Elizabeth Geib Chavin, Slippery Rock University
Allison Wade, Purdue University
Community members in vulnerable spaces such as prisons and homeless shelters receive little writing support compared to neighboring community populations in public access spaces. In this reflective article, the authors consider the institutionalized barriers that limit collaborations between writing centers and hard-to-reach community populations. Drawing on personal community engagement experiences, the authors wonder what place writing center tutors and administrators have in developing a culture of writing support outside of academic boundaries.
Keywords: community writing, writing centers, sustainability, institutional politics
We begin this reflective article enamored by the growth and tethering of community literacy and writing center (WC) studies, but also frustrated with the institutional politics and barriers that prohibit this very work. As Amy Nichols and Bronwyn Williams (2019) argue, “the distinctive institutional and pedagogical position of WCs within universities make them particularly well suited for ethical and sustainable community work” (p. 88). WCs are unique spaces on campus where writers can receive support, untied from their grade commitments and the potential power structures associated with the professor-student relationship. University and community WCs have opportunities to collaborate on projects, workshops, and everyday writing support. WC scholars have questioned how the unique attributes of WCs might transfer into community settings, with writers in local cities, towns, community groups, clubs, and resource centers, and they have increasingly done so in the past twenty years (Brizee & Wells, 2016; Rousculp, 2014; Bergmann, 2010). Salt Lake Community College (SLCC) established the SLCC Community Writing Center for all local residents. The University of Wisconsin Madison offers tutoring support in local libraries. The Flanner Community Writing Center is a public access support center available for Central Indiana residents. These centers exist in the liminal space between academia and non-academic spaces.
While community WCs are developing resources that merge various kinds of expertise, they remain rare. This rarity of community WCs and the developmental discussions surrounding them is rooted in the competing politics of several spaces and institutions— the college or university, the government-funded or not-for-profit organization, the city or place of residence, and sub-political entities such as prisons, homeless shelters, rehabilitation spaces, and mental health institutions. The academic researcher is often tied to institutional timelines that demand specific uses of resources. The tenure track professor has research requirements vital to tenure. Graduate and undergraduate students are unable to sustain projects and partner relationships past graduation or thesis commitments and are often limited to individual semester timelines. Research itself is then understood and defined by the institution in a manner that too often limits community engaged efforts entirely.
Our frustration then lies in the institutional barriers that largely prohibit or damage the permeability of academic and non-academic writing relationships. Community engagement work often requires the ability to adapt to unfamiliar contexts and challenges, to be vulnerable about our perceptions, privilege, and abilities, and to welcome unexpected changes in programming, relationships, and funding. In other words, creating and sustaining an academic-community program or relationship requires extreme flexibility— something WC professionals, educators, and administrators work diligently to accomplish in academic settings, but find harder to achieve outside of those academic perimeters, given the lack of support. As Jacobi (2008) articulates, “movement toward a more ethical and just world requires engagement beyond the traditional and canonical classroom” (p. 68) and, we add, requires engagement beyond the structure of westernized education for learners and educators. Unfortunately, we are not far enough away from academic orthodoxy. While barriers are inevitable, there is little discussion around how to navigate those barriers among different institutions that each have their own political obstacles. What might it mean to focus less on enacting new theories and methodologies for successful engagement work or building community WCs, and to focus instead on understanding conflict areas or barriers that limit sustainable community writing support, tracing them through historical moments, reflecting on real-time experiential examples, and simply acknowledging areas of contradiction and tension?
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, both of us (Elizabeth and Allison), worked individually with two nonprofits that provide support for people experiencing homelessness. Although separate, our experiences inspired similar concern about the lack of writing support in communities not linked to academic institutions. Elizabeth worked with a local transitional housing center that aids people out of being unhoused by providing basic resources like food, clothing, and connections to shelter and job placement. Elizabeth is a newly appointed WC director and assistant professor who, at the time, volunteered at the center during her dissertation journey in hopes of starting a small community WC. Also in the world of WCs, Allison is a recently-former undergraduate WC consultant with degrees in political science and human services who studies American prison systems as institutions of rehabilitation versus punishment. Through an internship, Allison worked with a restorative justice mediation center located in the heart of a city with the country’s highest rates of homelessness. We have both learned through reflection and experience that the everyday moments of WCs— the small talk between writers and consultants, enacted pedagogy, applied scholarship, in-the-moment responses to oppression, ability, or mental health— change when tutors are working with writers untied to academic institutions. As explicit and hidden barriers limit the existence and accessibility of writing support for community members, we explore what place WC tutors and administrators have in combating some of the political and institutional issues that damage community and university collaborations involving our most vulnerable and hard-to-reach communities. We direct our attention to institutional and political limitations to access and ask: how do institutional politics within WCs affect community literacy and engagement efforts, especially for hard-to-reach populations? We turn to our community engagement experience with writing support and highlight several barriers that limit or prohibit collaborations among WC personnel and local community members. We pose critical questions for WC scholars and others: questions that pertain to the future of WC community engagement and writing support.
Not too long before Indiana’s COVID-19 “stay at home order,” I placed loose leaf paper and pencils on an open table, along with a sign that said, “Have ideas that you want to share? Want a space to write? Join the Writing Space at the transitional housing center.” Some community members silently grabbed materials, placed them in their backpacks, and walked away. Others sat across the table, asked who I was and why I was there. One guest said, “Writing won’t help me,” while another said they plan to write novels to secure income for housing. The most notable comment was: “I know my life, my story and what it’s like to live on the streets. So maybe you should listen and look around. Then you should do the writing.” Although I was not surprised that guests did not want to sit down and write with a stranger, I was surprised that almost every verbal interaction, no matter how direct, resulted in a conversation. Those moments solidified the importance of relationship building. Trust takes time to build, as does reciprocity, where all involved parties understand the objective at hand and talk is natural and mutual. As relationships with guests, volunteers, and staff grew, conversations quickly shifted to health care access, mental health, food access, and shelter as the early days of COVID-19 rolled in. I focused on gathering pantry items and helping promote virtual fundraisers, which of course, pushed any community WC plans to the back burner.
While COVID added fuel to the fire, I noticed a wider issue at play. As a graduate student pressured by the timelines of a dissertation, graduation, and professional development, I sought to understand how to engage honestly, wholly, and responsibly with the community, knowing very well that this “work” must count for academic gain if I were to commit the time and energy such projects deserve. In previous outreach efforts, I attempted to build relationships with local libraries, volunteered at an adult literacy center, and started a mixed methods research project in hopes of collaborating with local businesses regarding writing and literacy training in their companies. My attempts at building community writing projects did not result in the sustainable and reciprocal relationships I had intended to foster.
Was it actually possible to do community engagement work and have it ethically and responsibly counted as academic work? If so, under what circumstances? In my research I followed service learning arguments on reciprocity and working with communities rather than for communities (Deans, 2010; Flower, 2008; Cushman, 1999). I followed public rhetorics scholarship such as Toxic Tourism (Pezzullo, 2007). Feminist scholars such as Roxanne Gay (2014) gave me insight into the intersections of identity in the everyday. I learned that being a “bad feminist” is better than being afraid to make change and being tied to a pedestal. I kept running into conflicting and contradictory narratives. A tension arose between my role as an academic needing to produce research under restrictive timelines and my deep awareness that sustainability and reciprocity are go-at-their-own-pace components of ethical, just, and culturally attuned collaborations; between my academic role and my role as a community member, a resident, and a neighbor of the community members I sought to build relationships with.
Like Elizabeth, I see ethics and sustainability as integral aspects of working with communities, but there are limitations to building relationships with community members when WC tutors move into community spaces. My positionality as an intern and student was restricted by academic timelines and physical locations. I spent no more than a few months in one space, making my community interactions short-lived. My first experience working directly in the community was during an internship with a restorative justice mediation center. I met with adults during their reentry phase and worked on devising plans for the next steps of their journey. Most often, they expressed a need for resume or cover letter building. The help they received included not only technical grammar help and access to tangible writing documents, but also motivational support that boosted their confidence.
One particular July morning, a man whom we’ll call Bobby came into the office expressing a need for a shower. Once the staff and I explained there was no shower in the office, he began asking about the organization. Listening intently, Bobby became interested and asked if he could use the computer. He sat down quietly in the corner jotting down ideas for his resume and used the printer to keep copies of his draft. Throughout my time working with him, he visited periodically to add experiences on his resume, to edit the ones he had written, and to write a letter to his grandmother. This was the first time that I was exposed to how writing help, when accessible, can make reentry more bearable for someone who is isolated from the rest of their community. In the last week of my internship, Bobby bolted through the door waving employment papers. His two-year struggle living in a tent under a bridge was coming to an end and perhaps the writing support he received, although a minor contribution, helped ease that transition. Bobby was not the only community member who asked for some form of writing or communicative support, but his interaction was not far off from what others seemed to experience. Adults working here were receptive to collaboration, constructive criticism, and praise. They sought out writing support but rarely received the level of support they deserved, since a dedicated writing support service did not exist.
My internship lasted only two months and my research projects concluded on their respective due dates. I quickly learned to be culturally aware and sensitive, working only for a short time with communities that I had never been a part of. I was a listener first and foremost and avoided assumptions about the help other people may want or need. I like to think this awareness helped me to avoid the assumption often found within professional and academic settings: that people experiencing homelessness lack motivation or intelligence to “help” themselves. While there are situations where people may lack resources and request assistance, being a member of a specific community does not imply that they would want or need help.
My research has primarily focused on American prison systems which function as institutions of punishment rather than rehabilitation. I have looked at the reentry needs of prisoners during and after time in prison and the ways in which policies shape certain individuals and neglect others. For example, Black Americans make up 40% of the incarcerated population, but only 13% of the United States population, due to policies such as over-policing or education differences in predominantly Black neighborhoods (Kann, 2019). Essentially, policies that affect minorities are extensive, and groups who become dependent on resources are often not encouraged or given governmental support. They must come up with means to solve problems but are not given the necessary tools to overcome those problems. WCs and other organizations that support writers are unique resources that can work to assist individuals in recognizing and combating some of the social and pedagogical barriers they face.
Institutions too often dehumanize incarcerated or unhoused persons. Academics and volunteers need to be cautious about perpetuating grand knowledge and assuming the role of academic savior. That being said, my work as a tutor encouraged unbiased receptivity when working with writers. WCs support writers by meeting them where they are. As a tutor, I did not need to be an expert on the subject matter or surrounding context of someone’s writing to give assistance; there are certain analytical skills I gained as a tutor to locate and solve writing issues without knowledge of the content. Many of my experiences helping adults with their writing reflected my work as a university tutor and I continued to find myself using similar strategies in both academic and community tutoring spaces. It made me question why university WC tutors and administrators are not expanding their skills and expertise, when the need is present, and when they are already equipped to do so.
Elizabeth and Allison
Both of our experiences brought about lessons of humility, being outsiders, and embracing moments as they come. We realized that our training, interest, and commitment to WCs and community engagement made hidden institutional tensions more obvious. Within academic settings, professional development is prioritized, but often we forget the professional characteristics needed to achieve career placement. As WC professionals we notice when someone is under supported; we notice who sits at the table and who does not; we listen rhetorically and emphasize writerly agency, which also means we recognize when that agency is in danger. WC tutors and administrators are trained to build connections between the politics of education (e.g., when a student receives little to no support from faculty advisors) and how writers are affected. WC tutors work with enthusiastic, over prepared, timid, overwhelmed, and defeated writers, all of whom are connected to other institutional strings— the professor who does not or has never been trained to provide feedback on writing assignments; hectic schedules; the value of writing on campus, in programs, and in classrooms.
Tutors also recognize intersections of personal conflicts and challenges, as they engage those who work one or more jobs, have an overloaded academic schedule, need to prioritize family needs over academics, and have complicated relationships with writing and receiving help. As Beth Towle and Harry Denny (2017) argue, “writing centers—with our data, our tutor and administrative experiences, our unique position to see cross-campus writing, and students who are often otherwise invisible to the university—are able to better advocate for what writing is and what it should be, as well as for the student doing that writing” (Safe Harbors section, para. 7). We add that tutors’ ability to acknowledge and respond to these intersecting issues is still very much present outside of university settings. WC tutors and administrators often have the awareness to see when things are off; they read, listen, and respond rhetorically to personal and professional obstacles that get in the way of writing productivity; they meet people where they are by asking questions, by scaffolding, and by guiding agency into the writer’s hand. WC affiliates have training that bodes well when working with vulnerable populations on or off campus, but they often lack the necessary connections and support to offer those unique perspectives to community members in a sustainable and professionally rewarding way.
Our community engagement efforts, and those of other WC researchers, have highlighted several tension areas that limit the longevity and probability of engagement and collaboration between WCs and off campus communities. When considering our personal narratives and the obstacles to community engagement work, we hope to highlight the importance of WCs taking part in community work and how institutional politics influence WC accessibility.
Reciprocity and Sustainability
Community engagement and literacy scholars have learned, through trial and error and lived experience, that sustainable and reciprocal relationships with people are a priority. Ethical work in communities requires a different knowledge base than is typical of IRB approved research; awareness of privilege and positionality are make-or-break factors to working in communities and with people who have been wronged by the same institutional hierarchy that the academic affiliate works for. At the same time, no matter how tied to academic standards and structures, IRB is mandatory. In reality, building reciprocal relationships takes more time than is typically allotted for meeting academic deadlines; sustainability becomes a figure-it-out-later side note. Jennifer Bay (2019) breaks down and decenters the colonial, academized, systemic agenda of community engagement research recognizing the assets and faults of academic expertise. She emphasizes Jolivétte’s understanding of “radical love” where research participants “are seen as members of our family and not as a group of study participants or as sets of data to study and simply write about for our own career advancements” (qtd by Bay, 2019, p.16). How might students and faculty apply “radical love,” for example, while partaking in community engagement research and still meet institutional deadlines and expectations? Bay (2019) argues that “in many ways, this approach is a form of open commensality, where everyone has a seat at the table” (p.16). We recognize, however, that the feeling of “family” cannot be fast tracked or promised, and “as scholars we have a commitment to our own research, which sometimes conflicts with community projects or partnerships” (Bay, 2019, p.10). Ongoing development of WC work in and with communities requires a conscious effort to make collaborations sustainable and relationships reciprocal.
Leveraging meaningful connections for academics at WCs and for community members is challenging and potentially unfeasible without consistency in building contextualized relationships. Rousculp (2014) shares her experience of establishing and maintaining a community WC, and on the struggles community engagement work entails. Time and resources are constantly in negotiation due to hierarchical and institutional complications. The goal however, according to Rousculp (2014), is to eventually reach a level of respect. Building respect between community partners takes time. The academic vs. community WC dynamic is often at play and inevitably causes apprehensions between both parties. Rousculp (2014) highlights an important concern that many public/civic engagement scholars raise; she states, “Looking out from an academic web, we seek to change discourses that maintain or promote oppression—from the luxurious standpoint of not being directly subjected to them. In doing so, we can overlook perspectives of those we are advocating for” (p. 105). Institutions like homeless shelters or prisons have their own customs, schedules, and rules of conduct, but academic researchers are often required to structure their engagement around a college or university semester-based schedule.
Adults, post-incarceration, often require assistance during their reentry period, and this rehabilitative progress can begin during incarceration. Repeated throughout literature on societal reentry is the need for socialization during and after time in prison. According to Mowen et al. (2019), visitation with families and friends during time in prison substantially reduced inmates’ rates of recidivism and those who participate in pre-release programs were 43% less likely to re-enter prison. After release from prison, social support, like writing assistance, aids individuals in their ability to gain housing and employment (Keene et al., 2018). In isolated communities such as prisons where inmates are altogether separated from civilians, socialization is essential. According to Western and Pettit (2021), evaluations show that jobs programs reduce recidivism and increase employment and earnings. EMPLOY, a program designed to provide employment services to incarcerated people before release from prison using resume assistance, job search assistance, and lists of job qualifications for inmates, had the most beneficial outcomes (Ray et al., 2016). The most successful programs for re-entry are pre-release programs (Muentner & Pajarita, 2019) and though these are institutionally different from writing centers, the findings in research on them emphasize the importance of consistency in rapport building when doing writing assistance. Extending familiar WC work into communities becomes difficult when campus WCs cannot accommodate the need for year-round support called for by such and reentry programs.
Building reciprocal and sustainable relationships with people, untied from traditional academic timelines, expectations, and preconceived ideologies is essential for well rounded, honest, and meaningful community work. But even when or if those components are better addressed, our relationships with people cannot singlehandedly solve issues of access. Providing writing support for community members is achievable with the presence of physical office space and tangible resources like paper, printers, and computers. Tutoring requires training so that writing support is grounded in mutual understanding, collaboration, and empathy. Access also means finding an “in” to the communities we seek to work with and navigating the invisible or hidden parameters that the academy expects and the community requires.
As an intern or student, not only were we earning credit for our own benefit (mentioned in the personal narratives above), but our work was also dependent on deadlines and on whether or not our institutions counted our engagement efforts as “work.” Jesson (2006) shares his experience at the undergraduate WC at the University of Texas Austin. Most of the center’s outreach is established through voluntary interest groups. Tutors can volunteer to provide free writing assistance to community members at the Austin Public Library. Through this experience, Jesson recognized a larger issue, a spatial shortfall: “As a large university writing center, the UWC provides amenities that ease the consultant’s work: a reception staff…, a break room where consultants can study and eat…, an extensive library…, and consulting areas… The community consulting site lacks all of these amenities” (para. 7). Similarly, Elmborg and Hook (2006) discuss the need to partner with libraries. However, even if academic libraries are public, the population is largely academic students. The kind of work a university library sees is much different than that of a community library.
On a university campus, teaching and tutoring environments are designed for academics and teachers and tutors have more control over how classes or tutorial sessions play out. They have rules in place which regulate who is allowed in the communal spaces, how to schedule appointments, and how to train people for instructional roles. In community spaces, that control is restricted. Entering a community as an outsider presents barriers to instruction because the capacity to communicate with writers and community members can be stripped away irrespective of time or location. The community space may be noisy or crowded and problems of access to tools such as computers or funding become make-or-break situations. In prisons, corrections officers may interrupt the tutoring. As Sanford and Foster (2006) put it, prisons are fundamentally structured to separate inmates from civilians, making collaboration hard to achieve. Gaining access as a professional in the community, and even more stringently as a university student or administrator, becomes nearly impossible in a restricted and controlled space.
Universities must be able to accommodate alternative schedules and timing and be willing to allocate credits and financial resources for community work. Schneider and Ingram (1993), argue that when forming agendas, policymakers often form value judgments about which groups to target with policy and this ultimately results in choosing which social groups deserve better treatment and better policy. Positively perceived social groups receive support from the government, but negatively perceived groups receive a “punishment-oriented policy.” These decisions are rarely questioned by the government because they have become so routine. Groups who have the most to gain from policies are often the least likely to participate, which is important when considering community resource distribution. When a specific community or person is labeled as lazy rather than systematically overlooked, they are less likely to receive assistance. This is relevant to community WC work because gaining approval from campus administration is one of the fundamental barriers to access, and because WCs are equipped as judgement-free spaces for assistance, value judgements should be eliminated.
Writing Centers and Going Public
Expanding engagement in and with communities requires effort from multiple levels of administration. Over the past two decades, WC scholars have increasingly addressed this imbalance of writing support by shifting and re-working the structure of their spaces. Some centers welcome both academic affiliates and community members to converse about their writing and provide support through tutoring; some centers are fully “public” and stand as their own entity outside of the on-campus WC (e.g., Salt Lake Community College Community Writing Center; Community Literacy Center at Carnegie Mellon University). WCs are ideologically equipped for community work both in what they offer and how they operate, but there are several overlapping layers of institutional politics that dictate and limit our ability to support writers outside of academia. Financial, political, and institutional factors often complicate whether WCs can extend services outside of academic walls. Land grant universities, for example, have more access to sustaining WCs open to non-academic community members considering they are often required to work collaboratively with surrounding communities. Private schools might count a public WC as mission work. Others might not have the same motives, resources, or finances to establish a community WC.
Community WCs are always attached to academic education. The idea of education has connections all the way back to the Antebellum South. Education was and still is an indicator of privilege and westernized beliefs. Gayatri Spivak (2003) asks: what is the role of an intellectual? Spivak worries that in trying to give silenced persons a voice, feminists, postcolonial critics and others might repeat the very silencing they aim to get rid of. The subaltern (someone holding a subordinate position) always stands in an ambiguous relation to power, never fully consenting, never adopting the dominant point of view or vocabulary. What exactly is the role of the scholar in activism? Researchers who work with various public(s) have to think about the role of activism in scholarship—not just the role of scholarship in activism. Research on writing in particular cannot be tied to damage if “in a damage-centered framework, pain and loss are documented in order to obtain particular political or material gains” (Tuck, 2009, p. 413). As Coogan (2006) argues, “To travel the path from discovery to outcomes, we need more than critical consciousness. We need to know how the materiality of discourse interacts with human agency at unique, historical moments and produces changes that communities can really see” (p. 669). Communities should not be sites for rhetorical interest; they are spaces that hold important pieces to social, political, and economic narratives that academics cannot reach alone. If we all start seeing each other as pieces to a larger narrative, we might see that our collaboration is not just preferred, but necessary.
In a conversation with a faculty member, Elizabeth was asked what was stopping her from developing a community WC. She answered: “I’m terrified of mistakes, not doing a good enough job of recognizing my positionality, building sustainable work, and of… well, failing.” There is a certain level of pride that accompanies this kind of self-doubt. More time was spent thinking about what might not work than experiencing what will. Studying the creation of something that one happens to be a part of is difficult and begs questions of subjectivity; and establishing community versions of historically academic institutions could tread the dangerous line of disseminating grand knowledge.
Bergman (2010) argues that WCs are de facto sites for community engagement. However, the collaborative partnerships that happen between WCs and community organizations are important because they situate writing as conversation based. By interacting with community members, academic WCs encourage collaboration, something WCs value at large. In a similar realm, Cooper (2003) argues that university WCs need to continuously participate in active outreach with local community members. WCs should not be a space for only academics; after all, “we are a community of writers, and we want our writing center to reflect our identity” (p. 2). Their community WC works to “demystify academe both for those in the community who feel they are too old or incapable to succeed in college and for young writers in high school who may not have decided to attend college yet” (Cooper, 2003, p. 1).
Through our connection to academia, both of us, Elizabeth and Allison, have institutional privilege. But we also bear witness to the flaws of academia, especially from the vantage point of a WC. We share our experience with community writing not as failure narratives or as a journey to a colonial success story; we share our experiences and visit institutional barriers that affect campus-community engagement as a starting point. We invite future discussion and research surrounding the political obstacles that limit community writing support and WC community engagement. The Writing Center Research Project (2016) has proved that students who visit often receive better grades. What does the public version of that look like? How might a parent who’s applying for an industry job receive help on their resume? What support might a nontraditional prospective student receive on composing their college applications? How might a non-academic affiliated community member receive help on a legal appeal letter? Where does someone receive the consistent, long term writing support that academic WCs have sworn is a necessity for good writers?
Elizabeth Geib Chavin is an Assistant Professor in the department of Languages, Literatures, Cultures, and Writing and Director of the Writing Center at Slippery Rock University. Her research focuses on community writing center centers, writing center tutor-training, community engagement, and public literacy. Elizabeth is the co-author of “Writing Centers as Intersections for Controversy and Change” (University Press of Colorado & Utah State University Press) and a forthcoming book chapter “Who Mentors the Mentors? How Writing Center Pedagogy, Labor, and Administrator Status Impact Methodologies.” She received her PhD in rhetoric and composition from Purdue University in 2022.
Allison Wade received her BA at Purdue University in 2022 where she studied Human Services, Political Science, and Psychology. She is a former writing consultant at the Purdue Writing Lab and recipient of the 2021 NCPTW Merit Scholarship. Her work, research, and professional interests reside in social justice within public policy specifically including criminal justice reform.
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