“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.