe space I could find was a space that didn’t have her in it.

Michelle’s Story

Kaidan’s experience with Tiffany demonstrates one of those moments where, as a director, I feel the tension of advocating for both tutors and writers, of knowing when to push back, and of my own tendency to accommodate. It is also a moment when I am cognizant of the values from my native home coming into conflict with the often dominant views of my colleagues. When I read articles cautioning against motherhood pre-tenure, or I hear comments from other women faculty about my being “too mothering,” when I hear criticisms of all Christians, I feel belittled and devalued. My voice feels silenced even while I attempt to make a space for all voices, even while I try to practice Ratcliffe’s (2005) rhetorical listening ( Ratcliffe has given me a way to eavesdrop in those moments, to imagine what it means to think metonymically and not metaphorically, and to listen while pushing back). I know Tiffany’s language devalues Kaidan. I also cringe, as does Kaidan, wanting to make sure that we do not, in pushing back, devalue her experiences.

Recently, I attended a workshop led by Katie Levin, Michele Eodice, Shareen Grogan, Amy Heart, and Neil Simpkins at the 2017 IWCA Collaborative @ CCCCs on gender and pronouns. The facilitators of the workshop asserted that because writing centers work with language, and because language is powerful, we have a responsibility to effect change in our institutions by actively working for inclusive language. The point hit home. We do work with language. It is powerful. And because of that, we have the responsibility to be activists. My cringing, my need to accommodate Tiffany, works against the feminist values I want to insist upon in the Writing Center. By insisting we keep Tiffany comfortable and feeling at home, I create the white, bourgeois home hooks writes against. I want Kaidan to have an environment where he feels like he can push back on the moments like the ones he describes with Tiffany. I want my tutors to know that they can speak up for themselves and for marginalized others.

And as O’Reilly (2007) states, I want to insure they are safe and sane doing so; but what does that mean?

Kaidan’s Story

Over our winter break between semesters, I flew to San Francisco to undergo top surgery, a procedure that would restructure my chest to look more male in appearance. Having surgery was a tipping point, the last thing that barred me from masculinity. As I boarded my flight back to Montana, a week after my surgery and a day after getting my bandages removed, an attendant cheerfully called me “sir.” A child bumped into the back of my leg and said, “Sorry, mister.” A man sitting beside me on the flight laughingly showed me a blatantly misogynistic joke he’d read in the newspaper. I had moved from one social reality to another literally overnight.

Jacques Derrida (1993) warns us that the exposure of a social structure (a “center”) as arbitrary or non-essential is, without fail, followed by a period of crisis, of anxiety—a fear of the chaos that might ensue when the borders of the known become transient and permeable. I found myself in the midst of that anxiety when I offered my experiences for scrutiny at NCPTW, when I came to the realization that it wasn’t my misgendering that I found troubling, but gendering at all. Having transgressed the line that supposedly separates genders, I’d exposed a center. My narrative of transness was misguided; the idea that I “had been” female and “was now” male wasn’t subversive or deconstructive. It poked at the hegemony of cisnormativity, yes, but stayed comfortably within the margins of binarism, from which all hegemonies derive their power.

I had submitted a proposal to advance my research for presentation at RMWCA, and withdrew it a month before the conference. I offered the reason (excuse) that I was tired of talking about being trans, and that was true. Too often, when trans people attempt to have nuanced discussions about our experiences, ill-informed cis spectators interject to ask poorly researched questions about our bodies and traumas. Moreover, though, I was no longer sure what I meant by the word “trans.” I had reached the edge of my knowing.

The world had revealed itself to be other than I thought it was; my own existence, which I had seen as so subversive, so queer,[12] suddenly seemed somehow neoliberal, a reproduction of the trans narratives that were most immediately available to me as I began to transition.[13] The way I spoke about transness was intrinsically white and bourgeois—uncritical, non-confrontational, adherent to preexisting social structures.

Michelle’s Story

When Kaidan withdrew from the RMWCA Tutor Conference, I did not know how to react. Working with Kaidan, watching his transformation, making certain he had an environment in which he felt he could confront those who silenced him, working on myself to be more comfortable actively speaking out – to now encounter a moment of self-silencing was disorienting. It was a moment of realizing the truth of Stephanie Kerschbaum’s (2014) argument: “Ultimately, difference is never fully knowable, and teachers should not aim to know their students as much as [to] willingly participate in the processes of coming-to-know one another in the writing classroom” (p. 59).

Kaidan had needed a place where he could give voice to his identity, where he could practice being brave and giving voice to his transforming identity. Now he was asking for a place to be quiet and safe. In describing homeplace as a site of resistance, hooks (2015) quotes Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn:

resistance, at root, must mean more than resistance against war. It is a resistance against all kinds of things that are like war. . . . So perhaps, resistance means opposition to being invaded, occupied, assaulted, and destroyed by the system. The purpose of resistance, here, is to seek the healing of yourself in order to be able to see clearly. . . I think that communities of resistance should be places where people can return to themselves more easily, where the conditions are such that they can heal themselves and recover their wholeness. -(p. 43)

When Kaidan read the above quote, he responded, “I think this is also what a safe space is supposed to do—let people ‘return to themselves,’ or exist deeply inside the identities and experiences and environments that have carved out their place in the world and their way of being.” Our Writing Center home needs to provide Kaidan not only an environment where he feels empowered to confront, but also a safe place where he can retreat, a place for healing. As a director, it was important for me to recognize that need and to not push him to give voice to his experience at the 2017 RMWCA Tutor Conference. In this balance between creating an environment where one can be brave and where one can safely retreat, we create a homeplace where tutors can be safe and sane while resisting the patriarchal structures that devalue and marginalize experiences and identities.

Kaidan’s Story

Michelle is fond of turning to theory when she feels unmoored in her knowing. Taking a page from her book, I tried to turn to queer and gender theorists, exploring the convoluted knowledge of such thinkers as Judith Butler (2010). I returned to the work of University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Sonny Nordmarken (2014), whose autoethnographic research emphasizes a love of trans bodies that is borderline revolutionary. Adrift in a sea of theory, I found myself feeling lost. I sought refuge again in Transformers.

The moment where I was found happened in the Writing Center, on one of the (heinously) orange couches. Against a backdrop of chattering tutors and writers, I flipped through the pages of an installation of the Transformers comic franchise entitled Autocracy. In this arc, a violent law enforcement officer named Orion Pax is shaken to find that his government plans to sacrifice an “undesirable” portion of its population in order to protect its own power. This revelation, and his willingness to resist the very institutional power from which he benefits, earns Orion an artifact known as the Matrix of Leadership, which transforms his body and bestows upon him ancient cultural knowledge. Orion Pax obtains a new name—Optimus Prime. The title “Prime” represents the ultimate authority on the Transformers’ canonical homeworld, but Optimus vows to use his newfound power to dismantle the systems of oppression that disempower his world’s most vulnerable and marginalized communities (Metzen & Dille 2016).

How best to articulate the profound impact this simple reading had on me? I recognized a power in Optimus Prime’s narrative arc that I, too, could utilize. Orion Pax did not transition; he transformed, abruptly, immediately, profoundly, much in the same way I had when I underwent surgery.

My anxiety over my newfound “maleness” transformed, as well. I am so relieved—living now as a post-operative trans person, in a third-sex body, a third-gender life—that maleness is no longer an important part of my identity. I am so grateful that claiming transness does not mean claiming to be a man. I am delighted to find myself in the liminal world between “masculine” and “male,” to find that these entities are not and never have been the same. The world will see me as male (as a white male, at that), and this endows me with an appreciable level of power; I sometimes feel like an infiltrator.[14]

I can speak out against misogyny, racism, homophobia, and transphobia without fearing violent repercussions; the very perpetrators of these violent structures now see me as one of them. In many ways, my days of separatist activism are behind me; I renegotiated the boundaries of my own body, transformed myself, and in so doing, have assimilated, to an extent. I am no longer working against a world that has ejected me, but working to change a world of which I can be a part.

My challenge, then, is to not become complacent. I can’t pretend that my existence is no longer political just because I now look male and cisgender. But I have access to power now that I didn’t when I was pre-op; I have the disguise of a hegemonic order. I can say things now that I would have been too afraid to say before. I have access to a new world of braver spaces, and more importantly, I have a responsibility to use it.

I recently saw this new power put to the test: I worked with a writer who was writing a dystopian science-fiction novel. His fictional world, as he explained it, was meant to be entirely apolitical, devoid of ruling structures that would dictate how people behaved, and he meant to explore the implications of such a world through the narratives of his characters. His text, however, contained the following line: “Most of the boys studied martial arts, and the girls studied dance.”

“This is interesting to me,” I told him, circling the line, “because you’ve told me that the world has no political structures. So why include this detail?”

“Well, you know,” he replied, shrugging. “Gender roles and all that.”

Pre-transformation, I see myself backing away from this assertion. Post-transformation, I wanted to be brave. “But in a world devoid of politics, do gender roles exist? Does gender?”

He seemed genuinely baffled, even a little distressed. But, unlike Tiffany, this writer didn’t leave. We were able to talk, at length, about the way our political realities construct our notions of gender (drawing, finally, on Judith Butler [2010]). At the end of our session, the writer thanked me for giving him so much to think about. I frequently wonder how he might have responded if he thought he were talking to a woman tutor about the same question. Perhaps he would have responded just as openly, or he might have been dismissive; at worst, he might have become aggressive. I’m grateful that critique of his work came from a male-passing face, from someone to whom a writer still working within a strict gender hegemony might be more inclined to listen—I’m grateful I was able to use a newfound social power to bring us both into a braver space.

Michelle’s Story

As Kaidan and I wrote our essay, he asked me why it has taken so long for writing center theory to embrace social justice theory. I told him it hasn’t necessarily. We have theorists like Denny, Geller, et.al, and Eodice who have advocated for social justice within writing center work for many years. But my initial entry into writing centers reminds us that writing centers often have neoliberal roots. Daniel Mahala (2007) astutely observes that writing centers have in some ways benefitted from a management model based on privatization and cost-cutting. As universities rely more and more on student tuition dollars rather than on public funding, writing centers “make cash sense” for universities, providing low-cost, “consumer-friendly,” one-on-one assistance (p. 7). Writing centers are intricately wrapped up in institutional status quo. My story is one of a director who has transformed from accommodating to those neoliberal structures from which we began, to a director who both recognizes the need (at times) for vocal activism within the Center as well as one who advocates for subversion and retreat, so that our tutors feel valued and nurtured.


In repeated iterations of the Transformers multiverse, Optimus Prime expresses his faith in two things: the capacity of humankind for good, and the potential of humankind for change. We work and live in a writing center where we see these values emphasized and championed, even in moments when we feel lost. We offer the Writing Center as a homeplace where we accept the existence of intersecting oppressions, even if we are not socially positioned to appreciate the full scope of their extent and effect; where we understand that when writers and tutors come into our “cozy home,” they bring with them the cumulative wounds inflicted by a world that prevents their healing. We understand that the Writing Center is implicated in the work of anti-oppression activism by nature of its place within the academic institution (Geller et al. 2007 p. 105), and that our work, the work of writing and reading and rhetoric, exposes us to the language and ways of thinking that hide oppressive systems.

hooks (2015) writes of the Black mothers she honors:

It does not matter that sexism assigned them this role. It is more important that they took the conventional role and expanded it to include caring for one another, for children, for black men, in ways that elevated our spirits, that kept us from despair, that taught some of us to be revolutionaries able to struggle for freedom. (p. 44)

It does not matter that writing centers have emerged from patriarchal, neoliberal structures. By choosing to re-vision writing center as homeplace, we choose to recognize the power in a feminized space, the need for an environment that provides the care tutors need to be both brave and safe.

Necessarily the homeplace we create will be different from the one hooks envisions for her own communities—the wounds that tutors and writers carry through our door are different. Where hooks emphasizes resistance through self-renewal, writing centers offer a place where we can self-renew in order to begin resisting, where we can mend our wounds in preparation to aid those who have not yet been offered that space for healing. Bravery occurs in the act of knowing when and how we need the safety to heal. And in so doing, we move towards a brave(r) space.

About the Authors

Kaidan McNamee, a former Writing Center tutor, graduated from Montana State University in May 2017. Currently, he is a graduate student and writing instructor at Western Washington University’s English program where he applies queer and trans theories to a broad range of texts, including Machiavelli’s fictional works and the Torah.

Michelle Miley is Director of the Writing Center and Assistant Professor of English at Montana State University. Along with theorizing writing center space through a feminist lens, her research interests include exploring how ethnographies help us understand writing center work from a variety of standpoints.


Arao, B., & Clemens, K. (2013). From safe spaces to brave spaces: A new way to frame dialogue around diversity and social justice. In L. Landreman (Ed.), The art of effective facilitation: Reflections from social justice educators (1st ed., pp. 135-150). Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

Adams, T. E., Holman Jones, S., & Ellis, C. (2015). Autoethnography: Understanding qualitative research. New York: Oxford Uniersity Press.

Butler, J. (2010). Gender trouble: subversive bodily acts. In V. B. Leitch, W. E. Cain, L. Finke, B. Johnson, J. McGowan, T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, & J. J. Williams (Eds.), The Norton Anthology of Theory & Criticism (2nd ed., pp. 2542-2553). New York, NY: W W Norton & Company.

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

Derrida, J. (1993). Structure, sign, and play in the discourse of the human sciences. In J. Natoli & L. Hutcheon (Eds.), A postmodern reader (pp. 223-242). Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. Retrieved from: https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=5CYyoW3T0BMC&oi=fnd&pg=PA223&ots=p2_N8KuP_a&sig=bEqHR8fE3c-OcFJJWxV9Frok6Ic#v=onepage&q&f=false

Eodice, M. (n.d.) Participatory hospitality and writing centers. In (Eds.) The rhetoric of participation: Interrogating commonplaces in and beyond the classroom. Retrieved from: http://rmomizo.github.io/rhetoric-participation/front/eodice/.

Geller, A.E., Eodice M., Condon, F., Carroll M., & Boquet, E. H. (2007). The everyday writing center: A community of practice. Logan: Utah State University Press.

Grabow, B. (2013). Expanding the metaphor: A pragmatic application of hospitality theory to the field of writing studies (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from: https://libres.uncg.edu/ir/uncg/f/Grabow_uncg_0154D_11149.pdf.

Grutsch McKinney, J. (2005). Leaving home sweet home: Towards a critical readings of writing center spaces. The writing center journal 25.2, 6-20.

Grutsch McKinney, J. (2013). Peripheral Visions for Writing Centers. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press.

hooks, b. (2015). “Homeplace: A Site of Resistance.” yearning: race gender, and cultural politics. New York: Routledge, 2015 (1990 by South End Press). 41-50.

Kerschbaum, S. (2014). Toward a new rhetoric of difference. Urbana: NCTE.

Levin, K., Eodice, M., Grogan, S., Heart, A., & Simpkins, N. (2017). Collaborative writing circles: Gender and pronouns: Writing toward equitable practices. IWCA Collaborative @ Cs, Portland, OR, 15 March 2017.

Mahala, D. (2007). Writing centers in the managed university. The writing center journal 27.2, 3-17.

McNamee, K. (2016). Silence and listening: Theoretical frameworks for inclusivity.” with M. Miley and D. Sullivan. National Conference on Peer Tutoring in Writing, Tacoma, WA, November 2016.

Metzen, C., & Dille, F. (2016). Autocracy. Transformers autocracy trilogy. L. Ramondelli (Illustrator). San Diego, CA: IDW.

Miley, M. (2016). The (feminist) mothering work of writing center administrators.” WLN: A journal of writing center scholarship 41.1-2, 17-24.

Nicolas, M. (2004). Where the women are: Writing centers and the academic hierarchy.” Writing lab newsletter 29.1, 11-13.

Nordmarken, S. (2014). Becoming ever more monstrous: Feeling transgender in-betweenness. Qualitative inquiry 20.1, 37-50.

O’Reilly. A. (2007) Feminist mothering. In A. O’Reilly (Ed.) Maternal theory: essential readings. Toronto: Demeter Press. 792-821.

Pratt, M. L. (1991). Arts of the contact zone. Profession.

Ratcliffe, K. (2005). Rhetorical listening: Identification, gender, whiteness. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Stenberg, S. J. (2015). Repurposing composition: Feminist interventions for a neoliberal age. Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado.

  1. Although we do not believe that Arao & Clemens (2013) intend to create a binary between “safe” and “brave” in reframing the language of social justice, we are uncomfortable with the either/or thinking that may come out of their call to “cultivate brave spaces rather than safe spaces for group learning about a broad range of diversity and social justice issues” (p. 141).
  2. In this essay, we focus on the Writing Center as home for tutors. At the same time, we acknowledge that by focusing on home for tutors, we do not speak to how that metaphor may impact our student writers. We hope that imagining the center as home might move us towards thinking about connotations of home and hospitality, which allows us to explore writing center hospitality with scholars like Eodice (n.d.) and Grabow (2013).
  3. We understand that by using hooks’ metaphor of homeplace, we risk appropriating her story in ways that mask the Black experience she writes to affirm and honor. That is not our intention. We instead find empowerment in hooks’ description, and wish to acknowledge that while our experience is not hers, the issues of social injustice are evident in the Writing Center, and that her re-visioning of homeplace as a place of empowerment has helped us re-vision the Writing Center as a space where we can begin to criticize and resist institutional “white, bourgeois” norms. If we are going to repurpose the homeplace designed to foster self-love in Black communities, then the work of our Writing Center must be the work of anti-racism.
  4. We believe hooks’ description of the “white, bourgeois” home mirrors the image of the “comfy” home Grutsch McKinney critiques. And we believe that Arao & Clemens (2013) descriptions of how students’ understanding of “safe” as comfortable and free of conflict “may actually encourage entrenchment in privilege” (p. 140).
  5. Denny’s (2010) recognition of “the need to recognize the false choices of assimilation and separation” in describing activist work has helped us articulate our own understanding of who we are and how we understand activist work. We use Denny’s definitions of “separatist” as “maintain[ing] autonomy over its ideology, expression, and space, excluding the majority but also claiming agency over its own self-exile” and “accommodationist position” or “assimilation” as “confront[ing] pressure to adopt the social and cultural practices of the majority while generally bracketing their own forms for home or other private venues” (p. 15).
  6. Denny (2010) writes that subversion “recognize[s] the power (and the intractability or the sway) of institutions and systems, poach from their rhetorical needs and expectations, and offer a means of change and challenge in contexts where power is tenuous or where the material implications of backlash can be dramatic, horrific, or at a minimum daunting” (p. 16).
  7. I always introduce my upbringing as “Baptist, but not that kind of Baptist” as a means to disidentify (Ratcliffe 2005) with fundamentalist Baptists. My childhood vacations included trips to the Southern Baptist Convention to fight fundamentalism, and when the fundamentalists took over the SBC, my parents broke away. I understand my Baptist roots as liberal-moderate Baptist roots, my parents as activists within our religious domination.
  8. When my husband, children, and I chose to march in the Montana Women’s March on Washington, my mom sent me a text the morning of the March: “I wish I was going with you.” It was a meaningful text, and an acknowledgement of the place of activism in society.
  9. Kerschbaum (2014) writes, “Within the writing classroom, as students from across the curriculum come together, difference does not manifest as an individual property. Instead difference takes shape as people come to know who they are in relation to others” (p. 56). The same can be said of writing centers. Kerschbaum’s rhetoric of “marking difference” can help us to deepen our understanding of advocacy, including advocating for students who may feel silenced in the Writing Center because of their disciplines.
  10. The name of the writer has been changed to protect her identity.
  11. Not an identity, by the way, from which I want to “just move on.”
  12. I want to acknowledge the tension between the social construction of “queer,” as a romantic and sexual identity, and the theory construction of “queer,” as a way of being that subverts hegemonic expectations of sex and relationships and the ways these expressions manifest across our society. The latter encompasses practices and expressions that are, sometimes controversially, not included when we speak of “the LGBTQ+ community,” and it is to the latter that I am speaking here.
  13. It would be highly problematic to suggest that this is true of every trans person’s narrative; it is simply true of mine. Trans stories are myriad, complex, and crossed by numerous other marginalized intersections, including (perhaps especially) race; therefore, no one of our stories can represent all others. I also speak from a position of privilege, in that my safety was not dependent on an unmistakably binary gender performance.
  14. I employ this metaphor cautiously, because the notion that trans people are “invading” cis spaces is the source of most of our nation’s violent transphobia, particularly against trans women. I encourage us all to recognize that when trans people “pass,” or pretend to be cis people, it is not with the intent of invading other’s lives, but of avoiding violence and ostracization. In my case, I am not interested in infiltrating hegemonic spaces in order to “spread transness” or to further a partisan agenda, but to create more spaces where trans people might be seen as just that—people.