Michelle A. Marvin, University of Notre Dame
This article raises awareness of how “we” language in writing centers can be both helpful and oppressive. Specifically, I consider ways that “we” language has the potential to perpetuate oppression by excluding individuals from writing center “we” statements.Using Suhr-Sytsma and Brown’s 2011 “Two-List Heuristic” as a theoretical framework for understanding and responding to oppressive language, I analyze research on the inclusive and exclusive linguistic characteristics of plural pronouns, including “we,” “our,” and “ourselves,” as they relate to writing center work. I then propose ways in which writing center members may construct responses to “we” language that challenges their values, beliefs, and experiences. This article intends to interrogate a common linguistic feature of writing center culture that can prevent its members from “talking back” to the center.
Keywords: counterargument, language of oppression, language use, plural pronouns, writing center pedagogy
Three semesters ago, I began my position as the Associate Director of a writing center in a mid-sized, religiously-affiliated university in the Midwestern region of the United States. Like many spaces in the Midwest, my university is characterized by politeness, whiteness, and football fanaticism—qualities that have been familiar to me since childhood. Although I am 500 miles from my hometown, I am comfortable in this environment where I easily blend in with the crowd: I am a white heterosexual cis-woman of European descent in my late thirties with a Ph.D. I share this information because my background, context, and positionality have certainly shaped the following analysis.
On a cold and gloomy afternoon in mid-November of 2021, I held one-on-one meetings in my office with our new writing center tutors to discuss their research paper topics. Naya (pseudonym), a historically underserved undergraduate student tutor, sat across the table from me and began to share the framework of her research interests. She had prepared a proposal to improve our writing center’s tutor training module for working with multilingual students. As a multilingual student herself, Naya’s proposal was exciting and bold: she was interested in studying multilingual tutoring theories in order to create new pedagogical practices for our writing center. I understood Naya’s concern to stem from the myopic generalization of international students by writing center staff that she witnessed during her training. Yet when I asked her about the direction in which she wanted to take her research, her sentiments surprised me. She remarked, “I just don’t know who I am; am I the international student or the tutor? It’s really confusing.” As she went on to explain, her confusion was rooted in the “we” language used by experienced tutors during the tutor training module. When experienced tutors stood at the front of the classroom describing the ways “we work with international students,” Naya felt like she had to choose an identity. As a new tutor, she was supposed to identify with the tutoring “we”: those who work with international students. Yet, she was also the international student “we”: a group external to the tutors who were, at times, problematic for the tutoring “we.” After talking to Naya, I felt certain that although the language of “we” is supposed to create a sense of community and belonging in the writing center, this plural pronoun also has the power to exclude, confuse, and silence voices.
As I began to reflect on this conversation, I realized that the language of “we,” “us,” and “our” is everywhere in writing center rhetoric. Our writing center’s mission statement, appointment confirmation notices, and first-time tutor meetings invariably include descriptions of how “we” do things in the writing center. Furthermore, the word “we” is ubiquitous in writing center discourse throughout the United States; language in daily emails on the [wcenter] listserv and publications in writing center journals demonstrate the prevalence of writing center “we” language. Yet this prevalence does not indicate a corresponding predominance of exclusionary plural pronoun use. Likewise, I am not suggesting the impossible or undesirable task of avoiding plural pronoun use. Rather, I want to argue that writing center “we” language is not always comfortable, inclusive, and welcoming. Naya’s confusion over writing center “we” language suggests that the plural pronoun “we” can function as a privileging and excluding language structure in the writing center environment. Thus, practitioners in the field need to be vigilant about examining and adjusting plural pronoun use, and this article will offer ways forward for becoming more vigilant.
After Naya and I conversed, she began to pursue research on multilingual tutoring theories, and I began to listen closely for “we” language in our writing center’s discourse. My listening turned into writing when the call for this special issue was announced. The Peer Review editors of this special issue asked: “as writing centers embrace liberatory political stances, and as their users become more diverse and more aware of identity…do consultants, writers, and administrators with minoritized identities have opportunities to talk candidly back to the center?” (Natarajan et al., 2022, para. 5). Naya had taken the step of “talk[ing] candidly back to the center” in proposing improvements to the pedagogy of our writing center’s training course, and she did so as an international student of color at a predominantly white institution (PWI). While talking back to the center requires time, support, a dialogue partner, and disciplinary knowledge, it also fundamentally requires language. It is this linguistic dimension that may provide an obstacle for historically underserved tutors, writers, and administrators to talk back to the center. If individuals with minoritized identities want to identify as the “we” of the writing center and also as the “we” that has been othered, what language is available to the author without making the problem sound self-focused? This analysis of “we” language may provide a window into why some writing center members feel prohibited from talking back to the center.
This is not the first time “we” and “them” language has been problematized in writing center scholarship. Denny (2010) describes the pervasive tendency for writing center discussions to use “we” language to subtly dehumanize groups of people by sorting individuals into subjects and objects. He writes that writing center “talks, presentations, and keynotes index Others as objects for whom practical and instrumental learning applies, not figures for whom learning is necessarily transactional and collaborative (“we” can learn from “them,” “they” from “us”)” (p. 5). When “we” language is used to describe the subjective experience of writing center members in contrast with an objective “them,” the “them” group implicitly seems lesser than the “we” group because they are not afforded the same subjectivity of the “we.” For example, if tutors present a training module on working with international students and the tutors say, “we work with them,” this language implies a power dynamic where knowledge is held by tutors and less knowledge is held by international students. However, if the tutors say, “we work together,” the power dynamic shifts to one of equal knowledge or benefit. The “we” language in the latter example does not imply a lesser-than dynamic because the subjectivity of the “we” is afforded to both tutors and international students. Yet the tendency to use “we” and “them” language is more common than shared “we” language, both in speech and in writing. Suhr-Sytsma and Brown (2011) reflect on this phenomenon in the instructional context, where students use exclusive pronouns in papers and class discussions. Suhr-Sytsma and Brown note that students often assume “readers will be from ‘their culture’ when they use pronouns like ‘we,’ ‘us,’ and ‘our’” (p. 26). Such assumptions occur in writing because they are part of thought and speech patterns conditioned by social and cultural interactions. Suhr-Sytsma and Brown remark that breaking these problematic plural pronoun habits is difficult. One of the ways to make it less difficult is to understand the difference between problematic and helpful pronoun use.
The use of plural pronoun language in the writing center context is not surprising given the widely discussed adaptation of “we” language to corporate and business settings over the past few decades. This phenomenon has been reviewed and discussed in articles by Forbes, Harvard Business Review, and Fast Company. Because many writing centers share characteristics in common with the business world, analyses of plural pronoun language from business management and leadership resources have value in the writing center context. For example, scholars such as Kacewicz et al. (2014) have argued that using “we” language in a collaborative working environment demonstrates an outward focus and concern for others. This research suggests that individuals whose language reflects a group-oriented rather than self-focused tendency are more likely to attain leadership roles in the group and direct their group toward successful outcomes. Further, according to a study by Anchimbe (2016), a leader who has established rapport with other members of the group can use “we” language to “encourage or reprimand … [to help] members reassert their identity, solidarity, and prowess, restate their mission and determination to achieve it, and also bemoan and caution against [an] unfortunate predicament” (p. 516). Thus, “we” language can create group uplift and positive momentum towards pre-established goals and values. In the writing center, an example of “we” language as a leadership tool would be when a tutor suggests to their peers before the start of a shift: “let’s keep our earbuds out. That way, we can make sure to welcome tutees when they walk in.” Such “we” language directs tutors toward shared values of attention and hospitality. The tutor using the “we” language demonstrates an outward-focused attitude, showing concern for the values of their writing center and for the well-being of tutees who walk in the door. Hence, “we” language can act as a communication tool for group perspective-taking in the writing center.
Yet corporate and business literature also warns against the potentially coercive nature of “we” language. For example, in his critique of the Harvard Business Review’s push for “we” language, Walpole (2018) argues that “we” language is used to “manipulate reality” (Improving Communication and Community section, para. 2). Its most offensive manipulation, according to Walpole, is that “we” language creates a false sense of team. Suggesting that “we” landed a deal or “we” gave a fantastic presentation when only one person acted sets up a disingenuous sense of team where no interpersonal bonding is expected. Likewise, “we” language allows a group to take credit when the credit is really due to an individual. Such behavior hearkens back to harrowed days of group work in high school when one person completed the brunt of the work on behalf of the rest of the group. Walpole argues, “did *you* really have much to do with landing the deal? If not, trying to share in the credit isn’t so noble” (Saying “We” is a Poor Substitute section, para. 6). In the business setting, this misuse of “we” language can be used to inflate a leader’s accomplishments while diminishing the success of those under the leader’s purview. When a leader shares collective credit for the success of an individual’s work under the guise of “we” language, the leader becomes a gatekeeper for the growth and promotion of their direct reports. Similarly, in the writing center, an administrative team needs to be discerning about its use of “we” language in creating a sense of team and in acknowledging individual accomplishments.
I have briefly shared the surface-level arguments about the benefits and drawbacks of “we” language in the writing center. In the rest of the article, I consider ways that “we” language has the potential to perpetuate oppression by excluding individuals from writing center “we” statements. At stake in this article’s examination of “we” language is an understanding of the potential impact of plural pronoun use on tutoring pedagogy in two sets of relationships: administrators → tutors, and tutors → tutees. The theoretical framework I use for analyzing plural pronoun language in the writing center is guided by four principles from Suhr-Sytsma and Brown’s (2011) “Two-List Heuristic for Addressing Everyday Language of Oppression” (p. 22). While “we” language is not necessarily always oppressive, Suhr-Sytsma and Brown contend that “an individual’s uses of oppressive language are often both unintentional and inseparable from broader discourses that reinforce oppression” (p. 14). As I discovered in conversation with Naya, the “we” language used during our writing center’s training module was unintentionally oppressive and nearly invisible because it was so ingrained in the regular discourse of the writing center. In light of this focus on commonplace discourse, I find four of the eighteen items in Suhr-Sytsma and Brown’s two-list heuristic particularly relevant for analyzing “we” language. To assist in clarity during analysis, I have added (a) and (b) notations after the original numbers in the two lists so that when the heuristic numbers are indicated later in this article, it will be easier to remember from which list the item came. Thus, this article will examine “we” language in relation to the following elements of the heuristic:
How Language Can Perpetuate Oppression
#3(a) Assum[ing] uniform readership
#6(a) Exoticiz[ing]; and
How Tutors and Writers Can Challenge Oppression through Attention to Language
#4(b) Pose counterarguments
#8(b) Learn to better identify and address language that perpetuates oppression (2011, p. 22, emphasis in original).
Under the Umbrella: How “We” Language is Both Inclusive and Exclusive
This analysis of “we” language begins with an imaginative exercise. I invite you to imagine a very large, tent-sized umbrella—like the kind you might see at a summer festival. Perhaps your umbrella tent has fun carnival-colored stripes, or perhaps it is an eggshell white. Now imagine that your writing center—whatever your writing center brings to mind—fits under this umbrella. Who do you see under this umbrella? Do all of your writing center’s leaders fit under the umbrella, or are some in its shadow? Are former tutors under the umbrella? What about tutees? Are some “regular clients” under the umbrella while the drop-ins hover around the outside? Is the umbrella protecting the group from something, or is it obfuscating the view of something? If you are under the innermost center of the umbrella, who can’t you see?
This umbrella is a visual model for the word “we.” Consider the umbrella open every time “we” language is used in the writing center, and all those same questions should arise. This umbrella metaphor is a useful starting point because it visually represents how “we” language is both inclusive and exclusive. Plural pronouns are inclusive and exclusive in that they denote space and distance, suggesting that some people are close to the speaker and others are not; they denote sharing and limitations, meaning that some ideas, resources, and goals are shared with the speaker while limiting those that are not; they convey possession and unity or discarding and disunity. Anchimbe (2016) explained that “besides their grammatical functions, plural inclusive pronouns, especially personal (we, us), possessive (our) and reflexive (ourselves), when used in certain contexts create a sense of collective belonging that includes some defined others but not always all others” (p. 515) Thus, collective belonging, like being under an umbrella, means that inclusion in the collection necessitates exclusion for others. This is the heart of the plural pronoun predicament.
Exclusive plural pronouns refer to those groups, objects, or categories that the inclusive pronouns have excluded. These pronouns generally result from pairings such as “we-they,” “ours-theirs,” “us-them,” and “ourselves-themselves.” However unintentional this dichotomy may be, such a pairing can cause the included group to view the excluded group negatively. In his study of Anglophone and Francophone pronoun use, Anchimbe (2016) discovered that “because exclusion is realized by the in-group, the traits generally attributed to the out-group are negative, lowly, and denigrating when compared to those attributed to the in-group” (p. 521). While it may not seem that the pronoun “we” necessarily attributes denigrating traits to a “not-we,” it is often the mere fact of non-belonging that lowers the status of a not-we member. Similarly, in writing center scholarship, Grutsch McKinney (2013) contended that “the story we keep about our work is one of our membership badges; we can discern outsiders by those who stray from the narrative” (p. 4). One of the membership badges of belonging to the “we” is knowing the narrative in the first place. For example, in the writing center at my university, tutors know a tutee is new to the writing center if a tutee asks a tutor to “read over” their paper rather than anticipating the read-aloud practice. This suggests that the tutors belong to the “we” of the Writing Center narrative, and perhaps some of the returning tutees are on the periphery of the “we” space as well. When you think about your writing center, is there anyone who gets to stray from the writing center practice of reading aloud, the pedagogy of non-direct tutoring, or the narrative of hospitality? If the answer is yes, is that person still under the writing center umbrella?
Heuristic #3(a) Assumes Uniform Readership
While “they” language can refer to many different “not-we”s, the language of “we” isn’t used unless a speaker assumes a degree of group unity about ideas and values. Such use can be beneficial for encouraging group morale, productivity, and identity. However, “we” language turns oppressive when it is used in a way that ignores diversity. Because “we” language is used to discuss the practices of a writing center as a whole, it is easy to see how writing center members could overlook group differences and slip into this oppressive use. Suhr-Sytsma and Brown (2011) explained that when this happens, a speaker’s “tendency [is] to assume that theirs is an audience from the same demographic and/or ideology as themselves or to assume that their audience will hold perspectives viewed by the [speakers] as dominant” (p. 26). Since writing centers hire tutors who are a “good fit” for their established culture and values, members might make assumptions about other members taking the writing center “we” viewpoint as dominant.
Further, since the writing center field invites tutors to participate in developing its scholarship, it is common for writing center administrators to use inclusive pronouns when speaking with tutors. Rather than distinguishing administrators from tutors with a “you and we” or “you and I,” administrators and tutors in the writing center often use a shared “we.” The linguist Nigel Harwood (2005) contends that “inclusive pronouns construct positive politeness, making the [audience] feel included, addressing them as a peer rather than an apprentice” (p. 355). This politeness between administrators and tutors created by the “we” language obscures the power dynamics of the collaborative scholarly experience while increasing tutor intellectual buy-in through a sense of shared responsibility for pedagogical content. Yet the power dynamics are only obscured; the shared responsibility for the content is not actually uniform. As Turner and Stanley (2020) have shown, older adults use collective “we” language more often than younger adults. Since writing center administrators are often older than tutors (though certainly not always), “we” language frequently emerges from the top down, or administrators → tutors in the writing center, and is thus not uniformly constructed.
While a writing center administrator can use “we” language to help tutors feel like peers, it is possible for the language of “we” to mean a smaller subset of a larger “we” that excludes the tutors. In other words, “we” can be both inclusive and exclusive of the group to which it refers. For example, when speaking to the writing center, a director may say, “we believe that all writers deserve readers,” with the “we” referring to all members of the writing center. Yet when speaking to the writing center, a director may say, “we will be working on appointment letters for new tutors this week,” and this “we” refers to the administrative team. This ambiguity in “we” language provides various levels of inclusion and exclusion and can serve to obscure responsibility or culpability. When a writing center administrator makes a pedagogical claim in their training, using “we” language shifts the burden for the claim to an ambiguous “we”: is it the administrative team who makes a claim? Is it the institutional writing center? Or is it the writing center field at large? An ambiguously inclusive “we” shelters a speaker from audience critique (Harwood, 2005), thereby insulating a writing center administrator from a need to defend claims or make changes.
At the core of ambiguous “we” references in writing center scholarship is the “grand narrative” of writing center work, as described by Grutsch McKinney (2013): “writing centers are comfortable, iconoclastic places where all students go to get one-to-one tutoring on their writing” (p. 6). Some of the threads of this grand narrative have arisen within the field, and some have emerged from institutional expectations and pressures. The grand narrative is maintained by the traditions and texts that shape the everyday practice of the writing center. It is easier for an administrator to make a claim aligning with the accumulated shared beliefs that feed the grand narrative and reference the writing center “we” than claim one’s own commitments for critique. In a writing center that subscribes to the grand narrative, the individual actions of writing center members are expected to align with the “we” and contribute to the values and beliefs that support this narrative. Using “we” language to put forward this narrative without room for questioning differences in the “we” leads to a subtly oppressed environment. As Dixon (2017) states powerfully, “the grand narrative of the writing center as a safe space puts writing center consultants and clients who do not feel safe at fault for feeling as such; for how could someone ever feel uncomfortable in such a decidedly comfy place?” (p. 8) Dixon points to the issue of fault-finding: in an oppressive “we” culture the fault is found in the individual. How often do tutors have the opportunity to talk back to the center without finding fault in themselves? Even if tutors have a forum for raising questions or discussing ideas, they rarely have the breadth of theoretical knowledge to defend their claims with a “we” in the same way writing center administrators do. A writing center leader may be removed from critique by the “we” of scholarship, yet tutors and tutees do not have the security of a grand disciplinary “we” for speaking back to the center.
Heuristic #6(a) Exoticizes
Even if a tutor feels confident in their “we” identity as a tutor, their ability to speak back to the writing center may be hindered if the tutor does not feel they belong to the same “in-group” as the administrator. Various dimensions of the administrator’s identity, if brought to bear on the “we” language used, “could elicit negative feelings or reactance, at the suggestion that whatever idea is being expressed applies to them” (Orvell et al., 2022, p. 8). These negative feelings may arise especially when the administrator’s language exoticizes a group of people to which the tutor belongs. For example, imagine I announce to my tutors, “we are going to add the phrase ‘we help students become more articulate’ to our writing center mission statement.” As a white woman in academia, the word “articulate” is usually innocuous to me in that I rarely notice it. I read the word and see a dehistoricized, decontextualized term meaning “able to express your thoughts, arguments, and ideas clearly and effectively” (Macmillan Education Limited, n.d.) Yet the word “articulate” carries the weight of “raciolinguistic exceptionalism” (Alim & Smitherman, 2020, p. 479); it assumes a standard of white, middle-class linguistic norms and rejects all other variations of English, such as those usually spoken by people of color. Consider the way three black writing center consultants reacted to a professor’s comment of, “you’re very articulate,” as described in Kiara Lee’s 2019 essay, “Black in the Writing Center.” Lee writes that “all three consultants shared sentiments about the word ‘articulate,’ viewing it as a way of basically saying Black people don’t typically write well but you do, and it’s quite surprising” (p. 135). As Lee and others have argued, “articulate” connotes a false compliment when given to people of color because it implies that people of color are generally incapable of speaking and writing in standard white English. Therefore, if my tutors of color hear me use “we” language about developing “more articulate” writers, they may hear me exoticize a group of writers with which my tutors of color affiliate. As Orvell et al. (2022) argue, because I am a white administrator, tutors of color are less likely to feel empowered to speak back to the writing center when the ideas I express apply differently to them than they do to myself.
In this example, the phrase “we help students become more articulate” exoticizes people of color who “achieve” a standard of white writing and speaking. Just as Suhr-Sytsma and Brown (2011) suggest that oppressive language is often “unintentional and inseparable from broader discourses that reinforce oppression” (p. 14), this act of writing center discourse subtly subjugates the students it claims to assist. It exoticizes the differences between students who speak and write white, middle-class English and those who do not. Further, it splits the “we” allegiances of any tutors who want to uphold the mission of the writing center and who have no desire to oppress their fellow tutees through the lens of the word “articulate.” In this hypothetical situation, by making this statement that “we help students become more articulate” writers, I would be putting my tutors in a difficult position to talk back to the center. While “we” statements are often intended to do good and unify a group around a mission or purpose, if “we” language is exclusionary or causes identity oppression, it does more harm than good.
It’s Okay to Get Wet: How to Disagree with the “We”
Thus far, I have examined the potential goods and harms of using “we” language in the writing center. An umbrella has served as a visual aid for thinking about ways in which “we” language includes and excludes individuals from ideas, discourse, and action. Now, it is time to return to the imaginative exercises to conceive of ways to enact change, which means speaking back to the umbrella holder when you’re standing outside and getting soaked in the rain.
Think about your writing center “we” umbrella and imagine the person or people who first put it up. Who do you see setting up the umbrella? As a graduate tutor, I was encouraged to use pedagogy that felt unnatural to my tutoring style, yet the pedagogy style was something “we” practiced in the center. For several months I believed our center’s director had opened this pedagogical “we” umbrella. It wasn’t until I began reading broadly in the literature of the field that I discovered that the pedagogy was widely practiced, and thus the “we” was a larger authority than our director or our center as a whole. This kind of “we” knowledge-sharing is a consensus-based knowledge practice common to any discipline. It is the basis for the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn’s (1970) “disciplinary matrix,” or what he sometimes called a “paradigm,” that upholds a period of normal science: a communal commitment to shared theories, values, practices, and techniques. However, following Trimbur (1989), Lyons (1992) warned that “consensus can encourage repression by adopting authoritative standards as ‘natural’ rather than as socially determined” (p. 147). In claiming that consensus knowledge can be understood as “natural,” Lyons refers to how some “we” statements sound inarguable. This is because these statements are, in fact, “misplaced team” statements. Whitcomb and Whitcomb (2013) described misplaced team statements as those which should be “I” statements, such as “I claim that” but instead are represented as “we” statements, such as “we see” or “we think.” These misplaced team statements have the following characteristics:
- Make general descriptors of group and team realities that might not be shared by all.
- Are stated as if they are inarguable facts.
- Can sound as if things cannot be changed or negotiated. (Whitcomb & Whitcomb, 2013, p. 58).
Although such statements may be consensus-based from a field perspective, they are not inarguable. Resorting to norms or experiences as an anchor for “we” based statements often leads to a spiral of creating greater globalizing and universalizing statements, which makes “we” statements sound non-negotiable.
Having internalized non-negotiable “we” statements as the “normal science” of the writing center, members may feel there is no opportunity to talk back to the center or appropriately process feelings of discomfort, anger, frustration, sadness, and exclusion. They may feel as though they are standing in the rain outside the “we” umbrella, getting drenched and cold while others stay dry. The tendency to stand alone and experience those rainfalls by oneself is strong. Yet, as Dixon (2017) rightly reminds us, “keeping discomfort, pain, depression, anger, desire, or sex out of writing center discourse does not keep those feelings out of everyday writing center practice” (p. 8). For example, if a person of color is trained as a tutor under the motto of helping tutees “become more articulate,” where do they put their inner conflict? When working with a fellow tutee of color, it would be difficult to put the turmoil at bay. I imagine a tutor in this situation may feel angry that there is widespread acceptance of an inimical, racialized vision of writing improvement. Yet how could a tutor question such vision when an entire professional writing community, the “we” of the writing center, has prescribed this lens?
I am confident that these negative conflicting emotions would take a toll on a tutor and the writing experience of the tutee. In this example, among other factors, “we” language plays a contributing role to oppression. When “we” language is employed, it is difficult for a person to speak as an individual in response to the collective. Whether intentional or not, when “we” language is used to exoticize and out-group individuals who are members of the “we,” it becomes challenging to negotiate negative feelings or construct a response. However, the more writing center members become aware of these difficult feelings, the errors in language that instigated them, and the ways to respond, the more the writing center field can work to correct oppressive ways. Dixon (2017) said that “in seeing the uncomfortable everyday moments as especially valuable to our understanding of what practices make up a writing center, we open up the space for clients, consultants, and professionals to do the collective work of meaning-making in and out of the center” (p. 10). By addressing uncomfortable moments in speech and pedagogy, practitioners in the writing center field can work to prevent the perpetuation of injustices and oppression from spiraling on.
Heuristic #4(b) Pose Counterarguments
How, then, do writing centers use inclusive “we” language so its members can talk back to the center? Assuming that all claims have been laid out clearly and clarification questions have been asked so there is no confusion over meanings, a writing center member could express their discomfort, disagreement, or hurt in a counterargument. Suhr-Sytsma and Brown (2011) suggested that there is an “effectiveness of raising ‘other perspectives’—posing ‘counter audiences,’ if you will—who might take offense at a [speaker’s] argument” (p. 38). In such a counterargument, an individual speaks from their own perspective, the perspective of another, or an imaginary perspective to offer a counter-audience to the “we” claim. “We” language can be used in the counterargument to question or re-evaluate the original claim while reminding the group of its values. Based on Suhr-Sytsma and Brown’s guidance, I have constructed templates for two possible counter-audience arguments to be used in most situations:
A. “What if we considered _____________’s perspective? We could determine why they ____________. Once we understand the reason behind it, we might not see it as _____________.”
B. “Since all of our disciplines have different conventions, as tutors, we don’t see anything particularly _________ about ____________.”
These arguments allow the speaking tutor to remind the writing center “we” of shared values (i.e., considering author perspectives, understanding ideas, and disciplinary conventions) while addressing issues raised in the discussion. Given the earlier example of helping tutees to “become more articulate,” imagine that a tutor wanted to talk back to the center using template B. They might, for example, begin a conversation by stating: “Since all of our tutees have different writing styles and intended audiences, as tutors, we don’t see anything particularly articulate about writing in Standard Academic English.” They might follow up this statement with a question, such as “How else could we phrase our hope for collaborating in the writing process?” While there are many variations on the way these templates could be used, their purpose is to provide a starting point for a counterargument, especially for those members of the writing center who feel stuck outside the “we” umbrella.
Such “counter-audiences” contribute to a kind of consensus that Trimbur (1989) called a “utopian aegis of consensus,” after Habermas’ (1975) description of the same. Trimbur explained:
The goal of consensus, it seems to me, ought to be not the unity of generalizable interests but rather what Iris Marion Young calls “an openness to unassimilated otherness” (p. 22). Under the utopian aegis of consensus, students can learn to agree to disagree, not because “everyone has their own opinion,” but because justice demands that we recognize the inexhaustibility of difference and that we organize the conditions in which we live and work accordingly. (p. 615)
This kind of consensus builds a “we” language that is unoppressive in that it allows members of a group, such as the writing center, to talk back to the “we” speaker. As the example counter-audience responses show, it is possible to disagree with an uncomfortable statement while maintaining group unity, upholding group values, and asserting justice in the “inexhaustibility of difference” (Trimbur, 1989, p. 615).
Although the counter-audience statement templates use “we” language to respond to a “we” language user, this does not mean that “I” language cannot be used as well. Studies have shown various traits of “I” language: it can reflect an inward perspective, showing separation from others (Orvell et al., 2002); it can suggest self-awareness, emotional intelligence, and confidence (Whitcomb & Whitcomb, 2013); it can assert power (Harwood, 2005); it is the personal pronoun more commonly used by younger adults than older adults (Turner & Stanley, 2020); and it can demonstrate responsibility for action, feelings, and ideas (Whitcomb & Whitcomb, 2013). When “I” language is used, it could be for one or several of these purposes. Depending on the commonality of “we” language amongst a group and the power dynamics at work between the users of the “we” language and the counter-arguer, it may be difficult for “I” language not to insinuate separation from the group or to fracture the “we.”
Reconsidering the two counter-audience responses, it is clear that the first one does not lend itself to “I” language in a group setting, whereas the second one does:
A.“What if I considered _____________’s perspective? I could determine why they ____________. Once I understand the reason behind it, I might not see it as _____________.”
B.“Since all of our disciplines have different conventions, as a tutor, I don’t see anything particularly _________ about ____________.”
The first counter-audience response would set the individual apart from the group in a way that sounds like the individual alone needs to consider a different perspective. However, in the second response, the tutor speaks from their perspective and takes responsibility for disagreeing with the “we” statement without resolving the disagreement on their own. This “I” statement is more accurate than the original “we” statement, as it does not impose beliefs upon the rest of the group. Thus, when “I” statements take responsibility for feelings, actions, or thoughts in a way that upholds “we” unity, they are as effective and desirable as “we” statements.
Heuristic #8(b) Learn to Better Identify and Address Language that Perpetuates Oppression
By becoming familiar with how pronouns include, exclude, oppress, and liberate through utopian consensus, writing center members can learn to recognize and address the pronouns that function to perpetuate oppression in their readings and the writing of tutees. When writers struggle to identify reasons for disagreeing with an argument or articulating their response to a text, the tutor may recognize pronouns as linguistic obstacles contributing to the tutee’s difficulty. As Lyons (1992) argued, “students should try to question academic readings or institutional explanations from the perspective of their social positions, values, and identities. Further, the tutor can help students examine how the language of privileged or expert discourse communities might be used to express power relations and to manipulate others” (p. 147). Through an awareness of the power relations inherent in “we” language, tutors can help writers to understand better and express their agreement, disagreement, frustration, excitement, and overall response to a text. By practicing utopian consensus, in which writing center members talk back to the center and its pedagogies, practices, theories, and language, tutors, tutees, and administrators will be better able to assist other writers with their own linguistic liberation.
Concluding with Awareness
A “we” umbrella is not another grand narrative; it is a visual model for complicating the language at the heart of the grand narrative. There is no umbrella large enough to encompass everyone, nor would “we” language meaningfully speak about values, ideas, resources, or characteristics attributable to all persons. Therefore, the umbrella is useful for considering who is included or excluded by “we” statements and who sits at the edge of the umbrella’s cover. Like the grand narrative, this visual model presents an incomplete picture of the function of the writing center or its language. Yet it also interrogates a commonplace linguistic feature of the writing center that can set up boundaries of identity.
Naya found a voice to speak back to the center. She and three other tutors formed their research into a panel and presented at one of the field’s major conferences. As a panel presenter, she was part of a smaller “we,” questioning how to make the plurality of the larger “we” more dynamic, fluid, and inclusive. Inspired by her openness and courage, my hope is that this article has shown why making space for members of the writing center to speak back to the center is essential for the growth, development, and correction of injustices in the field. Without Naya’s voice speaking back to the pedagogical injustices she experienced, I would have had no awareness of the “we” language identity crisis that our training program was causing. The writing center field needs more such voices speaking back to the center. By paying attention to the way we use plural pronouns in our everyday writing center language, we can work to overcome linguistic patterns that perpetuate oppression.
I am deeply grateful to the editors of this special issue and two anonymous reviewers for their valuable feedback, support, and patience. Additionally, my sincere appreciation to friends and colleagues Angela Mathew, Lucy Grinnan, and Logan Quigley for their inspiration and encouragement.
Michelle A. Marvin is the Associate Director of the Writing Center and an Assistant Teaching Professor in the University Writing Program at the University of Notre Dame. Her research and teaching interests include writing center studies, scientific and technical writing, antiracist pedagogical practices, and the rhetoric of memory.
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