Safe Space For Whom: Tutor Dignity and Writer Freedom

By June 23, 2015R is for Research

I’ll preface this post by saying that it’s really difficult to offend me personally. There are things people say and do that I understand are generally offensive to society or groups of people or other individuals, but it is rare that someone hurts and offends me personally. Language almost never does. I did a project my freshman year of my undergrad about the validity of profanity (to which my professor wrote “Hot Damn!” on the rubric). And I’ll also mention that, in two years as a peer writing tutor, I have never been in a tutoring appointment where I was personally offended by the content or language of a paper.

But I am open to the possibility that it might happen sometime and, more importantly, I can see where someone else might be put in that scenario. And it’s important that we continue to push conversation on the topic.

Writing center scholarship maintains, and rightfully so, that writing centers must be safe spaces where writers are completely comfortable to share their thoughts, no matter what they are. In a fascinating article on the subject from the University of Richmond, we learn there are legal precedents for this safe space. The article mentions, “colleges have not met with the same constitutional support for censorship and for reprimanding offensive behavior.” Essentially this means that, as tutors, we have to allow writing, regardless of content, to be welcomed into our centers. The UCWbL uses an adage that, as tutors, we are to help someone who brings in a racist paper to write the best racist paper they can. We are not appropriators of ideas.

We can play devil’s advocate, though, and we can suggest alternate ideas that could strengthen an piece through addressing a counterargument. That is all well and good, and it speaks to our overall mission of making better writers. The article from Richmond gives tips to tutors for handling offensive papers, and gives advice for “salvaging a bad tutorial.” We all have them, and perhaps in a tutoring session where we have a paper we find offensive, it is more likely to have them. Emotions run high on both sides of the table about topics with potential to offend.

The article, though, does mention a line, but that line is related to legal issues, such as writing about acts of violence against specific people or groups.

The question I want to propose is one I have proposed around the UCWbL before: where is the line personally?

Consider the dignity of the greatest resource any writing center has: the tutor. Are we to sincerely expect an African-American tutor to read a wildly racist, personal paper and simply play devil’s advocate? Should a woman smile and nod at a paper a man writes that is sexist? Am I, as a gay man, expected to read a homophobic paper and have the ability to focus on the quality of the writing through the appointment? In these scenarios, the papers are not merely papers that make offensive individual statements or are offensive to a different individual or group than the tutor is a part of, but instead papers whose entire point is attacking core aspects of who we are as people. Not just interests, not just beliefs, but the core of our humanity and identity?

Current writing center theory would say “yes.” No matter how that paper might cut to the core of the tutor, or might trigger all kinds of negative responses in that tutor when the appointment ends, it appears to be the oath of the tutor to tough it out. We have created a safe space for the writer to bring in any idea, but it’s possible we have overcompensated at the expense of the tutor’s individual dignity. Writing center scholar and author of groundbreaking article “Queering The Writing Center” Harry Denny addressed this very concept while appearing on the UCWbL’s Scrawl Radio, which you can listen to here.

A solution to this problem that preserves the dignity of both the writer and the tutor is having the potential for the tutor to hand off the appointment to another tutor. Another tutor who could handle the paper in a less personal way might provide better help to the writer. Maybe this would work and maybe not, but at this point, who can tell?

I open myself to the possibility that I might be wrong about this, but on at least a cursory glance, I cannot find any writing center theory that addresses this idea. It could be messy. There could be a better way. But that research doesn’t appear to exist. Let’s get to it, writing center theorists!

We all want to believe that we can be brave and strong enough to endure a paper like that as tutors, that we have taken the oath of the tutor seriously and genuinely want to help people become better writers. But the possibility exists that it might be too much for someone, or even for me or you, one day. That the wrong paper hits you at the wrong time, and suddenly your effectiveness as a tutor is impacted not just that day, but maybe long term. Maybe it is a fairly remote possibility, or at least it feels that way for me personally, but it’d be nice to know some best practices were established in the writing center world to protect the tutor if such a situation were to arise.

Join the discussion 2 Comments

  • Mia says:

    Former UCWbLer here. Did an in-service on this back in the day (here’s the link to the prezi which has some readings, including Denny’s work, you might be interested in: ). I’m glad to see people are still troubling this issue years later, and I really identify with a lot of the issues, gaps, and questions you bring up.

    I have sooooo many thoughts on this, and had a slightly unpopular view on this at the time which really went against the more widely accepted WC pedagogy, but I’ll try to stick to one small point that I think would help address this problem more in future: I would encourage you to question whether “offensive” is the most appropriate word for what you are explaining. To me, I think it’s important to admit that sometimes the most appropriate word might be “oppressive”. You raise a question which isn’t merely about addressing “offensive” language, but “oppressive” language, as well as language and ideas that might be oppressive to the tutor. So my question has always been, how might overlooking the power dynamics that writers might have over peer writing tutors impact UCWbLers as workers?