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.