Pages

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

"I'M SIGNIFICANT! ... screamed the dust speck." : A Look at the Marginalization and Feminization of Writing Centers



“I’M SIGNIFICANT! … screamed the dust speck.”
A Look at the Marginalization and Feminization of Writing Centers

            Calvin and Hobbes is my favorite comic strip. In one memorable episode, the main character, Calvin, stands beneath a starry sky and says, “I’M SIGNIFICANT! … screamed the dust speck.” He saw that his one person out of everything in the universe was about as miraculous and special as he would consider a speck of dust.
            How often do workers in writing centers end up feeling like dust specks? In my experience, which, granted, is small, I have not met a fellow student who understood and appreciated the work that is done in the writing center. Most students walk by our center with a skeptical look in their eye, as if they are not sure why we are here. Friends ask questions like, “Does anyone even visit the Writing Lab?” or “What do you do at work?” After my detailed explanation and defense of the Lab’s mission, they respond with a half-hearted, “Oh, that’s nice.” While the students who regularly come to our lab are grateful for the help they receive, the rest of our university is somewhat indifferent to our existence.
            In her search for a position as a writing center director, Melissa Nicolas observed the lack of respect and the excess of incredulity she received from her interviewers. Her article “Where the Women are: Writing Centers and the Academic Hierarchy” talks about how writing centers are not high on “the ladder of institutional respect.” None of her potential employers believed her first job choice was the director of the writing center. This is evidence of the insignificant role writing centers play in the minds of the administration: The writing center is so unimportant to them that they do not understand why someone would want to be in charge of it. (I would like to mention that I do not think this is the case at every university. Some writing centers are integral to their school’s academics. In addition, the students can also be the ones who consider the center unimportant.)
            Nicolas goes on to say that she believes this opinion of writing centers is caused, in part, by the “feminization of the writing center narrative.” She asserts that the “nurturing, service-oriented” nature of the center causes people to think of it as “women’s work,” which bears the connotation of busy-work tasks. Imagine other tasks that might be called “women’s work:” laundry, cleaning, keeping house. While these tasks are essential, no one really wants to do them. That is the kind of attitude that Nicolas says is being attached to the idea of the writing center. The large number of women employed in writing centers does not help this image: Nicolas observes that “women make up a majority of the writing center community.” At my university, seven out of seven consultants, including the director, are women.
            So, what do we do? How do we break free from our current dust speck status? Administrations and students do not see the writing center as important. Perhaps the answer lies in the cause of our marginalization. Though I do not agree with Nicolas’ overtly feminist view, finding the cause for our invisibility may be the best way to overcome it. If it is not the feminization of the center that brings on disrespect, what does? In regards to the large presence of women, how do we encourage men to become a part of writing centers? These are questions I personally cannot answer, but I believe the answers will help lead us to a more visible, and more respected, writing center. One day I would like to see more students coming into the writing center than walking past it. I would like to see writing centers become at least a planet instead of remaining a dust speck.

Nicolas, Melissa. “Where the Women are: Writing Centers and the Academic Hierarchy.” FPO:
            IP Research and Communities (2004) : n. page. Web. 5 Mar. 2013.

7 comments:

  1. Mandi, I appreciated the thoughts that you expressed in this post. I completely agree that writing centers can be invisible and need to become more visible. There have been many times while working my shift that students have walked by and did not even know that our university writing lab existed. I have also experienced individuals who have expressed their indifference toward what the writing lab does. I think that the work that is done in the writing lab can only be appreciated by those who utilize its resources and see the benefits in their own writing. I think that an important aspect of seeking to make writing labs more respected and visible is to promote them on campus. It is important for students to know just how wonderful a resource is available to them and how they can most effectively utilize that resource. Last week, I was able to give an in-class presentation on the writing lab. It was helpful to have the time to explain to students how they can use the writing lab to their advantage no matter what level they are at as a student writer. I found an article that talks about what a college writing center is and isn't. It was a very informative article. It provided a list of ways that students and professors can make the most out of their campus writing centers. I think that perhaps the best way to get students to respect the writing lab is to help them to understand the many ways they can benefit from it.

    Leahy, Richard. "What the College Writing Center Is--and Isn't." College Teaching . 38.2 (1990): 43-48. Print.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I really like this post topic. And though I have no answer to this problem I believe that you have brought up an interesting topic. I do think that students do value the writing lab and what we do here, but many students simply have no need to come here because their professors grade on content and not writing skill. I think that any paper, regardless of the content, should be written well. Joseph M. Williams, author of Style: Lessons of Clarity and Grace, writes about the power of the well written word and that a well written paper will always trump a well researched paper. This may not be news to us as writing tutors, but other students often think that they can "get by" by turning in mediocre papers. So the problem could possibly lie with the goals of our professors when they grade assignments.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I really like this post topic. And though I have no answer to this problem I believe that you have brought up an interesting topic. I do think that students do value the writing lab and what we do here, but many students simply have no need to come here because their professors grade on content and not writing skill. I think that any paper, regardless of the content, should be written well. Joseph M. Williams, author of Style: Lessons of Clarity and Grace, writes about the power of the well written word and that a well written paper will always trump a well researched paper. This may not be news to us as writing tutors, but other students often think that they can "get by" by turning in mediocre papers. So the problem could possibly lie with the goals of our professors when they grade assignments.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I really like this post topic. And though I have no answer to this problem I believe that you have brought up an interesting topic. I do think that students do value the writing lab and what we do here, but many students simply have no need to come here because their professors grade on content and not writing skill. I think that any paper, regardless of the content, should be written well. Joseph M. Williams, author of Style: Lessons of Clarity and Grace, writes about the power of the well written word and that a well written paper will always trump a well researched paper. This may not be news to us as writing tutors, but other students often think that they can "get by" by turning in mediocre papers. So the problem could possibly lie with the goals of our professors when they grade assignments.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Great post! I would also like to see more students coming into the writing center than walking by it and more students competitively applying to be writing consultants (because we have one of the best jobs on campus!). I also completely agree that writing centers are not high on “the ladder of institutional respect” as Melissa Nicolas stated in her article. In an interview with Muriel Harris, founder of Purdue Writing Center and Purdue's Online Writing Lab, the interviewer brought up the topic of the actual name of a writing center and how that affects the perception of the center. Our center at Cairn University is called the "Writing Lab," which can imply that only remedial, old fashioned instruction occurs as opposed to a "Writing Center" that centers on writing, especially creative writing (21-22). Harris believes, however, that "it's a matter of local context" and that "names should be decided on a local, institutional basis" (22). What she means is that different titles can imply different ideas to different schools/institutions. The name is important, but how the writing center promotes and carries itself is more important. As we know from the name change of our University, a name represents who we are and what we do. I believe the name of the Writing Lab is important to look at and think about, but as Harris states, we should also be concerned with how we promote and carry ourselves to those on the outside.

    Threadgill, Elizabeth. "Writing Center Work Bridging Boundaries: An Interview with Muriel Harris." Journal of Developmental Education 34.2 (2010): 20-24. Academic Search Premier. Web. 1 April 2013.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Part of the reason that writing labs tend to be marginalized and misunderstood may be that there simply isn't anything else quite like them. Everyone knows what happens at a university, what classes are and what teachers do. Writing labs - let's face it - are not obligatory in the context of higher education; they offer students tutoring, which is a helpful but by no means integral service in the standard educational system. If anything, tutoring in general tends to be remedial. Though tutoring certainly may help keep students from failing, which was the conclusion in the article "The Impact Of A Peer-Tutoring Program On Quality Standards In Higher Education," writing labs are left trying to distance themselves from that association.
    In my mind, a writing lab session is actually much more like a music lesson than remedial work. In a music lesson, the student comes with a piece they are working on. The teacher identifies what the student is doing well and what needs improvement, then works through those issues one by one with various strategies. At the end of a lesson, a piece will not be perfect, but the student will have learnt techniques applicable both to it and to other musical situations. The teacher is always dealing with broad issues within the specific context of a song, which is very similar to a tutor working with writing issues within the context of a paper. That kind of emphasis on learning should help to define what a writing lab ought to be, distance it from many misconceptions, and help the writing lab to find an established place within the university.


    Arco-Tirado, José, Francisco Fernández-Martín, and Juan-Miguel Fernández-Balboa. "The Impact Of A Peer-Tutoring Program On Quality Standards In Higher Education." Higher Education 62.6 (2011): 773-788. Academic Search Premier. Web. 9 Apr. 2013.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Part of the reason it may become easy for writing labs to be marginalized and misunderstood is that there is nothing else quite like them. Everyone knows what a university is, what classes are, and what teachers do, but - let's face it - the writing lab as we know it is supplementary to the educational framework. It does not have to exist in order for a university to function. It does provide the valuable service of tutoring, which can make a substantive difference in students' learning experiences, according to Arco-Tirado's "The Impact Of A Peer-Tutoring Program On Quality Standards In Higher Education." But tutoring often has the connotation of being remedial, which leaves writing labs both trying to find a place and trying to distance themselves, to some extent, from what they are known to do well.
    In my mind, a writing lab session is much more like a music lesson than remedial work. In a music lesson, the student comes to the teacher having worked on a piece and labored with the notes. The teacher listens for what is accurate, tasteful, and effective, and identifies what the student needs to do to make the piece better, then giving strategies, demonstrating techniques, and making the student practice until some kind of progress has been made. The student will never leave able to perform that piece perfectly, but in a good lesson, they will have grappled with concepts beyond the limits of that piece. Similarly, students bring papers to the writing lab and work on that particular piece of writing, but are really learning concepts that will help them in all their writing. That emphasis on learning and development of a skill should be what distinguishes writing labs from remedial programs and helps them to find an established place within the university context.

    "Arco-Tirado, José, Francisco Fernández-Martín, and Juan-Miguel Fernández-Balboa. "The Impact Of A Peer-Tutoring Program On Quality Standards In Higher Education." Higher Education 62.6 (2011): 773-788. Academic Search Premier. Web. 9 Apr. 2013.

    ReplyDelete