Reflections on Working in the Writing Center
Updated: Jan 7, 2020
The writing center, just like any other device of education in this day and age, functions on the foundations laid by academia. Academia, of course, is a somewhat corrupt system that has its roots in patriarchy, sexism, racism, homophobia, and ableism. I wonder if the fact that as I am writing this, there is a red squiggly line under the words' ableism' and 'ableist' only further illustrates my point.
To this end, education in the US may sadly be summed up thusly: it works, but it only works naturally for certain specific demographics of people. Those who fall outside of academia's favored demographics (women, minority students, and disabled or learning differential students being some of the most obviously discriminated against) can still succeed in an educational environment. However, their road to success is undoubtedly marred by more barriers than we might like to admit. As Jay Dolmage writes in "Mapping Composition,"
"The university erects steep steps to keep certain bodies and minds out. Second, to retrofit our structure for access, we add ramps at the sides of buildings and make accommodations to the standard curriculum. Still, disability can never come in the front."
The writing center, arguably, is a reaction to this reality. Those who must play against uneven odds for academic success can undoubtedly find use in a place in which peer-tutors aim to even the playing field for their academic comrades. Many, if not all of the prominent authors within Writing Center Canon (recently, Dolmage comes to mind) have made it clear that their mission statement for the writing center posits it as a place which destabilizes the inequitable cornerstones of academia, and does so enough to at least level the playing field for those who need it leveled most. But just how much can the product of a system rebel against the very system responsible for its creation? Is it even truly possible for the writing center to strip itself of the restrictions and biases of traditional academia, and create a space in which students can use their knowledge in combination with the knowledge of their peers to create an equitable educational experience for themselves? Or are such ideals for the writing center hopelessly naïve, and merely further representative of educators with a savior complex who have taken it upon themselves to fix what is broken, thinking that impossibly, they have solutions where all others have failed?
I hope that the correct answer is not the last one posed. I do believe that writing centers can function effectively to help foster an equitable environment for students within the confines of academia. The question, then, is how. Through exploring the work of four authors: Dolmage, Elston, and Keedy & Vidali, I aim to delve further into this question, as well as to further provide evidence for my assertion that the writing center can indeed function in such a way as to help foster an equitable academic environment for those who might find the education system rigged against them in unfavorable ways.
Dolmage's aforementioned essay, "Mapping Composition," serves as one of the seminal texts in this area. In this essay, Dolmage writes how academia, and as a product of academia, the university, are spaces inherently biased against the disabled. Dolmage writes that "people with and without disabilities are forced to work around an inaccessible environment, never cooperating because too often their concerns are perceived as 'divergent.'" As anybody who has been a part of a 'higher' learning institution might attest, the university space is defined by rules. These rules – a certain number of hours per class that must be spent on homework, rigorous grading systems, and unassailable deadlines, to name a few – create a space of competition that is harsh for the able, and almost impenetrable for the disabled.
Dolmage writes that "The self or selves that have been projected upon the space of the university are not just able-bodies and what is considered normal, but exceptional, elite. The university is the place for the very able," and this is hardly an arguable claim. The university is supposed to be the home of the elite, but along with this elitism comes a perhaps unintended natural bias against the disabled. The problem, then, is that universities neither do enough to acknowledge this nor do they do enough to combat this when it is acknowledged.
Often, professors will prioritize fairness over equity, prioritizing a level playing field over one that gives every student an equal chance to succeed. This naturally results in disabled students feeling as though they are expected to work disproportionately hard to succeed in academic spaces compared to their neuro and physio-typical peers. "American academics," as Dolmage writes, "have delineated and disciplined the border between able and disabled, 'us' and 'them.'"
To this effect, students with 'invisible' disabilities (psychological afflictions such as depression, anxiety, ADD, OCD, or dyslexia, to name but a few) may feel pressured to 'pass' as normal to not feel 'othered,' or alienated by, academia and its spaces.
In league with this, Elston writes in her article "Psychological Disability and the Director's Chair" that she has been cautious of acknowledging her anxiety disorder, despite anxiety being the most common psychological disorder for American adults to be diagnosed with, because of the stigma psychological disorders bear in the world of academia. However, Elston recognizes this as a negative behavior, writing that "' passing' in such a manner also problematically reinforces the ableist fantasy that disability and expertise are mutually exclusive categories when it comes to academic performance(s) such as writing and teaching."
When writing tutors and, perhaps more importantly, writing center directors' pass' in order to avoid being stigmatized, potential writing center clients are negatively impacted. If a student perceives the writing center as a place where the elite act as 'remedial' aids to failing students, they will believe that they must then convey a neurotypical, able-bodied, or able-minded appearance. They do this to avoid being stigmatized by tutors, whom they do not perceive as being capable of understanding their struggles as a psychologically or physically differential learner. As Elston writes,
"Many students who come to the writing center have bought into the notions that they must successfully project 'able-mindedness' (or able-bodiedness), that they must overcome aspects of their neuro- and physical diversity in order to write, to learn, and to be accepted in academic settings. We are not adequately serving these students if we allow these perceptions to stand unchallenged."
The solution to this conundrum, then, seems at least on the surface level simple. Elston suggests that we encourage writing center tutors and directors with psychological and physiological differences, to be honest, and open about their struggles, especially with clients who suffer from the same setbacks or barriers. Of course, this is easier said than done. Even if writing centers attempt to destigmatize psychological and physiological differences among students, there is no guarantee that the academia surrounding the writing center will take a similarly progressive approach. To cast off academic stigma in the writing center is to encourage a rebellion against academia as a whole. While this is inarguably necessary for such circumstances, those enacting such rebellions must be prepared to face stigma along the way.
Keedy and Vidaly, in their article "Product Chaos," write together as authors with disabilities about their writing process and how disability and the writing process are the same for people who have learning differences, at least most of the time. To this end, Keedy and Vidaly write that it is necessary to acknowledge that neuro or physio-atypical students (those with physical and psychological differences) will have different writing processes than neuro and physio typical students and that these differing writing processes (processes of 'productive chaos,' as Keedy and Vidaly title them) should be worked with by tutors in order to encourage an equitable writing center.
Keedy and Vidaly write that "Productive chaos means allowing and even anticipating writing not as a formulaic process but as a highly personal and productive, if sometimes painful, creative act." Elston writes of a similar need to encourage tutors to appreciate student individuality in the writing process, and this also works towards mediating some of the restrictions academia imposes upon learning differential students that Dolmage writes about. Additionally, working with learning differential students in a way that encourages and liberates them can be rewarding for tutors: Keedy and Vidaly write that "Embracing disability in supporting writers and writing is a many-layered intervention that sometimes comes together into an engaging work of art and always challenges our common definitions of the writing process."
In conclusion, academia, and thus the spaces it confines itself to (universities, for example) are inherently ableist locations, as Dolmage writes. However, as Dolmage, Elston, and Keedy & Vidaly write, this is not to say that academia must remain a space in which disabled students are marginalized. By working with tutors and writing center directors to destigmatize both neuro and physio-atypical students, as well as by encouraging tutors to appreciate student writing processes individually, writing centers can both rebel against, as well as a create a standard for, how learning differences are treated within academia. To this end, my writing center pedagogy is that students, regardless of sexual, socioeconomic, racial, or neurological and physiological differences, should find in the writing center a welcoming space of encouraged self and skill improvement. By creating such a space, writing centers can be a model for the rest of academia when dealing with students equitably in ways that improve both a student's quality of education, as well as their quality of life. Realistically, what more could we ask for?
Disability and the Teaching of Writing: A Critical Sourcebook, edited by Cynthia
LewieckiWilson and Brenda Jo Brueggemann. Bedford/St. Martin's, 2008 (contains Jay Dolmage, “Mapping Composition: Inviting Disability in the Front Door”)
“Elston 13.1.” Praxis: A Writing Center Journal, Praxis, www.praxisuwc.com/elston
“Keedy Et Al 14.1.” Praxis: A Writing Center Journal, Praxis,