Carlee Shimek, University of Wisconsin—Eau Claire
This article explores and describes the benefits for introverted individuals of entering writing centers as either tutors or tutees. It reinvestigates the writing center’s commonplaces, environment, and tutoring methods through the lens of distributive power structures, arguing that power-sharing can combat or mitigate anxieties experienced by introverts, such as those related to social engagement and communication. “Through the Eyes of an Introvert” positions the writing center as a space hospitable to introverts and as a community for those who don’t always feel comfortable or normal in social settings where extroverts thrive.
Keywords: Introvert, writing center, commonplace, reinvestigation, power, collective “we” mentality, community of practice, thirdspaces, communication, collaboration, benefits
As someone who experiences anxiety talking even to friends, let alone strangers, I have found that writing centers provided me the opportunity to blossom in my social life, in a calming manner I genuinely enjoyed—a manner that definitely yet subtly benefited my introverted personality. I believe this benefit arose from writing centers’ unique commonplaces and distribution of power. Since becoming a tutor, I’ve interacted with more strangers than ever before. While I cherish alone time in a way typical of introverts, I do understand the necessity of social interaction. It’s the bulking up of the courage to interact with society that’s the hard part. Carl Jung (1963), a Swiss psychiatrist of the 19th and 20th centuries, defined introversion as “an attitude-type characterized by orientation in life through subjective psychic contents” (p. 396). Introverted individuals like me prefer the internal, mental aspects of life to external, social ones. One difference highlighted between the two ends of the personality spectrum, introversion and extroversion, is that introverts tend to become drained by social interaction, whereas extroverts become energized by it (“Introversion,” 2022). It must be noted that introverts do not always act introverted. Their energy, preferences, and characteristics can shift daily, like anybody else’s; but the typical characteristics of introversion constitute a useful generalization.
I am aware of the social difficulties I experience as an introvert. However, knowing this about myself doesn’t stop the reaction. I cannot articulate how much mental preparation (and how many slight freak-outs) I must manage right before each writing center session, even though I’ve been a tutor for a year. I’m hyper-aware of my heartbeat; I must keep a tight grip on my breathing as I close my eyes to prepare; sometimes, my hands shiver right before I head over to the student. But once I get to work, my mind focuses on my responsibilities as a tutor and the nerves die down. I enjoy my work as a tutor even though I’ll most likely always react this way. Despite my anxiety related to the job, my place of work, the writing center, has been one of the best places for me to develop social interactions with strangers, in main part due to the atmosphere, the people, and the purpose of the job. Not everyone who works at writing centers is introverted and not everyone who comes to the center as a tutee is an introvert. But a writing center, I argue, is a particular place in the world that can distinctly affect and support introverts, whereas other academic spaces may not. This article will investigate how writing centers, their commonplace practices, and specific tutoring theories work together to resist unjust power relations and how the sharing of power benefits stakeholders who identify as introverts.
It is not my intention to privilege the experiences and issues of introverts over those of extroverts and other personalities. My emphasis on introverts in this article is meant to discuss writing centers as an environment uniquely welcoming to them, but that doesn’t mean extroverts aren’t just as welcomed. Since in my experience there are fewer places in society for introverts to feel welcomed or comfortable than there are for extroverts, I want to share my experience of the supportive usefulness of writing centers for introverts. Writing centers act as spaces of mediation between overwhelming social events and an introvert’s interests and anxieties. In other words, writing centers, at their core, offer a kind of environment in which introverts can thrive. Introverts are able to feel relaxed and engaged in this type of space, yet still pushed toward growth and socialization. But since the interplay between personality types is important, I hope my work can also show how the writing center is a space where introverts and extroverts can interact cohesively, learning from each other’s skills and approaches. Writing centers can foster this learning because they exemplify unique dynamics of power and create an innovative environment that is evolving and adaptable.
In this article, I begin by discussing the differences and similarities between introverted tutors and introverted tutees, to consider how writing centers can help stakeholders in both roles. I also discuss my understanding of how writing center methods work to disrupt the kinds of power relations that might make it more difficult for introverts to thrive at colleges and universities. I identify three key commonplaces that define writing center work—their emergence as a community of practice, their function as a nonhierarchical learning space, and their adoption of a unique approach to communication—as especially conducive to the integration of introverts. Next, I offer examples of tutoring theories introverts might employ as tutors or receive as tutees. These theories and commonplaces not only support introverts, but also confront unjust power structures beyond the walls of writing centers.
Disentangling Our Roles: Introverted Tutors Vs. Introverted Tutees
Personally, I’ve always been more of a follower, used to being told what to do or simply going along with others in all aspects of life, from the classroom to hanging with friends. While this may not be the case for every introvert, writing centers have encouraged me to pursue a more active role as a mentor and guidance provider. This guide/mentor role took shape in many formats of tutoring, such as offering advice and assurance to or collaborating with a stranger, where normally I’d prefer to work alone, stay quiet, or refrain from directing conversation in any manner. Helping someone as a tutor enables me to grow. Writing centers can encourage an introvert to take initiative in their own life, like I did, by offering them the responsibility of being a tutor.
On the other side of the tutoring dynamic, the introverted tutee can have the same reservations as an introverted tutor: they may be used to remaining quiet in a social setting, prefer to work alone, and feel nervous about talking to strangers. An introverted tutee may experience no less beneficial results than tutors from the environment. While there’s not much we can do to get introverts to take the first step of entering the center (besides advertising writing centers as places particularly comfortable for introverts), we can make sure they understand the benefits when they arrive. Tutors can showcase centers as a safe space for the social nourishment and growth of introverts, whereas many other social places tend to be less adapted to people with this orientation. For example, a party or big event meant to gather a large number of people would scare me as an introvert and make me not want to go. But writing centers remain small spaces, not loud or overwhelming or rigidly demanding of social interaction. In my writing center, tutees and writers don’t have to come for the sole purpose of an interactive tutoring session. They can sit and work on something independently with the background of a social setting if they want a space less isolated than, say, a dorm bedroom. In my center, I never feel obligated to talk if I don’t want to but am always given the opportunity to enter conversations with fellow tutors or tutees, within a setting that doesn’t feel overwhelming. It’s a vibe that just works for introverts, that can draw them in if they just take the first step by walking through the door.
One particular aspect of the unique writing center vibe is the pedagogic method, which consciously troubles hierarchies and redistributes power. While not necessarily fostering perfectly equal relationships, the collaborative nature of writing center pedagogies works to level out uneven power dynamics between tutors and tutees. The pedagogies create a productive balance of power between tutor and tutee. A tutee comes to a center for help, but to ensure an atmosphere of comfort and success, they still possess complete control over their own writing. They get to decide if the advice tutors offer is something they want. This principle results in the tutor possessing the responsibility to alleviate the tutee’s concerns. We can’t require tutees to accept our advice (which strips us of any potential dominating power we might try to hold over them), yet we still hold the tutee’s vulnerability in our hands when they ask us for assistance. There are different, but harmonious roles the tutor and tutee take on in a session, but they do it together, in a space designed to incorporate respect, equality, and distribution of power. Writing centers create the conditions for this sharing of power primarily by their commonplace tutoring theories, and this approach to navigating power enables introverts to grow.
Power: An Equal Exchange, Not a Tool for Dominance
Before discussing specific commonplace tutoring theories and how they shift power relations, I must unpack my own understanding of power. Historically, power has tended to operate through a one-way system. Some individuals or groups have it in greater proportions than others, creating an imbalance between two forces, the one using the power and the other receiving the effects of power. But power works differently in writing centers. Power is not used in these spaces; I believe that it is exchanged, in a spirit of mutuality and equality.
Tutoring techniques and theories support this shift toward a more equal distribution of power. For instance, a collective “we” mentality, at the heart of writing center work, informs group effort when communicating, working, and writing. It creates a balance of power between the two participants of the project (i.e., the tutor and tutee in a tutoring session). Further, feminist and thirdspace theories have helped us better understand relationships and emotions alongside power dynamics. From the tutee’s point of view, letting someone else look at one’s writing, in whatever stage or format it may be, is scary, and requires the courage to be vulnerable. To connect to the tutee or help them be bravely vulnerable, a tutor should also become vulnerable in the session. Both are revealing an emotional part of themselves, and thus each one indirectly holds some power over the other. However, they must try not to use this power against each other, and must participate, instead, in a willing exchange involving the sharing of power.
One way I reveal vulnerability in my sessions is by providing students with examples of times I’ve struggled with my writing, whether it’s about issues similar to what they’re worried about or something related. I’ll tell them about my writing and techniques I use if I think it can help them with their writing. I believe that this example of my vulnerability can help the tutee feel more connected and comfortable. At the core of thirdspace and feminist theories is the idea of collaboration. Our collaborative methods in writing centers foster more equitable distributions of power; the tutor doesn’t just tell the tutee what to do with the expectation of being followed or listened to uncritically. Rather, the tutor and tutee collaborate to discover the best outcome for the tutee’s writing concerns, which can’t occur if one side wields power over the other. I believe that a tutor can learn just as much from a tutee as the tutee can from a tutor and this exchange of ideas is characteristic of collaborative sessions.
Earlier, I described introverts as being focused on the internal, mental aspects of life, based on Jung’s (1963) definition of introversion. From my experience in writing centers, I see they’ve developed as places where mental stimulation thrives, where discussions about writing are focused very much on the inward and subjective processes that lead to the production of text. The process of writing, and therefore the discussion of it that occurs in writing centers, operates mainly through the sharing of internal ideas, thoughts, and structures. This characteristic of writing center work, its orientation to the environment of the mind, can be beneficial and effective for introverts. Internal stimulation is one of the foundations of introversion, and writing centers naturally embody this concept through their commonplaces, tutoring practices, and dynamics of equal power. Writing centers provide a space for introverts to interact and socialize, whereas some other environments indirectly hinder introverts’ growth and the extent to which they feel empowered. If tutors keep this mindset regarding power not as a tool to use but an exchange to experience and share the life of the mind, then writing centers will continue to flourish in providing benefits for introverts.
Commonplaces: Community of Practice, Nonhierarchical Learning, and Unique Communication
Community of Practice
Writing centers are spaces with particular theoretical foundations that have grown into commonplaces. One of these foundations is the idea of writing centers as a naturally occurring community of practice, a concept that can be of particular use for introverts. Étienne Wenger (1998) describes a community of practice as having “the social and negotiated character of both the explicit and the tacit in our lives” and as involving “…doing in a historical and social context that gives structure and meaning to what we do. In this sense, practice is always social practice” (p. 47). Communities of practice are referenced (including in the title) in an important source for collective “we” mentality: the landmark book titled The Everyday Writing Center: A Community of Practice, by Anne Ellen Geller, Michele Eodice, Frankie Condon, Meg Carroll, and Elizabeth Boquet (2007). As the authors argue, writing centers are a community of practice where tutors and tutees are members who come together on equal ground and with shared interest in work related to the fields of tutoring and writing. The tutor wishes to help, and the tutee wishes to improve their writing. In such communities, members interact with each other in ways that productively involve their interests and skills.
In a tutoring session, if there is ever something my tutee and I have in common, whether in writing or a related area, I like to showcase it to provide a sense of community between us: a community of two, to illustrate the importance of connection writing centers nurture. For example, if I know someone with the student’s major, I mention it, to show them I understand what they’re studying. Or I sympathize with their concerns by mentioning times when I felt the same about my own writing or when working with other tutees with the same concerns. While this connection could help any tutee in the center, I can’t help but feel that discovering a sense of connection, however small, with someone else, goes a long way in supporting an introvert. In general, introverts don’t socialize as much as extroverts. Social engagement drains our energy, and this in turn can lead to isolation. But the establishing of connection between a tutor and a tutee can combat and mitigate this sense of isolation in a productive way. I therefore work to make this connection happen in every session I lead.
Nonhierarchical Learning Environment
Writing centers have posed a challenge to the hierarchies implicit in classroom instruction since their inception. A commonplace about writing centers is that they work as a nonhierarchical learning environment. While the classroom setting of teacher and student is still an important place for education, the writing center provides a method of learning that the hierarchical classroom cannot. This different method of learning can be useful for students, such as introverts, who may not thrive in a space where participation is enforced by an authority figure. While an authority figure like a teacher can be intimidating for any student, introverted or extroverted, introverts have added anxiety about classroom participation and social interaction along with the anxiety many feel in the face of hierarchy and authority. Thus, nonhierarchical learning spaces can be beneficial for introverts. Elizabeth Boquet (1999) says that a writing center “offers possibilities not intended or accounted for in the original administrative idea of the writing center” (p. 469). This nonhierarchical learning space is one such instance, I argue, of writing centers offering “possibilities not intended” in their original inception.
In writing centers, tutors can be fellow students to tutees, and thus they’re naturally placed on equal standing to each other. Even the names are mirror versions of each other in their spelling, which implies the function of both working equally within the session to achieve the desired result. It’s not just on the tutor to do everything. In comparison, classrooms still invest disproportionate amounts of power in the role of the teacher. For example, a student is still expected to mostly listen rather than contribute unless it’s the “correct” answer or a class specifically designed around peer discussion. But in writing center sessions, tutors and tutees listen to each other, which provides a baseline for a nonhierarchical approach to learning. As a student, I always take the chance to work alone if given the option, and shiver nervously whenever I have to work in a group. Though in writing centers, an introvert would still work with someone, rather than alone, working with only one person is quantitatively less scary than speaking up in front of a group.
Communication as Speaking about Writing
In my experience, verbal communication comes more naturally to extroverts than to introverts. I can attest that introversion makes talking difficult for me, and I always do better with forms of communication other than verbal. I’ve never felt like I thrive in a speaking-oriented environment. My thoughts and emotions have always come through more clearly in my writing than from my voice. However, when I’m able to talk about my favorite form of communication, writing, my speaking becomes more effective, compared to other conversations. Speaking about writing allows introverted tutors like me to convey thoughts and feelings while removing the main focus from the act of speaking itself. With my anxiety thus mitigated, I always communicate more naturally and openly to my fellow tutors and incoming tutees within the center compared to the nerves and awkwardness I enact in the rest of my social interactions. In addition, counteracting traditional power structures, writing center communication operates in such a way that introverts can draw on it to step outside their comfort zones. Through my writing center’s practices of a collective “we” mentality and feminist tutoring (discussed below), and the overall atmosphere, the communication we use feels unique.
Tutoring Theories: Collective “We” Mentality, Thirdspaces, and Feminism
Collective “We” Mentality
Writing centers, through their evolution and adaptability, have become communities of practice that privilege nonhierarchical learning and communication, potentially benefitting not only introverts but many other minoritized groups. They restructure the way people learn and teach with innovative tutoring theories and critiques of academic power dynamics. In The Everyday Writing Center: A Community of Practice, Anne Geller, Michele Eodice, Frankie Condon, Meg Carroll, and Elizabeth Boquet (2007) emphasize a specific theory behind the writing center as an evolving concept: the centrality to it of collaboration and a “we” voice. The very style in which this book is written represents this emphasis. The five authors wrote the book collaboratively; the majority of topics discussed mesh the authors’ ideas together so thoroughly that they’re not sure where one author’s voice begins and another’s ends. Personal and professional conversation through social connection drove and developed their writing. The same collectivity is meant to occur when a tutor and tutee in a writing center sit down together.
The book highlights the importance of the collective “we,” one of the foundational concepts that make up a writing center’s ethos. The tutor and tutee must work “to learn from and adapt to one another’s ideas, discovering the ways in which our individual perceptions speak to, inform, enrich, and deepen in the minds of others” (Geller et al., 2007, p. 2). Where most education systems prefer a hierarchal method of learning where one person teaches and the rest learn, writing center approaches supersede the dichotomy and “stratification between directors and tutors, tutors and writers, directors and professors” (Geller et al., 2007, p.7), creating a form of open communication that allows equality and respect to drive the conversations and collaborations during writing sessions. One of the first things I learned in becoming a tutor was my writing center’s emphasis on using terms such as “we” and “us” instead of “I,” “me,” or “you” during the session or when writing client reports (written summaries we send to students after sessions). This simple change in the use of pronouns is meant to give the students a sense of the work done at the center as being a group effort and to deter the feeling of separation between tutor and tutee. We don’t want to risk any barriers or disconnection, which can occur subconsciously or indirectly through the way we talk with students. Hence the special usefulness of the collective “we” mentality to introverts in writing centers—it encourages them to collaborate when they’d otherwise work alone. It can provide a sense of togetherness in a session for an introvert, a way for them to make social contact without the anxiety that usually accompanies such a task. The collective “we” mentality is also a foundational representation of how power operates differently in writing centers. Working as a group (even a group of two) instead of as an individual changes the structure of power within the interaction.
The collective “we” mentality heightens the interactive mental and subjective aspect of writing center teachings. Thirdspaces as a tutoring framework, on the other hand, operate in the intangible paradigm of physical space that writing centers utilize and transform. The thirdspace nature of writing centers is, to my mind, another reason introverts might feel at home in writing centers. Rhonda C. Grego and Nancy S. Thompson (2008) describe thirdspaces as involving “both a physical and metaphysical identification of space…[Thirdspace] exists in the interstices—between outside and inside—on the border; it is like the beach…sometimes ocean and sometimes land, a space that is both/and” (p. 72). The ways in which writing centers operate as a sort of happy middle ground between a classroom and a casual interaction makes them effective as thirdspaces. Thirdspaces are spaces where relaxation can coexist with professionalism, the idea of “both/and” that Grego and Thompson (2008) describe. Thirdspaces allow for versatility and nonlinearity in learning, opening writing center spaces for people with nontraditional educational paths and preferences that may challenge their ability to learn in more traditional classroom settings. The atmosphere of writing centers utilizes the strangeness of thirdspaces naturally. They’re spaces located in professional, academic settings, yet they’re often made up of student peers. Taking the concept of thirdspaces to heart, I try to make sessions with tutees relaxing and avoid the rigid structure that many professional conversations seem to follow.
One way I encourage relaxation in students is by emphasizing that if a particular writing choice feels right compared to an alternative choice, then they should do what feels better; go with their gut, as they say. This can be atypical advice in the case of an academic assignment or professional writing that is structured by conventions. But since I see the writing center as a thirdspace, I feel that it is appropriate to encourage relaxed self-expression, despite the professional setting. This is the exact kind of method that can support introverts, who may be more naturally anxious about sociality, and about all self-expression as an extension of sociality. If tutors can help introverts avoid the anxieties of composing, then writing centers become all the more beneficial to them.
Grego and Thompson (2008) also note that they’ve been
turning particularly to the work of feminists in academe who often examine assumptions about those areas of human experience—such as emotion—that have been ignored or discounted within academic research and most disciplinary formulations because they have been seen as falling outside the purview of (patriarchally defined) knowledge production (or transmission) in academe. (p. 71)
Grego and Thompson’s (2008) emphasis on feminism in connection with emotion-oriented tutoring techniques is already reflected quite consistently in my writing center and within the scholarly sources discussed in this article. The majority of tutors in my writing center identify as female and all but two of the authors of my key sources in this article are women. It’s an interesting correlation that female students gravitate toward writing centers, which supports the idea of utilizing emotions in tutoring, because women, for reasons related to history and socialization rather than essence, are often characterized as being closely attuned with their emotions. Emotion itself represents a sort of thirdspace because it’s sometimes within us but also something that exists between people, a tether creating a communal dynamic between individuals, and in writing centers, between a tutor and tutee. Emotion is thus not only associated with thirdspaces, but also with the broader practice of feminist tutoring.
Feminist Tutoring: Emotion and Collaboration
The flexible emotionality of thirdspaces as a tutoring framework can be connected to the larger umbrella concept of feminist pedagogy. Emotional connection as a baseline for tutoring is useful for students and tutors involved in writing centers. I ensure that my tutoring remains grounded in emotion, because I’ve seen its positive effects on students. I always like to say something positive to the tutee, about their writing or anything else that comes up, to provide an emotional uplift for any worries or doubts they harbor about themselves or about writing. I’ve often seen students enter the center because of doubt in themselves and their writing, not because there’s anything particularly wrong with how they wrote their assignment. Emotionally invested tutoring provides a type of support, to introverts, among others, beyond just academic or professional assistance. Such feminist principles, which care about emotion and interpersonal dynamics, become especially crucial when we consider tutoring a form of collaboration.
Collaboration ties into the other concepts seen in writing centers that I have highlighted throughout this article, such as communities of practice and the collective “we” mentality. Andrea Lunsford (1991) quotes Hannah Arendt who asserts that “for Excellence, the presence of others is always required” (p. 8). This conveys the purpose and effect that feminist conceptions of collaboration can have in writing centers. Students come to centers for outside help, creating the first step toward the collaboration that occurs during sessions, either naturally or through the conscious effort of both parties. I often provide prompt questions to help a tutee think or generate ideas in their head. My tutoring techniques revolve around getting the student to reveal their own thoughts or feelings on their writing/assignment, in order to arrive at the best tutoring advice. That’s another emphasis I convey in tutoring—at the end of the day, my suggestions are just suggestions, and their paper is theirs, not mine to dominate. The tutee has the final say in incorporating my suggestions in their writing. Or sometimes, by just listening to their thoughts out loud, they discover they had the answer they needed all along within themselves and no additional contribution is necessary on my part. This aspect of tutoring ensures the balance of power within writing centers. The tutor is meant to help without dominating; the tutee still retains the final say in their writing. It’s an exchange of power that must be undertaken generously and without force by the tutor while being received willingly by the tutee.
Emotion, along with collaboration grounded in feminist pedagogy, “fosters deep thinking, audience awareness, and student engagement, learning outcomes few would contest” (Denny, 2010, p. 99). The methods grounded in feminism, thirdspaces, and collective “we” mentality all rely on relationships between people to operate within writing centers, and all prove conducive to the development of introverts as well-rounded professionals.
In this article, I have emphasized the experiences of tutors who are introverts because I am one, because I believe I understand how introversion affects my own praxis, and because I wish to advocate for introverts. I acknowledge that introverts’ issues should not be privileged over forms of exclusion experienced by those dealing with discrimination related to race or sexual orientation. Writing centers can help ameliorate these systemic issues just as much as they have helped me with issues arising from introversion. Thus, I also advocate for writing centers’ unique support for all.
A writing center’s ability to implement collaboration, emotion, and a unique form of communication is what motivated me, as an introvert, to fully accept writing center commonplaces like community of practice and nonhierarchical learning. I have found that these concepts and practices have helped provide an additional source of support for my need to socialize despite anxieties, and grow as an academic and a person. Though I dread participating in a lot of social places, I don’t feel that when heading to my shift as a tutor in my campus’ Center for Writing Excellence. It’s where I feel like I’m allowed to be myself in a public setting. I don’t feel the urge to hide who I am there. That feeling of comfort and acceptance has always been hard for me to find elsewhere, but I found it at the writing center without even trying. Writing centers strike me as facilitating a unique combination of sociability and individuality in the world. They employ specific and neoteric forms of learning and teaching to aid eccentric personalities. They are places where an introvert can feel powerful (but not tyrannical) and also connected to a collective, a community, where their introversion is not judged but proves useful, where they can be independent and part of a whole all at once.
I would like to acknowledge and thank Dr. Jonathan Rylander, professor at the University of Wisconsin—Eau Claire and director of UW—Eau Claire’s Center for Writing Excellence, for all his help and support in writing, revising, and researching my article.
Carlee Shimek was born, raised, and currently resides in Trempealeau, Wisconsin as a communications and marketing associate. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin—Eau Claire with a bachelor’s degree in English-Creative Writing. She has been published in NOTA, Volume One, and the Chippewa Valley Writers Guild. She is a writer in fiction, nonfiction, and journalism. Her research interests have revolved around writing centers.
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