19 March 2019

A Q&A with Laura Greenfield

Join us today as we talk with Laura Greenfield, faculty associate of communication and education in the School of Critical Social Inquiry at Hampshire College and author of Radical Writing Center Praxis

University Press of Colorado Blog Q&As share the perspectives of scholars working within their disciplines, bringing readers closer to their knowledge, research, and voices. Join us today as we talk with Laura Greenfield, faculty associate of communication and education in the School of Critical Social Inquiry at Hampshire College.

Why did you decide to work in this field?

I love exploring the relationships among language, power, and education, and doing so through an interdisciplinary lens. I am fortunate to work at an institution that does not box people into traditional academic departments or majors, so I have the privilege of engaging the questions that excite me and the freedom to cross disciplinary boundaries. At Hampshire College my home is in the school of “Critical Social Inquiry,” one of five broad interdisciplinary schools. I work alongside historians, psychologists, philosophers, artists, anthropologists, creative writers, queer theorists, critical race scholars, education theorists, sociolinguists, ethnic studies scholars, and many others whose teaching and scholarship influence my own work in powerful ways.

So when people ask me about my field, I’m not sure what field that is! It makes sense that a nexus of much of my teaching and writing has been the world of writing centers and speaking centers—themselves interdisciplinary by nature. As an undergraduate peer tutor, I fell in love with the work because I loved language and I loved the feeling of seeing students light up with confidence while we discussed their ideas. I didn’t realize at the time how closely this work was tied to questions of power and justice, and so it wasn’t until graduate school that I figured out how to bring my passion for social change to bear on my work in writing centers. Once that connection was made, I knew this was the career for me. Although I have always been a confident writer, I was an equally terrified speaker through much of my childhood and young adulthood. I found my voice in graduate school, and that experience of transformation was pivotal in my decision to focus on speaking education as well. The work of speaking centers has appealed to me because it is such a young field and so the questions and opportunities available are limitless. I am particularly compelled by questions about public discourse and the common good: Who has a platform to speak and who doesn’t? Whose ideas are valued and whose aren’t? Whose language practices are valued and whose aren’t? What are the historical and contemporary sociopolitical reasons for these inequities? What is lost when populations are silenced? In turn, what are our responsibilities as listeners? What discussion, dialogue, facilitation, community building, and protest strategies might disrupt systems of oppression? These are the questions that continue to motivate me!

What outcomes do you hope will spring from your research?

I hope that my research will help people understand how intimately systems of power are intertwined with the most seemingly mundane of experiences and tasks of teachers, students, and communicators. I hope that this recognition inspires more curiosity and prompts both inward examination and outward changes to disrupt systems of oppression. I also hope that through the analyses I offer, people develop a sense of hope and courage that change is possible and are emboldened to take action.

Worst professional advice you’ve ever gotten?

When I was applying for my first job out of graduate school, a well-meaning professor warned me to take out the word “radical” when describing my scholarship in a cover letter. They felt the job market was fierce and such a word might scare off hiring committees. Radicalism, however, was central to both my theoretical and ethical approach to my teaching and scholarship, and so taking it out seemed to me to be an erasure of everything I was working on and stood for. It was a matter of integrity. So I left the word in. Fortunately, my decision to be transparent about my politics worked in my favor, and I had a positive experience on the job market and have found jobs that are a great fit for my vision and work ever since. Some of that I chalk up to privilege, and a good deal I believe is a reward for boldness. Even when my radical approach has not been welcomed and I haven’t gotten the results I am looking for, I can go to sleep at night knowing I haven’t compromised my values.

If you had to pick a single question for everyone in your field to attempt to answer going forward, what would it be?

The co-authors of The Everyday Writing Center—most notably Elizabeth Boquet—brought my attention to the work of Mary Rose O’Reilly who is often credited with a question posed to her by her mentor Ihab Hassan: Is it possible to teach English so that people stop killing each other? I believe the answer must be yes and that this question must be foundational to everything we do. Otherwise, what’s the point? My dream would be for the writing center field to adopt this universally as its own most central and pressing question. Imagine the transformative work we could do in the world if we did!

What do you think is the most common (or most irritating) misconception about research in your field?

The most common and irritating misconception about research in writing centers and speaking centers is that there isn’t any. Despite how central such centers have become in higher education, I find that most administrators and faculty in other disciplines (including English and Comp/Rhet) still believe that directing a center is primarily a clerical job—not a scholarly one. When folks do take the time to learn about the rich body of research and scholarship available, see the sophistication of the questions that researchers are posing, and recognize the vast and interdisciplinary body of theories our field engages, they are usually pleasantly surprised. It’s the surprise that is most disappointing to me. I have written in my forthcoming book Radical Writing Center Praxis that a large part of the responsibility for this underestimation is ours—the field does not yet clearly communicate a unified or powerful mission statement that inspires others to this understanding. Rather, we tend to talk about our work defensively. My hope is that the field might collectively engage the relationship between ethics and language more explicitly as a foundational purpose driving our inquiry.

What are the most critical current ideological divides in your field?

The most critical current ideological divide in my field is the same divide that I observe most disciplines and communities negotiating: views about power. Is power a commodity or an activity? Is power good or bad? Is power individual or collective? Are inequities in power inevitable or changeable? What role does our field play in perpetuating inequities in power and what opportunities or responsibilities do we have to promote change? The scholarship and practices that currently dominate the writing center field assume a liberal perspective in which power is negative and inequities in power are unfortunate but unchangeable.

Prevailing arguments about the purpose of writing centers primarily focus on the individual writer rather than the broader institution or society, and supposed best practices privilege the performance of political neutrality on behalf of the tutor and the center rather than on the ethics of language production and the facilitation of social change. An increasing number of scholars and practitioners have been calling this assumption of political neutrality into question, arguing that our work is inextricable from racism, cis-heterosexism, classism, ableism, and other systems of oppression, and therefore we have an ethical obligation to examine those systems through the lens of our discipline. The ideological divide, as I see it, comes down to whether or not we believe those systems are in fact systems of power that structure society and that implicate each of us and whether or not those systems are changeable. Despite a growing belief by many writing center scholars and practitioners that we must disrupt these systems, the field still marginalizes anti-oppression work into “special interest” topics. My hope is that my work articulating a radical understanding of power can help bring more critical political analyses and a more activist approach to the center of the discipline.

Laura Greenfield is the founding director of the Transformative Speaking Program and a faculty associate of communication and education in the School of Critical Social Inquiry at Hampshire College. Her research and teaching interests include the intersections of language, power, and education, with a particular focus on race and gender. Her first book, Writing Centers and the New Racism: A Call for Sustainable Dialogue and Change, with Dr. Karen Rowan, was the winner of the 2012 International Writing Centers Association’s Outstanding Book Award. Previously she served as the founding director of the nonprofit Women’s Voices Worldwide, Inc. and as associate director of the Weissman Center for Leadership and the Liberal Arts at Mount Holyoke College, where she brought its Speaking, Arguing, and Writing Program into international prominence. Her new book, Radical Writing Center Praxis: A Paradigm for Ethical Political Engagement, will be available in April.