The Coe Writing Center has occasionally been confronted with papers whose content and ideological standpoints are offensive to the consultants. A good example is evident in the opening sentences of a paper that an African-American student brought in to a white writing consultant on the issue of racism:
While the confrontation tone of this paper may not be encountered every day, when such a paper is brought into the Center, it is necessary to have a game-plan in mind to prevent "unproductive" conferencing. An uncomfortable situation caused by such papers is not unique to the writing center/lab; instructors too are inevitably faced with objectionable papers. However, the approach they choose may significantly differ from that taken by a writing center consultant because their function and goals are notably different. Instructors have a responsibility to question the formation of the student's ideas and the validity of their conclusions. Many would argue that this responsibility does not extend to the writing center. Faculty and administration generally expect the writing center to deal with the more literal writing aspects such as sentence structure, development and clarity of ideas, style, and organization. There is less consensus about how far a writing center should go in attempting to modify the content or ideas evident in papers brought in for consultation.
The question remains: if our goal is to help writers develop and present their ideas, then, short of engaging in fistfights with the writers, what are we in the writing center to do when we find these ideas disturbing, annoying, or repulsive? How do we reconcile our professional duties to student writers with our sense of responsibility to defend our personal beliefs and values?
It may be useful to give an illustration of practical situations that our writing center staff have recently encountered. The papers described, covering racism, violence, and sexuality, were brought into the Coe Writing Center in the 1993-94 school year. The issues presented in these papers may not be found objectionable by every individual, but the consultants involved were disturbed to the extent that they felt crippled in their ability to handle the conferences professionally and objectively. Deeply dissatisfied with the progression of their conferences, the consultants, in each case, brought the issue up at the weekly staff meeting.
One writer presented a paper describing the initiation rites and general practices of his fraternity. He spared no details in his seven-page paper, giving graphic descriptions of these practices and seemingly advocating them. Many of the described acts qualify as illegal hazing, and include shocking acts of violence:
Another conference involved a student writer's response to National Coming-Out Day when a student organization involved in issues of sexual diversity chalked the campus sidewalks with slogans in an attempt to combat homophobia:
In each of these three cases the consultants were faced with material which they found so offensive that their instinct was to end the conference as fast as possible. They were unprepared to deal with such conference situations. But what should they have done? When writing center consultants have conferences over such papers, must we, indeed, grin and bear it?
The papers were discussed by the staff members at the staff meetings and less formally in small group sessions. Several approaches were examined. On the surface level, there was a simple and "easy" solution to the problem of dealing with such difficult conferences: put personal feelings and opinions aside and handle the conference impartially. When actually faced with such a conference, however, this solution becomes an excellent case of "easier said than done." An impartial discussion of an issue can unexpectedly turn into a debate, and it is difficult to avoid crossing the line where the consultant's suggestions or inquiries begin to seem as if the dispute concerns the writer's opinions.
Our discussion led in two general directions concerning attitudes that the consultant could adopt in dealing with conferences over papers whose content is disturbing: avoidance or confrontation. Neither of these paths necessarily entails the next-to-impossible task of feigning agreement with the writer, but each comes with its own set of considerations.
In a situation where a consultant was unprepared to deal with objectionable material, several staff members advocated a focus on sentence structure, grammar, punctuation or other technical aspects and ignoring issues of content. The consultants chose avoidance as a strategy because, firstly, they wouldn't have to acknowledge their disagreement with the student and engage in a discussion geared towards strengthening arguments that they found preposterous. Secondly, avoidance would prevent a situation where the consultants would be imposing their own views on a writer, as if trying to change the writer's position.
A second group of staff members argued that it was necessary for consultants to deal directly with the content of a paper. Our Writing Center Handbook, which offers guidelines for our consulting, embraces confrontation as a natural result of some conferences. In describing the Center as a "talking center," the Handbook implies that we work with a relative lack of censorship, and should encourage open-mindedness in both ourselves and student writers. Our responsibility to writers is analogous to the baking process. Ideas are like bread dough, and a writing center staff helps in the mixing and kneading process. Just as no amount of baking will improve the quality of a poor mix, no amount of technical and syntactic work will improve a paper that is based on weak, poorly organized ideas. Avoiding the content of the papers and merely giving baking tips for dough that is clearly lacking essential ingredients will result in a half-baked product.
Another important consideration should be the student's needs and expectations. There are situations where a student brings a paper into the center, possibly even to a specific consultant, actually seeking dissenting view points. Here is a passage from a writer's logbook, describing the work she did while preparing a paper for a composition class:
In this case, the consultant decided to admit that she disagreed with the writer's position; the student reported positive results:
This is not the case for all students. Some students will be very defensive about their opinions and may not tolerate what they consider to be an attack on these. The question then arises: how do we pick or choose who or what to challenge? Do we actually work only within certain boundaries?
As we discussed tactics for challenging a writer's ideas, we found different "levels" of confrontation. The following table gives a breakdown of the two general strategies (confrontation and avoidance) and outlines these levels:
As we considered these strategies, we agreed that could not develop a perfect procedure for dealing with all offensive papers. The direction that these conferences take depends significantly on the disposition of both the writer and the consultant, and other prevailing circumstances. This does not imply that it is impossible or unnecessary to consider strategies to apply in such conferences. Consultants who had been in these conferences found themselves at a loss for words, and unprepared to deal with the situation.
At this point our Writing Center Director recommended that we undertake a project based on this issue of conferences over offensive material. We were to make a presentation at the National Writing Centers Association Conference (April 1994). This was to be a learning process for us. We looked forward to sharing our ideas with writing center staff members from other institutions and gaining some insights from them. In preparation for this presentation, the staff members involved in this project prepared sample case studies for a micro-survey, geared at detecting trends among our group and possibly introducing new options for consideration. The case studies we created were based on a recent series of articles in The Writing Lab Newsletter by Michael Pemberton from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and our own personal experiences. We modeled the case studies to elicit a wide range of responses, while keeping the situations practical and conceivable. The issues addressed were religion, pornography, racism, and politics.
Even within our small group, there were varying ideas on how to handle a problem-conference. This trend, of course, goes back to the issue of allowing for diversity both in student writers and consultants. The approaches that each consultant proposed reflected a personal tutoring style. There were some commonalities in their suggestions, however. The majority favored adopting indirect confrontation as a strategy for dealing with the conference. One of the common strategies proposed for this was suggesting that the writer keep the paper as unoffensive as possible (curbing the use of insulting language, for example) because people who are offended are rarely people who are convinced. The consultants would try to subtly inject into the discussion the idea that negative impact will usually overshadow any positive purpose.
Many consultants stressed the importance of determining the writer's purpose and intended audience. This clarification, in fact, is a guiding light as to what direction the conference should take because the purpose can be used as a gauge when examining language, sources, and arguments. If, for example, the writer of the paper on racism was trying to write a journal-type article for publication on a multi-racial college campus, clearly his opening paragraph would be highly unsuitable because he is directly attacking and insulting his audience.
Another common recommendation made by the consultants was either to suggest to the writer that many readers may be offended by the content of the paper, or to point out that they themselves were disturbed by the paper's content. An important factor in taking such an approach, according to the consultants, is to assure the writer that this is a golden opportunity for critical analysis and strengthening of the paper. This reassurance must not be overlooked; otherwise, it may seem as though the consultant is seeking to change the writer's position, which should not be the case. Several consultants also indicated that they would question the writers' sources to ensure that the original authors are correctly quoted--and encourage the writers to support their more controversial statements with reliable sources.
As we looked at these case study responses and reconsidered our initial staff discussions, it was possible to identify three basic questions that should be considered before acting in the face of offensive (or inoffensive) material. We tried to keep the questions as objective as possible so that they would apply to virtually any conference situation and, at the same time, highlight the basic concerns that we think consultants should have in mind.
The first of these was: what are the goals, purposes, and motivations of the people involved? It would be futile to try and help writers reach their goals while being unaware of what they are trying to achieve. In most cases, there are other parties involved in the writing process, typically the instructor and the consultant. The assignment given indicates the instructor's expectations, making it necessary to establish what the assignment is early in the conference. Consultants then need to assess their own agendas in the conference and recognize the difference between criticizing a writer's opinions and playing the devil's advocate by challenging writers to rethink their ideas. In a situation where the consultant disagrees with a writer, it becomes easy for the focus to move from assistance to trying to take over a writer's opinions--definitely not the role of a writing consultant.
The second consideration was: what are the social and ethical consequences of trying to influence a writer's beliefs, feelings, or arguments during the course of a conference? As earlier stated, it is not the writing consultant's function to serve as a critic of a writer's idea-forming process. It is important to consider what our attempts to enter this arena would do to our professional and personal ethics. The final question was: what are the consequences of not doing so? It may not be our purpose to influence a writer's opinions, but there may be cases where we are certain that the ideas are morally, or even legally, wrong or inappropriate.
For the poster-presentation at the NWCA conference, we displayed our outline of the confrontation and avoidance strategies, the sample case-studies, a detailed discussion of our three "vital" questions, and copies of the three papers from which the earlier "offensive" quotes were taken. We also handed out a survey to people who attended our presentation. We were able to access a range of people - college instructors, writing center consultants like ourselves, and writing center administrators from several different states and institutions.
We gained some valuable information from our discussions with people at the conference, and from reading their survey responses (for statistics, see appendix 1). Some individuals offered unique options, such as advocating counseling for writers whose ideas were disturbing. Another respondent individual reminded us that tolerance is the key; that we, too, need to acknowledge that there are two (or more) sides to any issue and simply tolerate the papers. A majority of the sample felt that it is the duty of writing center consultants to discuss (but not necessarily debate) a writer's views even if found offensive. The majority also agreed that they would set boundaries for themselves in such a discussion. These boundaries were established according to two primary principles: i) not taking ownership of a paper (remaining a facilitator rather than a dictator), and ii) avoiding a situation where the consultant appears to be making a personal attack on the writer. Most indicated they would be willing to challenge a writer's ideas or assumptions regardless of their own position on the controversial issue.
While most respondents in New Orleans claimed that their performance in a conference would be affected if they had objections to the content, only 30% of these thought that the influence would be positive. This evidence would suggest that many writing center personnel are dissatisfied with their ability to handle conferences where they find the subject-matter disturbing. Despite their dissatisfaction, the respondents indicated that they would continue to work with the students rather than referring the writer to another consultant. Passing the conference to another staff member was considered unprofessional and not an acceptable solution.
Most respondents acknowledged that they had encountered conferences where they disagreed with the writer's opinions. From the type of issues that they cited as problematic, the "Big Three" were racism, sexism, and homophobia. Other issues raised were creationism, environmentalist doctrines, religious bigotry, and writers becoming too personal. When questioned on what they thought the major causes of the disagreements were, ideological and cultural differences were most frequently cited. Other reasons given were levels of maturity, educational background, and experience. Respondents to our questionnaire identified several factors that would influence their approach to offensive papers: the strength of the writer's argument, the writer's personality, the consultant's mood, and familiarity with the writer.
The inescapable fact in all conferencing situations is that it is our duty to help all writers who come into the center, whether or not their opinions and values appeal to us. We need to be able to evaluated the situation and adopt the best possible strategy for success in that conference. In handling the conference, whether or not it is offensive, we must adhere to our professional standards and maintain mutual respect between the authors and ourselves. Maintaining a professional relationship between the consultant and the writer remains a critical point in any writing center conference. In Gail Brendel's discussion of professional intimacy, she describes the "familiar-professional relationship" (Brendel, 11). In such a relationship, the conversation between the consultant and writer need not move to the personal plane. This does not mean that the ideas are not addressed. As Brendel explains, based on her conferences with one writer, "she discussed intimate thoughts and apprehensions, all under the broad umbrella of a writing conference. . . she felt comfortable with my attitude as a professional because it relieved her from the agonizing decision of what to tell me."
Professionalism, as described by Brendel, refers to that measure of disinterest that the writing center staff must maintain within conference situations. The consultant is an important part of the game, but is not, and cannot assume the role of, a player. The consultant is an umpire; umpires can make calls (observations) to guide the game, but can never actually join in the game or direct plays. Professionalism, then, refers to responsibility, self-control, and detachment. This ensures that both parties are in a stable and functional work-relationship, while familiarity breeds a willingness to work without contempt. These points are key in approaching complicated conferences because it becomes critical to have professional responsibilities in mind. In such a situation, a consultant is faced with conflicting loyalties; professionalism versus personal opinion or belief. It may be tempting to enter into one-on-one combat with a writer over what the consultant consider to be atrocious ideas. These unprofessional approaches, however, would not likely yield any success in a conference situation or otherwise benefit either party. Personal conflicts may be avoided by the consultant maintaining a familiar-personal relationship. As Brendel recounts, this would make it clear that there is only one agenda: "She understood, from my attitude and objective stance, that everything she told me was to help in producing a well-written paper."
Our examination of this issue following the NWCA Conference led us to new grounds. Until that point, we had only been considering two approaches to conferencing over offensive material: avoidance and confrontation. Our further studies on the issue led to a third approach that resolves the shortcomings of the other two and incorporates the professionalism that is so important to maintain. Rather than getting into direct confrontation with the writer, or skirting around an issue that is clearly bothersome, the consultant should try to understand the context and background of the writer. John Trimbur describes this as "a process of identifying differences and locating these differences in relation to one another" (Trimbur, 608). This means asking questions that are sincerely aimed at reaching a consensus, based on the consultant getting an idea of exactly where this writer is coming from. Trimbur explains that a consensus does not necessitate collective agreement. Rather, he describes the philosophy of "consensus as dissensus." He defines this as "reaching a consensus based on collective explanations of how people differ, where differences came from, and if they can live and work together with these differences" (Trimbur, 610). The consultant need not agree with the writer, or vice versa, to reach a consensus. What the consultant needs to do is reach an understanding of how and why they differ, thus structuring their differences such that they can work together to strengthen the writer's paper. In a way, it is "agreeing to disagree," but with an understanding of why there was the disagreement in the first place.
The ideology behind this whole concept of delineating differences is that our personal backgrounds send unique messages to us. Kenneth A. Bruffee says "we all belong to many overlapping, mutually inclusive communities" which can be "both limiting and liberating." Student writing is often a mix of these disparate voices, the "vernacular languages of the communities one belongs to" (Trimbur, 609). Consultants would therefore be trying in vain to analyze an individual's opinion if they insisted on seeing things from their own perspective. The key is in trying to comprehend the writer's perspective.
In a recent article in College Composition and Communication, Janice Neuleib frankly states that "teaching students whose goals and dreams differ markedly from one's own demands a refocus of perspective that often shows both our ignorance and our narrow perspectives" (Neuleib, 234). The point here is that you can only see as writers see if you learn to look through their eyes. Neuleib describes at length an episode between a student named Kevin and herself. She recounts her frustrations at trying to understand why Kevin had made the gross grammatical errors that he had in a piece of assigned writing. She admits that her instinct was to charge in, point out the mistakes, and prescribe the corrections. She realized that her "impulse to help him [Kevin] came from my assurance that I had the right information about text production and that he was eager to learn from me" (238). This assumption comes easily to any person who holds a strong opinion on an issue. We assume that we have the right angle on the situation, and we are eager to "enlighten" others, given the chance.
While Neuleib worked with low-ability students, she points out that conferencing demonstrates decentered teaching, and instructors often fail to decenter; by default they assume the role of "expert editor" to the student as novice contributor. When conflicts of opinion arise in a conference situation, it similarly becomes tempting for a consultant to assume the superior stance of the know-all. We must keep in mind that we too must listen and learn. In resolving her professional relationship with her students, Neuleib reaches a tentative conclusion that applies to writing center consultants as well: "I must listen to a student like Kevin and try to hear and understand why he would want to retain the cultural assumptions that allow him to say confidently that nothing needs to be changed in a passage that looks all wrong to me."
Reevaluating our own three case studies, we discovered that each example verified the wisdom of Neuleib's advice. For example, the student who wrote the paper on racism later revised the version brought to the Center. He began this revised draft by talking about his imprisoned brother. His brother, who he had wanted so much to look up to, was a frequent failure, unable to survive in a white society. The writer expressed anger at the destruction he continually saw in his family as a result of a system where black people cannot significantly improve their situation. This new information profoundly modified the impact of the entire paper, transforming it into a discussion where a white reader's reaction was likely to be more empathetic than repulsed. The initial paper can now be seen for what it was: a writer in the process of discovering the paper he was trying to write. This is a classic example for pointing out the futility of focusing on sentence-level errors when the fundamental nature of the paper has not yet been defined.
Further discussion of the fraternity paper led to a reconsideration of a passage previously overlooked. The final paragraph of the paper read:
Different readers had interpreted this conclusion very differently. Some thought that by "issues" the writer was referring to the co-ed fraternities, sexual harassment and so forth, meaning that he was condemning these as factors that were destroying the "good old boy network." However, others understood that the "issues" not well thought out referred to the fraternity's practices. They took the use of the word "crimes" as an indication of the writer's condemnation of the terrible acts. The case demonstrates how important it is to uncover the author's intentions, finding out how he actually felt about the practices. The consultant who dealt with this paper admitted being unaware of the writer's goal in writing this paper; she found it difficult to look beyond the vulgarities she encountered. It was difficult to determine the writer's standpoint: his paper was poorly developed, and the number of grammatical errors made many of his points ambiguous. But it is necessary for consultants to be aware of possible misinterpretations, and to avoid any rush to judgment.
The paper on sexuality became more understandable after discovering some facts about the writer's background. The student was an only child in a conservative, fundamentalist Christian family. She went to a small-town high school, and grew up surrounded with strong homophobic sentiments. In her home there was no question about the wickedness of homosexuality. Being in a college situation now, she has been exposed to more sexual diversity and liberal thinking and is in the turbulent process of forming her own opinions about homosexuality. She views herself as being much more receptive to homosexuals than she ever was before college. For her, the paper she wrote was a liberating step in her battle with lingering homophobia.
In each situation, the consultants needed to see beyond the superficial statements made in the papers and look deeper into the context and intent of their authors. The only way to do this would be by engaging in discussion with the student aimed at reaching the type of consensus described by Trimbur. Reaching this consensus would mean that the writer has, during the discussion, divulged information for explaining the background and intention of the paper, of filling in various narrative or argumentative gaps permeating any piece of writing. The writing consultant can facilitate this sharing, this "filling in" process, by adopting the role of the supportive researcher, seeking to understand rather than to judge. The conference needs to begin not with the consultant helping the student, but with the student helping the consultant understand the paper--its history, its themes, and its relationship to the author's ideas. Failure on the part of the consultant to reach an understanding of where the writer is coming from would indicate an unsuccessful conference, and an unsuccessful paper.
Twenty-six people were surveyed at one of the poster sessions at the NWCA Conference ('94). The following is a tally of their responses to the eight questions we presented to them:
Brendel, Gail. "Professional Intimacy." The Writing Lab Newsletter (October 1993).
Neuleib, Janice. "The Friendly Stranger: Twenty-Five Years as 'Other.'" College Composition and Communication 43 (1992).
Trimbur, John. "Consensus and Difference in Collaborative Learning." College English v. 51, 6 (October 1989).
Published in Writing Center Perspectives, Edited by Byron L. Stay, Christina Murphy, and Eric H. Hobson (NWCA Press) 1995.