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Writing Centers: Silencing the Student Through Language

The author poses before a piece of street art and wears a New York City tee-shirt.
Kate Carter-Cram

Kate Carter-Cram is from Boise, Idaho.  She is pursuing a degree in global studies with an emphasis in international relations with minors in both French and economics, and a certificate in user research.  Kate’s academic interests have always been relatively varied, so this combination of major/ minors/ certificate is one that allows her to study the areas that hold her curiosity the most.  In the fall of 2019, Kate will be studying abroad for a semester in Lyon, France, where she can focus on French and international relations in a language intensive program.  After graduating with her bachelor’s degree in the spring of 2021, she plans to complete a fellowship abroad or continue her education in a graduate program with the goal of earning a master’s degree in either economics or international relations.  When she’s not studying, Kate enjoys exercising, cooking, watching movies, photography, and traveling.

Writing Centers: Silencing the Student Through Language

Oppression through language is currently a highly discussed topic: many academics and students alike are beginning to analyze the effects of rhetoric and how it ultimately has a larger social and cultural impact than first believed.  Writing centers are spaces at most universities in the United States that aim to strengthen writing pieces, but also to collaborate with students to help them have a more defined understanding of themselves as individuals.  There is a movement toward using writing center spaces as places of equality, where peers come together to collectively share knowledge about a variety of topics.  However, there still exists a stigma that writing centers are a place of unfair authority with tutors who attempt to correct “bad” writing.  Changing this perception can allow for the true potential of writing centers to emerge, and altering this stereotype ultimately begins with the everyday language that students use to describe their writing, writing centers, and the students around them.

Oppression has many forms: verbal, nonverbal, physical… the list could continue.  However, oppression through language is a topic that should, and needs to be, more openly discussed in university settings.  In Mandy Suhr-Sytsma and Shan-Estelle Brown’s article, “Theory In/ To Practice: Addressing the Everyday Language of Oppression in the Writing Center,” they outline a teaching strategy to help writing centers become more cognizant of the oppression that ultimately does exist in writing center work.  Through two different studies on focus groups from their writing center in Connecticut, Suhr-Sytsma and Brown created two different heuristic lists aimed at guiding other writing centers to start a dialogue about both tutors’ and writers’ experiences feeling oppression and oppressing others in writing center and university settings.  They conclude that it’s too valuable of an opportunity for writing centers to turn a blind eye to the oppression happening within their own walls.  Education is the appropriate and most crucial action that must be undertaken by all to create a more critical and supportive community on college campuses.

Ultimately, education consists of a lot of conscious language choices in order to successfully convey information to a target audience.  In his article, “An Overview of Rhetoric,” James A. Herrick declares that “rhetoric is the art of applying symbols effectively” (7).  Suhr-Sytsma and Brown cover how language can create the concept of “the other.”  “[O]ne’s language might normalize one’s own experience when exoticizing the experience of perceived ‘others’” (29-30).  This concept is commonly seen in writing, and it is exceedingly easy to unintentionally utilize language that makes concepts that are different seem inferior.  If students are unsure of their beliefs regarding the topic they’re writing about, then it’s easy for them to be vague or unintentionally oppress “the other.”  Suhr-Sytsma and Brown state that “an individual’s uses of oppressive language are often both unintentional and inseparable from broader discourses that reinforce oppression” (14).  The distinction that some oppression is unintentional is important to how educating students about oppression is approached.  If it’s assumed that a student is trying to be malicious, it may be easier to become a little hostile when conversing about their language choices.  This directly goes against what a consultant is attempting to do when they strive to build rapport and connection with the student (39).  However, understanding the linkage between motives, perspectives, and writing can help create a safe learning atmosphere wherein both the student and consultant can benefit.  This consequently allows progress to made towards eliminating unintentional oppression and selecting more informed rhetoric in order to effectively communicate the author’s true beliefs and thoughts.

Having knowledge of the connection between cognition and communication can significantly alter how writing is approached.  Kenneth A. Bruffee argues in his article “Peer Tutoring and the ‘Conversation of Mankind’” that “[i]f thought is internalized conversation, then writing is internalized conversation re-externalized” (210).  In “The Why of Cognition: Emotion and the Writing Process,” Alice G. Brand expands on Bruffee’s argument, saying “[i]t is in cognition that ideas make sense.  But it is in emotion that this sense finds value” (442).  Writing is an individual’s thoughts, biases, and values put into a communicative form for others to read, but these only make sense once they’ve been processed by the brain.  Once they’ve been processed, each individual is able to give them meaning based on personal experiences and emotions. Rhetoric is a powerful tool, whether it be used verbally or nonverbally.  The same power and responsibility with rhetoric are given to the consultant, as well, and the consultant need to be extremely aware of how their communication choices affect, limit, or stereotype other groups, especially when talking about oppression.  Both parties should be aware of the impact of their words to ensure there isn’t any unintentional or intentional oppression occurring.  However, Suhr-Sytsma and Brown also state that the writer should be able to clearly state her own opinion within the piece.  Writing center consultants are given a unique opportunity: they can teach students while also acting as their peers.  Consultants don’t, and shouldn’t, discriminate against different viewpoints and beliefs.  The majority of cases that oppress through language may be unintentional, too, but for the ones that are intentional, changing the individual’s word choice to reflect a more inclusive or politically liberal perspective could be seen as a reverse form of oppression.  Every student should be given the right of free speech, even if the perspective a student is honestly attempting to communicate is rather controversial.  The consultant should confirm that a student understands what they are communicating, and present them with a variety of viewpoints, but ultimately the decision of what to communicate is the student’s.

Suhr-Sytsma and Brown’s use of the word “tutoring” throughout their article seems like both a form of oppression and discrimination in and of itself because it demeans the students who come into writing centers as bad students.  Generally, “oppression” is seen as a concept relating to gender, race, or socio-economic class.  However, it’s the subtle word choices that can often have more of an impact than blatantly polarizing language.  While Suhr-Sytsma and Brown are trying to be cognizant of the language of oppression, it seems as though they stereotype both the students who come into the writing center for collaboration and the students who work to provide a safe space for these conversations to occur.  It also implies a hierarchical power structure wherein the “tutors” are above the students, rather than acting as the students’ peers.  By calling writing center tutors “tutors” instead of “consultants,” Suhr-Sytsma and Brown create the concept of “the other” that they are so desperately trying to avoid.  Rather than continuing to utilize the term “tutor,” which has rather a negative connotation, it seems like changing to the label “consultant” would better serve their purpose of inclusion and limited oppression.  This helps convey a positive tone and denotes a collaborative and student-centered approach rather than demeaning and demoralizing situation.

Through these perspectives, it is clear to see the impact that writing centers can have if they realize the full extent of their power.  As Suhr-Sytsma and Brown explain in their article, writing centers have the ability to educate all of the students who work in and use their space, but an understanding that “they are never completely outside of oppressive systems even as they seek to be more reflective, critical, and resistant from within” is of paramount importance to making education about oppression a primary goal of writing centers (46).  Taking ownership of one’s ideas, whether through a better understanding of how an individual is being unintentionally oppressive, or by personally believing what one is communicating through writing, is what makes writing powerful and individualized.  A writing center has been successful if it has benefitted both the student and the consultant: when it has ensured that providing education for all is a common goal, then it has enabled the definite possibility of personal and institutional success.

Works Cited

Brand, Alice G. “The Why of Cognition: Emotion and the Writing Process.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 38, no. 4, 1987, p. 436., doi:10.2307/357637.

Bruffee, Kenneth A. “Peer Tutoring and the ‘Conversation of Mankind.’” Writing Centers: Theory and Administration.  Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1984. 3-15.

Herrick, James A. “The History and Theory of Rhetoric: An Introduction.” 2nd ed. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2001. Print.

Suhr-Sytsma, Mandy, and Shan-Estelle Brown. “Theory In/ To Practice: Addressing the Everyday Language of Oppression in the Writing C.” The Writing Center Journal, vol. 31, no. 2, 2011, pp. 13–49.