Can the Writing Center Reverse the New Racism?

By Albert DeCiccio

Writing center workers are agents of change whose practices might reverse the resegregation and new racism occurring in our country. As leaders in the academy who advance a pedagogy of hope, writing center workers model a practice for bringing about a lasting and abundant multicultural community.

Starting with the writing center at the University of Iowa in the first half of the last century, there has been a tension between those who seek to pigeonhole writing centers as fix-it shops that remediate the scarce skills they perceive in our novice writers and those who believe that the idea of a writing center can bring about an abundance of positive outcomes, not only in highlighting the strengths of our novice writers, but also in constructing a helpful dialogue about race.

This century’s writing center workers model a practice for bringing about a multicultural community. Nancy Grimm, director of the Michigan Technological University Writing Center, calls this practice a pedagogy of hope—and it may well lead to a lasting multicultural community. The foundation for such a community is the tutoring that occurs in the writing center. That’s because writing center tutors practice collaborative learning, or laboratory learning as writing center historian Neal Lerner terms it, which will inevitably compel them (and us) to examine the rhetoric of the writers with whom they work. Through this examination, tutors help writers to note, as critical theorist Victor Villanueva phrased it, the material reality of racism in their developing texts.

In a very blatant example, within a draft of a paper about living away from home for the first time, a new college student describes a recent incident: “When I saw my iPod was missing, I asked the guy sitting at a table if he saw any darkies hanging around.” The writing center tutor reading this draft pointed out the racism in at least two ways: by explaining why the word “darkies” is offensive and by helping the writer to see the prejudice in the assumption that persons of color are responsible for the missing iPod. Even though such egregious racism should have been rooted out long before showing up in the writing center, the tutor exposes for the writer the inherent racism in the draft.

When scarcity becomes hegemony

In “‘Loaves and Fishes’: Acts of Scarcity and Abundance,” educator Parker Palmer writes, “The culture of scarcity thrives on dissatisfaction, and breeds it as well.” What Palmer means is that such a culture is highly critical of educational practice, presuming deficits and citing poor outcomes on standardized tests as evidence for this stance. Indeed, education in America is constantly under attack by those who are dissatisfied with student achievement. Take the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation of 2001, which brought about fear from both teachers and administrators. This fear, which stifled difference, resulted from the fact that most NCLB people equate good teaching and effective learning with high test scores. In literacy classrooms, therefore, “Many [teachers] turned to low-level drill and practice sessions, leaving little time for students to read and write in authentic contexts,” argue education professors Joseph M. Shosh and Charlotte Rappe Zales of Moravian College.

This is one reason why, in “Addressing Racial Diversity in a Writing Center: Stories and Lessons from Two Beginners,” Nancy Barron, a professor of rhetoric and the teaching of writing at Northern Arizona University, and Nancy Grimm take a critical look at the writing center community’s celebration of diversity, on the one hard, and its championing acculturation, on the other. They note that, while difference in writing should be celebrated in a writing center, the writing center becomes, unfortunately, a place where students are encouraged to write as if there were no difference, in Standard Edited English.

Standard Edited English has hegemonic implications, particularly for persons of color. As MacArthur Award-winning author Lisa Delpit has pointed out:

I have come to understand that power plays a critical role in our society and in our educational system. The worldviews of those with privileged positions are taken as the only reality, while the worldviews of those less powerful are dismissed as inconsequential. Indeed, in the educational institutions of this country, the possibilities for poor people and for people of color to define themselves, to determine the self each should be, involve a power that lies outside of the self. It is others who determine how they should act, how they are to be judged. When one “we” gets to determine standards for all “we’s,” then some “we’s” are in trouble!

The Brown v. Board of Education decision clearly helped desegregation efforts in the 1950s and led to social and education successes. Yet in the past 20 years, Supreme Court rulings and the inability of the federal government to fund desegregation programs at adequate rates have encouraged the resegregation of public schools. Instead of integration and its material, social, and intellectual abundance, we have been left with:

  • Unequal opportunities and unequal educational outcomes;
  • Unlikely access to our nation’s prosperity for persons of color;
  • Higher high school dropout rates for persons of color;
  • Lower graduation rates for persons of color;
  • Less qualified teachers and support personnel as a result of lower wages;
  • Fewer teachers of color as role models in public schools;
  • Assigning students of color to lower-level programs as a result of tracking;
  • Assigning whites to higher-level programs as a result of tracking;
  • Honors or college-preparatory classes not normally offered to students of color; and
  • Placing students of color in special education and also identifying them as behaviorally difficult.

Eric J. Cooper, president of the National Urban Alliance (NUA), points out that, currently, in America, we practice a pedagogy of despair, particularly for persons of color. Such a stance is marked by:

  • Lower-quality curricula, larger class sizes, and fewer technologies and science/language laboratories;
  • Overcrowded classrooms and rundown buildings for schools populated by persons of color;
  • A lack of basic supplies as well as antiquated school books and materials;
  • Inequities in staffing, student assignment, and transfer options;
  • Concerns about school safety and violence;
  • Testing that relegates persons of color to lower-achieving classes;
  • Learning measured by standards erected by whites;
  • Questioning discouraged;
  • Testing mastery praised.

The writing center model: pedagogy of hope

Writing center workers are agents of change whose practices will expose the new racism occurring in our country.

One of the writing center’s early change agents, Kenneth Bruffee announced that “a necessary intermediate step on the way to effective independence is effective interdependence. . . .” Bruffee’s program demonstrated that conversation among knowledgeable peers would bring about community and concomitant material, intellectual, and social abundance. For almost 30 years now, practitioners in the field have argued how far and with whom we should take that program of peer collaboration and conversation and its modifications. Some have opted to stay on the margins, cautious about being co-opted, secure in the rarefied air of their idea of writing center work, and then offering complaints about that marginalization. Others have accepted the challenge of becoming institutionalized—albeit in fits and spurts. I would argue that, 50-plus years after Brown, the only way writing center workers can deal with the systemic problems of race and class is systemically. That means the field needs to advance its writing center pedagogy of hope.

Grimm’s pedagogy of hope can promote literacy and empowerment. It is a decidedly writing center pedagogy, a problem-posing pedagogy in which learners become teachers and teachers become learners—face to face in centers, classrooms, or in parlors in the clouds to which everyone contributes and in which everyone participates. By practicing such a pedagogy, as Brazilian educator Paulo Freire maintained, people “develop their power to perceive critically the way they exist in the world with which and in which they find themselves; they come to see the world not as a static reality, but as a reality in process, in transformation.”

Can we really replace scarcity with abundance?

For writing center workers to be the change agents, they will have to make their risky move to become our country’s intellectual and pedagogical engineers, helping us in this century to bring about the equality in education Brown was supposed to legalize in the last century.

Consider what Cooper has placed as an epigraph on his website: “When we are able to break the glass ceiling for inner-city children and see achievement gains go way beyond system expectations, that is when I am the proudest. To seize the opportunity to create hope out of despair—to see children and teachers’ eyes light up, with expectation and awareness that they can teach and learn complex concepts . . . wow!”

Or Palmer’s concern about waiting for the kairotic moment: “When we approach community as a project that can succeed if only we have the right technique, the right setting, the right goals, the right people, we are on the wrong track.”

Those of us who work in the writing center assume abundance, “a mixing of our ideas and energies,” as Palmer put it. Therefore, writing center leadership is absolutely necessary, and we may have to undertake the risky action of talking about race until every community tells a different—an abundant—story about race, one that invites into our community colleagues from K-12, from NUA, from HBCUs, and the like.

Not alone

We are not alone—either in the writing center or outside of it—though it might seem that way sometimes as we all think about how to enter into the terribly important conversation about race, its repercussions, and the challenge race presents for constructing a multicultural community. This is important to keep in mind, because “we must have models for how to dive into, rather than turn away from, the fear, conflict and uneasiness that often accompanies . . . discussions . . . about race, racism, literacy, and education,” say Laura Greenfield and Karen Rowan, authors of Writing Centers and the New Racism. The risk that today’s writing center workers take to give the gift of community within the writing center, throughout the institution, and outside the institution will provide a model and a process for developing abundant conversations about these issues within a community of creative and critical thinkers. In so doing, all of us may well realize Thurgood Marshall’s definition of “equal,” offered during the time of the Brown decision: “‘Equal’ means [everyone is] getting the same thing, at the same time and in the same place.”

Albert DeCiccio is provost of Southern Vermont College, a past president of the Writing Centers Association and former co-editor of The Writing Center Journal.



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