Inclusivity, flexibility, and “momentary” activism

I found two things to unite this week’s readings: inclusivity and flexibility.

How can a writing center, composed of a mere sampling of the wide range of identities one finds on a college/university campus, be inclusive of all students, regardless of their race, nationality, class (Bielski), gender (Tipper), sexuality (Rihn & Sloan), dis/ability (Hitt), and academic discipline (Fitzgerald and Ianetta)? There are simply too many distinct identities to think we can function as a microcosm of the student-body at large, yet we must strive to be welcoming to all those who walk in our doors. The answer offered both implicitly and explicitly in this week’s (and last week’s) readings, is, I think, flexibility.

To look specifically at disciplinal diversity, I was interested by Fizgerald and Ianetta’s distinction between specialist and generalist tutoring strategies. A tutor who is a subject area “expert” will be more inclined toward specialist tutoring, they assert, while a subject area “non-expert” will tend toward generalist tutoring strategies. This made me think about my own experiences with lab reports and my ID1 students’ essays, my areas of “non-expertise” and “expertise,” respectively. Of course, I’m not an expert in colonial American history (far from it), but as a history major, I’m familiar enough with the discipline that when I meet with my ID1 students about their papers for First Person Americas, I know the form for which they should aim and sometimes the content as well.

Lab reports on the other hand… Well, let’s just say that until this semester, I hadn’t written a lab report since 11th grade. And the ones I’ve written this semester haven’t gone particularly well. Luckily, I’ve only had one lab report consultation, with two biology students in October. I can safely say it was one of my less-satisfying consultations, simply because I felt tremendously unhelpful. From my consultation report: “I read through their results section a couple times and was at a bit of a loss feedback-wise. They seemed to be confused about what to include in results vs. discussion, so I tried to clarify that. One student suggested that they might have an easier time with results after writing their discussion section, which I thought was quite possible. So I ended up suggesting they work on their discussion section in the Writing Center, and ask me any questions they might have in the process…In the future, I might ask students to explain to me their lab report step by step, take notes as they do so, and then show them that that’s their results section.”

So, flexibility. We’ve read about it in the context of the writing center before. When working with students from diverse academic disciplines, Partners must be comfortable shifting between varying ratios of specialist and generalist strategies (Fitzgerald and Ianetta write that multiple scholars have “ultimately argue[d] for a middle ground,” that is, “blending specialist knowledge with generalist strategies” [149]). In Tipper’s case, flexibility was realizing she needed to change the image and the nature of the Gilman writing center so that more male students would attend (I’m not entirely sure how comfortable I am with Tipper’s premise of “manly men” and the writing center as a feminine space, but her article demonstrates flexibility nonetheless). Flexibility is being able to begin a conversation about homophobia, racism, sexism etc. if a student comes in with an “offensive” or “controversial” argument (Rihn & Sloan). And it’s also being able to take care of oneself, knowing that there’s only so much we can do when a student is not willing to participate in such a conversation.

Flexibility isn’t just the ability to work with students of various identities and needs; it’s also about rejecting complicity when homophobia, racism, sexism etc. crop up in a student’s writing, as Rihn & Sloan, and other scholars have advocated. But flexibility can transcend that, too. A few weeks ago, we read Bawarshi and Pelkowski’s paper, which argued that writing tutors should help develop “critical consciousness” of acculturation in students whose racial, national, or class identities may exclude them from the traditional academic discourse community. Gender and sexuality, on the other hand, do not in-and-of-themselves put individuals at a disadvantage in the academic discourse community when it comes to form; however, the voices and stories of women and the LGBTQ+ community have historically been peripheralized. I love the way Rihn and Sloan put it: “How might tutors discuss identity in these “momentary” sessions…? Alexander and Wallace note the importance of simply “[i]ncluding the usually excluded, speaking the unspoken, and saying the words gay, lesbian, homosexual and transgendered without blushing.” Writing centers thus become sites where we can participate in the slow work of shifting our societal discourse to be more inclusive.

Of course, we won’t have the opportunity to practice this “momentary” activism in every consultation—I’ve been racking by brains to remember if any of my consultations have presented the opportunity—but I think each one of these articles demonstrates that there are numerous ways to be inclusive, that no students are “beyond help” (Hitt 383), and that we must be flexible and take the opportunity to practice inclusion when it presents itself.

One thought on “Inclusivity, flexibility, and “momentary” activism

  1. Natalie –

    Great blog post! For the past couple of weeks, I have drawn similar conclusions as you present in your blog post. Namely, I’ve gathered that the articles we have read the past couple of weeks argue that flexibility is a key component for writing centers and its employees. I think teaching writing partners how to be flexible would be a very powerful tool, but also, a lot of responsibility. It would be extremely useful if you, as a writing partner, are able to have a consultation whether one with “momentary” activism or one with an ESL student and work with the student wherever he/she/they is at. It is, however, a lot to expect a writing partner to be able to expertly deal with issues across all possible identities. Sure we can teach you ways to deal with racist or homophobic students, but as you mention above, you cannot force anyone into the conversation leading your momentary activism to become null. Nevertheless, I wish you the best of luck whenever you get a chance to practice “momentary” activism during one of your consultations!

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