Editor’s note: We would like to thank Keli Tucker, Ph.D. Student in Composition and Rhetoric at University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison (Wisconsin), for providing this piece. To contact the author, please email Keli Tucker. If you would like to share your writing center’s experience during COVID-19, please submit via WLN.
In the weeks following the onset of the pandemic, I began to notice that almost every tutoring appointment I had would start in the same way: before settling down to our work, the writer needed a few minutes to talk about how they were struggling to cope, not only with the upheaval the pandemic had caused in their lives, but also with their instructors’ expectations, which had only increased as a result. I noticed something else, too: the writers seemed to assign most of the blame for their struggles to themselves. While they might have been frustrated at their instructors or at the university, and they recognized that expectations of normality were unfair under the circumstances, many still chastised themselves for struggling to meet those expectations. As a PhD student in my first year of coursework, I could relate: the stress and sudden changes in routine had caused me to take an incomplete in one of my classes—and I, too, blamed myself.
During that same time period, I received an abundance of emails from various quarters of my institution urging me to be kind to myself. “These are uncertain/unprecedented/precarious times,” these emails would say, “so be kind to/be compassionate toward/take care of yourself.” I appreciated these messages at first, and hoped they signaled an enduring shift in attitude toward extending greater concern and understanding to ourselves and to one another. However, not only did the emails subside, but as many of us have observed, institutions and instructors have responded to uncertainty by clinging even more tightly to “standards” and “rigor” and “routine”—in other words, to whiteness, elitism, and the status quo. But while the pandemic may have broken this levee, it didn’t bring the flood:
The stories of ableism, racism, and gatekeeping I have heard from writers—not even just after the pandemic, but over the nearly six years I’ve worked in writing centers—have woven a vast tapestry of institutionalized oppression which depicts those of us who struggle as undeserving of success and solely responsible for our own failures.
Ultimately, the pandemic has only increased inequality, in immeasurably more ways than I have space to write about here, and writers who have been othered and made to feel like they don’t belong are struggling now more than ever. We could, of course, work to ensure that we are treating them with greater kindness during this time—but kindness can only do so much. Many of the writers we serve have often long been subject to trauma at the hands of the educational system, and while kindness has its purposes, it is ultimately powerless against this system.
If the pandemic has taught me anything, it is that writers need to know that this broken system is the problem—not they or their very human and natural responses to its failure to protect them in a time of crisis. Laura Greenfield, in her recent book Radical Writing Center Praxis, writes that to “develop a critical awareness of the ways systems of oppression operate…includes examining the ways people internalize their oppression, or take on self-deprecating beliefs and behaviors that validate the system” (65). These notions of self-deprecation and self-blame have become so ingrained in us that the writers I spoke with and I each felt we were individually culpable for failing to overcome difficult circumstances, when in reality, we were all working to pierce through the same tapestry of oppression. Because the system is designed to protect itself through silence, a strong and effective response to the pandemic should involve being unafraid to help writers name their true oppressors, even if those oppressors hold power over our centers as well. As Greenfield wrote, “…the writing center field cannot continue to talk about our work as though an apolitical approach were indeed possible” (82). Now that so many people have struggled as a result of the pandemic, not just those on the margins, perhaps we can begin the work of rethinking our ethical commitments and helping writers shift accountability for their struggles outward instead of inward. No one should be panicking about meeting due dates or unreasonable expectations, or about needing and asking for flexibility at any time, let alone during a pandemic. Writers should expect better from their institutions, and we should consider what—and who—we privilege and protect when we fail to make this explicit in our work.
Greenfield, Laura. Radical Writing Center Praxis: A Paradigm for Ethical Political Engagement. Utah State UP, 2019.