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Writing Centers as Intersections for Controversy and Change

March 05, 2019
Writing Centers as Intersections for Controversy and Change Joe Forte, Purdue OWL Coordinator

Writing centers are institutional and academic sites for transformation and agency; they also have their own share of grand and everyday drama.

Writing centers are institutional and academic sites for transformation and agency; they also have their own share of grand and everyday drama. Some of it involves policy and procedure, some of it revolves around current events and controversy. A recent moment around writing centers illustrates the ubiquity of identity, the politics of identity, and the delicate dance to address identity. This moments also begs writing center staff to think about these occasions as opportunities to discuss, problem-pose, and develop local plans.

Imagine the case of a graduate student, teaching an undergraduate tutor training course for the first time, discovered one of her students and potential tutors had a disability that potentially made tutoring impossible and, more immediately, made teaching and learning insurmountable. Although the student provided insight on their disability, the student’s connection with the university’s disability support system admitted they “weren’t sure what to do.” In the immediate moment, in the midst of the semester, the system wasn’t equipped to jump into action or provide productive advice for anyone involved. As the semester progressed, it became clear that the student was resistant to doing the necessary legwork to ensure their needs were addressed appropriately and, sadly, the student disappeared. While not unusual, the situation asks the question, how can we address student and tutor needs, helping educate them and preparing them to tutor in a writing center? It makes us think more deeply about embodied and performed differences, elements of identity not always worn on our bodies or through our drag. It pushes us to compare those experiences to peers who never have the choice to “pass” or “blend in” with whatever sociocultural majority is dominating a space at a moment.

Writing centers embrace the mantra of “meeting students where they are,” and in most cases they are under the legal obligation to do so. But what happens when the student is en route to becoming a tutor? How do novice teachers navigate the “teachable moment” themselves? What’s the obligation of an institution to ensure the best teaching and learning environment possible when students always have the right to refuse? What happens when a tutor-in-training has a disability (or multiple ones) that severely limits their capacity for tutoring? For circumstances under which reasonable accommodations may be made? What do you do if the only supportive structures set in place (e.g., disability resource centers, dean of students, etc.) cannot support you or your student?

Whether flash points happen between political ideologies or in the moment of everyday discomfort of accommodating students, moments of conflict in writing centers ask us to consider how we cultivate empathy for people who don’t share our experiences, our privileges, or our marginality, but also how to foster space for deeper exploration of these issues. We must consider how abstract ideas of identity quickly become tangible and consequential. Where and to whom do we turn? Preparing to be in the moment can be felt and intense. These moments speak to a dynamic of disclosure, what LGBTQ people could name as “coming out.” This disclosure isn’t just a one-and-done experience. It’s a recurring process that often happens at unexpected times. Sometimes coming out has a domino effect, as we can see from the first two narratives above. Sometimes coming out has internal effects, where a tutor or client might grapple with the stress and anxiety of coping with disclosure. In this case, because of how the disability scenario was handled, the student was outed to faculty and administrators in a way that student may not have wanted to be and the more people involved and the longer this situation went unsupported, the higher the risk for the student. These moments become a form of unrecognized emotional labor that Caswell, Grutsch McKinney, and Jackson (2016) document in the context of new writing center directors, who report not being prepared for these situations as they enter the field.

Identity politics is the heart of the dynamic above, but it can also index the role of Crenshaw’s concept of intersectionality, where marginalization is never understood as a variable with one dimension. All aspects of identity comingle and nuance how they signify, are experienced, or are performed. How can writing centers prepare staff for moments that are deeply rooted in systemic oppression and institutional limitations (i.e., disability resource centers not having the necessary tools or capacity to address students’ needs)? We should also consider how to respond to others who allow for these moments to occur. We have tutors and students who intersect with identities of race, sex, gender, class, age, ability, and multilingual background, among many other possibilities. Trying to create a workplace that is respectful of that diversity means putting that into the language culture of the unit. Ideally, institutions mirror and practice these values, or at minimum they support these dynamics. But too often, they cannot offer a safety net or sufficient support; sometimes they just won’t, and sometimes they just don’t have the capacity. This experience with tutor training illustrates the lumbering and plodding nature of institutional support systems, even those otherwise well-conceived.

Working to accommodate students pushes us to ask the question, how can we engage the various stakeholders around writing, including the teaching of writing and writing centers on campus, all the while imagining how we might push back or even act subversively. How do we foster an inclusive culture and space all while ensuring our units deliver sound education for everyone involved? All of us have negotiated and developed tactics to survive and thrive, and we must figure out ways to pass along strategies for accruing and manipulating cultural capital to others. Whether running afoul of political correctness or encountering a student, tutor, or colleague whose identities exist outside one’s own orbit, the lessons seem clear: be prepared, be patient, be open to asking awkward questions, and embrace difficult conversations that always respect differences.


Caswell, Nicole I., Jackie Grutsch Mckinney, and Rebecca Jackson. 2016. The Working Lives of New Writing Center Directors. Logan: Utah State University Press.

Crenshaw, Kimberle. 2018. "Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Antiracist Politics [1989]." In Feminist Legal Theory: Readings in Law and Gender, ed. Katharine T. Bartlett and Rosanne Kennedy, 57–80. New York: Routledge.

Elizabeth Geib is a PhD student in Rhetoric and Composition, assistant director of undergraduate tutor education, and instructor of Introductory Composition at Purdue (ICaP). Her research focuses on writing center tutor-training, community engagement, public rhetorics, and public literacy.

Harry Denny is associate professor of English and directs the Writing Lab at Purdue University. He has also directed writing centers at St. John’s University and Stony Brook University (SUNY) in New York and is the author of Facing the Center: Toward an Identity Politics of One-to-One Mentoring and coeditor of Out in the Center: Public Controversies and Private Struggles. His research focuses on writing centers, LGBTQ issues in rhetoric and public policy debates, first-generation students, and assessment protocols that identify and address social justice dynamics.

University Press of Colorado University of Alaska Press Utah State University Press University of Wyoming Press