Srividya Natarajan, King’s University College
Valentina Galeano Cardona, King’s University College
Josephine Bondi, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), University of Toronto
Tian Yang, Institute for Management and Innovation, University of Toronto
Viewed through an antiracist lens, the policies and rules that many Canadian writing centers place on their websites perpetuate commonplaces that can disempower staff and writers from raciolinguistic minorities.The four authors of this article (a racialized student writer, two staff members—one racialized and one white-passing—and a racialized administrator) draw on our diverse positionalities and lived experiences to argue that seemingly “fair” and race-neutral policies (such as the limited number of appointments allowed to a client per week, or the discouraging of directive advice about grammar and usage) can disproportionately and negatively affect minoritized stakeholders. Using narrative to explicate how we have navigated writing center policies, and airing our discontents with the compulsion to make one-size-fits-all policy, we suggest that writing centers could become more inclusive if they carefully reviewed these everyday expressions of their ethos. We also propose that enduring changes will only emerge from a radical critique of the white academic habitus that provides the context for policy, rather than from tinkering with the details of specific policies: i.e., from a critique of the ethos itself as well as of its molecular expressions.
Keywords: writing center, policy, rules, antiracism, commonplaces, positionalities, tutoring, oppression, white habitus
The power of whiteness continues to shape contemporary forms of management and control of practices and writing center scholarship.
–Romeo Garcia, “Unmaking Gringo Centers”
Policy. The rules. The law. The last line of defense in unconsciously racist thinking, is a way to shift the blame for what’s right onto a document and thus deflect anger and judgment onto that supposedly immaterial arbiter of success. An unconscious justification through misdirection, as if one was saying, “look, it’s not my fault. I’m just following the rules.”
–Bradley Smith, “I’m Just Following the Policy”
“Following the Policy” as an Element of White Habitus
Writing centers typically articulate understandings of their mandates and norms through policies. Tied to the philosophical stances or pedagogic frameworks adopted by writing centers, policies can sometimes be explicit or publicly communicated, and at other times are implicit or unspoken. In this article, using the term “policy” to describe the rules, procedures, norms, and approaches that support day-to-day tutoring activities, we address the explicit articulation of policies on the landing, appointment, or FAQ pages of Canadian writing center websites, or in prescribed tutoring manuals. Such documents spell out, for the benefit of writers and staff, protocols that govern who is or is not permitted to use the center, how many times a writer can discuss the same paper with tutors, how writers can prepare for a session, what happens to missed appointments, what kinds of writing support will be offered by tutors, and so on. Using narrative, we offer our perspectives on website text that relates to two instances of policy: a) the limitation of the number of appointments allowed to writers (we call this the “appointment allowance”) and b) restrictions on tutoring approaches, with a special caveat against directive editing help (“no proofreading”).
Invoking Bourdieu’s (1977) conceptualization of the term habitus, Asao B. Inoue (2016) describes (American) writing centers as spaces in which white racial habitus is enacted. He defines this habitus as “a dominant set of durable and flexible dispositions to read and write in English” (2016, p. 96). Panning out from a view of whiteness as operating mainly through linguistic privilege, he suggests that white habitus structures and expresses understandings of selfhood, being, action, and relationship in ways that are profound, pervasive, and resistant to analysis. Institutional players imagine, interpret, and shape writing center philosophy and work by normalizing elements of this habitus, which attaches high value to rationality, control, pragmatism, hyperindividualism, and, crucially, “contractual, rule-governed relationships” that enshrine “fairness as sameness” in everyday functioning (Inoue, 2016, p.97).
Reading the two specific policy instances mentioned above (appointment allowances and no proofreading) as symptomatic of pervasive white habitus, we want to argue that, viewed through an antiracist lens, such seemingly race- and disability-neutral policies can in fact negatively and disproportionately affect minoritized writers and tutors. We propose that an ethic of care, coupled with an awareness of and resistance to white privilege and linguicism in writing centers, could animate the building of alternative policies or the adoption of humane and radical flexibility as a consistent stance. Referencing the concepts of culturally sustaining pedagogies (Ladson-Billings, 2014) and critical mentorship(Weiston-Serdan, 2017), we suggest that the process of revising or relaxing policy can counter race-evasiveness, encourage adaptive praxis, build critical consciousness in both staff and writers, and, ultimately, contribute to the ongoing and never-complete construction of writing centers as more equitable and inclusive spaces.
Two Instances of Policy: Appointment Allowance and No Proofreading
Though this article is primarily concerned with discussing our lived experiences of policy, we begin with data gathered in 2022 from the websites of writing centers. We went to the Canadian Writing Centres Directory (Canadian Writing Centres Association/association canadienne des centres de rédaction, or CWCA/ACCR, 2021), which is compiled and updated through a survey active on the CWCA/ACCR site, and created a random sample of 20 entries out of the 57 entries currently listed (Natarajan et al., 2022). Bearing in mind that Pamela Bromley (2017) identified 123 writing centers in Canada in 2016-2017, and allowing for growth in their number, our sample captures information about roughly 15% of the centers that are likely to be currently active in Canada. Visiting the Landing, Appointments, or FAQ pages of each of the institutions in our sample, we looked for text that mentioned appointment allowance policies (e.g., sentences such as “you may book XX appointments per week”) and to policies on editing or proofreading (e.g., use of words or phrases like “proofread,” “grammar,” “editing skills,” etc.). Our results are captured in a dataset titled Random Sample of 20 Canadian Writing Centres: Website Information on Appointment Allowance and Proofreading Policies (Natarajan et al., 2022).
Appointment Allowances: “Too many appointments” is a Thing
Many Canadian writing centers limit the number of appointments available to writers in a specified period. In our sample of 20 writing centers, 16 (80%) have clearly stated policies that limit the frequency of appointments per day, per week, or per term (Natarajan et al., 2022). For instance, OCAD University’s Writing and Learning Centre (2022) rations appointments as follows: “Students can book up to three appointments at a time and are limited to one appointment per week, per service type.” Acadia University’s Writing Centre (2022) invites writers to “book one appointment a day, and a maximum of two appointments a week.” The University of Alberta’s Writing Services (2022) puts their policy in the form of a request: “In order for tutors to support as many students as possible, we ask that you book no more than two tutoring appointments a week.” In contrast, three centers do not specify an appointment allowance on their landing/appointment pages (though writers may encounter restrictions after logging in). At the generous end of the scale, Carleton Writing Services (2022) allows students to book one 50-minute appointment per day, every day of the week. Athabasca University’s Write Site (2022), uniquely in our sample, explicitly rejects the appointment allowance policy, telling writers: “You can submit as often as you like.”
No Proofreading: Editing is the Ultimate No-no
Many Canadian writing centers place a “no proofreading” caveat on their web pages and highlight the largely non-directive tutoring approaches that are its corollary. In our sample of 20 Canadian writing centers, 14 centers (70%) explicitly distance themselves from “editing” and “proofreading” (Natarajan et al., 2022). Centers articulate the policy with various shades of warmth, from the University of Toronto Writing Centres’ curt “don’t ask us to do your proofreading for you!” (2022), and Trent University Academic Skills’ “Nobody learns from watching somebody proofread an essay” (2022) to the more friendly if slightly coy note struck by Writing and Learning Services at MacEwan University (2022): “We tend to avoid the p-word to describe what we do in the Writing Centre.” Like the McGill Writing Centre (2022), centers warn writers: “[T]utors will not “correct” your draft assignments. Rather, tutors will model structurally and grammatically coherent sentences and paragraphs with a view to empowering you to learn how to write clear, concise, and engaging prose” (bolding and italics in the original). Two centers use softer and more positive language: the University of Ottawa Academic Writing Help Centre (2022) invites students to “discover tools that will help [them] edit [their] own work,” while the University of Alberta Writing Services (2022) makes a distinction between “peer tutoring,” available to undergraduates, which will “help [them] develop and revise [their] own work,” and Copy-Editing Services, which graduate students and faculty can access by paying for them. Four centers either avoid articulating a policy on proofreading or use language which suggests that tutoring sessions might include some directive editing help.
How We Grappled with Writing Center Policy Discontents
The four authors of this article first came together in 2020-21, when we were all connected to King’s University College in London, Canada, to critically examine policy commonplaces in response to a call for antiracist leadership on our campus. Our leadership took the form of participation as presenters in a public roundtable on anti-oppressive strategies put in place at our writing center: The Write Place. Extending that presentation in this article, we reflect on how we came to problematize normative writing center approaches to rule-making, justice, and fairness. We foreground lived experience and narrative, taking our cue from critical race approaches (Bell, 2018; Martinez, 2014). As a mode of inquiry, narrative permits the presentation (especially in a collaboratively written article) of the viewpoints of multiple stakeholders, and of stakeholders whose positionalities, truths, and critical perspectives are under-represented in mainstream discourse.
Hallman et al. (2015) note that, in writing centers, “understanding context and the needs of student writers is one of the most important considerations when developing future programs” (Section titled “Moving Forward with Qualitative Research in Writing Centers,” para. 1, emphasis added). We recognize that student writer is a key positionality whose importance in this dialogue cannot be minimized. Thus, our narratives reflect the experiences not only of two authors (Vidya and Josephine) who identify as WC practitioners, but also of an author (Valentina) who is both a student and practitioner, and a student author (Tian) whose lived experience of disadvantage started this conversation.
Tian Yang: Sameness is not Always Fairness
A member of a visible minority and an international student who has used services at many writing centers, including The Write Place at King’s, I offer my experiences to writing center professionals and policymakers to raise awareness about the specific needs of international students.
The Write Place’s extraordinary policy of allowing students to book a one-hour appointment every day goes a long way towards accommodating the needs of international students and thereby counteracting linguistic racism. (As I am an international student studying in Canada, in my case, linguistic exclusion overlaps with racial exclusion; I am aware that this may not always be the case with other writing center clients.) If not for this policy, and if not for Josephine Bondi, a tutor who was willing to meet my needs as an English Language Learner (ELL), it is quite possible that I, as a doubly disadvantaged student, would have been expelled from the university rather than making it onto the Dean’s Honor List and, eventually, into a master’s program in a top university in Canada.
The first two years of my Canadian academic journey were spent at a community college. To gain acceptance, I passed a very simple English language test administered by the college. I succeeded academically in my finance program because the focus was on numbers, not essays. The English language courses I took were designed to support me as a college student. For instance, the training I received in my Professional Communication course consisted of merely applying templates when writing emails. My next goal, however, was to attend university.
When I got accepted into a university, my English test was waived, since I had already spent two years in a Canadian post-secondary environment. I began my university courses and realized, to my dread, that I was not sufficiently prepared to succeed in this English academic environment. Now that I was required to write academic essays in English, it was going to be almost impossible to pass my courses. Naturally, I turned to the university writing center.
I was told that the center’s policy was to give students two hours of support per week. Though I could see plenty of empty spots available on their booking website, I was not allowed to use any of them once I had reached my weekly limit. When I approached the director personally to express my need for more than two hours per week, and to request that I be permitted to use some of the open spots on the schedule, I was told, “We cannot make an exception for you because we need to treat all students equally.” In other words, enforcement of the policy amounted to the wasting of available support, and it held back the resource from someone who desperately needed it.
The policy of limiting all students to the exact same number of hours of support per week is based on the principle of “fairness as sameness” (Inoue, 2016, p.97). This policy is not equitable. As an international student and ELL struggling to simply survive in an English academic setting, I had needs that were different from those of native English-speaking students. The attitude of some tutors I encountered was that ELLs do not, and should not, need more help than native English speakers. They perceived me as being greedy and exploitative, as taking advantage of resources. This attitude made me feel unwelcome and excluded.
Complicating this center’s “appointment allowance” policy was the fact that during those two hours per week, tutors would just keep asking me questions without considering my needs as an ELL. They would make me read my sentences over and over again and ask me to say what the mistakes were, or point to my errors and ask me repeatedly to self-correct. I perceived this approach as a very inefficient use of the limited time I was allotted. By the end of a one-hour session, I was lucky if we got through one paragraph of a lengthy essay. Eventually, I felt altogether discouraged from seeking help.
By the end of my first year at university, my overall grade average put me on academic probation. I knew of several international students who, after failing to fulfill the conditions of academic probation (achieving a grade average above 60%), had to return to their home countries, having wasted the cost of tuition at the astronomical international student rate. I lived in fear of sharing their fate. I survived my second year by relying on my first language: I took electives taught in Chinese. Ironically, this strategy allowed me to raise my average to almost 80%. But, once I had used up all my electives, I had to resume taking courses in English. My feelings of dread and desperation returned.
I discovered The Write Place, which I had not used up to that point, the beginning of my third and final year at university. This center’s policy granted users up to one hour of writing support per day. My regular tutor, Josephine, agreed that I needed a customized tutoring approach. Rather than asking me to identify my own errors, which were impossible for me to recognize, she directly indicated the mistakes in my writing so that time was used efficiently. She used my grammar mistakes to teach me the rules and to expand my English vocabulary. She provided side examples for me to practice with which I could use to memorize correct sentence structures and word meanings. Her teaching style was caring and inclusive. She praised my strengths and made me feel confident in my ability to thrive in an English academic setting.
Over the year of working daily with Josephine, I not only developed my English writing skills but also my speaking skills, because my next goal was to get into a master’s program. Some of the programs I applied to base their admission decisions partly upon a live interview, so I needed to prepare to be an excellent interviewee. Broadening the mandate of the “writing” center, Josephine helped me compose strong responses to predicted interview questions and listened to me practice speaking them aloud. The University of Toronto’s Master of Urban Innovation (MUI) program administrators interviewed me live by Zoom, and I received and accepted an offer of admission.
Josephine Bondi: Policies be Damned, Staying Flexible Makes Sense
As a white-passing native English speaker, I strive to use my privilege to support English language learners in meeting their personal and academic goals. I have worked at The Write Place for some years.
Based upon my familiarity with an older, more traditional writing center toolkit, I would suggest that the tutors Tian encountered during his first year at a Canadian university were not trying to be unhelpful. They were simply “following the policy” or upholding a writing center commonplace: the minimalist protocol promoted by peer tutoring handbooks such as Paula Gillespie and Neal Learner’s Longman Guide to Peer Tutoring (2008), which happened to be the one recommended to me by a writing center director when I first began pursuing writing center work back in 2016. They may have believed that by rejecting directive “telling” in favor of Socratic questioning, they were drawing out the writer’s intuitive knowledge, and helping them retain “ownership” of their work. Gillespie and Lerner (2008), minimalist adherents, consider a tutor’s direct correction of a student’s grammar errors to be editing, which amounts to the tutor’s assumption of “a large measure of control over [tutees’] papers” (p. 26). Their advice to tutors—that they handle error analysis non-directively even when working with English language learners—can be read as a classic instance of the promotion of control and individualism associated with white habitus (Inoue, 2016) in the writing center.
In contrast, Tian’s first-hand perspective is reflected in Sharon Myers’s (2003) argument that “[m]ost student ‘errors’ . . . are lexical, and if they don’t have the appropriate word or lexical phrase, no [self-]editing will provide it” (p. 58). And Tian’s preference for a more direct, informative tutoring style is validated by Muriel Harris and Tony Silva (1993): “ESL writers are likely to . . . come from cultures/educational systems where teachers are expected to be “tellers” (p. 533). Following Harris and Silva’s advice (while being vigilant about cultural stereotyping) and rejecting the “contractual regulation of relationships” (Inoue, 2016, p. 97) implicit in inflexibly consistent non-directive tutoring, we might arrive at an adaptation for tutoring sessions of what Gloria Ladson-Billings (2014) calls “culturally sustaining pedagogy,” which Vidya discusses below.
Flexibility is key to workable policy. When Tian requested interview skill support, not something writing centers traditionally “do,” I did not hesitate to provide it. While The Write Place’s landing page does not explicitly offer oral skills support, it states that its tutors help “build the confidence that comes with improved reading, thinking, and communication skills” (The Write Place, 2022). Supporting Tian with his oral responses to potential interview questions was a natural evolution of the work on his written Statements of Interest that we had discussed together.
While I felt comfortable interpreting the words on our landing page to mean that we would support writers whatever their journey, tutors coming to work at The Write Place from other writing centers felt that guidance with speaking skills fell “outside their brief.” One experienced tutor who was new to The Write Place was invited to observe a tutoring session between Tian and me as part of their orientation to our writing center. I mentioned that the session would consist less of working on writing per se and more of preparation for Tian’s upcoming graduate school interview. This tutor’s reaction was revealing: they expressed appreciation that The Write Place offered interview guidance, but said that if this was not a service that all tutors at our center were required to provide, they preferred to concentrate on observing writing-focused sessions instead. When colleagues attach importance to marking and enforcing policy boundaries, white habitus is at work.
Withholding directive grammar support and oral practice from Tian would have been unfair. For him, the playing field was not level: he was competing with native English speakers for spots in Canadian graduate programs. A flexible, caring, and antiracist rather than rule-driven tutor would be guided by Tian’s feeling that his chances of getting an offer of admission to the master’s program were likely to increase if he developed traditional oral skills. For Tian to suffer exclusion on the basis of linguistic gaps is a form of racism. Going beyond posting Statements of Commitment to Antiracism on their landing pages or offering English Conversation Circles, writing centers must confront how their policies may be defeating their good antiracist intentions.
Vidya Natarajan: To Look Competent as an Administrator, Magic up Some Policy
As a racialized, multilingual woman, a first-gen immigrant/settler in Canada, and a writing program administrator who was director of The Write Place (the King’s University College writing center) for some years, I wanted to make decolonization, antiracism, and anti-ableism explicit and manifest in everyday policies.
While the policy text we found on the web pages of Canadian writing centers often uses the language of rules, as an outsider to those contexts, I am not privy to the complexity of the relationship between rule and application. But as an insider in my own writing center, I had access to this insight. Writing centers often employ contingent staff, many of them student peer tutors, and many of them new to writing center work. Policies build the footings of practice, offer heuristics for decision-making, clarify organizational culture, and minimize conflict. Understandably, writing center administrators feel called upon to produce a rule for every occasion and a policy for every contingency. Hardly a day goes by but a staff member, fearful of overstepping boundaries, asks, “What is our (specific) rule for this or that?” Hoping to avoid “making it up as they go along,” administrators rummage through lore, precedent, and archives of collegial expertise for answers. In face-to-face conversations, and on social media (often in posts that begin “Hello, hive mind!”), administrators ask each other, “What is your policy for that or this?”
Both the value accorded to rule-making as an activity, then, and many of the rules themselves (like appointment allowances and no proofreading), settle enduringly into the sediment of writing center commonplaces. Rule-making and rules alike acquire the naturalness and transparency of commonsense rather than the tendentiousness of ideology; both seem to embody a universal rather than a culturally contingent ethic. For example, Laurier Writing Services’ Appointments page not only lays out the rules but also makes transparent the pedagogic and ethical reasoning behind them:
We limit the number of appointments you can book per term to 10. In addition, you cannot bring the same paper more than twice nor have more than one appointment per day….These guidelines ensure that you retain responsibility for your own work and that you grow as a writer.
However, as an administrator whose cultural reference points are different from those of the majority of my colleagues, I see these rules not so much in terms of universal commonsense as in terms of white institutional culture. As Inoue (2016) notes, the structuring of quotidian practices and relationships by clear, consistent, rational, contractual policies that promote independence and individualism is a key element of white racial habitus in writing centers. Aware of their dubious authority and their precarious foothold on this odd outcrop of the post-secondary mountain scape, administrators constantly reach for the twin guide-ropes of (white, Western) institutional functioning: professionalism and fairness. The former often implies strict policies about editing or grammar or reporting; the latter usually implies treating all writers exactly the same.
Despite my discomfort at being a begetter and transmitter of policies that enact white habitus, I have often felt cornered into pulling instant policy out of a hat, or worse, into endorsing existing policies that did not sit well with me, because of the brittleness of my (racialized, female, non-native speaker) authority. Display of the radical ethical indecision and the slow process of reflection that inevitably attend cultural liminality, I felt, was not calculated to inspire confidence or respect in my colleagues, accustomed as many of them were to the “clear-cut” criteria for decision-making that are characteristic of white habitus. Nothing (I felt) would scream “incompetence” so loudly as an admission by “the boss” that she honestly didn’t know what rule to apply in a particular situation. Encouragement of radical flexibility was no substitute for a good, old-fashioned policy. For me, therefore, the best-case scenario was represented by colleagues like Josephine and Valentina, who intuitively grasped the overarching idea of culturally flexible and relationship-building tutoring practice, and who felt confident that their interpretation of the “rules” at our center would not be penalized.
Meant to standardize and codify practice so that everyone can follow the “same rules,” and so that staff are protected from the stress of having to think through and defend their decisions, policies can, ironically, affect stakeholders in very different ways. As Tian points out above, a policy that limits the number of appointments per writer per week can appear value-neutral, but can disproportionately affect educational access for multilingual writers and disabled writers. In the same manner, a policy that discourages direct grammar instruction, even if the writer believes it would benefit them, and even though scholarly proofreading is not seen by academics as an infringement of intellectual property boundaries when it comes to their own publications, reflects linguicism and a punitive approach to multilingual writers rather than any principle of fairness (see Moussu, 2013). A policy that assumes a level playing field can be race- and disability-evasive.
When we adopt an anti-oppressive stance, we are called upon to change the way we create and apply policies for everyday practice. One way of bringing about change would be to embrace an ethic of care. While the phrase was popularized by the work of Carol Gilligan (1982), the concept is common to many cultures. Inviting diverse tutoring staff to reflect on their own past encounters with learning or teaching in a caring or even loving way would allow them to draw on models from their own diverse cultures. In addition, in the Canadian context, we urgently need to center the work of Indigenous scholars, and the teachings of Elders from the Indigenous Nations around us. We at The Write Place have been privileged, over the past five years, to be guided in our practice by Anishnaabe/Oneida Knowledge Keeper Liz Akiwenzie, who has shared teachings about the Medicine Wheel to make tutors aware of how educational practices can express care for students in their wholeness, addressing their mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual needs.
An ethic of care would privilege radically flexible practices and pedagogies, building relationships, meeting the writer halfway, and putting the person before the policy. It would imply careful and active listening, which Josephine exemplifies when she responds to Tian’s stated needs. Functioning within a model of caring flexibility rather than rule-keeping, for instance, no staff member would turn away a writer who needed to exceed their “appointment allowance” because of their specific academic goals or their disability. We would never deny an appointment to a writer who needed support except to ensure that appointment slots were open to other writers who needed them.
Other ways of approaching the revision of policy may be to embrace what Gloria Ladson-Billings (2014; citing Paris & Alim, 2014) calls culturally sustaining pedagogy, or what Torie Weiston-Serdan (2017) calls critical mentoring. Explicating culturally sustaining pedagogy, Ladson-Billings (2014) references her earlier definition of culturally relevant pedagogy and identifies “three domains” in which successful teachers of Black and minoritized students function effectively: “academic success, cultural competence, and sociopolitical consciousness” (p. 75). To apply her model to writing center praxis, we might consider
- tailoring tutoring sessions to ensure academic success (including through directive tutoring where needed)
- honoring the wide range of pedagogies and cultural approaches to learning that writers are accustomed to, and
- reflecting on, and discussing with writers, the ways in which language is implicated in power and privilege.
Weiston-Serdan (2017) grounds the idea of critical mentoring in Critical Race Theory and culturally relevant pedagogy. Noting that it must be “reciprocal, collaborative, participatory, emancipatory, and transformative” (Chap. 6), she enumerates a number of elements practitioners should keep in mind, such as developing and encouraging critical consciousness about systemic social inequities, using counterstory to deepen understanding of clients and their contexts, building relationships and community, centering and empowering clients, attending to intersectionality, and avoiding deficit thinking and respectability politics. Applying her concept to writing centers, we would work actively to name and disrupt linguistic privilege (a goal that resonates with the stance Valentina takes below). Linguistic and academic conventions would be unpacked and explained without pressure on the writer to assimilate to the prevailing habitus. Combating the assumption that the university is a neutral space in which student or writer “development” and “success” take place through standardization and scholarship, tutors would normalize critique, invite writers to transgress (hooks, 1994), learn reciprocally from writers, and support writers as they develop critical agency and insight (Stoller, 2021) even as they mobilize a pragmatic understanding of academic requirements or standard language expectations.
Getting away from the “what” of policies (What is the permitted number of appointments per writer per week? What training will help tutors address grammar concerns pedagogically rather than editorially?) and focusing on the “who” (Who is making this appointment policy, and to whom does it apply?) may pose perhaps the most significant challenge to policy commonplaces. Writing center policies reflecting accompliceship (Green, 2016) cannot be created top-down. They must be created by people who are not immersed and invested in white, ableist habitus, by people who are critical readers of the connection between the community of practice and their own positionalities, by people who want to transform academic culture. Openness among tutors to the linguistic skills, cultural values, and philosophical orientations of cultures other than Anglo-European ones will occur only if writing centers adopt a prior policy of hiring tutors with a view to diversity and lived experience of disadvantage rather than to gathering together a linguistic and academic elite.
Valentina Galeano Cardona: Tinkering with Policy Won’t Lead to Systemic Change
As a racialized, multilingual tutor developing my practice and helping write new policy at The Write Place, I want to unpack the power dynamics that emerge in the cross-racial and multilingual commonplaces of tutoring and writing practice.
Reading—the classics, the Beat generation, the beauty of magical realism, scholarly articles that validate and legitimize the nuances of my lived experiences—has always been a place of empowerment, joy, and becoming in my life. But writing and speaking in English, for a multilingual woman of color, a newcomer to Canada, and a mature student who has only been using English for ten years, come with confidence-sapping challenges.
I came to The Write Place at King’s University College hoping that tutors could help me elevate my English. Since this language is not mine (and people often remind me of that), I approached academic writing as an undoing of inherent parts of myself, shedding the unhelpful nuances and intricacies of my mother tongue to ensure my acceptance within academic circles (Baker-Bell, 2020). The outsider status of my language and my culture (Baker-Bell, 2020; Freire, 2001; hooks, 1994) seemed at times incompatible with the professional, white, middle-class aspirations that academic writing places on students, especially on multilingual and racialized students (hooks, 1994; Rambiritch, 2018).
But instead, during those first tutoring sessions at The Write Place, I felt that tutors of diverse racial and linguistic backgrounds and abilities welcomed my work and helped me see myself as a whole being who didn’t need to be fixed for my work to be embraced. Without knowing it, I found myself on the receiving end of what I now understand as an institutional commitment that functioned both as an ethic of care (Gilligan, 1982) and an antiracist stance at The Write Place. Here, administrators and tutors were committed to treating every tutee equally despite the differences in power between those with institutional authority and racialized and multilingual tutees, leading to their inclusion in this academic space.
Commonplaces of tutoring such as shared problem solving, attending to my grammar concerns and mistakes, and helping me organize my ideas felt like a relational act of caring, by which the tutor’s recognition of my wholeness, despite my real or perceived lack of proficiency in academic writing, helped me recognize myself and use my writing practice as a place of possibility (Noddings, 1984). The visits became an integral part of my writing practice, and throughout that academic term, I began freeing myself from the internalized and pervasive connotations of deficit attached to my racial and multilingual identities, at least within the context of my writing practice.
When I started looking for a job with the work-study program and saw The Write Place’s tutor positions listed, my first instinct was to apply, because I love reading, writing, and teamwork. I didn’t apply. I looked at the ad for several days. As a newcomer to Canada, I had endured exclusion and deskilling, a common experience of immigrants (Sethi, 2015). As a first-generation post-secondary student, I had experienced the gatekeeping that permeates interactions with academic writing, which is so technical and inaccessible, so sophisticated and Eurocentric (Baker-Bell, 2020; hooks, 1994; Martin-Thomsen et al., 2021). Despite my newly acquired confidence in my writing skills, a part of me still didn’t think I was “qualified.” I eventually talked myself into applying, was hired, and began working as a tutor at The Write Place.
As a third-year racialized undergraduate student who was slowly finding her way in a predominantly white academic ecosystem, being welcomed in a writing center led me to believe that my lived experiences, my worldview, and my expertise were understood as valuable, were recognized and needed. As Josephine’s narrative above describes, during the tutor training and ongoing tutoring practice at The Write Place, tutors were encouraged to maintain a stance of flexibility and empowerment for tutees. It then became clear to me that as a tutor, I could use the commonplaces of my tutoring practice as opportunities for ongoing reflective practice to not only question power and its potential for oppression but also for possibility (Baker-Bell, 2020; hooks, 1994; Martin-Thomsen et al., 2021).
Wanting to connect with tutees, I paid attention to the way I presented myself, positioning my body in a relaxed manner, leaning forward to display interest, and acknowledging that I too was a student who was still learning the mechanics of academic writing. I was never afraid to consult the writing guides or to seek advice from other tutors when both parties were unsure about grammar or citation styles. When tutees approached their tutoring session as a time for proofreading, instead of shutting down their plea, I remained committed to the antiracist stance that was fostered at this writing center. As someone who had felt, and at times continued to feel, the need to fix and elevate my English, I was able to recognize that same concern that fellow racialized and multilingual tutees brought to the session in wanting to improve their work. From brainstorming ideas in Spanish and writing an outline or first draft of their work using their version of Spanglish or other Englishes to helping students rehearse their presentation or reading out loud, as long we were meeting the academic needs of students, tutoring commonplaces simply morphed into new devices for learning and being, as needed.
While we seek acceptance and inclusion within academic spaces by performing whiteness via our mastery of academic writing in English (Baker-Bell, 202; Martin-Thomsen et al., 2021; Rambiritch, 2018), I used my tutoring practice to name these concerns and to place them in front of the tutees. I used my presence in that room and the sharing of my lived experiences to create a space where tutees could also reimagine the purpose of their tutoring sessions and where they could redefine their writing practice as a place for empowerment and wholeness.
My antiracist commitment led directly to my being invited to the table where policies and guidelines for the center were being crafted. Having a seat at that policy table meant that I could inform, animate, and enrich the conversations about what mattered and what ought to be protected and celebrated; it meant that people like me could share the power that leads to systemic change. Including multilingual and ELL tutors in the writing of antiracist and anti-oppressive policies is an antiracist action that disrupts linguistic, racial, and pedagogical hierarchies.
And yet, despite policies that supported reflection, flexibility, and ethics of care, the work of tutoring quickly became riddled with contradictions for me. Being both a tutor and tutee, I was still immersed in the reality of being a racialized and multilingual student who, like my peers, sometimes felt inadequate. Across campus, our linguistic richness and racialized identities continued to be overlooked or unaccounted for, since after all, we were still operating within a hierarchical system in which academic writing proficiency is a proxy for performing whiteness (Baker-Bell, 202; Martin-Thomsen et al., 2021; Rambiritch, 2018). The more I reflected on the role of language as a facilitator of dominance, power, and oppression (Rambiritch, 2018; Martin-Thomsen et al., 2021; Baker-Bell, 2020), the more I felt that writing centers remained a space for reproducing marginalization on campus. After all, their existence is justified by their functioning as places to fix and help ELLs and multilingual speakers, such as myself, overcome our linguistic faults to meet academic expectations (Baker-Bell, 2020; Rambiritch, 2018;).
For someone who was both tutor and tutee, the commonplaces of writing center technique, such as helping tutees identify potential flaws in their work—however dialogically—became disorienting experiences. As I moved from one side of the desk to the other, I searched for ways in which I could resolve this disorientation, this dissonance, this contradiction between my everyday ameliorative tutoring practice and my ideological resistance to linguistic power structures in academia. Seemingly disruptive individual actions (such as the actions of a tutor who flexes policy), the boycotting of institutional power, or even a granular review and revision of individual policies cannot, in my view, usher in a radically anti-oppressive regime. Privilege will creep in by the back door. How can policies go beyond merely displacing linear, rigid, and limiting writing and tutoring strategies? How can they support a transformative critique of standard academic language and the power differentials it perpetuates? The problem is both systemic and deep.
A true shift in commonplaces would require critical consciousness of writing centers as places of enactment of white habitus despite one’s best intentions to do the right thing. If writing centers are to function as places for antiracist and anti-oppressive resistance via the collaborative process of writing, equitable policies, and student-centered pedagogy, then we must explicitly identify and complicate language as a tool of oppression. All staff members must begin at the same point: understanding the use of language as an exercise of power and gatekeeping that constantly reinforces cultural and linguistic hegemony (Baker-Bell, 2020; Rambiritch, 2018). There can be no innocence.
Conclusion: Policy-making as Ongoing Accompliceship
The idea of reviewing and challenging writing center policies is not new. Nor is the relationship between policies and practice entirely straightforward. As Hatem Aldohon (2021) notes, tutors’ actual practices can contradict explicit writing center rules. Gatekeepers sneak students into the schedule for extra appointments when they need them; tutors “edit” all the time. Defying many an explicit policy is a whole cluster of implicit policies that have been created on the down low by flexible, caring, and in many cases minoritized, writing center staff who embody true accompliceship (Green, 2016). Such resistant practices stand in a dialectical relationship with widely accepted (white) notions of fairness and rule-making. In some cases, these un-policies—related to flexibility of approach, to ethical listening, to improving writing rather than writers, and so on—have emerged more formally in writing center histories, practices, and philosophies over the last few decades (for instance, see Denny et al., 2018; Grimm, 2009; Green, 2016).
In 2021, The Write Place formally launched a process of bringing diverse staff, writers, advisors, and administrators together in a dialogic way, to launch a critique of our policy commonplaces along anti-oppressive lines, and to renew our ground rules for being and working together. To those who were looking for a four-point formula or a step-by-step process for enhancing equity and justice in writing center praxis, we offer a disappointing (but hopeful) truth: the revision of policy at this writing center is an incomplete project, and, as Valentina notes, it often unravels even as it is being completed, and exposes itself as yet another accommodation to standard language ideology or white hegemony. In other words, this article rehearses a particular writing center’s process of self-reflection and new construction, but other centers may want to grapple with a whole other set of commonplaces. The vital framework for this process is an anti-oppressive stance: the heightened awareness of language and rule-making as potential instruments of hegemony, and the placing of resistance to hegemonies at the heart of our pedagogic responsibility.
The building of anti-oppressive frameworks goes on every day; we still see the blue of hope and aspiration through the trusses, and we don’t think we will ever get to nail on the roof and declare the structure finished once and for all.
- The word “centre/center” has Canadian spelling when part of the name of a specific Canadian institution, and American spelling in all other contexts.↑
Vidya would like to acknowledge the collaborative spirit of her colleagues, TPR’s anonymous peer reviewers, and the fantastic editorial input offered by Wenqi Cui.
Tian would like to extend sincere thanks to Josephine: “From reading early drafts to giving me advice so I could edit, she always stood by me during every struggle and all my successes.”
Valentina would like to acknowledge her co-authors, Vidya, Josephine, and Tian, as well as her fellow tutors and writing center staff at King’s University College for their commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Thank you for daring to re-imagine the commonplaces of your tutoring and writing practice to empower multilingual and racialized students.
Srividya (Vidya) Natarajan is an Assistant Professor (Writing) and Coordinator of the Writing Program at King’s University College at Western University. Her research focuses on writing in relation to racial and disability justice. She served as Co-Chair of the 2021 Canadian Writing Centres Association (CWCA/ACCR) conference, co-edited the 2021 conference special section of Discourse and Writing/Rédactologie, and is an active member of CWCA/ACCR’s BIPOC caucus. She is also a novelist and performer/teacher of Indian classical dance.
Valentina Galeano Cardona is a BSW (Hons.) graduate and a Registered Social Worker (RSW). Her experiences as an immigrant and as a user of English for academic purposes, as well as her passion for equity shaped her work at The Write Place, the writing center at King’s University College, where she was a Senior Tutor and policy consultant.
Josephine Bondi, since retiring from her role as an Ontario public school teacher, has earned a Diploma in Writing from Western University. She also holds a Certificate in the Teaching and Practice of Writing from King’s University College where it was her great pleasure to support student writers over a period of three years. Presently, she is pursuing a Master of Education degree at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE).
Tian Yang earned his BA in Governance, Leadership and Ethics at Western University. He is currently pursuing the Master of Urban Innovation degree at University of Toronto. Contending with social and professional barriers to equity and inclusion since he arrived in Canada in 2016 from Beijing, China, he has developed a deeper understanding of, and interest in, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) and social justice work. By co-authoring this article, Tian hopes he can help international students to have a better education experience in Canadian universities.
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