race (and other diversities) in the writing center

Great conversation today in the Writing Center meeting regarding race in the writing center in general, but more specifically regarding how tutors “should” respond to students making unethical arguments in their papers. Not surprisingly, it was unclear, or something each individual must pinpoint for herself, exactly when an argument becomes unethical. But we were mainly talking about the kind of out-there arguments like “the Holocaust didn’t happen” or “there is no such thing as white privilege.”  A great conversation followed, one in which, actually, many of the writing assistants impressed the socks off of me with their articulateness and sensitivity.

Anyway, we had varying opinions as to how we each would respond to such an argument. But, after a few of us had responded to the question, Lisa observed that it was interesting that the differences in our answers kind of ran along racial lines — i.e., those opting for a “subversive” strategy (trying to show the writer how the argument was unsound, maintaining the “writing tutor” role, in other words) were white, and those unhesitatingly stating that they would have to be upfront with the writer about their discomfort with the writer’s argument and/or that they would ask to opt out of the whole session, asking another writing assistant to take over, were persons of color.

I found Lisa’s insight powerful. It is as if privilege “allows” me to abstract the problem/conflict away from myself (?). But for someone of color, the problem/the conflict is necessarily(?) more embodied, more undeniable, more sensitive, really (for lack of a better word). I’m not even sure that is an accurate description of what’s going on; it’s complex, of course. But it’s a very insightful, very helpful starting place to think about these things.

And I think that is the main reason to say, yes, we ought to make issues of race explicit in writing assistant training — not because we have any problem among the writing assistants that needs to be “fixed,” but because making this stuff explicit tends to make unconscious or unrecognized things conscious and recognized.  And I think as long as any of us live, we will always have habits of perception or assumption we’re not fully conscious of. In other words, I still think it’s true that once the scales from one’s eyes have been lifted (i.e., like a fish waking up and seeing for the first time that he is living in water (he just never saw it before)). But I also think our need for continually being woken up that way is never ending.  Being human means being always slightly deluded, I almost think. And we have to constantly work against that, by thinking / reflecting consciously, by searching explicitly for our blind spots.

Thinking over my own experience with students with bigoted arguments (for lack of a better term) has made me realize how much of my way of responding to these students is, yes, due to my race, and also due to my personality. I am a conciliatory soul (to a fault, likely), much preferring to lead a writer to realize his argument against, say, same-sex marriage, is weak by maintaining my role as “writing tutor” and helping him focus on audience and evidence, rather than by allowing my role as myself, as Laura, particular reader of this argument who also happens to be gay. I think I do this because mainly of my personality. I am simply not a confrontive (?) person. And so I want to “hide” behind my “writing tutor” role.

And actually, I have a few success stories in that regard. One guy — this was while I was working at the writing center at YVCC — worked with me on his paper in which he was arguing against allowing same-sex parents to adopt children. I worked with him probably three times. And by the third session, he told me he’d given up on that argument because he’d realized he couldn’t make a good argument out of it. He realized that without evidence that same-sex parents harm their adopted children in anyway, there was no evidence to support a ban on same-sex adoption. He realized that a biblical argument against same-sex parenting would have no sway to an academic audience [unless of course the audience was, say, a seminary f aculty who also shared his assumptions about the value of the biblical revelation and his exegesis and hermeneutics].

But I never told him I was gay. One, I didn’t want to. Just didn’t want to. And two, I think I also wanted to not lose my “credibility” as a writing tutor, didn’t want to lose the objectivity he probably perceived in me — which allowed him to listen to my advice and, fortunately, finally, end up realizing his argument was unworkable.  I don’t know what would’ve happened had I “come out” to him. He was an okay guy. He’d known me a while. He might’ve said, “oh, really?” And then not said much more about it. But he might also have found himself wanting to talk to me directly about the issue (maybe to try to convince me, person to person) and have lost some focus on his paper and his argument. And he might have decided that my advice about the quality of his evidence, attention to audience, etc was now less valid. I don’t know.

But even if he had had these other reactions, our interaction would’ve still be good and needful. I mean, then, the conversation would’ve been between a gay woman and a man arguing that she (and others like her) should not adopt children. And so had I “come out” to him, our conversation would’ve been very embodied. And there’s probably nothing more needful to a person arguing against the rights of a whole class of people than to meet and talk directly with a few concrete individuals of that class of people.

So I don’t know. It’s impossible I think to make judgments about what should or should not happen in these situations — though it is very enlightening to think about differences in reactions having also a racial cause. As Dennis later realized, it’s a matter of each tutor finding that point, that “fulcrum,” on the scale, the point at which they feel uncomfortable, the point at which they decide they must respond to the student writer as a concrete individual, as a real live flesh and blood reader, leaving off the persona of “writing tutor.”

And now, whew! I didn’t realize it was after midnight! I’ve got a long day of conferences tomorrow (16 of them, actually), and so I really need to get to bed! Glad to got a little chance to reflect on all this, though, rough as the thoughts are.

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4 thoughts on “race (and other diversities) in the writing center

  1. I’m really glad I stumbled onto your site. At IWCA, I affirmed that I would make our Writing Center ‘anti-racist’ but am finding it a difficult task. Before searching Google, I spoke with an African American tutor and she expressed that we probably don’t see as students of color because we see a sample of our school’s population. She told me she never felt that we weren’t doing enough with regards to race. I believe we can do better though–I just wish the changes I might make would make everyone more enlightened, more than just the clients and consultants at our Writing Center.

  2. Thanks for the great discussion, Laura. And Lisa’s insight was so smart (of course!). It’s always interesting and complicated when it comes to coming out. Sometimes I feel it’s best to keep it closeted and take the rational approach, as you did in this one example. Sometimes I feel it’s best to come out and talk about my own emotional reaction to the paper, as some of the tutors said they would about race.

    The Holocaust denial paper, though. That’s a doosy! (I don’t know how to spell doosy.) I’d probably just tell them right away that that type of discourse isn’t appropriate for college settings and explain the epistemological and methodological expectations of academic discourse. Sometimes I believe you gotta just lay down the law.

  3. Hi, Steve!
    Thanks! I’m glad you found my site, too. I realized when I read your comment that I hadn’t mentioned in my post that the IWCA session on race in the writing center was exactly what prompted this conversation in our writing center meeting. Our director, Lisa Ede, had attended that session, reported back, and asked for our thoughts.

    And yes, I agree: I think we can always do more, can always become more aware, even it seems there are no “problems.”

    Hi, Michael.
    Yeah, there are arguments which are “just” very disagreeable to me, and there are arguments which are simply un-arguable. And, actually, the only paper of the latter variety I’ve encountered is one arguing that Martin Luther King, Jr was a criminal, a law-breaker and shouldn’t be listened to. Yes! Someone back in Yakima when I worked at the community college there, actually argued that. I told her that that was the view of many at the time of his marches, but that no one could sanely argue that now. Thinking back on it now, since she was a Christian (called herself one, at least), maybe I should’ve told her, “It would be like arguing that Jesus was a criminal and shouldn’t be listened to because he broke Sabbath and purity laws several times. The rest of what he did KIND OF, just kind of, outweighs any possible immorality involved in break particular laws.”

    I can’t remember what other kind of reasoning I tried on her, but I do remember that I didn’t have much success in that case. Perhaps I should’ve simply expressed my repulsion as a reader. She probably would’ve called me unprofessional and asked to work with another consultant. But another student perhaps might have taken that reader response to heart.

  4. This post made me remember a couple times when we were working together at the YVCC writing center and a student had said something homophobic or, I remember one student in particular really pissed me off saying something about gay couples raising children but I actually don’t remember what he said. Anyway, I was getting ready to say something to him, but then I looked over to you and realized you weren’t going to say anything, so I took your lead and decided not to either. I guess probably because you were my “boss” and I think that was my first quarter working there. I think after that when anything like that happened I continued to “take your lead” and, I guess, react professionally instead of personally.

    I wonder if, in opposite fashion to the issue of race and writing tutors of color, you were less likely to be personal about it than me because you’re gay and I’m not. I guess what I’m thinking is, since I’m pretty unassertive and don’t like verbal confrontation either, since I kind of have less at stake personally and emotionally in that kind of confrontation, it would be easier for me.

    That also makes me think of my women’s lit class at YVCC. I was constantly clashing with this other student in class, and, of course, I don’t remember the specifics. But Sandy (Schroeder) pointed out to me that because of all the personal stuff this student was going through, (she was getting a divorce and her husband had been having an affair with a minor) the issues we were discussing were a lot more real for her than they were for me, and I was kind of arguing about them in the abstract. (I resented that then, but thinking back on it I think she was right.)

    Maybe more unassertive people like us will be more willing to be argumentative when we really have less at stake emotionally/personally about the issue. Though I don’t want to say that gay issues aren’t emotionally important for people who don’t identify as gay, or that race issues aren’t emotional issues for white people. Just more abstract(?)

    Your blog is too interesting – you’re keeping me from doing my homework.

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