Many writing centers laud themselves for being rebellious, going against the norm, and supporting social justice. Writing centers do this in many different ways, some of which are not entirely possible for every writing center. As we all know, all writing centers are not created equal. Below, I describe a socially just writing center that is hopefully plausible for all types of writing centers, even those that consist only of mobile carts that move around.
In my opinion, social justice starts at the individual level. Then one can work on gathering forces and changing long-standing institutions. In the writing center, this means taking social justice down to the one-on-one consultations. Consultants should acknowledge the big picture at play in these conversations, especially as it pertains to writing.
Every language and dialect comes with its own rhetoric and ideology, some of which can change with each person. As Victor Villanueva says in his article Blind: Talking About the New Racism, “…our assumptions about how the world works are influenced by—might even be created by—the language we receive and use” (5). Instead of pointing out language differences as errors, writing centers should teach consultants how to approach these differences in culturally accepting ways. Consultants should explain the expectations of typical American professors, and give students the choice to keep their own language or to conform to the accepted standards. By giving students this choice, consultants are being sensitive to the different backgrounds writers bring to their work. Language is a part of identity, and no one wants to be told their identity is wrong just because it is not the culturally accepted norm.
In all consultations, not just ones that pose social justice issues, consultants should be focused on helping the writer achieve their goals, whether that means getting an A or challenging the university norms. I once had a multilingual writer come in and ask me to help him sound more like a native American speaker on paper. At first, I felt guilty about erasing his unique voice. Then I realized that this is the writer’s choice. The writer gets to choose what kind of language he/she/they use in their work. My job is to help them reach their goals in any way I can.
Consultants should also be aware of the larger cultural contexts surrounding their university and country. Consultants need to learn and use “the art of conversation, of civil discourse handled civilly” (Villanueva 18). Training should exist that teaches consultants how to interact those from different cultures, how to take on the challenge of incorporating many cultures into the dominant culture, and how to “offer more compel
ling and more socially just visions of literacy” (Nancy Grimm in Villanueva 18). When consultants learn about ways in which language can be used to gain privilege, they can disseminate this information to writers that may feel disadvantaged by this system as well as to writers who may benefit unknowingly from this system.
The idea that we “need a ‘standard,’ even if one does not actually exist, to avoid chaos” (Wilson 189) is not entirely wrong. Yes, we need standards by which to judge, but we also need to look at these standards objectively and wonder if they should be different. Instead of accepting these arbitrary standards blindly, the writing center should push the idea that different people have different standards, and that standards should be more
about content and clarity than perfection. (To quote Hannah Montana once again, “Nobody’s perfect. [We’ve] gotta work it.”)
Instead of ignoring the big picture, writing centers should acknowledge their places in that picture. While most of this post has focused on the one-on-one situations and consultant training, I do believe writing centers need to be proactive in some ways. In the UNL English department’s building, screens display messages that often contain social justice opinions and bold statements. I’ve always admired the English department for taking such strong stances on contentious issues, like DACA, LGBTQA+ rights, and immigration.
These types of public statements are important to social justice work. If the writing center feels strongly about a certain social justice issue, they should say something about that! Especially now that most writing centers have their own websites, they have the means to reach a wider audience than just those who come into the center. Openly sharing opinions that create a more accepting university environment is a responsibility of being university-affiliated. Writing centers have a duty to their institutions to create an open, accepting, comfortable environment both within and without the physical center space.
When I read the University of Washington-Tacoma writing center’s “Statement on Antiracist and Social Justice Work in the Writing Center,” I wanted to give them a standing ovation. They talk about the “systemic racism” of disseminating the idea of a “standard English,” and then commit themselves to being socially just in their practices. Below are the promises the UW-Tacoma writing center has made:
All of these practices are essential to having a socially just writing center, along with the ability to be critical of current writing center practices as they might hurt other people.
Social justice work in the writing center is difficult because we are not a big institution. We are a smaller group that helps students directly. We don’t deal a lot with the administration unless it is to get funding or understand what we are required to do. The best way for writing centers to be socially just is to just be sensitive to all different backgrounds and levels of English and to face cultural differences head on. Writing is incredibly vulnerable, especially when writing in a language that is close to one’s identity, and everyone who works with writing should be aware of this. Everyone deserves to be heard, no matter how they speak or write.
“Statement on Antiracist and Social Justice Work in the Writing Center.” University of Washington-Tacoma University Writing Program, https://www.tacoma.uw.edu/university-writing-program/writing-center.
Villanueva, Victor. “Blind: Talking about the New Racism.” The Writing Center Journal, vol. 26, no. 1, 2006, pp. 3-19.
Wilson, Nancy Effinger. “Bias in the Writing Center: Tutor Perceptions of African American Language.” Writing Centers and the New Racism, pp. 177-191.