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Friday, April 04, 2008

An Accessible Writing Center

When I first signed on to Peer Centered, I worried if my contributions here would be meaningful. I worried I would run out of things to write about, about topics of interest to WC people. Then I had the idea of posting on a theme. I figured I would connect my posts here to the research I enjoy - working with difference. So I've set a goal to post once a week with each post relating to one element of Beverly Tatum's 'Seven Categories of 'Otherness'" - 1) race or ethnicity, 2) gender, 3) religion, 4) sexual orientation, 5) socioeconomic status, 6) age, and 7) physical or mental ability. So far, we've covered religion, race, and economic class, and I've been very motivated and excited by the discussion taking place around each issue.

What I want to investigate is how both directors and tutors respond to these categories of Otherness. Does our training take them into account, and after such training, do we feel confident in our abilities? What about administrative practices (such as hours of operation)? And finally, what about WC pedagogy itself - is it designed to work with difference, and if so, are there gaps or limitations to it?

That sounds like a lot to absorb, but hopefully it is not overwhelming. My interest in the subject was sparked in part by an article by Margaret Weaver called "Transcending Conversing: A Deaf Student in the Writing Center." She describes her work with this student and how she kept hitting upon limitations to her WC practice, where so much is based upon oral dialogue. It's a fascinating article and I can't recommend it enough.

I found the article only after some searching initiated by my own session with a deaf student. At the start of the session, I thoughtlessly said something to the effect of "We typically have you read the paper out loud; a lot of students find this helpful . . . " She just looked at me, laughed a little, and jokingly said "That probably isn't going to work so well for me." While her humor helped diffuse the situation, I was completely embarrassed and I couldn't begin to imagine how she felt.

After that initial stumbling, the session went fairly smoothly and was overall pretty good. But that beginning showed me how thoughtless I could be. Me, who tries to be conscientious and considerate - I could still be so careless and inconsiderate with a tutee. But for me, that session really drove home the importance of recognizing how oppressions overlap; if I could overlook someone's ability and embarrass her like that, how easily might I do the same to someone based on race, or sexual orientation, or anything else?

So I'm wondering, does anyone else have stories similar to this? Have you encountered people who are differently abled in the WC? How did those sessions go? Any advice or tips or things to avoid? As a secondary question - what about accessibility? Is your WC wheelchair accessible?

5 comments:

  1. Andrew,

    I have worked with two deaf students. One could hear a little and read lips, the other was totally deaf. I worked with both of them multiple times. I even worked with the completely deaf student without the aid of an interpreter. I also have work extensively with a blind graduate student, a woman who is partially paralyzed due to head injury, a woman with cerebral palsy, and clients in wheelchairs.

    Again,I found my training prepared me for the non-typical sessions because my training focused on working with people, not with writing. When I came into my first session and when I went into my last session today, I focused on the person sitting next to me. The writing was the reason they showed up, but the writing is second to the person for the very worries you brought up.

    If we look simply at the writing and them try to fit the person in around the verbs and commas, we will help some writers, help a number of papers, and fail very often. The people will see and understand that the writing center is for writing not people.

    On the other hand, if we focus on each person and let them bring in the writing, we will help many people, more papers, and fail rarely.

    I think it is all a matter of focus.

    zwk

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  2. Nicely put, Zach!

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  3. I worked with a deaf student without an interpreter, and it was extremely hard. We both wrote out everything that we needed to say, and I feared that my writing would come across as terse, since I couldn't use my goofy vocal inflections. So I drew a lot of smileys, but I think that may have just made me come across as crazy.

    Writing a conversation is also time consuming, and I stayed long after our 60 minute session was up and I was supposed to have left. I felt like I had to--I felt like we weren't getting much accomplished because I didn't have the right tools to figure out how to make our session productive.

    So, Andrew, I just have to say I'm with you man. It's a struggle I'm aware of, but don't know how to take action to help.

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  4. zachery - I'll second what Alisha said. Sounds like the start of a new WC manifesto.

    Elizabeth - Thanks for the solidarity. ;) It's definitely hard, but worth it when it works for the student. Thanks for sharing your experience!

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  5. Elizabeth--I'm sure you didn't come across as crazy...and, if you did, it was probably in a good way! It sounds like you handled the situation well, and better than I would've.

    I haven't been in a session yet where a physical barrier was difficult to overcome. I've had two different students with tramatic brain injuries. Those sessions both went pretty well, but there wasn't the physical barrier...I am really unsure of how I would handle a situation like Zach's or Elizabeth's--or if I'd even handle it well, at all.

    I liked what Zach said, too: "On the other hand, if we focus on each person and let them bring in the writing, we will help many people, more papers, and fail rarely."

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