Dear CWCAB,

I have a question that I was hoping to get some guidance on: as a lecturer, I find it easier to implement antiracist writing practices (e.g., being accepting of all language varieties) than I do in the writing center. Mainly, I find it hard to be open when other instructors might not be. Do you all have some actionable steps I can take to make this much less of an issue?

These are the kinds of questions that keep me up at night. My ideals tell me the same things about accepting all language varieties–I regularly teach my tutors the CCCC’s Statement on Students’ Rights to Their Own Language,” and we have a banner of the statement on our Writing Center wall. I work hard to teach tutors that writing centers are no less culpable in systemic racism than anywhere else and encourage them to pay close attention to their own biases and privileges.  But I ask myself with some regularity, “Am I doing enough?” The answer is always no.

There are many resources on writing centers and anti-racist pedagogy. Among those that address the early stages of implementing anti-racist pedagogies is what is now a classic in the field, Writing Centers and the New Racism. In it, Nancy Grimm’s essay outlines three very simple ways to start implementing anti-racist pedagogy in the writing center. She pushes back against three common pieces of writing center lore to suggest ways that they get in the way of our attempts at inclusivity. First, she argues that minimalist tutoring is not a one-size-fits-all approach to writing center work. Some students, especially those from outside the western world, are far less likely to engage with their work than those from the United States. First generation students may have less “training” for how to talk to people in positions of authority. There are any number of other reasons why a student may respond negatively when being tutored “minimally.” Strict “no proofreading” policies ought to be a thing of the past. Instead, we should consider how proofreading or editing work can be useful to a variety of different students. Policies that prohibit consultants from holding a pen or typing for a student are ableist, and many students can benefit from a tutor taking notes or transcribing their ideas.

Secondly, Grimm suggests that writing centers’ tendency to argue that they exist to create “independent” writers is harmful to many of the same groups as minimalist tutoring can be. She notes that it goes against much of the writing center emphases on conversation and dialogue, not to mention basic composition theory. Writing is always a conversation, and writers of all levels have a need for feedback and conversation about the writing process. Virtually no one in our field continues to believe in the myth of the solitary genius, writing brilliant work alone and then revealing it to the world. This idea persists outside composition, though, sometimes even in English departments. It’s important, then, to offer a corrective to the myth when the opportunity arises.

Thirdly, our oft-quoted motto that our aim is to “make better writers not better writing” puts too much emphasis on the individual and on a hegemonic version of “good writing” in a world where multilingual writers are more and more common. Rather than continuing to emphasize what the academy calls good writing, writing centers can shift the conversation to broaden what good writing is.

These are big issues, and often writing center directors, staff, and tutors don’t have the institutional standing to make changes of this size, let alone stand down the cultural forces we face. We can, however, make small changes in our informal conversations with colleagues and students. Even the questions we get from those outside the academy, when a friend says something about how hard it must be to teach “kids these days.” Not enough people realize the obvious truth that there’s no such thing as right and wrong when it comes to grammar and language, but we can chip away at the stereotypes that lurk, seemingly innocuous, around our field. None of this is a quick process. Changing minds on these issues, though, is among the most important things we can do as educators.

Resources

Condon, Frankie. “Beyond the Known: Writing Centers and the Work of Anti-Racism.” The Writing Center Journal 27.2 (2007): 19–38.

Eddy, Sonya Barrera et al. “Narratives from a Writing Center: Actively Engaging in the Process of Anti-Racism.” WPA. Writing program administration 44.3 (2021): 147-154

Geller, Anne, et al. “Everyday Racism: Anti-Racism Work and Writing Center Practice.” Everyday Writing Center. Utah State University Press, 2007. 87-109.

Greenfield, Laura. Radical Writing Center Praxis : a Paradigm for Ethical Political Engagement. Logan: Utah State University Press, 2019.

Jackson, Karen Keaton, Hope Jackson, and Dawn N Hicks Tafari. “We Belong in the Discussion: Including HBCUs in Conversations About Race and Writing.” College composition and communication 71.2 (2019): 184–214.

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