Colton Wansitler, College of Lake County
In a post-Pulse and post-Trump administration world, a book like Queerly Centered: LGBTQA Writing Center Directors Navigate the Workplace (2021) is a breath of fresh air and an invaluable addition to the writing center field. This text gives the reader a glimpse of the administrative practices, lived experiences, and institutional hurdles that 20 LGBTQA (queer) identifying writing center administrators (WCAs) disclosed in interviews with author Travis Webster. While some readers may want to problematize the author’s use of “queer” as it can be viewed or interpreted as a destabilizer in terms of identity, Webster intentionally uses this term to be inclusive and give autonomy over identity to the interviewed individual: “I use queer in this book instead of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and asexual (LGBTQA) simply for the sake of readability” (p. 129).
As a queer WCA myself, much of what Webster presents throughout this work really enlightened and gave words to the work and labor of queer administrators. With a few exceptions, the experiences of queer WCAs have been neglected in writing center research. Webster offers a detailed analysis of the kinds of labor expected of and enacted by WCAs that often extend beyond the job description. Queerly Centered gave me a sense of community where I no longer felt as though the work that I am performing is invisible, while also giving non-queer identifying writing center administrators an understanding of why we (queer folks) commit to performing our labor as capital, activism, and tension.
While engaging with this work, I found myself focusing on a few points of tension/discussion. Specifically, in this review I highlight and briefly discuss Webster’s approach to RAD (replicable, aggregable, and data-driven) research and queerness/whiteness. Toward that end, I provide summaries of each chapter, with the concluding paragraph of each summary being dedicated to the chapter’s relationship to the aforementioned topics. Finally, I end with a short parting words section, where I celebrate this book’s addition to the field writ large and recall a memorable moment from the book.
In the introduction, Webster provides the framework for Queerly Centered by situating this book and research in a society where homophobia is still prevalent: as seen with violent crimes (ex. Pulse) and constant political hatred and targeting (ex. the Trump administration). He reflects on his feelings of mourning and its appropriateness as it relates to the Pulse murders, which led to the questioning of queer administration in writing centers.
His interviews of queer WCAs address the following research questions:
What makes up labor and lived, on-the-job experiences of these writing center administrators? What might accounts and analyses of such queer labor teach writing center administrators about writing center work, especially as it interplays with capital, activism, and tension on the job? (p. 6).
In discussing his methodology, Webster addresses RAD research by citing Alexandria Lockett’s (2019) chapter in Out in the Center: Public Controversies and Private Struggles titled “A Touching Place: Womanist Approaches to the Center.” In her chapter, Lockett argues that RAD methodology “tends to strip the human experience of its nuance and may risk diminishing the various ways we might interpret experience as data” (p. 33). While Webster states that this research is indeed replicable, he urges the readers to be mindful and “cautious” of the replication process citing that his “queer body played a critical role in the development and framework for the project” (p. 18). Further, he writes that he “[does not] believe RAD methods are the best lens for a book about queer working bodies and stories” (p. 18). In discussing the recruitment and participant pool, Webster shares that he was able to hold interviews with 20 queer writing center administrators that were recruited via the snowball method.
In discussing RAD methodologies, I find Webster’s argument about the appropriateness of RAD research, as it pertains to this study, to be reflective of my opinion of the research style. I find that RAD methodologies, while often supported and required by/for upper administrators, have a history of dehumanizing participants by focusing only on the numbers rather than the person holistically. There is a juxtaposition of quality vs quantity, as it pertains to RAD research, which has been a point of discussion between WCAs and higher administrators for years. However, I believe that, when viewing research through a queer/feminist lens, it is our responsibility to make sure that the participant of any study is represented in their entirety and not simply viewed as numbers by which we make arguments.
Chapter two begins with six historical vignettes from Madeline, Brian, Mike, Matt, John, and Ryan which provide context and situates the idea of capital. Webster defines capital as “resources gained, lost, rendered, transacted, traded, and heralded in an institutional economy, whether embodied, material, or metaphorical, as related to one’s social and economic stand” (p. 29). Webster argues that the “queer labor of this book is about a queer culture capital and its acquisition in order to survive and thrive within writing center administration in higher education” (p. 31). In other words, we queer administrators often find ourselves using our queerness to navigate situations, further social awareness, protect and educate students from/of harmful rhetoric, incite systemic changes with our institutions, etc.
I feel that one of the most impactful sections of this chapter is in the “Queer Capital, Unicorn Status, and Reflections on Queer Pain and Survival” section where Webster states,
I position queer writing center administrators as paradoxical unicorns, mythical creature of their universities (said tongue in cheek) who check diversity boxes, read rooms, speak truths, protect the silences, and soften spaces, representing an administrative phenomenon of being cast as a mythical, if not “perfect,” seemingly rare representation of diversity but often white and able to pass enough to be perceived as recognizable, benign, and sometimes easily malleable (read: manipulated), and yet they are still bullied within heteronormative institutions. (p. 40)
This quote has put into words the way that I, and I am sure many of my colleagues, have felt at our institutions. Queer people, dare I say white male presenting queer folks, are often seen as non-threatening to the institution due to our ability to “pass” in their heteronormative routines, while also being asked to serve as diversity figures for student, staff, faculty, and hiring committees, all of which enables the institution to maintain their long-held normative practices. In broader terms, queer white males are viewed as heteronormative enough, due to the pervasive systems of white supremacy that are still present in our institutions, that their proximity to whiteness often supersedes that of their queerness. Consequently, institutions are eager to use identities of queer white men to further their diversity goals, if the queer aspect of our identity does not cause too many ripples in the seemingly tranquil lake of our institutions.
Four historical vignettes from Tim, James, Jack, and Cara kick-off chapter three, which contextualizes activism in the writing center and situates queer administrators’ desire/need to use our positions (which come with a level of privilege and power) to implement socially just pedagogies. Webster defines “queer writing center activism as administrative labor that exceeds the conventions of writing center work…and that attempts, explicitly or implicitly, to enact social change in general or to signal progress in lived material queer conditions, whether local, institutional, disciplinary, or global” (p. 56). As the reader can perceive from the opening vignettes and the following expansion of narratives, many of the participants whose stories unfold in this chapter feel that the work of queer administrators cannot be void of politics, social reform, and health education. Tim’s story reveals that he provides condoms and dental dams in his writing center as an act of sexual health advocacy. Later in chapter three, Tim shares, “there is no place that you go as a tutor, no place that the writing center can be positioned that doesn’t have some impact, even if it’s just the impact of silent complicity” (p. 64).
Queer writing center labor and/as activism is situated in the invisible labor, that which is not found in our job descriptions nor susceptible to adequate explanation to be thoroughly captured during reviews, that queer administrators feel. We queer administrators experience an “orientation, if not responsibility, to use [our] writing center administration to do more than just offer student[s] writing support” (p. 53). These sentiments are echoed multiple times throughout this chapter where queer administrators are often the “go-to people for matters that involve and extend beyond writing center[s]” (p. 80). To support this work, the field writ large needs to consider and support the need for queer scholarship, which is noted to be historically underfunded. Without this support from the field compounded with the performed invisible labor, Webster finds it is difficult for queer administrators to produce scholarship in the field , which leaves us in a difficult paradox.
In chapter four Webster offers four historical vignettes from Mike, Jennifer, Stephanie, and Jeremy which positions labor and/as tension through the lens of bullying. While Webster does not define tension, he does provide and adds to Cristyn Elder’s and Bethany Davila’s (2019) definition of bullying:
incivility, mobbing, systemic bullying… harassment, social exclusion or isolation, rumors, criticism, and verbal abuse’ all which regularly takes place over time, while the scholars remind us ‘minority status’ in culture writ large often equates to the same status in academia. (p. 89)
Much of this chapter focuses on the idea of queer people being historically seen as suspect and often policed, which continues to give straight (white) folks the “power to sound alarms at the first sign of supposed queer deviance” (p. 93).
Webster separates tension into four subcategories: explicit bullying, implicit bullying, disciplinary erasure, and national tensions. Beneath the subheading “Tensions: Explicit Bullying” we hear more about Mike’s story, during which he tells Webster “Never trust trust.” He continues to tell us that he (Mike) has trusted his institution, colleagues, tutors, and his center; however, he later recounts an experience he had while on a campus visit, where the line “Sure, just don’t sleep with your students” was said in response to him being out. In Mike’s story, we see that “bullying is not implicit nor under the surface. It sits explicitly in day-to-day conversations between colleagues, with students privy” (p. 92).
In the conclusion, Travis Webster argues that, from what has been presented in the book, queer writing center labor “is distinct and nuanced in that it differs as often as it aligns with what we talk about in the discipline when we talk about writing center work” (p. 113). He calls upon the continued research of queer writing center work advocating for the field to support future projects (as IWCA supported this project) to give voice to the queer work that is being done. Finally, Webster provides implications for Writing Program, Writing-across-the-Curriculum, and Higher Education Administration, which when “studied like this teach us about what’s different and what’s possible when diverse (for these purposes, read queer) leaders lead in our institutions of higher education” (p. 125).
I want to thank Travis Webster for dedicating himself to this project. This book is an incredible addition to the field’s collection of resources and a book that has become a personal favorite. It is of no surprise that Queerly Centered: LGBTQA Writing Center Directors Navigate the Workplace was awarded the 2022 Outstand Book Award at the 2022 IWCA Conference in Vancouver, BC. Congratulations, Travis Webster! Well Deserved. Now, as quoted in this book, and the tagline of a beloved drag queen, “Go Big, Be Kind, Go West.”
Daniel, J. (2020). Burning Out: Writing and The Self in the Era of Terminal Productivity. Enculturation: A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture. http://enculturation.net/Burning_Out
Elder, C. L., & Davila, B. (2019). Defining, Locating, and Addressing Bullying in the WPA Workplace. Utah State University Press.
Lockett, A. (2019). A Touching Place: Womanist Approaches to the Center. Out in the Center: Public Controversies and Private Struggles, edited by Harry Denny, Robert Mundy, Liliana M. Naydan, Richard Severe, and Anna Sicari, 28-42. Logan: Utah State University Press.
Webster, T. (2021). Queerly Centered: LGBTQA Writing Center Directors Navigate the Workplace. Utah State University Press.