Tutoring Economic Class

Recently, we had a discussion in my WC about the (lack of) diversity on our campus. The campus is about 93% white, and during the daytime, the halls are filled with "traditional" 18-24 year olds. But by the evening, the average age begins to go up as more non-traditional students fill the classrooms. But the comment that really fueled discussion was when one person said our campus was mostly middle/upper middle class.

As far as I know, my school does not keep records on student income (or at least I've never seen any). Socio-economic status is a major factor in a person's lifestyle - but it's one that can remain somewhat invisible to others. Given the university setting, I can understand a person's immediate response that everyone they meet is economically stable, but I also know that this just isn't the case.

In her memoir Invisible Privilege, academic Paula Rothenberg discusses the role that economic class plays in her classroom. Teaching philosophy, she noticed a trend among working class students when discussing Descartes' claim that "I think, therefore I am." Although they understood the idea, they had little use for it. Of course I exist - I work all day and am sore and tired all night. Rothenberg had to reconsider the material position that led to Descartes' revelation. He was well-off and constantly ill - she imagines him laying in bed, wondering if he really exists. Workers in his time had no such luxury; aching muscles answer that question pretty quick. So she adjusted her discussions to take account of the material conditions involved.

Ok - so what's my point? Why am I prattling on about dead philosophers? Does any of this connect with our work in writing centers? I sure hope so, but if I can't find the connection, will someone point it out in the comments?

My question is this - does our WC practice take into account the diversity of material conditions students work from? Economic class isn't apparent in someone's face, and we're not likely to have them check a box and indicate their income when they walk in the door. But class does come up. I've worked with students who put off buying textbooks, who handwrite their papers because they've never owned a computer, and innumerable students who work full-time, often supporting families. How do I tell a single mother of three who works full-time that she should devote more time to drafting her papers?


  1. Andrew,

    You asked, "does our WC practice take into account the diversity of material conditions students work from?"

    As I am sure you know, this is a loaded question, and it is one that cannot be answered from an administrative level. Each individual consultant must take their clients' needs, abilities, and "[diverse] material conditions" into account during the session.

    My guess is that your real question is do we as consultants even think about this situation, and, by extension, does our training or scholarship acknowledge the varied situations of our clients. While I only answer for my center and my training and my practices, yes. The class that each Boise State Writing Center consultant takes does pose questions of socioeconomic status, traditional vs. nontraditional, and methods of working with over-worked clients. I have done enough personal study and observation to understand how each client comes to each session with different needs, expectations, and baggage.

    So, to answer your broad question, yes.

    I am curious: Did you intend your post to have be a little aggressive and 'in-your-face'?

  2. Andrew,
    I work at the Boise State Writing Center as well, and this has always loomed in the back of my mind as well.
    I do think the class we took during our first semester in the center did a lot to prepare us for these situations,it never ceases to be difficult to ask an overworked student to find time.
    I also think that as people, and oftentimes as overworked, struggling students ourselves, we can play an important role in the center. We should absolutely encourage our students to spend time on their writing, but we can also give them tools to possibly help alleviate some of the stress that comes along with writing.
    My guess is that whether you realize it or not, you probably have the knowledge and the tools to deal with the class issue because of your daily interactions outside of the center.
    But I'm glad you brought this to the table because I think at times we get too comfortable, and lose sight of the diversity in the people we work with. Going along with your discussion on Descartes, you blogged, therefore you considered (:
    Hope you are feeling better about this.

  3. sorry for the spelling and grammar errors. It is early for me, and I have just gotten back from a mindless vacation.

  4. Anonymous4:22 PM

    Zachery - You are right on with the points you make. In answer to your last question first - no, I did not intend for my post to be aggressive, but there could easily have been some unitentional aggression. I'm glad you called me on that; I really don't want to be percieved as hostile on here. In my defense, the reason for the abrupt ending was that I really could not think of where to go. I wanted to try and list ways that WCs either help or hinder working class students, but the list wouldn't come.

    As far as my real question, I think you're partially right. I guess I was hoping that "WC practice" would include training and individual tutor practice - but I think there is an administrative level as well. Things such as hours of operation are administrative and can have a great impact of students who are working full time.

    S. Sturman - Don't worry, I didn't notice any errors until you pointed them out. I agree that these issues "never cease to be difficult," but that they can be forgotten or overlooked.

    Was there anything specific from your training class that you remember?

  5. Andrew,

    The idea that WC instruction and pedagogy should include concepts of race, class, economic status, and myriad other factors is a worthy hope and goal. I agree that these concepts need to be taught in a substantive way that allows individual consultants to internalize them and use them effectively with writers. I would see this instruction as administrative.

    I can also see how the arrangement of hours and allotments of time could be a useful way to reach some writers that are over-worked. I also agree that this is an administrative concern.

    However, I am not quite following an enthymeme in your discussion: I do not understand why the WC should treat clients from lower socio-economic statuses differently. Yes, I understand that we should be aware of their situation and the issues that arise from that, but are we as centers supposed to change how we treat them? Do we need to create a special way to work with lower-class clients?

    I question this because anytime a group sets up special ways to work with a group, emphasis is placed on that group. At times the emphasis is positive, but the emphasis is very negative. If WC's started to establish special ways to work with different groups of writers, would we not alienate some people? Would all of the writers in the groups we define agree with our approach? Would they all agree with our definitions? I doubt it.

    For example, look at ELL students. WC's often to to great extremes to treat ELL students just like any other writer. Why? Because creating a special way to work with ELL students would result in a dichotomy that is very dangerous: us vs.them. The WC administration would be privileging one group over another--the ELL writers would have better treatment and service than native speakers. That would not be a good thing.

    One last reason why an administrative policy to provide special help based on class: Did the writer ask for special treatment? How many people would resent our special treatment because they feel patronized and belittled by it?

    The points you make are valid in that WC education and pedagogy needs to prepare consultants to work with a wide range of classes, ethnicities, politics, and religions, but creating special considerations for groups we define as 'lesser' or 'in need' is not something I can agree with. If the individual consultant is trained well, they can adapt to the writer's needs and give the writer the best service possible, which is how collaborative peer writing should occur.

  6. "How do I tell a single mother of three who works full-time that she should devote more time to drafting her papers?"

    Love the question, though I have no answer for it--I wish that I did, though. Economic class does play into consultations more often than I think anyone really realizes. Sometimes it plays into a consultation, I don't even realize it until after the fact.

    I really try to treat everyone as equal, but if I notice an "economic" something that seems to be negatively affecting a writer's work, I do try to tailor the conversation to help the individual adapt their situation to the expectations of academic writing. Does that make sense?

    I never overtly say what I feel should be done in their circumstance, but I do try to wedge our conversation within a context I believe will help them when writing in the future.

    Is this okay? I don't know, but I'd want it done for me...


  7. "How do I tell a single mother of three who works full-time that she should devote more time to drafting her papers?"

    How do I tell anyone she should devote more time drafting her papers? I don't. That seems directive and teacherly. There are options and things to privilege, and everyone has different priorities and circumstances that they don't automatically spill to their writing center consultant (sometimes they do, which is a different study).

  8. Hi, Elizabeth.

    I don't think I was saying that I should ever tell anyone to devote more time to their papers. I wouldn't do that. What I would do, though, if something did spill out in our conversation, and I did have a way of helping them out, would be to...well, help them out. Sorry if it came out wrong.


  9. Alisha-
    I was actually just reflecting on that sentence as it stood in the original post, like you did. Everyone is bringing really interesting ideas in, my comment was basically regarding Andrew's discomfort with telling a busy mom to spend more time drafting. I would be uncomfortable telling anyone to spend more time drafting--I can only help writers form goals that they want/are able to strive towards.

  10. Anonymous3:47 PM

    Way back up to Zachery - I know I was pretty vague in my original post, but I guess what I was looking for were maybe specific examples from other tutors of times when class-related issues have come up in sessions, and the specifics of how they handled them. You gave some great examples, and I'm grateful for them. I'm not advocating for "special treatment," anymore than all writers receive special treatment in the WC. If we are going to have a universal approach to our WC practice, then we have to make sure that that approach isn't immediately alienating or silencing for specific groups of students.

    Alisha - The reason I left the question hanging was because I didn't have an answer, either. But I rally like the way this conversation is unfolding.

    Elizabeth - Good point. I'm really not some horrible strict tutor, telling students they MUST do this or that. I promise. I'm really quite pleasant. That's an excellent way to phrase it: helping writers "form goals that they want/are able to strive towards."


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