Writing Centers as Brave/r Spaces: A Special Issue Introduction

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

“We face constant moments that we can greet as threats in our writing centers, occasions that we can interpret as assaults to our continued viability and sanctity. Or, we can choose to understand these occasions as opportunities to innovate and experiment” —Denny, 2010, p. 151

“…if we keep waiting for the ‘right’ time ya’ll will never be ready.”—Green, 2016

Over the past several years, we have noticed conversations on listservs and at conferences, where discussions of the politically-focused, identity-based dynamics of writing center labor elicit noticeable discomfort, silence, or silencing among writing center colleagues. Such conversations often entail statements like, “when confronted with trying topics, I keep it safe, and just focus on the writing…,” or “I tell my tutors to address a racist paper by asking the writer to think about the argument and the audience,” or “it’s our job to make the student’s writing as strong as possible, not to comment on the content.” Further, we have heard white, straight, middle-class writing center administrators claim a kind of compartmentalization of identity when navigating the daily labor of their positions. These administrators rarely recognize that it is because of their privilege that they have the choice not to engage in conversations about identity and difference. Again, there is a certain “safety” inherent in the privilege of foregoing engagement with politically-trying circumstances that rub up against administrative work.

As white, middle-class writing center administrators whose identities cross gender, sexuality, and ability, we see danger in “safe,” supposedly-depoliticized approaches to writing center work, especially in our current landscape. In October of 2016, when we first distributed this Special Issue’s Call for Papers, this disciplinary adherence to writing centers as sites for “just writing” laid heavily on us, even more so in the months leading up to and following the 2016 Presidential Election. As gun violence, explicit homophobia and transphobia, systemic racism and classism, and all oppressive intersections thereof, were made possible and given precedence by the elected executive administration, our educational sites aimed at creating inclusivity became increasingly more threatened. We see this threatening sphere enter into our centers through the lived experiences of tutors, writers, and administrators; through student writing; through informal chatter; and through tumultuous circumstances.

Because of this national zeitgeist, we directly reject the notion that writing center tutors and administrators should focus on “just writing” in their centers. When we act under this guise, we are still acting politically, and more often than not, when we choose to silence or ignore difference in our spaces, we offer continued support to systemic power structures that continue to privilege white, straight, male, middle-class ways of being. Along these lines, we also reject the idea of “writing center as safe space,” a concept that stems from our field’s long history with accepting the metaphor of writing center as home, even though our spaces are not, and never have been, homelike or safe for all (Grutsch McKinney, 2005).

In this regard, tutors, administrators, and writers rarely experience uncomplicated exchanges focused on “just writing,” as if flat characters against safe, apolitical backdrops. Yet, our field’s “typical approaches” to professional development and tutoring sessions often assume a series of actions that fit with the above “just writing” scenario. For instance, tutor guidebooks often encourage tutors to start a session by greeting the student and establishing rapport, setting an agenda, focusing on higher order concerns over lower order concerns, and wrapping up the session (Gillespie & Lerner, 2008; Ryan and Zimmerelli, 2015; Ianetta & Fitzgerald, 2016). Tutors are encouraged to ask questions, give praise, analyze assignments, listen, consider non-verbal cues, motivate students, and provide scaffolding. Although these guidebooks often recognize the power dynamics at play (i.e., between tutor, writer, and instructor) and may acknowledge that not all writers are the same (i.e., offering advice for working with multilingual writers, adult learners, writers with anxiety, basic skill levels, or disabilities), most of the advice is prescriptive. Little, if any, attention is paid to how practitioners might act in response to intersectional identities or to the complexity of power dynamics across difference.

Yet, to say that writing center practitioners may actively seek to depoliticize practices and spaces is just one reason for this Special Issue. Little empirical, theoretical, or reflective research focuses on critically responding to intersectional identities and how to respond to identity-based threats in the writing center. Instead, writing center research studies have primarily focused on the academic, empirical, and everyday work of writing centers (Babcock & Thonus, 2012; Geller & Denny, 2013; Mackiewicz & Thompson, 2014; Monty, 2016; Caswell, Grutsch McKinney, & Jackson, 2016; Hall, 2017). Further, the field’s emphasis on empirical and replicable aggregable data-supported (RAD) research that attempts “objectivity” may inhibit identity-based research that recognizes how race, sexuality, gender, ability, privilege, and emotion impact our work.

Although seminal writing center texts (Grimm 1999; Geller, Eodice, Condon, Carroll, & Boquet, 2007) call for more identity-based research, few, if any, follow-up research studies exist. One notable exception is Harry Denny’s Facing the Center: Toward an Identity Politics of One-To-One Mentoring (2010). In this invaluable work, Denny recognizes identity as intersectional and constantly influx for writer and tutor throughout the tutoring session. Denny urges us to “negotiate the politics of face” and to consider writing centers as “sites for activism and social change,” explicitly addressing race and ethnicity, class, sex and gender, and nationality (25-26). Denny reminds us throughout that one of his purposes for writing the book is to carry these kinds of conversations forward.

Seven years since Denny’s call, several scholars have made valuable contributions to identity-based writing center work, but these texts are still few and far between. For instance, we’ve had responses that focus on diversity (Goins & Heard, 2012), on systemic racism (Greenfield & Rowan, 2011), and on the value of code-meshing and allyship (Green, 2016). Only one piece explicitly emphasizes how we might practice a social justice orientation in our WCs (Condon & Olson, 2016). In this special issue, we seek to continue this work through the lens of the writing center as a brave/r space, a concept that urges particular ways of acting in spaces, beyond the mere acknowledgement of politics, identity, and difference. As a framework for repositioning our spaces and how we act within those spaces, we adopt this justice-focused approach for navigating writing and writing center work in the post-2016 election era.

Why Bravery?

Brian Arao’s and Kristi Clemens’ “From Safe Spaces to Brave Spaces: A New Way to Frame Dialogue Around Diversity and Social Justice” (2013) spoke to us as we navigated our institutions during the 2016 presidential election and thereafter. These researchers relay their experiences with making “small but important linguistic shifts in the facilitation of [their practices]” (p. 141) when developing organized, student activities focused on learning and talking about diversity, privilege, access, and power. The authors set up “ground rules” (p. 142) by which participants of myriad walks of life may engage with difficult discussions about difference. Arguing that learning spaces in and of themselves are not conducive to the abstraction of safety, the authors cite Boostrom’s (1998) respected critique of safe spaces, where he argues that “learning necessarily involves not merely risk, but the pain of giving up a former condition in favour of a new way of seeing things.” In such, Arao and Clemens seek to “[revise their] language, shifting away from the concept of safety and emphasizing the importance of bravery instead, to help students better understand–and rise to–the challenges of genuine dialogue on diversity and social justice issues” (p. 136). It is this “giving up a former condition” and this “new way of seeing things” that guided us in our writing centers, as we conducted research and mentored our tutors and staff during the past year. Ultimately, we were drawn to how minor but meaningful linguistic and rhetorical revisions to spatial and praxis-based descriptions of writing centers could propel forward more realistic, just orientations to our work.

Arao and Clemens’ theories of bravery are relatively new to writing center research, with the exception of two texts: Asao Inoue (2016) briefly references Arao and Clemens’ “brave spaces” in his “Afterword” to Michele Eodice and Shannon Madden’s Access and Equity in Graduate Student Writing Support Special Issue of Praxis (2016) and Rexford Rose’s masters thesis, “Queering the Writing Center: Shame, Attraction, and Gay Male Identity” (2016) proposes writing center professional development activities through the lens of brave space theories. To extend these conversations, we organized a roundtable workshop around the concept of writing center as brave/r space at the 2017 IWCA Collaborative at CCCCs to gauge how our writing center colleagues think about this lens for writing center work. During that conversation, we gathered to brainstorm about what enacting bravery in writing center spaces might mean. In that time, the following ideas were shared:

Acting brave means:

  • Trying something new, even if you might fail
  • Making spaces “safe enough” so that people are comfortable taking risks, even if they are still not entirely comfortable
  • Acknowledging that writers are brave when they come to the writing center
  • Moving away from safety (passive) to bravery (active—an act of motion that requires engagement)
  • Practicing allyship is an orientation, a way of approaching people, and an ongoing process of being and acting
  • Being prepared to be “activated” and ready to go when needed

Bravery also:

  • Works from exigence, has a call to action, and is a proactive response
  • Benefits from collaboration with other centers on campus who have different curricular models and orientations toward ideas about safe/brave spaces
  • Involves a range of actions/reactions in which a variety of responses are appropriate
  • Acknowledges that as teachers and tutors, we are already engaged in bravery
  • Exposes the messiness of bravery and response–taking action is not always clean or easy

Months after the IWCA Collaborative and a year after we released our Call for Papers for this Special Issue, we feel that the “brave” space is a better descriptor of landscapes than a social justice theory. Arao and Clemens’ work is critical to the present conversation, yet this lens is not without limitations. As contributors Harry Denny and Beth Towle have aptly pointed out, the concept of the brave space may problematically put responsibility on the most vulnerable people to “speak” or “be brave” and may pose difficulty for diverse people whose difference is culturally unacknowledged and seemingly invisible (e.g. social class). Yet, as contributor and book reviewer Ezekiel Choffel notes, some writing center stakeholders have no choice but to enact bravery when working in or visiting a writing center, such as those with visible or invisible disabilities. Further, a writing center “brave space” cannot be entirely realized, nor is it always realistic. For instance, well-intentioned writing center administrators may be too quick to call their spaces “brave” without recognizing that a “brave space” is not something that can simply be created and named; a brave space must evolve and must be worked at every day. Thus, we argue for creating writing centers that are continuously becoming braver spaces.

As practitioners, we have to listen to and complicate Arao and Clemens, and also redefine “bravery” for ourselves and for our centers. We do not claim that bravery has to be enacted solely by the most marginalized, nor do we align ourselves with right-leaning, “snowflake” proclamations that uncritically and angrily call out university-sanctioned safe spaces, which are, historically and in actuality, linked to students’ self-care with regard to trauma and disability. Yet, what we do recognize is that attempting to create brave spaces in our writing centers should be part of everyone’s responsibility and that what it means to create a “brave space” is always influx and influenced by local, national, and global contexts.

The concept of writing center as braver space recognizes the discomfort and challenges involved when tutors, students, faculty, and staff engage in everyday conversations about privilege and difference. Rather than considering this kind of work to be outside of our writing center purview, we argue the exact opposite; braver work is not only crucial to writing center work, but we are also well positioned for brave acts. Like Condon and Olson (2016), we believe that

the range of theoretical and pedagogical inquiries we value as scholars, teachers, and tutors of writing are not separate and distinct from our commitments to social justice writ large or to anti-oppression activism and pedagogy within our institutions; they are contiguous with those commitments and essential to them (48).

Thus, we acknowledge brave acts as a necessary and important part of our writing center work, even though it is emotionally challenging and often involves risk taking. Because of this, we do not mean to define “bravery” for all. Instead, we hope that this Special Issue marks only the beginning of conversations about what braver work in writing centers could look like. We invite you to complicate, extend, add to, and critique these ideas, as braver work in writing centers should always be critical and in-process; this work is never “finished.”

The authors included in this special issue offer us a strong starting point. We are delighted to showcase the work of many new voices, as well as some familiar ones, engaged in meaningful, collaborative projects that challenge us to think differently about our writing center work. On one hand, this Special Issue is a showcase of intersectional voices and perspectives that complicate and extend our vision of what our work is and should be. On the other hand, the issue is an attempt to create new dialogues that call us to action. We hope this special issue will offer our field theoretical and practical snapshots that collectively argue and show that creating braver spaces is indeed a necessary part of our writing center work.

Part 1: Critiquing Safe/Brave WC Spaces

Contributors in this section complicate and extend forward concepts of safety and bravery in writing center work. In “Writing Center as Homeplace (A Site for Radical Resistance),” Kaiden McNamee and Michelle Miley write concurrent autoethnographic narratives about re-envisioning the “homeplace” as a site of resistance. Through this tutor-administrator narrative, the authors critique the “writing center as home” narrative and resist the binary between safe and brave. Likewise, in “Narratives of Student Writer and Writing Center Partnering: Reconstructing Spaces of Academic Literacy,” Beatrice Mendez Newman and Rachel R. Gonzalez through a rare administrator-student collaboration examine how writing centers productively destabilize institutional norms, expectations, and dynamics for student writers, arguing that such disruptions reform students’ academic literacies. Through disruption of a “brave”/“safe” continuum, Lana Oweidat and Lydia McDermott in “Neither Brave nor Safe: Interventions in Empathy for Tutor Training” argue for training would-be and current tutors within a critical framework of empathy by investigating a gap between tutors’ seemingly empathetic tutoring philosophies in writing center coursework and their less-than-empathetic reactions to difference and diversity while tutoring. Further, in “Brave/r Spaces Versus Safer Spaces for LGBTQ+ in the Writing Center: Theory and Practice at University of Kansas,” Jacob Herrmann examines the implementation and impact of a queer administrative approach at the University of Kansas Writing Center, arguing that the terms “safe spaces” and “brave spaces” need not be substitutions for one another, but, instead, describe differing spatial locations and goals.

Part 2: Intersectional Identities in Brave/r Spaces

As we attempt to make our writing center spaces braver, contributors in this section argue that we also need to rethink and better recognize the intersectional identities that exist in our centers. In “Braving the Waters of Class: Performance, Intersectionality, and Policing of Working Class Identity in Everyday Writing Centers,” Harry Denny and Beth Towle use personal narratives as first-generation academics as well as their experiences in the Purdue University Writing Lab as researchers and administrators to discuss the need to rethink how working class identities are understood in writing centers. The authors provide suggestions for how both individual writing centers and professional organizations, such as IWCA, can change to better embrace working class and labor issues in research and practice. Taking a similar narrative approach, in “Race, Retention, Language, and Literacy: The Hidden Curriculum of the Writing Center,” Wonderful Faison and Anna Trevino theorize how they experience the polite racism of academia and writing center praxis as Women of Color (WOC) from working class backgrounds. Their perspectives call the writing center field to examine its inherently raced and classed practices, pedagogies, and spaces and how these ideologies impact recruitment and retention of working class WOC writing center practitioners. Through a queer theories lens, in “Uncomfortably Queer: Everyday Moments in the Writing Center,” Elise Dixon discusses everyday writing center moments oft-avoided in the field’s scholarship, including sexual violence, peer harassment, and compulsory homonormativity. She calls the field to listen for and engage with the messy, the untidy, and the uncomfortable, in order to imagine queerer, justice-focused possibilities for writing center work. Similarly recognizing the discomfort and challenges of acknowledging a wide range of identities, in his book review of Writing Centers and Disability, Ezekiel Choffel, through a crip-queer lens, argues that we must acknowledge how “bravery isn’t always a choice; sometimes it is a personal state of being.” His review calls attention to the value of this collection and its implications for writing center studies, while also recognizing the importance of its both theoretical and guidebook-like approach to dis/ability in the writing center.

Part 3: Creating Brave WC Collaborations

Focusing on how we can create braver spaces through connecting our work with others, contributors in this section reflect on programmatic writing center actions that engage with brave space theory both within and beyond our centers. First, in “A Union of Voices: Building a Multilingual-Positive Community through a Multilingual Writing Mentors Program,” Mary Gallager, Katherine Morris, Adam Binkley, and Baneza Rivera put forth a new approach for brave/r writing center work rooted in multilingual social work students’ experiences as told in their own voices. In particular, they embrace the “messiness” of writing and the value inherent in working through “messes” in the WC in ways that help writers develop self-reliance.

Then, in “Brave(r) Conversations and Course-Embedded Consulting, or Once More unto the Breach,” Christal Seahorn and Madeline Jones recreate a six-month timeline of events as a faculty and tutor course-embedded team that writes through and reflects on their work together. Written in a creative, dialectic manner, these authors present a new dimension of course-embedded models that shows the value this pedagogical structure has for enacting social justice work through challenging fake news and public displays of racism. Similarly focused on working across different academic roles, in “Creating Brave Spaces in South Texas,” Nadya Pittendrigh and Eric Camarillo argue for the necessity of establishing antiracist writing assessment ecologies in WC work, as they look closely at a writing center and first-year writing collaboration.

Moving beyond an academic and classroom-based focus, in “Speaking Truth to Power: Write Out Loud Events as Brave/r Spaces,” Caitie Leibman argues that writing centers have an important role to place in social justice work and the practice of civil discourse, especially in response to national events like the 2016 presidential election. Speaking from the position of writing center director, Leibman describes her experiences organizing and hosting a “Speaking Truth to Power” themed event hosted by the writing center in an attempt to produce productive tensions among performance, emotion, and discomfort.

Part 4: Preparing Tutors/Directors for Brave Spaces

In this section, contributors consider how brave space theory may inform our approaches to administration and professional development for our staff. First, in “Safe Spaces and Brave Pedagogy in Tutor Training Guides,” Emily Standridge examines how safe and brave pedagogies are enacted, or not, within three tutor training manuals: The Longman Guide to Writing Center Theory and Practice, The Oxford Guide for Writing Tutors, and A Tutor’s Guides: Helping Writers One to One, arguing that The Longman Guide offers the most viable representation of a brave pedagogy. Offering explicit strategies for incorporating more brave pedagogies into our tutor development programs, in “Critical Empathy and Collaborative Fact-Engagement in the Trump Age: A Writing Center Approach,” Shannon McKeehan argues that tutors must develop “critical empathy,” specifically in their work with writers and their sources. She argues that mutual rapport-building is perhaps more important than ever as a way to support writer empowerment. Moving beyond writing center or writing studies-based scholarship, in “What Can You Possibly Know About My Experience?”: Toward a Practice of Self-Reflection and Multicultural Competence,” Robert Mundy and Rachel Sugerman integrate research from the field of counseling as a means to explore the consultant side of consultant-tutor multidirectional relationships. These scholars argue that writing center literature often addresses the intersectional identities of students but neglects the complexities of the consultant experience. Similarly looking outside the center and drawing from her career experience in civic engagement, in her director’s column “Social Justice in the Writing Center,” Bridget Draxler argues that writing centers are crucial sites for social justice advocacy on college campuses and shares her own tutor training materials for creating an inclusive community in her WC.

We hope that this special issue challenges you to rethink your approach to writing center work as much as it’s challenged us to rethink our own, and that you write speak, write, and act back.

—Becky and Travis

About the Special Issue Editorial Team

Dr. Rebecca Hallman Martini (special issue co-editor) is Assistant Professor of English and Writing Center Coordinator at Salem State University. Her research and teaching interests include writing centers, WAC/WID, curriculum design, teaching multimodal/digital rhetoric, and qualitative research (methodologies). Her scholarly work has appeared in or is forthcoming in Praxis: A Writing Center Journal, Computers and Composition, Writing and Composing in the Age of MOOCs, and Open Words: Access and English Studies. She is currently working on a book project that uses critical ethnographic methods to tell an alternative writing center narrative that disrupts the writing center grand narrative. She is also the Founding Editor and current Co-Editor of The Peer Review.

Dr. Travis Webster (special issue co-editor) is the Writing Center Director at University of Houston-Clear Lake. His research appears or is forthcoming in Writing and Composing in the Age of MOOCs, The Fountainhead X Series for Professional Development, Composition Studies, and Across the Disciplines. He was awarded a 2016 International Writing Centers Association Research Grant for his book project on LGBTQIA writing center administrators. His research and teaching interests include writing center theories and administration, composition pedagogies, WAC/WID, tutor and graduate student mentorship, and LGBTQIA issues in writing center administration.

Megan Grossi (special issue editorial assistant) is a senior at Salem State University with a major in Professional Writing. She has a history of writing across genres, with publications concentrated in creative nonfiction. She plans on going into the publication industry upon graduation in December 2017, as well as focusing on her personal writing more.

Ryan Smith (special issue editorial assistant) is a writing center administrator and consultant at College of the Mainland in Texas City, TX. He holds an undergraduate degree in English Studies and a graduate degree in Rhetoric and Composition. He is a practitioner and researcher of course-embedded consulting initiatives and practices. He has presented his recent research at IWCA@CCCC and CCCC.

Editors’ Acknowledgements

We extend sincerest gratitude to Megan Grossi and Ryan Smith, the Special Issue Editorial Assistants, for their unflagging support and editorial expertise. We offer special thanks to Dr. Michelle Miley, Kelsey Hixson-Bowles, Adrian Russell, and Dr. Harry Denny, who all offered thoughtful feedback on the original CFP and/or the Issue’s introduction. Our deepest appreciation for the support of TPR Web Editor Travis DuBose, whose patience, creativity, and finesse was crucial to our ways of thinking about and presenting the scholarship in this Special Issue.


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