From Far and Wide: The Fifth Annual Canadian Writing Centres Association Conference

The Canadian Writing Centres Association (CWCA) hosts its fifth annual conference at the Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD) in Toronto, Ontario on May 25th and 26th, 2017. CWCA represents members of writing centres, broadly defined, in colleges, universities, and institutions of all sizes across Canada. It is an affiliate member of the International Writing Centres Association (IWCA).

Clare Bermingham is the Director of the Writing and Communication Centre at the University of Waterloo and is Secretary of CWCA.

WLN Blog: The theme of this year’s CWCA conference is From Far and Wide: Imagining the Futures of Writing Centres. In developing this theme, what were you hoping for?

Clare: “From Far and Wide” is a phrase pulled from the Canadian national anthem, and it’s connected to the 150th anniversary of the formation of Canada as a political nation. However, rather than simply and uncomplicatedly celebrating this milestone, our theme seeks to recognize the complex, often difficult, history of Canada, which plays out in our institutions today and feeds into the questions that writing centres ask about language and writing. We want to challenge ourselves to take note of this history as we turn and look ahead to what’s next for writing centres. We want to know how our community is engaging in work that is inclusive and equitable. How are we working with both Indigenous and international student populations? How are we responding to questions about power and language in training, in theory, and in our daily practice? In what ways are we opening our centres up to be places of real diversity and inclusion in our respective institutions?

WLN Blog: The keynote, Dr. Frankie Condon, has written a great deal on racism and rhetoric. How does her keynote fit into this year’s conference?

Clare: Dr. Condon’s work challenges us to think more deeply about how we do the work we do. It moves us to face issues of inequity and bias head on, but to do so with generosity and care. Frankie’s work, for me, is a generous conversation that’s grounded in the assumption that we want to act in good faith, that we’re taking these issues seriously, and that we acknowledge the potential harm of not listening to each other, especially to the marginalized voices in our communities. Her work is personal and reflective, and she is always equally responsible for the work she calls others to do.

I think particularly of chapter two of I Hope I Join the Band (2012) in which Condon articulates the harms of whiteliness,[1] and asks white people, herself among them, to own these harms and to find better ways forward as learners. The process of learning in this context involves investigating and mining our memories, particularly those that make visible our experiences of whiteness, and then revising those narratives. To revise, we need to hear and receive the truths of people of colour and let them interrupt our self-constructions of rightness and goodness. Part of this process is putting ourselves at risk and getting it wrong, even acknowledging that we’ve rarely or never gotten it right (pp. 32-38).

This interrogation of our memory and our personal whiteliness has a parallel with where we find ourselves as a nation in this historic moment of our 150th anniversary. In order to move forward as a just and equitable country, we have to return to the past, interrogate the whitely constructions of our nationhood, and give space to the stories of Indigenous peoples and people of colour. We must revise our national narratives and acknowledge our failures in order to do better. But, in the same spirit that Frankie brings to her work, I hope we can engage in this work as learners, with generosity towards each other, and with a commitment to acting in good faith.

WLN Blog: Does the current appearance of fascists and the extreme right in the mainstream factor into the decision to have her as a keynote?

Clare: Not consciously, but it’s difficult to ignore the dangerous and scary movements towards white nationalism in the U.S., Europe and Canada, which come, I think, from a refusal to see the harms of whiteliness. Canada has tended to build a national identity against that of the U.S. by differentiating ourselves from American values and American problems. However, we need to recognize that we have equally challenging problems of racism, even if they come in slightly different guises, and our Writing Centres are places where these questions materialize in writing and in language. Perhaps at a time of polarization, the collaborative, generous, conversational, and open work of writing centres is increasingly necessary.

WLN Blog: What can delegates expect from the conference? (A question about the generalities of the conference – OCAD, Toronto, etc.)

Clare: The space and spirit of OCAD is unique and exciting. We (non-artists) think of art as its end-product and end-location — of the pieces on gallery walls, well-lit and perfectly positioned. What’s invisible is the space of art’s making: the messiness, the splashes of paint and glue, the dust and debris, the industrial tools. Like writing, art is created through an imperfect and messy process, sometimes involving safety glasses and coveralls. OCAD is that space. It’s the workshop more than the gallery, and what better space for a writing centre conference?

For the second year, we’ve extended the conference with a pre-conference workshop. OCAD’s vision for this workshop blends the acts of making in the arts with the acts of making in writing. I don’t want to give too much away, but I’m really looking forward to it.

Overall, the conference promises to come at the questions raised by the theme in a variety of ways and from a variety of perspectives. We have always been a community of learning and of professional generosity. Even when issues challenge us, we work to listen and understand each other. Proposers of panels and sessions were excited to share what they’re doing and how they’re doing it so that we can all bring new approaches and ways of thinking back to our centres.

WLN Blog: This is the 5th annual CWCA conference, which is to be congratulated! What do you see as the future of writing centres in Canada in the near term?

Clare: I hope that writing centres will increasingly be seen as valuable and relevant spaces in our universities and colleges, as places where students will be challenged to be more engaged writers and communicators, with the agency and autonomy to make their writing work for them. I hope there’ll be more centres doing good and unique work that embraces both rigorous scholarship and changes in the technologies of communication. I hope we’ll begin to challenge our institutions — faculty, students, and administration — to begin unpacking questions of correctness and move towards questions of contextuality that recognize the inequities and globalization of language and communication. In this era of alternative facts and fake news, our students need to become even more discerning sifters of information, more critical readers, and more flexible communicators. To do that, they need the kind of individualized support that writing centres offer.

WLN Blog: What about, say, in 20 years?

I have to be careful not to get too Back to the Future when I think 20 years ahead. Putting aside hover boards and cyborgs, I’d like to see Writing Centres moving towards the same kind of institutional relevance as libraries have, with the resources and technology they need to truly engage students and the complexities of their communication needs. I see us as one institutional space among many that is explicitly addressing student identities as part of their writing and communication processes.

WLN Blog: Personally, what do you get from attending CWCA’s conference?

Clare: I’m relatively new to the writing centre community, but CWCA has been a core part of my experience since I started. It always challenges and energizes me. I come away from hearing about the tremendous work that my colleagues do with ideas that I can borrow and transform for my own centre. I especially love the collegiality of our relatively small group. Our members are always willing to give advice and share ideas, and they are passionate about the work they do and its importance for students. They are inspiring!

[1]Whiteliness is defined by Minnie Bruce Pratt and, later, by Marilyn Frye, as learned ways of knowing and doing characterized by a racialized (white) sense of oneself as best equipped to judge, to preach, and to suffer […] [W]hiteliness impedes the ability of white folks to change, to be changed in and through our relationships with peoples of color and by the analyses they offer to us of the materiality of racism in all of our lives” (Condon, F. (2012) I Hope I Join The Band: Narrative, affiliation, and antiracist rhetoric. Utah: Utah State U.P.)

“Whiteliness is not necessarily a product of being white. Whiteliness is, rather, an articulation of epistemologies that have been racialized; whiteliness is a rhetoric.” (Condon, F. (2011). A place where there isn’t any trouble. (V. A. Young & A. Y. Martinez (Eds.), Code-meshing as world English (pp. 1–8). Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.)

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