In this episode, Editor-in-Chief Anna Habib spoke to Kara Wittman who represented her co-authors Jenny Thomas and Ashlee Moreno on their article The Writing Center is Not a Place from the December 2022 issue of WLN: A Journal of Writing Center Scholarship. We hope you enjoy it! And don’t forget to check out our interview with Sarah Rice on her Tutor’s Column article titled Navigating the “New Normal” with Abnormal Discourse also from the December 2022 issue. Scroll down for the transcript of this episode.

For listening on your mobile devices, find Slow Agency on Anchor, Apple Podcast, Spotify, and Google Podcasts.


Barthes, R. (2012) How to live together: Novelistic simulations of some everyday spaces. (K. Briggs Trans.) Columbia University Press.

Butler, J. (2006). Precarious life: The powers of mourning and violence. Verso.

Lape, N. & Katunich, J. (Eds.)(2022). WLN: A Journal of Writing Center Scholarship. 47(2).

About the Authors

An image of Kara WittmanKara Wittman is Director of College Writing and Assistant Professor of English at Pomona College. She specializes in rhetoric and writing, British literature of the long-nineteenth century, narrative theory, pedagogy, and the theory, history, and politics of the essay form. Her work has appeared or will appear in WLN: A Journal of Writing Center ScholarshipCollege Composition and Communication; Writing STEAM: Composition, STEM, and a New Humanities; Failure Pedagogies: Learning and Unlearning What it Means to Fail;The Critic as Amateur; the Cambridge History of the British Essay, and the Edinburgh Companion to the Essay. She is the editor, with Evan Kindley, of the Cambridge Companion to the Essay.


An image of jenny thomasJenny Thomas is the Assistant Director of College Writing and Language Diversity at Pomona College. Coming to writing studies from the world of Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages, she has worked with multilingual writers for over two decades. Her chapter “Do I Talk Too Much? Exploring Dominant and Passive Participation Dynamics” was published by TESOL in Language Teacher Research in Europe. Presently, she is focusing on disability in academic contexts—its impact on listening, speaking, writing and classroom participation. She strives to equip tutors to respond effectively and generously to students’ ideas, especially on the level of the sentence.


Ashlee Moreno is the Writing Program Coordinator at Pomona College. She’s been at Pomona for three years and joined the team just two weeks before campus evacuated for Covid-19! Her work with the Writing, Speaking, and Image Partners has been instrumental in helping restore the community of our physical space now that we’re back on campus, and her commitment to the students during the remote year was critical to their mental health and well-being.





Transcript “The Writing Center is Not A Place” with WLN Author Kara Wittman

[00:00:00] Intro

[00:00:28] Esther Namubiru: Hello friend. This is a WLN author episode where we feature our authors in the WLN journal. And we asked him to tell us a little bit about the article that they have just published in the journal. We hope you enjoyed this episode.

[00:00:43] Anna Habib: Today on our WLN Author series, we’re joined by Dr. Kara Whitman. Kara is director of college writing and assistant professor of English Pomona College. She specializes in rhetoric and writing British literature of the long 19th century narrative. Pedagogy and the theory, history and politics. Her work has appeared or will appear in WLN: A Journal of Writing Center Scholarship, College Composition and Communication, Writing STEAM, Composition, STEM, and a New Humanities. And in many other places. Dr. Whitman has contributed to WLN‘s December, 2022 special issue on what we learned from the pandemic, guests edited by Noreen Lape and John Katunich. Kara, thank you so much for joining us this morning.

[00:01:35] Kara Wittman: Thanks for having me.

[00:01:38] Anna Habib: We are excited for our listeners to hear about the article that you recently co-authored with Jenny Thomas and Ashley Moreno published in WLN: A Journal of Writing Center Scholarship. The title of your piece is The Writing Center is Not a Place. So let’s dive in. Can you tell us just a little bit about this article?

[00:01:58] Kara Wittman: I think I was really excited about the opportunity to write this piece because we all know that for transfer of learning, for knowledge to stick you need to reflect on it. And this seemed like a good moment to take a step back and say, what have we been doing?

[00:02:16] Everything has been moving at 150 miles an hour. You know, trying to do this, transforming our center, and this was a chance to say, what is this thing that we’ve done and why did we do it? how can we come back to how this is the embodiment of some of our core values, but also some of the things that we’ve now recognized that we’re maybe just kind of coasting along with them being implicit for so long.

[00:02:42] And so this piece really says, okay. First of all, how is it that we stayed? How is it that we were still thriving during the pandemic? What did we change? So we’ve reopened as the Center for Speaking Writing in the image. it’s a new center. And that, grant that supports that is actually something that I got just before Covid hit

[00:03:01] So it meant building this new center and thinking, what does it mean to do that right now? I wrote the proposal for the grant before the pandemic hit. And so this piece is really saying, okay, we’re rethinking how we support written communication on campus. We’re moving into robust support for oral communication, and we’re adding visual rhetoric as a very important part of what we’re doing.

[00:03:25] how are all of those things contributing to the, community that was flourishing even in this time of the pandemic. And what I think the piece addresses is that when you strip away the physical space, it’s a little bit like the matrix, right? You see like Keanu Reeves and all, and you know things that look like human bodies.

[00:03:49] Kara Wittman: And then all of a sudden you can see the network behind it when you go into the matrix. And when we lost the physical. It was like looking at a neural map of the brain and saying, this is how, communication’s working, where do we fit here, and how can we keep these electrical impulses moving across campus and between our students? And that’s, that’s what this piece looks at.

[00:04:13] Anna Habib: I love that network image. And in fact, I was gonna ask you about the specific quote on page five, which references what you just said. So you say with your co-authors quote, “we let the space of the writing center, Capital W, capital C, be the space of the writing center, lowercase, w n c. And when we lost the former, we needed urgently to rebuild the latter, but to rebuild the latter meant returning to something other than our physical foundations. It meant asking, what does it mean to do this work right. From your perspective and from the lessons you learned and that you share in this article in WLN, what did or does it mean to do this work right now?

[00:04:58] Kara Wittman: I think of it when I, when I still, when I think about what happened, we went remote for a full year. And Pomona College had virtual classes for a year. We didn’t try to come back to campus, so we had no space. And then there were a lot of restrictions, so we were really out of our physical space for a year and a half.

[00:05:16] And so I think about, okay, there’s the moment when you are going to go to work and your work has been in Smith Campus Center, 148. You could go through the door and there you are. What happens when you say, ‘I’m gonna go to work,’ and you go to Smith Campus Center, 148 and it’s not there, and you have to say, ‘what is the work I’m going to, what am I, what am I doing here?’

[00:05:40] how do I continue to do what I’ve been doing when the door that I was gonna walk through that would sort of catapult me into that space of work isn’t there anymore? And that led to that question, “what does it mean to do this work right now?” The, right now I think of it, intentionally it’s pointing to any given moment. It’s the moment of the pandemic. It’s the moment of the George Floyd Reckoning. The movement for black lives, the protests, it’s the moment of saying, what does it mean that now there’s an artificial intelligence that can write papers for us. It’s the moment of saying there is settler colonialism baked into the walls of this institution, and we are working within the walls of this institution.

[00:06:30] Kara Wittman: What does that mean? And so we said, okay, well now we don’t have that space. Now we can see this neural network. What are we doing as writers, as listeners, as mentors, as tutors, as directors, when I teach, I, I draw two heads on the board and say — this is from like Cicero’s course and general linguistics — I draw the two heads on the board and say, here’s the impossible thing that you’re about to do. You’re gonna try to get something that is in this brain intact across this blank space, into this brain in the way that you want it to. You want it to arrive safely. You want it to arrive the way that you imagined it would get there. But it has to pass through this space. That’s hard. And all of the partners that I work with, all of of my staff, we’re all in the business of holding that little paper airplane trying to get it from one head to the other. And what is this space of holding right now?

[00:07:31] and that made us think about: how do we teach, what do we focus on? How does oral communication fit into all of this? How does the visual fit into all of this? How does our care for each other change given that those heads have become so much more distant and now they can’t see each other?

[00:07:49] Anna Habib: There’s this theory the theory of creative destruction and it feels like that is what you’re describing this moment where, and there are many moments like you just listed, but this moment, We’re in the or some crisis has happened and everything has fallen, we can see what’s behind the curtain, like you said, those networks.

[00:08:15] And then we can also see the opportunity for creation and creativity and, and this existential questioning. your piece really helps us appreciate that. And in it you list several or movements that you took as a writing center in response to the, pandemic reality or this destruction. And you say that none of these were spectacular. I’m assuming you mean you know, you did a lot of the basic kind of moves that many of us in writing centers have done and had to do and had to respond

[00:08:50] Kara Wittman: mm-hmm.

[00:08:50] Anna Habib: in ways that we had to respond during the pandemic. But you follow that by saying that you did do something that changed things permanently. You shared in the article several lessons or principles I guess, that you kind of took from this experience. And you outlined those in your piece. So maybe you could share a couple of them. And I especially really appreciated the second lesson on oral communication and support, you said, “the moment of fracture to redefine for ourselves and for the college as a whole, What communication and support for that communication look like on a college campus.” But maybe you could give us listeners a sense of some of those lessons.

[00:09:31] Kara Wittman: Yeah. I wanna add to the, creative destruction that was the phrase that you used. They counter, the sort of evil twin of that is disaster capitalism, right? the sort of shock doctrine where in a moment of, catastrophe you can lose a lot.

[00:09:48] People can move in and take advantage of that to rearrange to impose different beliefs and principles, and I was really aware of that at this moment, that the college was responding to something unprecedented and so might make unprecedented moves and ones that I didn’t like. And so I felt really acutely, okay.

[00:10:09] First of all, we’re, we’re just not gonna close . We sent out a, the day that campus was evacuated, we were actually four days from the deadline for hiring our new round of partners, and I sent out a message to the entire student community and said, we’re still hiring. I don’t know where you’re all going, but we’re still hiring.

[00:10:28] You have more time now for your applications, but you need to know we’re still hiring and we’ll still be here. So that we had that continuity and then thought, okay, we are in the business of helping language move around this campus and move around this campus ethically, inclusively, effectively, joyfully.

[00:10:52] we are in the business of helping people talk to each other. Write to and for each other. Think about how they’re being heard, read, listened to.

[00:11:04] let those things inform the work that we’re doing and make this a collaborative effort with everyone on campus. So I also happened to be chairing at the same time, our, our subcommittee- inclusion and community and online teaching, which was also created like right at that moment. And I said, how fortunate , because I have this whole organization that is gonna help you build this new this new Zoom school.

[00:11:33] Kara Wittman: And so we first thought about, okay, What is it gonna mean to do writing? And it to me meant that even though maybe it’s paradoxical, we could actually be even more collaborative because students could get in there and they could be in the language at the same time. They could look at the words on the page.

[00:11:53] They could work collaboratively and documents and say, what does it mean when this is all we’ve got? How does that heighten the stakes of, and the beauty of the fact of these rhetorical choices that we’re making?. , the really important thing was our move to support oral communication and that we have a speaking partner program now.

[00:12:13] It’s really thriving, but what’s so exciting to me about the Speaking Partner program is that it was formed because I am obsessed with class discussion, not having class discussion. I was the student who never raised her hand in class, but the but the truism of class discussion. That it’s become axiomatic that we learn by talking to each other in classes.

[00:12:38] What does that mean? That’s really hard. And so this whole speaking partner program was formed to kind of theorize, respond to and, and problematize that. And so we, yeah. Sorry. I’m-

[00:12:50] Anna Habib: I was just gonna say what when I saw the subheading about rural communication. I was expecting that I was gonna read about public speaking, like students learning how to do presentations. But really I loved what you said about discussion one of the goals here is to help students learn how to engage thoughtfully and, as listeners in these discussions. And that’s not something that we would expect to see in a quote unquote writing center that that work is happening. And I just, I loved it and I just think it’s something that we could all learn from.

[00:13:30] Kara Wittman: One of the things I’ve loved is seeing how the speaking partners and the students who work with the speaking partners all of a sudden can see and now have become kind of ambassadors.

[00:13:42] How thinking deeply about class discussion with in these spaces has changed the way they think about writing. That it’s not all a bunch of people articulating their thesis statements in a classroom. If that happened, it would be a disaster.

[00:13:57] You need people who are amplifying, making transitions challenging, illustrating. Who have no idea what’s happening, who are waiting for their opportunity to join, what’s the space that you make for that? And looking at the normative constraints, the ableism the monolingual expect sort of like

[00:14:22] default of those classrooms meant that as speaking partners we were, and as a speaking program, we were all in a position to challenge those and to defamiliarize them for our, especially for my colleagues to say like, look, these are some of the things that you rely on that we need to bring to the surface here.

[00:14:42] And also to think about how those look in writing. Are we translating those expectations? Are those also on the page in ways we haven’t seen before?

[00:14:51] Anna Habib: You’ve mentioned the speaking partners. Can you clarify who those are?

[00:14:57] Kara Wittman: So we have we have three. It’s all, it’s all mushed together now. We tried to keep it distinct in the beginning just so that it was visible. We have writing partners, speaking partners, and image partner. Many of them are hired to do more than one thing. The speaking partners are hired and trained to work with oral communication in, four different ways. The public speaking, the interview skills, the leading class discussion, but first and foremost for participating in class discussion.

[00:15:30] And so they, one of the things that my colleagues will now do is say, some classes are really rapid fire. everyone’s talking or three people are talking. It’s hard to join the discussion. You are struggling with imposter syndrome. I could go on the speaking partners there and, and I encourage my colleagues to send everyone, so I don’t want, there’s no stigma, just like send everybody.

[00:15:57] Send everybody to the speaking partners, send everybody to the writing partners. This should be something we always do. I wanna go to a speaking partner. Before this podcast, I wanted to go to a speaking partner and just say like, I just wanna talk through what it means that I have to talk in this class.

[00:16:11] Or there’s a participation grade, or like, I’m supposed to talk about this really hard article and I didn’t fully understand it, or it made me feel really upset or, , I’m afraid I’m gonna say the wrong thing or I’m gonna afraid everyone’s gonna find out that I don’t belong here. And they just talk to a speaking partner.

[00:16:29] And then the speaking partners are trained to help them to strategize. Okay, let’s do this. Let’s get you in there, or let’s help you show that you’re listening so that you don’t have to get in there. We don’t always need to talk. Everybody talks in this planet, right? ?

[00:16:47] Anna Habib: Yeah.

[00:16:48] Kara Wittman: Let’s, let’s, let’s make participation about listening.

[00:16:51] Anna Habib: how did the experience of the pandemic instigate this whole, new approach, this speaking partner, the oral communication focus?

[00:17:02] Kara Wittman: Partly it was the Zoom. It was saying, you know, students are going to be in classrooms where participating in class is going to get even hard because we rely on visual cues. We rely on gesture. We rely on the weight of being around other bodies, even the invisible, but nonetheless present kind of like just beauty and responsibility of having bodies near you. Like Judith Butler says in, in precarious Life, and she’s quoting Levinas, the kind of like the ethical responsibility to be in front of someone who is always saying, please don’t do me harm.

[00:17:47] that goes away with Zoom. And so how do we join these discussions on Zoom and how could a writing and now writing and speaking center help with that. and the speaking partners, the writing partners, all the students kind of saw this is a moment when we can be present in those rooms.

[00:18:07] And so one of the things that we introduced was saying, just have a speaking partner come and be in your Zoom room with. And going into those breakout rooms and, being another person who’s listening, who’s responding, who’s creating another like silken strand of connection.

[00:18:24] Anna Habib: And I know I don’t wanna give a lot away about the article because I want our listeners to read. So this was just one of the lessons that you learned but I think you have four that you talk about in the article. So listeners, please go check it out. And I wanted to close with two sentences and ask you if you’ll expand on them. You say in the opening paragraph or section.

[00:18:54] you say center, the year 2020 taught us means something more like the cluster of values and commitments we orbit, or a nerve center or a center of gravity, or sometimes a heart. And then you end the peace by saying, The someone matters. We know the listening matters the most, but now we want to add that the there matters a little.

[00:19:21] Also something in this uncertain time is still there. And so I love those two lines. They’re very poetic. How, I wondered if you could elaborate a little bit. Center of gravity, that heart, and then this idea of there.

[00:19:39] Kara Wittman: Yeah, So I think I actually wanna go with the, with the heart.

[00:19:43] Kara Wittman: Physiologically the heart is like the muscle that pumps the blood into everything. And I like thinking of us like this. I, I think the, the students love thinking of what we do like this, if the blood is language if it’s also. an important kind of silence if it’s, if it’s listening, if you can think of listening out as an absence, but a presence.

[00:20:10] Kara Wittman: the space between heartbeats, maybe that’s equally important, because that’s when the heart refills It’s, it’s those values. what is, the nature of the blood that’s reaching every constituency on campus? How are we helping that move? How are we also helping everyone create the time for the heart to refill, right?

[00:20:32] The silence, the listening in which it refills, and then we have more to say, how are we listening? How are we making sure that every voice on campus is heard, amplified, represented? that every voice lands the way it wants to land. safely, effectively. And-

[00:20:55] one of the things that was seemed very, acute and critical during the pandemic is this feeling that like no one is listening to me. I think we all felt that. Is anybody out there? Is anyone listening to me? And that promise, making it really real for someone.

[00:21:09] No, no. Someone is listening to you. Someone is here, someone is listening to you, seemed so important. one of the students put it this way, I, this is actually from another article in that issue that I wanted to quote. It’s by oh look, I dogeared it.

[00:21:26] That was really good. It’s in the piece called Pandemic, Luxuries: Writing Center Care in the Precarious World. the student, I think it’s a, it’s a student. “My name is Mackenzie. I first began my writing center work as a writing and learning peer educator”. After all the provision of care necessitates the accessibility of the care provide. And I think that those two things that we do care that we are listening, but also that you can get to us, we’re here. That’s important that you know, we’re here. So that’s the first part. That last part about the, someone is there. There’s a writer that I think a lot about, Roland Barthes How to Live Together, it’s one of his last books, a collection of lectures and in it he talks about his fantasy of what he calls idiorrhythmy. And idiorrhythmy is people being together but, moving to their own rhythms. It’s a way that people can be.

[00:22:28] he says it came from watching a mother and a child that he saw outside of the window, and the child was really small and the mother was dragging the child along at her pace, and the child couldn’t keep up. And he said she doesn’t even recognize, like this child can’t walk at the same pace that she can.

[00:22:46] Kara Wittman: And so he writes this whole series of lectures saying, what would it mean to recognize each other’s rhythms and to allow everyone to move with their own rhythms, but still like the mother and child, to hold hands to move together?

[00:23:01] Kara Wittman: and that, is about being who we are, individuals, in our own spaces, in our zoom boxes, in our childhood bedrooms and the pandemic. But then he makes a turn because he’s also interested in, monastic culture. where all of the monks are in their own cells. And then he says, but at the compline, the even song right before nightfall, they come together in prayer.

[00:23:28] What is that moment where we need to come together to be together to face the darkness? And that I think is a moment to say, oh, this space also matters. And maybe it’s a physical space where we can all come in for the compline to face the darkness together. And that’s what I was thinking of, when I wrote those last lines,

Anna Habib: Thank you so much, Kara, for co-writing this Article. I want to talk to you for hours. may, maybe we’ll have you on again for like a longer form conversation because I think the way you’re thinking about our work as a writing center is so poetic. Like I said, it just feels really refreshing. So thank you for doing that work.

[00:24:18] Kara Wittman: thank you for having me. it’s wonderful to talk to you. This is really meaningful for me.

Anna Habib: Oh, good. I really do hope to have you back. You’ll have to let us know what else you’re working on. So I invite you listeners, we invite you to subscribe to W L N A Journal of Writing Center Scholarship by following the link in our show notes.

[00:24:36] You can read, Kara’s co-authored article in the December, 2022 issue, along with other interesting pieces. Notice, ask, explore, transforming peer observation into dialogic reflection, pandemic luxuries, writing center care in a precarious world, and the Tutors column by Sarah Rice, who we just interviewed as part of the series, navigating the New Normal with Abnormal Discourse. Thank you all for listening.

[00:25:07] Outro: That’s it for today’s episode? Thanks to our guest for the insightful discussion, we would also like to thank our listeners and block subscribers for supporting us and a special thanks to Emmanuel who provided our theme zone for notes and resources mentioned today. Visit the connecting writing centers across borders slash blog.

The “Slow Agency” Podcast

Created and hosted by your CWCAB editors, the goal of this podcast is to open up time and space in this productivity-saturated culture to slow down and dialogue with leading thinkers and practitioners in writing studies worldwide. The title of the podcast is inspired by Micciche, L. (2011) For slow agency. Journal of the Council of Writing Program Administrators, 35 (1), 73-90. Our inaugural episode features WLN’s journal editors whose wisdom and hard work make this journal and the blog possible.

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