Race in the Writing Center

Yes, I am on Sping Break, and yes, I am posting to Peer Centered. I'm a geek and I have a problem - but at least I can admit it.


Anyways, I have some questions I want to work out with the readers here. I attend a mostly white university (the student pop. is about 93% white). Most of the students come from similarly segregated schools, and for most, race is an issue that is never discussed or thought about. However, many profs here give composition students assignments dealing with race, and consequently we see their papers in the WC. My first question is this: Should writing center training include discussion of race and racism?

Personally, I think it should. (As a point of clarification, our tutors take a full-semester, full-credit course on WC work taught by our director, so I am working from the assumption that training has the time to address such issues). Race plays itself out in a variety of ways in university life. Maybe most importantly, I can see the ways universities serve as cultural gate-keepers by passing or flunking students based on their use of academic language - a form of English which is very exclusive. We see students who struggle with the comments made by profs, who are unable to acclimate or assimilate their voices, and as a result, interpret themselves as failures as students. Being able to recognize these structural forces helps me when I talk with students who are placing all of the blame on themselves.

But the more we discuss race and racism, the more clear and better defined our opinions become, and the more comfortable discussing race we become, the more likely we are to be vocal with our opinions. So my second question: Can race-related training interfere with students' ownership of their papers?

What I mean is, the more we work with specific issues in our training, the more likely we are to discuss them in tutorial sessions. So when we see papers dealing with race, and we are trained to discuss race, it gives us a one-up on the peer relationship, and perhaps we will be more likely to break down a student's thought-process/argument/thesis. Is this overstepping our boundaries, or is it good work, engaging the student and hopefully broadening his/her racial horizons?

There is a recent trend towards merging writing center work and anti-racist work - and I like this trend. A lot. But when does it become problematic, and how do we deal with that? Is it possible that if we make our centers explicitly anti-racist that we become ideological gate-keepers? In this case, would that be such a bad thing?


  1. You bring up a lot of interesting points, Andrew. I think that it is important that issues of race aren't neglected in the field of college writing, and opening the dialogue of issues of race in tutor preparation class is important. However, I wonder about something: should we ever push through our agenda in a session with a writer or should it focus on the writer's agenda?

  2. Anonymous10:44 AM

    That's an interesting point, about "pushing" an agenda. If a student brings in a thesis which basically says "The Ku Klux Klan was right" and the student acknowledges that he (and his paper) is racist, then everyone is aware of the situation, and we can openly work for or against his thesis.

    But what about a student who brings in a paper, and without realizing or recognizing it, makes large generalizations based on race, uses subtley racist language, or any other typical "I'm not racist, but . . ." kind or arguments. This student may not be aware of her own agenda, or the agenda of her language. Is it our responsibility to make clear the agenda we see in a paper, even if the student doesn't recognize it at first?

    Typically, I see a lot more of the latter type of student than the former. And speaking generally, they don't intend to be racist, nor do they want to be, and pointing out the agenda I see proves helpful to them (even if it is uncomfortable).

  3. Very true, Andrew, I see what you mean about pushing writers to think about what kind of claims (whether race-related or not) they are making and if/why they feel they true and how they can prove/disprove them. When I mentioned agenda I just wanted to call attention to keeping the session writer focused. For example, if a writer comes in freaking out about MLA formatting and we steer the conversation to particular points of content that are opportunities to discuss race it seems we aren't being 'writer centered' anymore.

  4. I tend to agree with pointing out areas that are racist, I am not saying to point it out and say "look, you are being racist here" but to ask the writer if that is the message they are trying to convey. If it is, then ok but sometimes writers put something out there that isn't exactly what they meant to say. It is in these instances that we should be able to help them articulate their meaning a little more clearly.

  5. Anonymous4:43 PM

    Elizabeth - I'm not so sure that steering the conversation means we aren't writer focused. A lot of students (at least in my experience) come in either unsure what they need help with, or more often they don't have the words to explain what they need. So we steer them away from "proofreading" and towards thesis statements, organization, etc.

    Jenny - Those can be difficult sessions - when the student doesn't mean to be racist and doesn't understand how he/she is. Any suggestions on handling those situations?

  6. I agree that we often see the student who doesn't necessarily realize her own agenda (in fact such a student of disclaims having any sort of agenda at all) or how it is no doubt informed by a lot of received knowledge from "tradition." While those sessions can be embarrassing and taut with tension, they often come out being very productive, and a learning experience for everyone (not just the student writer).

    The sessions that I've always personally struggled with, and I've witnessed tutors struggle with are the sessions where there is blatant racism (or other clear bias) and the writer is either combative someone who disagrees or refuses to understand why their position is problematic. Such a writer often believes she is on a crusade to save some aspect of her tradition. It is at that point that one has to ask oneself "do I really want to help someone write a better paper that is blatantly and purposefully racist."

  7. Frankie Condon has done some fine work about anti-racism in the writing center . She has an article in a recent WCJ (sorry it is in my office at the College, and I'm at home in the wee hours of the morning) and there is the chapter in Everyday Writing Center that she co-authored.

    The International Writing Centers Association (IWCA) is also committed to diversity issues, and we passed a Diversity Initiative last year. You can find more about it at writingcenters.org.

    There is also a specific special interest group (SIG) within IWCA that is interested in this topic. We met for the first time at the Houston IWCA Conference, and are set (I believe) to meet at the Las Vegas Conference next October.

  8. Anonymous10:52 AM

    do I really want to help someone write a better paper that is blatantly and purposefully racist

    Damn, that is a hard question.

    I've seen the Everyday Writing Center piece, but not the Condon piece. I'll have to go looking . . .

  9. I think one way of approaching these types of papers can stem from the idea of debating an issue. I feel that if there is a claim being made in a paper, there comes along with it a burden of proof.
    By asking the student to enter into a sort of debate with the thesis, we are not only helping them write stronger papers, we are also encouraging them to look at the issue from different angles, which forces them to consider their position a bit more carefully.
    I had a consultation last semester where a student brought in a paper that was incredibly sexist, though not intentionally so. I wanted to address the thesis, but the student had come in specifically for help with grammar and citation. In the end, we are here for the students whether we agree with their opinions or not. I think this type of situation was what Elizabeth was talking about when she addressed the idea of agenda.


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