FACING THE CENTER Toward an Identity Politics of One-to-One Mentoring
By HARRY C. DENNY
UTAH STATE UNIVERSITY PRESS Copyright © 2010 Utah State University Press
All right reserved. ISBN: 978-0-87421-767-4
Chapter One INTRODUCTION
Identity Politics, Face, and the Pedagogy of One-to-one Mentoring of Writing
I could tell a tale of swagger and pride, about a group of writing centers great in innumerable ways. The ones at St. John's University provide a glimpse into the pulse of college life in New York City. It's a world different from the sleepy casualness of typical college towns, and it's an environment unlike the crush of humanity at our public sister schools. On our Staten Island campus, the writing center is nestled on an oddly pastoral campus overlooking the city's harbor. The pace and energy are more subdued than its partner site across town, yet the tutors are just as bustling, from online conferences with students across the world to face-to-face sessions with classmates commuting from classes and jobs. In Queens, activity is as frenetic as Midtown on a business day: at one table, a first-year student debates a foreword she's creating for a classmate's book, while on a couch a tutor listens to a graduate student talk through the skeleton of a thesis's argument. In another part of the center, a small group of students workshops article reviews for an environmental studies course. These sorts of everyday exchanges are unremarkable and electric; they bear witness to the powerful, yet quotidian learning experiences in writing centers. Looking out across them, what strikes so many who happen upon the spaces is their look and buzz. They have a hum of academic life that's exhilarating on campuses torn between their commuter pasts and residential futures. Just as exciting as the what's happening in St. John's writing centers is the who's there. Where writing centers elsewhere struggle for staffs that mirror their academic communities, the clients and tutors at St. John's represent campus diversity, not just in terms of race, ethnicity and gender, but also with respect to discipline.
Just as easily, I could reflect on those very same writing centers and tell another tale of ongoing struggle to train the staff. It might be a cautionary story of what happens when the well-intentioned plans go wrong, or it might be a triumph about when some hopelessly lost or naïve tutor has an epiphany that cross-pollinates, spurring on and bettering the wider crew. Such narratives have an archive in the Writing Lab Newsletter, the monthly publication whose volumes provide a rich education in writing center thought and practice. I might share tutoring and tutor-training case studies that reinforce what we already know works well. The pages of Landmark Essays, research monographs, essays in Writing Center Journal and the postings on WCenter, the field's digital clearinghouse and support kiosk, well document the field's collective wisdom. Points of comparison for pay rates, staffing levels, and institution positioning can be found at the Writing Centers Research Project. Any of this work-what-to-do sorts of questions-operates on the assumption, on some level, that writing centers can just bank and replicate without regard to local context or culture or without deep thinking in collaboration with a staff and other stakeholders-faculty, students, and administrators. Granted, research in composition and writing center studies offers crucial guidance, benchmarks and best practices, none of them of much utility outside the everyday realities of our sites and experiences, whether they are emergent, established or senior. The writers of The Everyday Writing Center are the most recent to address and reinforce those sorts of insights (Geller et al. 2007).
I want to tell another tale, a set of tales in fact, rooted in a phenomenon that cuts across writing centers, that resists easy answers and offers up tough questions, that invites problem-posing and believing and doubting. Typically when the issue of "face" is addressed, people pose it is as a sort of rhetorical sort of problem: "How do we put the best face forward?" "What's the best face to put on this issue?" "Let's face the facts." "Putting a face on ..." This book posits face as a starting point for inquiry, asking us to think about it in multiple ways, and pushing us to bracket quick recipes for resolution. Facing the Center is about process and politics and their implications for learning and teaching, particularly in the context of one-to-one collaborations. At its core, face is about identity and raises questions about who we are, and how we come to know and present identity, as a phenomenon that's unified, coherent, and captured in a singular essence, or as something more multi-faceted and dynamic. While on one level, I want us to think about face vis-à-vis writing centers; I also want us to be aware of margins and center, to think of the ways of privileging, to explore the dynamics of ordinary caste. Put simply, as much as I hope for us to grapple with the identities that circulate through writing centers and tutoring, I also want us to think about the transparency of identity, where bodies and affects seem to exist and perform beyond or post identity, where they seem the "same" or "other." Facing the center requires an awareness that the identities at the center signify just as richly as those at the margin. In the move to foreground identity, I commit to the principle that the center, like the margin, has a face and needs interrogation and mapping. In an ever-globalizing world where corporate America and colleges and universities race to embrace and champion diversity, it remains illusive because Others often don't seem present, but a face and a center are nonetheless generative.
St. John's students embody that very diversity most colleges strive for and their viewbooks often trumpet. Intercultural contact, learning, and teaching are part of the ether on campus, augmented no doubt by being situated at the crossroads of New York City. In that very characteristic face that's uncommon in other places around the country, St. John's students are also very typical. They think of college as the route to vocation and job security, undergraduate learning as a conduit to graduate training, professional curricula as entrée and apprenticeship in specialized discourse communities. What drives students is quite similar from campus to campus whether they live in Jamaica, Queens; Bensonhurst, Brooklyn; or in Madison, Amherst, or Eugene. But attending to diversity isn't axiomatic to urban colleges; the relative homogeneity of higher education beyond city centers begs for just as much consideration, not just to prepare students for life in a global village, but also to help students contest the hegemonic as arbitrary and provisional. As I've moved around the U.S. and visited a wide range of writing centers and the professionals who staff them, I've been struck by the need to account for not so much the pragmatics of what we do, but the bodies and the politics that accompany them in writing centers.
Wherever I've gone in the U.S., I've seen writing centers staffed with people in generally privileged positions working with clients who were more often than not first-generation, working-class, or non-traditional students, as likely to be people of color as white. I've seen writing center directors situated as Others by virtue of institutional position or academic rank more marginal than the student demographic they were ostensibly reaching out to. I would discover administrators making do in writing centers, thwarted from pursuing passions in some other field, biding their time and marginally, minimally investing in their unit's programming and development. From coast to coast, I've seen elite universities create writing centers to, as Nancy Grimm (1999) argues, absolve themselves of any further responsibility to "at-risk" students, typically coded as Others, or of any sense of social obligation to the communities in which they were situated. More often than not, in writing center after writing center, in hushed whispers or flustered outbursts, conversations would edge toward the Others in their midst, from the vulgar, "Why does this school let them in if they can't handle it?" to the more subtle discourses grounded in static notions of argumentation or academic or standard English. Veiled at every turn-whether the object of concern was a center's staffing, its clients, administration, mission, philosophy, structure or processes-were bodies in the center, bodies with identities, bodies with faces, politics and implications. With rare exception, nobody was talking about them, a collective denial no doubt rooted more in inability than refusal. This ambivalence about facing the center suggests a discomfort with complexity, with attention to the intersection of meta-forces and local influences at play in writing centers.
That epiphany-that identity politics are real and uncharted in writing centers-first struck me years ago when I began working in writing centers during graduate school. Sadly, the pattern has held up over the years as I moved from one academic post to another. Early on in my career, I stumbled into a community in writing centers, complete with informal networks of colleagues, regional conferences, special interest groups, and national organizations. This world has unparalleled collegiality in the academy; mutual support and mentoring is never more than a telephone call, email posting, or conference cocktail drink away. But it's a community not without problems, both ones it names and analyzes and ones that go unexamined and neglected. Some bemoan writing centers' standing in academe and strive to elevate them by privileging scholarship (be it critical, empirical or qualitative), championing quality service to students, or fostering socially-conscious outreach. Others are critical of the execution of writing centers and question staffing by people not rooted in the field's professional literature, by individuals whose primary focus isn't administering their units, or by folks who don't (or can't) command sufficient support from their institutions. Just as composition studies claims a good deal of victimhood by being positioned (or positioning itself) as a step-child in larger English Studies and literary scholarship, writing center academics can follow a similar path, viewing the field as further subsidiary, narrowly restricted to the pragmatics of day-to-day (or session-to-session) execution of practice. But that's a tired reading of our position that makes us passive objects of our fates, instead of active leaders working toward other directions, other possibilities. To riff on Richard Miller's 2005 work, writing center studies, like wider English Studies, risks going the way of the Classics if we don't play an active role in making our field and the humanities relevant and vital to a post-industrial academy. Part of that work requires asking a different, perhaps difficult, set of questions about who and what we represent as a discipline. Interrogating our identity and its operation involves addressing more than the structural exclusion of certain voices and the institutional privileging or normalizing of others. The causal roots and solutions to those issues are simultaneously internal to writing centers and external to the macrodynamics of higher education, particularly with respect to access and social and cultural honoring of the humanities as a profession.
For the wider writing center community, the absence of experiences and voices of Others has been conspicuous, but also jarring. It isn't as though people of color, working-class folks and non-native speakers of English aren't often part of the conversations or considered in debates; more often than not, these groups are the objects of inquiry. Even more curious, participants themselves seem unaware of their own constructed identities, privileged or Other, center or marginal. Talks, presentations, and keynotes index Others as objects for whom practical and instrumental learning applies, not figures for whom learning is necessarily transactional and collaborative ("we" can learn from "them," "they" from "us.").
As conferences and meetings blurred from one to another, I became aware of a collective dissonance between writing center personnel and the people with whom they worked. It was as if no material connections existed between populations: "they" turn to "us" to become better "writers" as if "we" hadn't ourselves, regardless of circumstances, ever journeyed (or continue to journey) toward claiming "writer" as part of our ensemble of identities. Or further, "we" assume "they" don't have literacies perfectly rich and productive or have rhetorical traditions and cultures of expression that are impossible to bridge or mesh. Or better, "we" act on the flawed assumption or sense of being that "we" have authentic selves or essences that aren't themselves subject to a politics of status or history of caste. Simply, too many risk the delusion that their bodies are not marked or over-determined by identities. Underrepresented, at best, or invisible, at worst, have been the professionals and clients at high schools, two-year colleges, and historically Black or Hispanic-serving colleges and universities, all of which are institutional sites which, if included, reached out to, heard and listened to, promise to radically re-imagine what the "community" of writing centers has to offer, assuming they have the capacity to index, name, and reflect on identities themselves. Still, my privileged colleagues-white, middle-class, straight, American-would ponder why "they" (the Others) weren't more present, more a part of "us," though we rarely embraced them or reflected on our own complicity in silencing and failing to listen to them.
These tensions and challenges aren't unique to writing centers, and they are also not endemic to them. This book will argue, instead, writing centers are sites par excellance where these issues are worked through in ways that wider composition studies and teaching across the disciplines can learn from. Writing centers make local, material and individual all the larger forces at play that confound, impede, and make possible education in institutions. Digging deep into these dynamics and reimaging our theories and practices based on such labor isn't the exclusive province of writing centers; the wider academy must also take up this work and consider ways to follow the lead of writing centers or to clear new ground unique to individual institutional or program/ disciplinary contexts. To face the center isn't just about knowing the who and appreciating the complexity of identities, both marginal and privileged; it's also about the politics of our process, how we face and to what impact. That journey, for me and this text, begins with recounting my own discovery and coming to terms with identity and activism. I write about the influence of identity movements, both historical ones and those I've been involved with, on me and on my later work as a professional in writing centers. Among the lessons that I'll share is the importance of attending to identity politics and the tangible effects of political, economic, social, and cultural forces at play in and often confounding education wherever it's practiced.
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