Brave and Safe Spaces as Welcoming in Online Tutoring

Destiny Brugman


Montana State University Writing Center logo. Colorful circle reads, “Writing Happens Here.” Writing Center website small along the edge of the circle.
Figure 1. The MSU Writing Center’s Infographic

At the Montana State University (MSU) Writing Center, the sticker we offer to students while telling them about what we do at the Writing Center says, “Writing Happens Here.” We use this infographic[1] (see Figure 1) to represent our writing center within the university in hopes that the sticker will encourage someone who sees it on a water bottle across the room to bring their writing to our tutors. Through this infographic, our Writing Center intentionally defines itself as a site for productivity and growth through writing, and we invite others to join us. Our motto defines the writing center as a physical space, just as Jackie Grutsch McKinney discusses in Peripheral Visions when she explains that “part of what distinguishes writing center work from composition more generally is the site; writing can happen anywhere, but writing center work implies a set location—a writing center” (2013, p. 20). We often see the writing center as a place where writing happens and tutors and writers collaborate. We expect things from each other like coffee and a warm smile—traditional indicators of welcome in a physical space. Thinking about the writing center only in its construction as warm and welcome in these traditional ways, however, limits it to existing solely as a physical space.

Students, tutors, and writing centers administrators being able to visit and spend time in our physical writing centers allows us to see why the centers are important in our day-to-day lives. However, as digital media and multimodal writing become more prominent both in writing centers and classrooms, so does the need to think about our online tutoring spaces.[2] The emergence of tutoring new media—such as PowerPoints and web pages—in writing centers ties directly to why we need to care about the methods we have for tutoring, and welcoming these new technologies and the students who use them (Grutsch McKinney, 2014). Throughout the history of writing centers there has been a shift from the 60s and 70s where tutors were catering to students who wrote by hand or were using typewriters, and the act of writing has changed from that to the 80s and 90s when personal computers were on the rise (Grutsch McKinney, 2014). Since the 2000s, we see that: “Student texts now are nearly always composed on screen. Most students have their own computers. […] Many texts that students compose, seen for FYC, never leave the screen” because the exchange of feedback can often be done online “without ever being printed out” (Grutsch McKinney 2014, p. 245). Due to this evolution of the physical means of writing, writing centers now need to focus on the tools we have to cater to students in digital spaces. This means that as writing centers work toward welcoming writers into our physical spaces, there is also a demand to welcome them into our online tutoring spaces. For instance, the growth of online tutoring at the MSU Writing Center in the past two academic years has gone from 217 online tutoring appointments for the 2016-2017 academic year to 471 online tutoring appointments for the 2017-2018 academic year, compelling us to consider how we can best welcome this growing number of students using our online tutoring resource.

In writing centers, we focus on what comfort we can bring to our physical writing centers: “much emphasis has been placed on what directors believe students need in order to feel comfortable in our writing centers […] we do not proceed, necessarily, from an assumption of comfort, nor would we presume to know, really, what, if anything, would make everyone comfortable” (Geller et. al, 2007, p. 57). We focus on this comfort, and we think about the ways it creates a home for someone, whether it is for a student or tutor who walks through our doors (Grutsch McKinney, 2013). The focus on welcoming writers into our physical spaces oftentimes proves easier because we are constantly there, and we can think more about the ways we use these ideas of home to invite writers in to collaborate with us.

The MSU Writing Center staff currently works toward inviting writers into our spaces and thinks about how we welcome writers in and expect things from them; operating with the understanding that everyone has a gift to offer us and we have a gift to offer them (Eodice, 2018). We discuss the need for exchange and reciprocity in writing sessions in order to practice “participatory hospitality” (Eodice, 2018). Through using participatory hospitality, we emphasize moving away from “insistent individualism” in order to build relationships with writers as we host them in our writing center spaces (Eodice, 2018). By anchoring our daily practice in participatory hospitality, we find opportunities to explore how the constructions of our spaces as brave, safe, and somewhere in between can help us welcome writers into our physical center as well as into our digital writing center.

By attempting to understand our own comfort or the lack thereof, the construction of our spaces becomes complicated as we examine the nuances of how our space might exist as both brave and safe (McNamee & Miley, 2018; Brugman & Telling, 2017). Brave spaces are those in which one’s foundational truths are shaken—foundational truths being parts of the truths and identities we hold closest to us (Brugman & Telling, 2017). Safe spaces are those that create protection from any potential harm and provide room for retreat (McNamee & Miley, 2018; Brugman & Telling, 2017). These ideas complicate our writing centers because we are constantly trying to balance “creating an environment where one can be brave and where one can safely retreat, [so] we create a homeplace where tutors can be safe and sane while resisting the patriarchal structures that devalue and marginalize experiences and identities” (McNamee & Miley, 2018). These homeplaces created in the writing center help our tutors better navigate the comfort and challenge present during a tutoring session, as well as provide us with ways to think more critically about how we welcome writers into our centers.

The theoretical concept of participatory hospitality paired with brave and safe spaces creates an entry point for “welcome” as a model we can use to build a framework for our writing centers to be inclusive to students—both tutors and writers. Welcoming, in this regard, is a practice negotiated between participants in the space, as we welcome writers into our centers and they welcome us into their lives and writing. The reciprocity required in participatory hospitality is the same used to negotiate welcome between writers and tutors in our writing center, and through tutors consciously deciding to step away from “insistent individualism,” we can better welcome writers into our centers. We use brave and safe spaces to welcome students into our writing centers—building their trust and comfort with us through safe spaces in order to invite them to be brave and challenged with us (McNamee & Miley, 2017). As writing centers think about the need for safety and bravery and how these constructions of our writing centers manifest into productive, successful sessions, it becomes important to deconstruct how we are welcoming writers into our spaces, how we are hosting them, and how we hope to welcome writers again.

Comfort and Challenge in Our Physical Spaces

Brave and safe spaces coupled with participatory hospitality inform the way I understand welcome and how it manifests in our writing center. In order to understand how these concepts are used as tools to create more welcoming spaces, we must first examine the nuances of brave and safe spaces in the context of physical writing center spaces before applying them to how we welcome writers into our digital spaces.

For the 2017 Rocky Mountain Writing Center Association Conference (RMWCA), Hannah Telling, a fellow tutor, and I started to examine brave and safe spaces with Arao and Clemens’ article that prioritized brave spaces over safe spaces. Brian Arao and Kristi Clemens (2013) claimed that the construction of brave spaces

has helped us to better prepare participants [in these spaces] to interact authentically with one another in challenging dialogues. Moreover, as compared to the idea of safe space, brave space is more congruent with our understanding of power, privilege, and oppression, and the challenges inherent in dialogue about these issues in socioculturally diverse groups. (p. 149)

Telling and I wanted to investigate brave spaces beyond Arao and Clemens (2013) and looked at work being done at LGBTQ centers in Jen Self & Kimberly Hudson’s (2015) article “Dangerous Waters and Brave Space: A Critical Feminist Inquiry of Campus LGBTQ Centers” because it focused on the construction of physical spaces and their possible impact on marginalized identities. Through this, we started to examine the nuances of our physical writing center spaces as brave and safe, and how those spaces existed and coexisted for tutors and writers—not yet aware of how our center could use them to welcome writers.

In one-on-one tutoring sessions we found that when we tried to navigate spaces as brave for the writers we were working with, we needed to employ the trickster methods discussed in The Everyday Writing Center, because the trickster “crosses both physical and social boundaries […] frequently breaks social rules, blurring connections and distinctions between right and wrong, sacred and profane, etc” (Geller et. al, 2007, p. 15). The applied trickster invites both the writer and the tutor into a space where we can value “those moments when the foundations of our truths are rocked—those moments when the trickster plays with our sense and perception” (Geller et. al, 2007, p. 30). We then developed our understanding of brave spaces being created through the challenging of an individual’s foundational truths and safe spaces being ones that work on the basis of protecting individuals within a session from harm—both tutor and student (Brugman & Telling, 2017). It also became apparent to us that in order to create a space where students could be brave that there needed to be a strong foundation where the students felt safe to begin with—honoring the writer’s humanity (Brugman & Telling, 2017; McNamee & Miley, 2018).

Our writing center spaces as brave and safe continue to flourish at the MSU Writing Center, where the construction of brave and safe spaces are a basis of our physical space and tutor development. The MSU Writing Center has comfy orange couches, hot cocoa, a coffee pot, and giant windows which let light flood into the room—a space much different from the begrudgingly dim atmosphere of the library. In our RMWCA presentation, Telling and I tried to conceptualize how the theoretical constructions of brave and safe spaces could manifest materially within our center. We discussed the possibilities of making our Writing Center more of a “brave” space by using posters of different writing genres and paper types (lab report, rhetorical analysis, poetry, etc.). In doing this, we theorized, the space could become safer for students from disciplines outside of English who could see the writing they do physically represented. The space would then become braver for students—like myself—who spend a lot of time doing writing traditionally thought to be allowed in the Writing Center. Telling and I hoped that by acknowledging identities and types of writing that existed across campus and within disciplines that we could help welcome writers into our space and make them feel safer working with us.

The tangible construction of our spaces illuminates the emergence of the “typical” view of the writing center, which Grutsch McKinney (2013) challenges in Peripheral Visions by noting that if we ignore the question of who we are making a “home” for, we fail to recognize the implications and importance of the space we create. Because of this, we can see that it becomes important to consider how the space we create can contribute to “the built environment [that] clarifies social roles and relations” as described by cultural geographer Yi-Fu Tuan (1977, p. 107). This is not dissimilar to the ways Lisa Smulyan and Kristin Bolton (1989) discuss the decentralized power structures of a writing center tutoring session compared to that of a classroom where:

In the classroom, the students work together as peers under the teacher’s guidance; in the writing center, students must work to overcome the disparity of authority inherent in their given roles of tutor and tutee. The difficulty for writing tutors lies in balancing their more powerful position as tutor with the goals of peer collaboration. (p. 43)

In our peer tutoring program at MSU, the collaborative and reciprocal nature of tutoring is important to focus on while we practice participatory hospitality (Eodice, 2018) because by acknowledging the value in both the role of tutor and writer, we can both welcome writers into our centers and also hope that they welcome us into their lives and writing again and again. Brave spaces and safe spaces helped me think more deeply about the ways I welcomed writers into sessions, both in our physical spaces and our synchronous digital ones. Through examining my own experiences, I use my understanding of brave and safe spaces to help me better understand welcoming, through participatory hospitality, in our online writing center spaces.

Online Spaces as Safe, Home-y, and Welcoming

The summer before I started as a tutor at the MSU Writing Center, I took an online class from our director who, halfway through the class, decided that I navigated the online spaces well, and that we would use that in the semester to come as I started at the MSU Writing Center. It is still sometimes hard for me to figure out how I am or was interacting differently in an online space than anyone else would. As I think about it now, I need to recognize my past with online spaces that partially lead me to feeling more comfortable in them.

My family moved around a lot while I was growing up. For a long time, my parents were against me having any sort of social media, but when we moved during my freshman year of high school, my mom gave in and let me get a Facebook account to keep up with the friends I had before moving. As my idea of home moved from the physical places to the digital realms, I became better at communicating digitally in order to hold onto the relationships I’d built before leaving. When I finally made friends at my new high school, I continued to use these online spaces as the school year changed to summer and face-to-face interactions became less likely (pre-driver’s license and pre-not having to babysit my little sibling).

Now, as a tutor and writer, I think about the online spaces we work in more frequently. I spent the last conference I went to seeking out chances to learn about online spaces and online tutoring at other writing centers. Learning more about the experiences of others in online spaces forced me to investigate why I feel so comfortable and welcome in our synchronous online space as a writer and a tutor, sometimes more so than the physical spaces.

I always enjoy online tutoring because of the protection it gives me. The online space shifts the power dynamics of a session a little bit because it masks some of the pre-existing commonalities and differences that sometimes appear in a face-to-face session.[3] Growing up, I was a slow reader. Really slow. I was in remedial classes in school because I just couldn’t read quickly enough, or I could read at a standard pace, but my reading comprehension was always a little spotty. This impacts me as a learner today, and tutoring in online spaces relieves some of the pressure connected to tutoring—regardless of whether I am reading aloud or in my head in face-to-face sessions. In digital spaces, I can sit and stew with the material I respond to—in face-to-face tutoring sessions, I often feel pressured to move more quickly. The hungry eyes of the writers I work with gaze at me, hoping their piece of writing isn’t terrible. Or, at least, that’s how it feels sometimes. I say this because I give my tutors the same approval-hungry looks when they read my writing. The discomfort that made me feel safer in the online spaces stemmed from my own uncertainty as a tutor, just as Trimbur (1987) discusses in his article “Peer Tutoring: A contradiction in terms?” when he states that tutoring “is a balancing act that asks tutors to juggle roles, to shift identity, to know when to act like an expert and when to act like a co-learner” (p. 25). Before tutoring, I was never as aware of the moments I shifted my identity and acted accordingly, but the expectations that came along with my perceived expertise and skill meant that the online space itself welcomed me in more.

The stress attached to my reading skills—both aloud and silently—in tutoring sessions is important when examining the perceived power and authority given to me as a tutor when people sign up for an appointment. We frequently attempt to avoid recognizing this power, but it’s still there (Carino, 2003). The sometimes hidden power structures of a tutoring session are important when thinking about how we define and experience welcomeness in writing centers because participatory hospitality demands a reciprocity of not only learning, but also control throughout a session (Eodice, 2018). The absence of face-to-face physical and verbal cues in most of our online sessions means that I’m able to strategically mask the visible “threats” to my authority and “expertise” as a writing tutor, just as the writers I work with can mask whatever pieces of their identities they feel less comfortable with—thus removing some of the things that shake my “foundational truths” (Brugman & Telling, 2017). Just as Beth Hewett (2015) discusses the importance of believing in your writer and believing that the writer will be interested in the work they are doing, the trust then lies in believing that the writer is going to participate in the synchronous session and be equally invested (Hewett, 2015). Through that requirement of reciprocity, the online space can start to embody participatory hospitality, the tool I use to define the welcoming of writers into our space, while creating safety for tutor and writer alike—though this is limited to my personal experiences. Online spaces often created a sense of welcome and safety for me because I was distanced from the writer and could hide my own insecurities as a tutor. I also felt that using the online platform gave me an opportunity to think through the content of the paper, giving me more time to generate a response that would hopefully be both welcoming and constructive.

At the MSU Writing Center, we use WCOnline, which consists of a whiteboard on the left and chat box on the right. Typically the writer will post their paper into the whiteboard and there will be a conversation going on in the chat box. When I tutor, I frequently facilitate a conversation in both the whiteboard area and the chat box area simultaneously.

Jumping back and forth between conversations in the whiteboard area and conversations in the chat box usually worked for me while tutoring, similarly to the multiple conversations I have with friends on different media platforms. Not only do I find comfort and a feeling of welcome in the online space as a tutor, but I also find myself welcome into it as a writer.

As a writer, I choose online sessions for a variety of reasons. There are times I choose online sessions because I’m feeling lazy and would prefer to be at home receiving feedback until 10:00pm and then roll over onto my pillow and go straight to sleep. This choice is less connected to how welcome I feel in the online space, and it is usually when I need or want a second set of eyes on my paper before turning it in the next day. Though this type of online session was often chosen for convenience, I always felt welcome as well. After all, nothing is more homey than one’s actual home. There are, however, instances that I’ve scheduled an online session because I—like many other writers—don’t want to feel the stress of staring at my tutor and waiting for them to physically react to what I’ve been writing. In physical sessions these feelings are obvious as I continue to talk about how nervous I am about the piece of writing I’m working on. These writing assignments are typically higher stakes: either for school or my own personal reasons. As a writer, I use the online space in this way because it affords me comfortable distance from my own frustrations with my writing process and what I’m working on. Without constantly asking my tutor for validation or assuming they’ve reached a certain point in the paper, the online space provides me with more confidence and manners to host and welcome tutors into my paper.

The power shift that happens moving from the physical space to the online space has often given me more power, control, and agency to either take the feedback I’m being given or toss it out. I feel less pressured to take the advice of my tutors, because it appears more obvious to me that I am the host, and it feels as though I can welcome them to work on the paper with me without fear of appearing unwelcoming, as it might feel when I’m in a face-to-face session where the tutor can see my reactions to the feedback they give me. I seek comfort in online sessions as a writer because it gives me greater control over when I give the tutor power, and I can more easily share responsibility and reciprocity of engagement and investment with my tutor. My consciousness of participatory hospitality helps me see the way that welcome is actually manifested online space as the give and take of the session continues.

Online Spaces as Brave, Challenging, and Welcoming

As we try to welcome students into our writing centers, it is important that we don’t simply give them comfort and safety. An emphasis on constructing a brave space allows us to further welcome students into our space and negotiate what it means for us to be welcomed into theirs. Brave spaces shake your foundational truths, and the way this is possible is because the session was built on a safe space (Brugman & Telling, 2017; McNamee & Miley, 2017). The lack of physicality in online sessions removes the ability of the tutor to read body language and other visual cues that I typically take for granted in a face-to-face writing center session. Though I often feel comfortable with online spaces, I still find that my inability to see the writer I am working with can be challenging. This happens not only when I’m a tutor, but also in the moments I’m a writer, and these moments make me think more critically about how that discomfort impacts me and the writing I’m doing. In my time at the Writing Center, I’ve found the physicality useful while giving feedback. If a writer becomes physically uncomfortable[4] while I’m giving feedback, I can typically validate what they’re doing well or reframe my comment to something that is clearer or less abrasive to them, which can help my writer feel more welcome and comfortable in a session. Online spaces take this away, and instead I make similar tutoring moves but am less aware of how my writer is receiving and perceiving those moves. I’ll often include smiley faces to help imply the tone of a comment or response I write—pulling on the casual textual devices I apply in my daily life to help me better communicate with writers.

In a recent online session, I found myself endlessly frustrated as a tutor. In the live chat, there is an option to let the person I am working with see what I am typing in real time. In the past, I’ve spent sessions switching it on and off in order to not distract the student I’m working with as they’re typing their own thoughts in response to something in the whiteboard or a comment made above in the chat box. However, in this particularly challenging session, the writer turned off their real-time chat update which became frustrating for me, as I could not figure out what they were thinking and when they were thinking about it in conjunction with where I was in the giving feedback to the paper. There was a disconnect in our conversation, and during that session I became more aware of how I was not only hosting writers in online spaces, but also I was being hosted in the papers I was giving feedback to both face-to-face and online. Stepping outside of what my “comfortable” experience is in online tutoring challenged me and forced me to think more critically about the tutoring strategies I used, and it means that I had to think more critically about what welcome means in a tutoring session.

In this session, the writer and I took longer than I originally expected to find a rhythm to the reciprocity required in the online space because the session did not fit my expectation. Being forced to be brave in the online space demanded more out of me as a communicator and a tutor. It was in these discomforts that I grew. In recognizing where these discomforts were coming from, I was reminded that while being hosted in someone else’s paper, as much as I have authority in how to talk about writing (and in the power structures that exist in the writing center), the person writing the paper has authority in their own writing, and I can’t expect them to give it to me.[5] I had gotten so used to writers welcoming me into their papers and writing processes in a way that suited me that when it did not happen in the way I was accustomed to, I struggled to give feedback.

Through the focus on my frustration during the session, I was prevented from seeing what was really important in this session. I reverted back into the “insistent individualism” we had been working so hard to demolish—or at least challenge—through the use of participatory hospitality, and through this, I failed to recognize that what was brave and frustrating for me might be safe for the writer I was working with (Eodice, 2018). This idea was something that seemed obvious to me in our physical writing center where my opinions, viewpoints, and reactions were more easily exposed, but as I trudged through this session, I focused much more on myself and my frustration, rather than how this space felt for the writer I was working with.[6]

Being hosted in writers’ papers adds to the need for reciprocity in writing center work. Though my writers were probably not aware of it, they are welcoming or unwelcoming to me during a session, and how they welcome me impacts how I choose how to give feedback. A welcoming writer might participate more in an online session, having discussions back and forth—we would negotiate the space as brave and safe implicitly as we collaborate on the piece they are writing. An unwelcoming writer might constantly dismiss ideas or suggestions, even when I respond to direct questions they ask me. The writer might not want to have a session—possibly because it is required for extra credit or their instructors suggested it—and the session would probably be short and, at least in my experience, feel pretty unsuccessful. An unwelcome space contrasts a brave space because a brave space allows room for collaboration and conversation—it requires a tutor to be deliberate with the language they use in the session when trying to create a brave space. It also requires the tutor to have a consciousness of brave space and the need to step away from individualism when/if the tutor is experiencing it.

My experiences in brave spaces also extends to instances where I am a writer in a session. Toward the end of a semester, I was working through a short paper for a literature class, and I felt really lost. I wanted to feel confident in what I was writing, but I kept feeling frustrated while trying to write it. I scheduled a writing center session and displayed what I had of a draft in the whiteboard, trying to figure out what I could do. The session started and I quickly became frustrated with the feedback I was being given. I couldn’t figure out why, but I left the end of the session early, and thought that I would look back at it later. The session reminded me of how vulnerable sharing writing can be—which is something I feel like the tutors I work with have frequently talked about, but not something I often remember experiencing because I’m forced to share my writing all of the time and have become accustomed to the vulnerability.

In the session I described, my tutor was trying to create a brave space for me—giving me constructive feedback and trying to get me to the next point in my writing process. However, as the writer in the session, I did not welcome my tutor and allow for a conversation and negotiation of writing and writing process. Once again, instead of thinking about how I was welcoming in the writing center that I loved, I became frustrated with myself and, by extension, the tutor who was helping me. In this session, I did not come with an openness. I instead shut down the conversation and was unwelcoming when hosting the tutor in my writing. As my tutor attempted to welcome me into the writing session, I did not do the same. Welcome, as most everything else in the writing center, is something that needs reciprocity. My tutor created a brave space for me which I was unwilling to participate in, and my own unwelcome-ness stopped the session from being productive because I got so caught up in my own vulnerabilities as a writer.

As tutors, it is essential that we remember these feelings of vulnerability in the ways we tutor and confront difficult topics in online tutoring spaces. Hewett (2015) suggests taking a gentle approach to “sensitive issues” in online spaces. I, however, sometimes feel more comfortable approaching sensitive issues in the online space because of the feeling of anonymity. Hewett explains that we need to address “sensitive issues with discretion: buffering your language to try to help them understand what’s wrong with the language they used in their writing (possibly) if that’s the problem. I.e. political correctness etc” (2015). Sensitive issues are often the most important to address, especially when thinking about the ways brave and safe spaces work in online sessions, and are even more important when considering how we welcome writers into the writing center. Working with student writing across multiple disciplines means that tutors are frequently faced with diverse topics, some more “sensitive” than others. These topics that are the most controversial, sensitive, or politically driven are not only sometimes more difficult to approach because they may shake the foundational truths of the tutor, but they are important to address because they may do the same for the writer working with us. It is in the instability of these foundational truths during a session that turns the space from something safe and unchallenging to something brave where there is room for growth through the discomfort. These brave spaces are built upon safe spaces, and with that, we are constantly welcoming writers during the session and responding to them when they reciprocate not only their own identities and opinions, but also how they welcome us into the space as we work on their paper together. For me, the feeling of anonymity available online creates a safer space as I tutor to address sensitive topics, making this online space more conducive to braver conversations and braver spaces for the writers within them, and it is in the reciprocity that the online space demands that makes it available to negotiate these difficult topics.

Some of the conversations I remember from our tutor development sessions throughout my time at the Writing Center include discussions surrounding the discomfort of addressing something that makes us feel uncomfortable in a paper we are reading. Through my ongoing learning as a tutor, I’ve often wanted to lean on what makes me the most comfortable—buffering my language, avoiding the topic, and holding back information and reactions that have made me feel uncomfortable addressing. However, as I have spent more time working with writers and talking about the complexity of the space we’re co-creating, it became more important to realize the good that can occur from addressing this difficult topic that has been brought to sessions. It wasn’t until after RMWCA 2017 when someone asked how to better apply and approach the brave and safe spaces we were talking about in a session that I really understood how addressing these topics and challenging the writers I was working with was so important. My coworker reminded me that it is our job to discuss sensitive issues, regardless of how difficult. Even when we, as tutors, don’t agree with what is being written, we have an obligation to bring up the other side of an argument to help the written piece improve. If we are not challenging students and trying to help them with their writing, we are not fully welcoming them into our writing centers, but rather othering them because we are unwilling to bring these issues up.[7]

What Can We Do? Why Does it Matter?

Writing centers are often positioned as places on the margins of the institution where bigger social change can occur. Kaidan McNamee and Michelle Miley (2018) identify the writing center’s positionality “as a political space where tutors can risk practicing critical consciousness and genuine dialogue, thus resisting entrenched power systems.” It becomes important to think about these power systems specifically in our online spaces because their ability to facilitate braver conversations by providing a platform that creates a power dynamic predicated on more reciprocity and shared authority than our physical spaces, and the ways that allows us to be welcoming.

If we only focus on physical writing centers which have a clearer authority and power structure, we limit our capacity to raise difficult issues, often retreating to safer ground where we are not held accountable to engage with greater social issues. However, by critically examining the braver nature of online spaces we can begin to think about how their power structure demands more reciprocity thereby allowing us to broach uncomfortable topics with the goal of negotiating a responsibility to co-create social change.

Welcome spaces in the writing center can and should be both brave and safe. As tutors, we need to navigate these spaces that overlap and intersect in order to give feedback on the writing we receive in the writing center, and by working within brave and safe spaces—while practicing participatory hospitality where were try to move away from negative individualism—we create more welcoming writing centers and more welcoming sessions. While these practices may not always be reciprocal, we must try to stay open to welcoming them.

The online space demands a much more deliberate approach to welcoming students into the space than our physical space does (because of this altered authority). In WCOnline, I can’t rely on coffee and couches to invite someone into the writing center and comfort them before, during, or after the session. Instead, when tutoring, I must always be aware of the language I’m using to interact with the person in the session. I must be conscious of the way they welcome me in—understanding that welcomeness in tutoring is reciprocal. We welcome writers in with the safety we create—even if it’s not always comfortable—and we continue to welcome them through the negotiation of the space as brave and safe for both of us throughout the short amount of time we collaborate. And we hope that the writer felt welcome enough in that session that they will welcome us back into their lives and writing again.

Author Biography

Destiny Brugman, a former undergraduate Writing Center tutor, graduated from Montana State University with a Bachelor of Arts in English Writing Studies in May of 2018. She is currently a writing instructor and graduate student at Western Washington University. She loves teaching writing, reading academic texts for fun, and thinking about working in writing centers again in the future.


Arao, B. & Clemens, K. (2013). From Safe Spaces to Brave Spaces: A New Way to Frame Dialogue Around Diversity and Social Justice. The Art of Effective Facilitation.

Brugman, D. R., & Telling, H. R. (2017, February). Getting Lost Between Safe Spaces and Brave Spaces. Presented at Rocky Mountain Writing Center Association Conference, Bozeman, MT.

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Eodice, M. (2019). Participatory hospitality and writing centers. In L. Obermark, P. Banaji, L. Blankenship, & K. DeLuca (Eds.), The Rhetoric of Participation: Interrogating Commonplaces in and Beyond the Classroom. Retrieved from

Geller, A. E., Eodice, M., Condon, F., Carroll, M., & Boquet, E. H. (2007). The Everyday Writing Center: A Community of Practice.Utah State University Press: Utah.

Hewett, B. L. (2015). The Online Writing Conference: A Guide for Teachers and Tutors. Bedford/St. Martin’s: Boston, NY.

Grutsch McKinney, J. (2013). Peripheral Visions for Writing Centers. The University Press of Colorado.

Grutsch McKinney, J. (2014). New Media Matters: Tutoring in the Late Age of Print. The Routledge Reader on Writing Centers and New Media. Routledge Taylor and Francis Group.

McNamee, K., & Miley, M. L. (2017). Writing Center as Homeplace (A Site for Radical Resistance). The Peer Review. Retrieved from:

Smulyan, L. & Bolton, K. (1989). Classroom and Writing Center Collaborations: Peers as Authorities. The Writing Center Journal. 9(2), 43-49.

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Tuan, Y. (1977). Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. University of Minnesota Press.

  1. Being part of a university system, we had to abide by certain university policies. Montana State University’s regulation stated that we could not call this our “logo” as the university provides all departments with their own university-approved and designed logo. This results in the MSU Writing Center calling the graphic depicted here our “infographic.”
  2. The eruption of social media, assignments from multiple departments demanding multimodal aspects, digital journals being published, digital rhetoric classes being required for my own BA in English are just the surface of multimodal growth within the writing center. Jackie Grutsch McKinney also speaks to the evolution of not only multimodal assignments, but also the evolution of technologies used for writing in her essay “New Media Matters: Tutoring in the Late Age of Print” (2014).
  3. In face-to-face sessions, I have frequently been asked questions about me—my major or if I’ve taken a class before frequently pop up. This happens much less frequently in the online space, and often results in my identity being on less of a display. Harry Denny discusses the issue of “face” in his book Facing the Center: Toward an Identity Politics of One-To-One Mentoring (2010), where he states: “At its core, face is about identity and raises questions about who we are, and how we come to know and present identity, as a phenomenon that’s unified, coherent, and captured in a singular essence, or as something more multi-faceted and dynamic.” For me, the safety in an online space protects my identity, and allows me to keep what I don’t want known more private. In the online space, the prioritized identity visible to writers is often simply that of “writing tutor.”
  4. In the 2016 fall semester at the MSU Writing Center, Demi Sullivan, a peer tutor, facilitated a body language workshop pulling from research she was doing that pulled from Godbee, Ozias, & Tang’s (2015) “Body + Power + Justice: Movement Based Workshops for Critical Tutoring Education.” Through this, the tutors thought about the way their physical bodies were in tutoring sessions as well as how they typically read body language in sessions. A writer becoming physically uncomfortable can sometimes be seen by them closing their body off physically or becoming smaller. Additionally, paying attention to someone’s facial reactions may help a tutor determine how someone is reacting to their feedback.
  5. Rarely as a writing tutor did I ever feel a true sense of authority except for when I trying to resist it or negotiate the power I had in an attempt to empower the writer I was working with. However, this tutoring session was different. I spent the session less focused on the balance between my roles as a tutor with authority and peer collaborator (Smulyan & Bolton, 1989), and I was instead overly focused on myself—having become too comfortable in my role as a tutor that I forgot how important it was to make my writer feel welcome.
  6. Though I think it is important to think about how a tutor is feeling during a session, this was a time where I forgot about the relational nature of tutoring, and though it is frustrating to think about, my own faults as a tutor gave me a really concrete example of the insistent individualism that Eodice (2018) was warning against.
  7. It is, however, important to remember that the overall safety of a tutor is one of the biggest priorities for writing centers, so it is good for the tutor to know their comfort levels during a session and consult with others when experiencing discomfort reflecting on how they handled a difficult session (McNamee & Miley, 2017).