To Engage (Not Respond to) Difference: Finding “Ways to Move” in a Writing Center Handbook

Kaleb Arterburn
Caitie Leibman

        The Peer Review, Volume 1, Issue 1, Spring 2017

Sometimes, it’s not those lightbulb moments that drive us: it’s those gut-drop moments. By March 2016, a few experiences came to a head for the Doane University Writing Center. That spring, Director Caitie Leibman sat in her office with a student who brought her this third-hand story: a fellow student had visited the Writing Center, disclosed a learning disability mid-session, and had to watch as the consultant laughed and responded, “Oh that explains it!” Caitie offered to reach out to the writer and speak to her staff, but the student chose not to reveal the identity of the writer in the story. Caitie was left feeling helpless. The incident couldn’t be undone, though it begged an important question: How could I prepare consultants to better respond to a situation like this?

Kaleb, a student on Doane’s undergraduate campus, had also had some frustration of his own, as a writer with dyslexia. In past visits to the Writing Center, consultants had tried in vain to apply their typical practices to sessions, insisting on reading texts aloud and moving line by line. As an upperclass student, Kaleb was now working with longer texts and was more confident in his ideas: he mainly wanted help identifying and fixing misspellings and similar features affected by his condition. The process the consultants were taught to use took too long for the goals he had. Kaleb’s experiences begged a similar question: Is the Writing Center not for me anymore?

For a little context, our campus of Doane University in southeast Nebraska serves a fairly homogeneous, residential undergraduate population of about 1,050. The Writing Center serves this private liberal arts institution with a staff of 15 to 20 undergraduate peer consultants, who are recruited typically in their first year and prepared with a required credit-bearing theory and practice course as well as ongoing meetings and development opportunities. Students, faculty, and staff on our campus can visit our physical space in the Learning Commons—also where the library and technology services are located—with any type of writing, at any stage, during our regular hours, which include afternoons and evenings four days a week.

Caitie and Kaleb had interacted on campus before: Caitie coached with the competitive speech team, which Kaleb had been a member of, and Kaleb had served as a teaching assistant for two sections of Caitie’s first-year liberal arts seminar. We shared conversations about Kaleb’s experiences as a student and Caitie’s as the director of the Writing Center before we realized we had an opportunity to create something from these conversations. Kaleb enrolled with Caitie in a series of independent studies across the 2016–2017 academic year to support this new collaborative project.

We didn’t have a particular agenda when we started meeting; we just knew we wanted to learn more about how disabilities and other differences were constructed in environments like writing centers. Our academic instincts led us to any writing center literature we could find about disabilities, which included everything from Brian Huot’s 1988 reflection “Working with Charlotte: A close look at tutoring the special learner” in The Writing Lab Newsletter to Rebecca Day Babcock’s round-up of research to date called “Disabilities in the Writing Center,” which appeared in Praxis in 2015. One of the most significant observations we made across these readings was the presence of what Lee-Ann M. Kastman Breuch (2001) calls the “pedagogical imperative,” or the perceived necessity to transform all theorizing and knowledge into practical applications for the classroom (or the center, in this case) (p. 120). Many articles either contained or were (wholly) a checklist of “helpful” strategies for working with a particular population. Even when the intentions felt genuine, we questioned the authors’ neat conclusions, especially when they implied that all writers in a given group would exhibit the same characteristics. How do we know these will apply to every writer in this group? Shouldn’t we offer these strategies to every writer? What gives with this list?

Through our conversations, reading, and writing, we discovered our primary concern: maybe responding to difference should not be about “responding,” at all. Perhaps consultant preparation has too long been conceived of as a site for training staff to react in x ways, given y writer. Consultant preparation, instead, could start by creating a framework of difference that defines difference as norm. In fact, English and disability studies scholar Stephanie Kerschbaum (2014) explains, “differences are frequently called out as singular or unusual, but they are not always examined alongside the (sometimes unstated or assumed) norms against which those differences are often cast” (p. 1). We realized we wanted consultants to recognize this distinction.

As these ideas percolated, Caitie realized she had a specific site where we could develop this thinking: the Writing Center consultant handbook. After officially accepting the directorship in fall 2014, Caitie “inherited” a handbook that the inaugural director had created for the staff in 2009, but little had been updated across the years. Now the center had not only a new director, but also a new location, a new credit-bearing preparation course, and a mixed staff with some consultants hired by the previous director and some by the new director. We took up the task of rewriting the consultant handbook as a personal and scholarly exploration. It was unfinished business from a huge moment of upheaval, but it’s now also a site to reframe the consultants’ role in our center, helping the staff develop an understanding of their work and themselves—with difference as the lens.

Our interests were served well in the realm of Universal Design (UD) and by the work of Jay Dolmage (2015), whose article “Universal Design: Places to Start” has the explicit goal of trying “to reframe [UD] away from checklists and reductive formulas and towards more critical, problematized and active forms of engagement or ‘ways to move.’” UD resists ableist academic spaces—both physical and intellectual—by proactively creating structures that support a wide range of human variances. This work helps us check the urge to “respond” to difference and instead encourages us to create spaces that already account for difference, focusing on potential channels and paths of access. To do this, we’ve borrowed the language used in Dolmage (2015) and others’ work and have structured the newly rewritten consultant handbook not by dividing it into specific topics of interest—“hours and operations,” “FAQs,” and so on—but by using “ways to move” as an organizing principle.

As we drafted the handbook across 2016, we realized this organizing principle made us feel empowered and like we could do good work, but in practice, it was difficult to apply. Any feelings of self-righteousness dissolved as we discovered that it was much easier to identify how not to do this work than it was to spit out text that embodied inclusivity in the idealized way we imagined. We chose four ways to move, each of which served as a section of the handbook: “Build Connections,” “Orient Yourself,” “Create the Magic,” and “Center the Writer.” (For reference, the entire handbook as it was at the time of publication can be found at the link in Appendix A). After reviewing the material of the old handbook and considering what material would be important for new consultants to receive, we created these labels to describe what moves seemed most important in the work. To draft each section, we built on existing literature about any relevant concepts; for instance, in “Orient Yourself,” we cited educational scholar Lisa Delpit’s (2006) work on “codes of power” to explain the value of using explicit communication styles when talking about academic culture or discourses (p. 15). Beyond these theoretical concepts, however, finding specific examples that illustrated each way to move was more challenging. An example had to fit well enough to be worthwhile, but we so badly wanted to avoid essentializing types of difference. What would it mean, for instance, if all our examples were about hypothetical students from racial minorities? Even if we avoided treating all students from this type of group in the same way, wouldn’t our naming of difference as minority undermine our inclusive efforts? Wouldn’t this just reinforce the unmarked norms (in this case, of whiteness)?

We found ourselves wrestling with this tension between naming examples of categories and patterns and wanting to avoid planting the instinct of “what to do with this type of writer.” We often considered talking about patterns that consultants might expect from certain populations of writers, such as the international students from China: many of these writers on our campus struggle with tenses in their writing, because of the grammatical differences in English. More often than not, however, we avoided naming specific examples such as these in the handbook and instead focused our discussion on a much more general plane. We realized while such patterns may help consultants understand what is happening in a writer’s work, our bigger goal remained getting consultants to begin their work in the center by orienting themselves to individual writers rather than by operating from labels or categories. To revisit a common writing center metaphor, we realized the distinction was that we wanted to give consultants tools for their toolboxes but not instruction manuals. This realization fell in line with what we had been learning from UD principles and resisting checklists.

Through this struggle, we were finally able to identify difference as the necessary starting point for consultant preparation. Our challenges in writing the handbook all stemmed from how to conceptualize difference. Kaleb realized he wanted the handbook to communicate that our institution will always do its best to work with all students, and that while he did not want to try to speak for all students, he thought his research and personal experiences could help guide consultants to create such an inclusive space. Through her conversations with Kaleb, Caitie realized the status quo for discussing difference in consultant preparation—including both the old handbook and the Writing Center Theory and Practice course for potential consultants—left her feeling more like Michael Scott leading Diversity Day on The Office than anything else, like the center was not only tokenizing certain people’s differences, but that it was not even doing anything productive around those limited categories.

To avoid treating types of difference as special topics, our research question became something deeper. Whereas before, Caitie had been wondering How could I prepare consultants to better respond to a situation like this?, she and Kaleb now identified the more specific question of How are we preparing consultants to conceptualize difference? Although we couldn’t have articulated it when we started, one premise that guided our drafting of the new handbook was that difference is a relationship, not a static or essential quality. In fact, what we’d like to share in the remainder of this text is a discussion of what we’re taking away from this process. The messy work of trying to create a writing center artifact using difference as a lens has forced us to examine the center’s existing pathways of access (both for consultants and the writers we serve). This journey has also led us to slam the brakes on the “pedagogical imperative,” the instinct to move immediately to practical applications. Instead, we now realize the importance of trying to understand an issue more before jumping to “solve” it.

To tell this story, we first offer a close reading of our draft of the new handbook. Then, we try to meta-analyze our own drafting process to reflect on what’s been at stake in this endeavor. Finally, we close with some thoughts about the importance and affective dimensions of staying engaged with a conceptual lens of difference. We should also mention that while we did identify some practical applications throughout this process, our goal in telling our story here is more about narrating how our thinking changed, in hopes that it will help other writing center practitioners struggle more efficiently when they attempt similar work. We hope to inspire more lightbulb moments than gut-drop moments.

Difference Is Always Emerging: A Close Reading of the New Handbook

As we researched and wrote the handbook, two of our ways to move—“Orient Yourself” and “Center the Writer”—relied heavily on foregrounding difference as an emerging phenomenon. The other two sections focus on informing consultants about our institutional context and day-to-day activities, so this discussion just inquires into the work we did in “Orient Yourself” and “Center the Writer.”

“Orient Yourself” focuses on the following message: “So what is a consultant’s role in relation to a writer who visits the center?” and considers “some of the tensions in a consultant’s identity” (Arterburn & Leibman, 2017, p. 15). This section first establishes that a consultant’s role will depend on the individual they’re serving, using authority as a way into this idea:

For instance, your experiences might make you an authority about the poetry form of avillanelle but a novice at biology lab reports. If a writer brings in a villanelle, you might be more of an authority on this form than the writer; if a writer brings in a lab report, you will have to acknowledge their authority. Instead, you will have to find out what the writer wants or needs from you. You can always check for clarity, proofreading, or—at the very least—just offer the writer more practice explaining their topic or genre. (Arterburn & Leibman, 2017, p. 15)

Then, we offer another perspective about authority from the field, one in which a consultant with authority can model new things for the writer:

[A]lthough there’s not much research on the topic, writing center studies do show that there’s value in pairing writers with consultants from the same field (Dinitz and Harrington; Kiedaisch and Dinitz). Think of it this way (to extend the ‘modeling’ idea to fashion): it’s helpful to have someone model something for you because you might want to put it on. You don’t need someone to model an outfit you’d never put on. (Arterburn & Leibman, 2017, p. 15)

It might have been unintentional, but we believe the order of these two ideas matters: the first immediately recognizes that the consultant will not always be the authority of expertise. If we had offered new consultants the second idea first, we might have reinforced the misconception that authority is static or a consultant’s authority is a precondition of a “normal” session.

“Orient Yourself” continues by discussing another tension of a consultant’s role: a consultant should want to make each writer feel welcome and to help meet the writer’s expectations, but these two goals are relative. We write:

An introverted, anxious student might appreciate a smile and a calm question rather than a loud, ‘HELLO! Come in!’ Again, it’s about meeting people where they are, in everysense. If you can start the experience in a relaxed, accepting way, you will establish for the writer that you can at least work together. However, you must be ready for discomfort, which is not always negative. For instance, you may start a perfectly friendly conversation with a writer, only to discover they expect you to edit their paper while they leave to go take a nap. As you know, we only work with writers on their writing, not for writers. This means you will have to adjust their expectations, which may be uncomfortable. You will have to tell them, ‘Actually, we don’t edit papers for students. Instead, let me tell you about what we can do…’ (Arterburn & Leibman, 2017, p. 16–17)

In this section, we are trying to offer concrete examples of experiences that might lead to tension without marking those examples as problems to diagnose and fix. We could have structured the excerpt above, for example, by starting with an idealized writer as the baseline: “Not every student will be the outgoing, prepared, enthusiastic writer we love to work with…” Instead, in this excerpt we’re trying to draw consultants’ attention to the spectrum of experiences possible with writers rather than establish what’s “normal” and “not.” Welcoming a writer to their session and helping manage their expectations will feel very different depending on the writer; this section emphasizes that consultants should not be surprised when different writers call for different approaches. These differences will emerge as each session unfolds.

In “Orient Yourself,” the final tension focuses on the construction of norms as they relate to identity markers. We write:

In education and even writing center studies, a lot of research is dedicated to serving students from ‘different’ populations, from ‘nontraditional’ students to students with disabilities or non-English linguistic backgrounds. The intention is often a good one, but these moves can be counterproductive if they imply that writers outside these categories are normal, ‘unmarked,’ or somehow easier to work with. (Arterburn & Leibman, 2017, p. 17)

Here, we tried to draw consultants’ attention to the tendency to normalize certain identity markers. What we struggled with as we drafted this section—and can’t help but notice now—is that we too suffered from this tendency. In this final section of “Orient Yourself,” it feels like we’re wavering on the line between acknowledging norms and reinforcing them.

For instance, we try to call out consultants’ potential instinct to operate from preconceived notions:

You might be tempted to assume that you know something about a writer when you discover they are… a first-year student. Or a student with a disability. Or a student who learned English as a second language. Categories can be helpful, but they also have their limits, especially when you don’t belong to a group that a writer might. (Arterburn & Leibman, 2017, p. 17)

We notice now, however, that the last line in this excerpt might imply that consultants are part of an unstated norm and are not in their first year, disabled, or learning English as a second language. As it happens, consultants cannot join the staff until their sophomore year, but the way we’re talking about the other markers may be counterproductive to our goals.

Perhaps a better example of this work can be found in this later paragraph the “Orient Yourself” section, where we write:

When you work with writers, remember that their identity markers aren’t the only relevant pieces of information. Imagine you’re working with a writer who’s very different from you: different gender, different race, different interests. If the writer does or says something that seems strange to you, it could be tempting to ask, ‘What is it about them or how they did that that makes me feel weird?’ Instead, also consider, ‘What is it about me that makes me feel weird?’ (Arterburn & Leibman, 2017, p. 17–18).

The strength of this excerpt is its focus on helping the consultant reflect on their own identity and positionality. Rather than offering hypothetical markers of difference as examples, it centers the consultants and offers new ways to inquire into their interactions with difference. Juxtaposed here, these two examples help us reflect on the challenges and possibilities of practicing what we preach about difference.

“Orient Yourself,” as a section, closes by stating, “Not only are you not ‘normal’ (it’s just not a very helpful term), but you are also a slightly different you depending on the situation and point in time” (Arterburn & Leibman, 2017, p. 18). Our hope was that this section of the handbook would highlight that difference is constructed over time among individuals rather than a static entity that exists in individuals.

The other section of the handbook to directly address the nature of difference is “Center the Writer,” which opens with the following:

According to Elizabeth H. Boquet and Neal Lerner, Stephen North’s ‘The Idea of a Writing Center’ is the most quoted piece of writing center scholarship in the field, including the most often quoted maxim of writing center scholarship: ‘better writers, not better writing.’ North’s article suggests that the written product at hand is secondary to the writer who’s present. His phrase may sound cliché to veterans of the field, but the heart of the message is important: in this work, we need to center the writers themselves. (Arterburn & Leibman, 2017, p. 25)

This handbook section works as a counterpart to “Orient Yourself”: while both address similar issues, the former takes the consultant as the subject whereas this section takes the writer as the subject.

“Center the Writer” is structured by roughly narrating the flow of a typical session: it provides an overview of moves that a consultant should make or should consider making at each stage of a session (its beginning, middle, and end). To an outsider, this section may read as idiosyncratic. Some of this material reflects how Caitie was trained as a consultant and how she prefers to work with writers; some of the material reflects administrative needs such as record-keeping or matters of efficiency such as time management. As we reread this section, however, we again noticed how the attention to difference permeated even this more practical, linear material.

To start a session, consultants need to learn certain pieces of information from the writer in order to complete the Client Report Form: this is the form created and stored in our scheduling and reporting system, WCOnline, that documents the session itself. We ask consultants to collect information such as a description of the writing, whether the writing is for a class (if so, which one and whether the instructor required or encouraged the writer to visit), and the writer’s goals for the session. Before beginning this handbook revision, Caitie had this final item labeled as “Session Objectives” rather than “Writer’s Session Goals,” but revised it to further reflect the need to center the writer in our work. As we wrote the handbook, we also realized the importance of treating writers as individuals. In this section, we tried to balance the consultants’ need to create an open dialogue and to try to manage writers’ expectations. For instance, we write:

Do the writer’s goals fit the time available? If not, let them know so that you can adjust their expectations. Here are some prompts to help them articulate their goals:

  • What are your goals for this session?
  • What would you like from me?
  • How do you want to use our time today? (Arterburn & Leibman, 2017, p. 26)

This type of approach, we felt, would help writers guide the session by articulating what they wanted to work on most. Privileging individuality seemed an apt route to leave room for difference.

But it wasn’t that simple. Our transition into the heart of a session may have reinforced an idea we were trying to resist throughout the handbook. We write, “Once you have the information you need, you can turn to the text or material at hand” (Arterburn & Leibman, 2017, p. 26). As we reread this section, we notice lines like this might fall into the trap that Dolmage (2015) and others warn about, that our instincts about serving students should not follow prescriptive patterns: given x, do y. What follows this line is an instruction to inform the writer that we “typically” read writing aloud in the center and to offer the choice of whether the writer or consultant should read. We also offer the alternative that “[u]nder certain circumstances, you can use your best judgment about whether something should be read aloud,” but then we offer only two examples: cases of sensitive material or particularly long drafts (Arterburn & Leibman, 2017, p. 26). Here, we privilege differences about the writing itself. It may have been inadvertent, but it feels like this section avoids addressing other types of difference. For instance, the focus on reading aloud and listening privileges ableist norms about writing center work. Perhaps our carelessness stemmed from Caitie’s urge to offer the consultants a strictly linear and practical protocol (for once). While we described “what to do” in a session, we didn’t always question or challenge the values behind why we do what we do. We also neglected the UD principle of offering ways to move rather than the way to move.

In other moments in “Center the Writer,” this principle shone through more brightly:

Like we discussed in Way to Move #2 (Orient Yourself), it’s not possible to “know” someone based on a few labels: you have to treat each student as the unique writer they are. To do this, always defer to the writer’s self-knowledge and self-awareness. For instance, it’s always acceptable to ask questions like the following to learn more about a writer:

  • How do you work best?
  • Where do you struggle with writing?
  • (when there are options available) Which would you prefer?
  • What do you typically do [at this stage]? How does it work for you?
  • Is there anything else that you want me to know about you?

(Arterburn & Leibman, 2017, p. 26)

The strength of this excerpt, we feel, is its focus on the particulars of how a writer works, not the consultant’s perception of “who they are.” It emphasizes trying to understand the writer in an ongoing way and never settling on a single understanding.

Overall, these two of the four handbook sections—“Orient Yourself” and “Center the Writer”—highlight our particular concept of difference. We’re choosing not to discuss the other two sections of the handbook here not because they can’t be read through the lens of difference but because they don’t shed as much light on this idea. “Orient Yourself” and “Center the Writer” make the most direct moves to foreground difference as an interactional, ongoing phenomenon. Thus, these two sections are where we were able to most directly apply what we’d been learning from our research about difference—and also where we struggled the most.

A Meta-Analysis of Our Drafting Process

As you may have noticed in the previous discussion, we struggled most in deciding how to discuss difference. The hardest drafting decisions were about whether, when, and how specifically to offer examples of each concept. As we review the handbook for this analysis, we can’t help but notice how much more confident and comfortable we feel about moments in the handbook that work more generally, offering the consultants open-ended scenarios where they could simply imagine themselves as the subject. We feel these sections work more effectively than those where we tried to name specific types of difference or create hypothetical scenarios using specific identity markers.

The issue, we discovered, was that by using such examples, we were accidentally creating or reinforcing unmarked norms—for our consultants, the writers, and the sessions themselves. Part of our instinct to offer concrete examples may come from things we’ve been taught as writers. For instance, Kaleb realized that as a student, he’s often been coached to “be more specific” and add details that will help a reader imagine what he’s describing. In this case, though, it was specificity that complicated our attention to difference. It was those moments in the handbook that made us realize how our own privileges affected our perception of writing center work. Our attention to difference, then, has led us to identify some previously unexamined values. The instinct to concretize our concepts with specific examples ran counter to what we were discovering about the nature of difference as an emerging phenomenon.

For us, being reflexive has meant checking our previously unexamined values to ask some hard questions. Specifically, we’re wondering what inspires our comfort with certain handbook sections. Are we confident about them because they will be more effective in helping orient new consultants, or are we confident about them because they tiptoe around the hard work of naming and navigating specific examples of difference our consultants might experience? As two white, heterosexual members of this educational institution, both coming from middle class backgrounds, we wonder whether it is more comfortable for us to avoid naming differences for fear that we will “say the wrong thing” or fail to give enough context or nuance to our examples.

And there were opportunities in the handbook to attempt more of this work. We noticed in our analysis that we did not name many of the actual, relevant patterns that might be of interest to our consultants. As an example of one such pattern, writers who identify a language other than English as their “first or home language” use the center at a greater rate than those who identify English as their first or home language: while this group accounted for only 6% of the center’s user population according to WCOnline user and appointment data between fall 2014 and spring 2017, they accounted for 13% of all visits in this period.

Beyond the personal inquiry into our decisions from this project, this example helps us consider a theoretical lens. Like we tried to explain to consultants through the handbook, categories can be helpful but have their limits. Maybe our instinct was partly guided by the tension between the power of categorization and the limits of essentializing members of those categories. In this linguistic example, part of our fear, in retrospect, might have been that consultants would read these statistics and wonder to themselves, “Okay, so what do I do when I meet with these different writers?” While this type of reaction would be understandable, it’s the response we were trying to circumvent in the handbook: from organizing by “ways to move” to calling attention to positionality, perhaps we recognized that offering examples like this would lead to the line of thinking we couldn’t address in this particular artifact. Instead, we believe a dynamic framework of difference is a more useful place to start engaging these topics in consultant preparation. Just as we teach our consultants that they do not need to be (and should not try to be) experts in all areas of writing, so too should consultants avoid trying to become experts in all types of difference.

Through these struggles and realizations, we’ve gained a little more perspective—at least until the next time the center embarks on this reflexive revision process. Although we want to resist checklists as well as the “pedagogical imperative” to immediately translate ideas into practical applications, we do want other centers to benefit from our experience. We’d like to offer a few calls to action that should help other practitioners begin a process like the one we’ve undertaken:

  • Our main call to other writing center practitioners is to be bold and proactive about conceptualizing difference in consultant preparation—but remain reflexive over time. In our least successful moments in the handbook, we recognized we were treating difference as an afterthought rather than an expected element of any interaction. We call you to ask yourself whether difference is accounted for in the very structure of consultant preparation: inclusivity cannot be an accommodation. We’ve discovered that an inclusive approach to difference must be proactive. Consider:
    • Will new paths of access have to be created in response to particular differences or are multiple paths of access already available from the beginning of any writing center interaction?
    • Is difference something consultants respond to or something they make space for?
    • In discussions or materials that address difference, are you inadvertently creating any unmarked norms that reinforce an unexamined “ideal” person or situation?
    • As a director, if you feel hesitant about conceptualizing difference in these ways, ask yourself: do you trust your consultants to interpret and apply the center’s values in action? Offering “ways to move” rather than “what to do” requires faith and a commitment to writing center work as a learning process.
  • Once we began this work, we discovered we were doing more than rewriting the handbook: we were trying to reimagine consultant preparation as an enterprise that foregrounds ways to conceptualize difference. With a complete draft of the handbook reaching only 31 pages—including a title page as well as front and back matter—we recognize now that some of the richest work we can do to prepare consultants to engage difference merely begins in the handbook. Although it sounds commonsensical, this process helped us consider which types of learning might happen best at which sites: the handbook, conversations in the theory and practice class, experiences during live consultations in the center, meetings with Caitie in her office, and so on. In fact, during drafting meetings, we would often stop elaborating on a topic in the handbook when Caitie would realize, “Oh, we go into that more deeply in the class anyway.” We challenge you to ask yourselves: What is the role of the handbook, and of each site of consultant preparation? We’ll also call on practitioners to consider wrestling with a new lens in an artifact of the center—such as the handbook—to see how it might help reimagine sites of consultant preparation as a set of complementary opportunities.
    • As an example of how this reflection may help revitalize consultant preparation, one of the benefits of doing this work during the academic year is that while we’ve been drafting, Caitie has been leading another section of the theory and practice course. As we struggled to articulate our thoughts on the page (or Google Doc screen to be precise), Caitie restructured the writing center theory and practice course using the four ways to move we’d identified for the handbook. This structure has centered difference and identity issues in a more explicit way than ever before, giving Caitie more opportunities to struggle with her students to talk about difference in an open, reflective way during class; we noticed results immediately. The most recent section of seven students developed a dynamic of “calling out” assumptions or preconceived notions about difference. Caitie drew one student’s attention to their instinct to refer to the authors of our readings using masculine pronouns—even when authors have feminine first names and refer to themselves as women—but this opened up space to discuss where this instinct may be coming from. In another striking moment, a student caught themselves reflecting on why certain nonstandard dialects of English “sound different”: the student started to say, “It just sounds less educ—…” Caitie asked the student what they were going to say, why they stopped, and what they were struggling with. Again, this allowed us to do some of the messy, reflexive work that can’t happen in a space like the handbook: this type of inquiry is more effective taking place in our class because of the opportunity for immediate dialogue. The work isn’t any easier than what we attempted in the handbook, but it’s better suited for our classroom. Again, thinking of consultant preparation as a set of complementary opportunities can help define the purpose of an artifact like the handbook.
  • The importance of dialogue, however, sparked more thinking about the possibilities for the handbook and its ongoing revision. During this process, Caitie enjoyed drafting in a Google Doc, which has allowed her to leave comments, add detail, and make minor revisions as she thought of them throughout the year. This isn’t to suggest that we will continue revising the handbook on a whim, but treating the handbook as a perpetual draft communicates that consultants (and directors) are learners first and foremost. Yes, employment expectations should always be clear among all parties, but perhaps our handbook could be more dialogic. In the future, maybe it could be a more interactive text where consultants could respond or add to the material provided by the director and previous staff. Increasing consultants’ ownership in their own preparation process would allow them to practice the type of reflective analysis we’re trying to do here. Consider: In what ways do consultants “own” the handbook? How are their voices or perspectives represented in it? How fluid is your handbook? What opportunities do consultants have to interact with and respond to the handbook?
    • Even this spring, Caitie has had fruitful conversations with the prospective consultants about how students and writers are discussed in writing center artifacts: during one class period, the students analyzed FAQ and “Who We Are” sections of writing center websites from across the country. The students were dismayed at how often such text was patronizing or made writers on those campuses sound lazy or ignorant. Although Caitie and Kaleb drafted the new handbook together as a director and a current student, being able to dialogue with consultants or prospective consultants may help us avoid generalizing in the handbook about writers or the consultants who serve them.

If these questions seem overwhelming or less than relevant, we suggest you start this process by revisiting your center’s own gut-drop moments: What scenarios or situations have sparked conversation or issues in your context? Work backwards from there. Consider your lightbulb moments, too, for that matter: What conversations, activities, or stores of information have proven useful in creating dialogue about difference?

By trying to meta-analyze how this process has worked for us, we’ve started some messy but productive work. We’ve discovered the challenge of being specific without being reductive; we’ve tried to reflect on feelings of privilege and comfort. Finally, though, this process has offered us the opportunity to ask more questions than we knew we had.

Staying Engaged and Uncomfortable

Revision of the handbook is and should always be ongoing. There is a tension here, since in one sense, the handbook should be a stable artifact for at least each unit of time, whether a term or academic year; in another sense, though, if the handbook starts the messy work of engaging difference, shouldn’t it capture the ongoing essence of that process? Shouldn’t it change as we do? This is why a more dialogic approach to consultant preparation may be key.

Of course, dialogue is not a “solution” to the “problem” of engaging difference more explicitly. We want to be clear with ourselves and others in this moment that engaging difference is often complicated and uncomfortable work. Feminist scholar Megan Boler (1999) offers a useful concept called a “pedagogy of discomfort,” a framework in which beliefs themselves become a site for inquiry (p. 175). She argues self-reflexivity and growth require attention to the affective dimensions of those processes. For instance, we would be doing ourselves a disservice if we ignored our realization about the relationship between comfort and privilege as we drafted the handbook. Further, if we ignored the role of discomfort in consultant development, we would be reinforcing the misconception that logic and emotion are conflicting phenomena. This would be especially counterproductive in a peer model like ours, where—as Muriel Harris argues—consultants serve a social role, potentially helping writers gain confidence and emotional support they don’t necessarily receive in other academic spaces (1995, p. 35). To stay engaged with difference, centers need to become comfortable with discomfort.

Beyond recognizing the ongoing and emotional components of this work, we want to close by returning to the concept that inspired our journey: difference as an emerging phenomenon. Our goal from the start has been to explore ways of framing difference in consultant preparation. From Caitie’s initial gut-drop moment realizing the center might have further stigmatized a writer with a learning disability to the moment we sent this work for publication, we’ve had to reorient ourselves again and again. In the context of translingual pedagogies, Lu and Horner (2013) explain that “difference and agency” are “in fact the norm for all writing” (p. 592). In this spirit, writing centers have a responsibility to avoid communicating a false binary between choosing to be normal and choosing to be different. Lu and Horner further suggest this binary forces writers “to choose between exercising writer agency through recognizable breaks with ostensibly stable language practices and conventions—and thereby putting one’s academic and economic survival at risk” and “purchasing such survival by submitting to demands for conformity” (p. 592).

Instead, Lu and Horner (2013) write, decision-making is not limited to “whether to be different, given the inevitability of difference, but what kind of difference to attempt, how, and why” (p. 592). In this framework, even “normal” or “the ideal” are paths one must actively choose to take, whether or not one realizes these are active decisions. Difference is not something that arrives and must be responded to; difference is a dynamic force that is created among us. We believe such a framework can serve our consultant preparation processes well, offering us all a lens for recognizing the many paths—and ways to move—that already exist.

About the Authors

Kaleb Arterburn is a recent graduate of Doane University, where he studied sociology. His research interests include the sociology of healthcare and help-seeking behaviors along with disability studies.
Caitie Leibman is the Writing Center Director at Doane University, where she teaches English courses and liberal arts seminars. She is a doctoral candidate in composition and rhetoric at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. Her creative and scholarly work have appeared in New Delta Review and Prairie Schooner, and she has work forthcoming in The Peer Review and the edited collection Women’s Ways of Making (Southern Illinois University Press).


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Appendix A

The handbook—as it appeared at the time of publication—can be viewed in the following public Google Doc: