Why I Call it the Academic Ghetto: A Critical Examination of Race, Place, and Writing Centers

Alexandria Lockett
Spelman College

This article investigates my lived experience as a black queer writing center tutor for the purposes of theorizing the transformative power of learning centers. Drawing on several perspectives and methods offered in Praxis’s special issue on Access and Equity in Graduate Writing Support, this article argues that the antiracist potential of writing centers depends on more comprehensive analyses of how writing centers function as racialized places. Using the metaphor of the “academic ghetto,” I signify on the misconception of writing centers as places for correcting deficiency. I apply my analysis to both an Undergraduate Writing Center (WCs) and a Graduate Writing Center (GWC) space to systematically discover how racial biases mediate and construct these learning spaces. In particular, I structure my discussion through a blend of personal narrative and critical analysis that illustrates the epistemic conflict and character of the “academic ghetto.” The article concludes with a call to invent antiracist practices for writing centers that model more inclusive methods of living in these spaces.  

As a graduate student, I needed serious help improving my ability to navigate the required inter/disciplinary writing and communication conventions. However, I was ashamed to seek assistance from any of the learning support services available to me. This avoidance was triggered by the daily pressure of interacting with peers/colleagues who explicitly doubted the legitimacy of my admissions. I routinely performed an intelligence they recognized by consciously code-switching my way through casual conversations, which inevitably focused on how the working-class black girl “got in” their beloved institutions. Doing this intense rhetorical work involves resisting two systemic misconceptions that are consistently used to make me lose faith in my abilities: were you admitted because of affirmative action or because of the sympathy of some “liberal” faculty?  

Affirmative action has long been invoked as an expression that challenges the excellence of black and brown people. Its critics claim that racism is over and that the colorblind system works for everyone equally so long as no one receives “special treatment,” regardless of their ancestral and contemporary relationship to systemic oppression. Justifying my position in the graduate program against such specious arguments was exhausting and unnecessary. Similar to the poor single mother who avoids any and all public assistance to protect herself against public scrutiny, I drew on an ethos of “doing it all by myself” through my refusal to pursue any learning support resources. If I could graduate having never set foot in a Graduate Writing Center (GWC), I could potentially defend myself against anyone who might question the value or validity of my degree on the grounds that I wasn’t solely, entirely responsible for my success.    

Of course, rugged individualism was impossible and, more importantly, didn’t work. My writing became unnecessarily timid and obscure throughout graduate school. I shunned the writing center, but I certainly looked to other learning spaces for help. Three hour seminars, closed-door advisor meetings, and reading groups seemed to be places where it would be appropriate to obtain explicit instruction for how to write in ways that would help me succeed throughout graduate studies and beyond. Unfortunately, these intimate spaces seemed to operate as if grad students were already “insiders” to the professional world of academia. With the assistance of a mentor who met with me weekly to assist me with my writing, I successfully completed my dissertation. That experience showed me how important it is for writing to be social. The challenge of bearing with the intricate, often solitary, process of writing theses/dissertations inspired me to have more communication with other graduate writers, regardless of their discipline or cultural background. Consequently, I secured employment at the graduate writing center, serving as a Graduate Writing Center (GWC) consultant the year after I completed my PhD.

This article critically examines this position, exploring how its multiple roles and locations taught me about the racial significance of my lived experience performing graduate writing conventions, both as an MA student at a mid-size public state university and as a PhD student at a large state university. Drawing on my background as both a struggling graduate student writer and a graduate writing center tutor, I argue that GWCs function as the “academic ghetto.” On the one hand, it literally organizes underserved demographics into a space for “development and improvement” that is physically (and conceptually) isolated from mainstream or privileged learning communities in the university. On the other hand, these are typically underfunded places where the design and operation of the learning space itself can be critiqued. GWCs may be cramped spaces that are “at capacity” without the resources to serve an overwhelming demand. They could be places where multilingual students take cultural pride in their ability to exercise polyvocality or experiment with structuring their studies around the problem of linguistic imperialism.  

By contrast, the GWC could be used to keep students in an “(academic) ghetto mentality” because it is a place where (white American) English is standardized and subsequently valued as a norm—whether it exemplifies correctness, represents (racial or national) purity, or serves as a marker of (white male) intellectual superiority. WCs as “academic ghettos” symbolize a home for “problem students,” whose performance of academic discourse has been evaluated by authorities as an obstacle to their self-sufficiency and social mobility. Since WCs may employ diverse methods of transforming student’s engagement with writing and communication, students may not want to “leave the hood,” regardless of how others stigmatize this learning place. But certainly as a “ghetto,” students are expected to “leave the hood” if they desire a more stable and satisfying future. Regardless, “the hood” offers an alternative strategies for cultivating enough self-esteem to master “proper” English at the same time as it introduces its folk to knowledge-making that is unavailable to them in “white space.” Consequently, this metaphor of the “academic ghetto” playfully (or shamefully?) invites readers to understand the potential of this place as a route to success or detour to failure, depending on who runs it and the extent to which that director recognizes and leverages the power of the space.

As part of the “academic ghetto,” GWCs serve as invaluable places to investigate how race mediates peer-to-peer interdisciplinary graduate student interactions. GWCs also enable researchers to observe racialized expectations of graduate student writing. More specifically, GWCs offer a vital place to observe and theorize about three major interrelated issues related to race, place, and writing centers:

  1. How race affects who seeks assistance from GWCs

  2. How race affects power dynamics between tutors and clients

  3. How race intensifies the overall labor of GWC tutors

This article presents narratives organized around these specific points, and invites readers to consider the extent to which an antiracist perspective of GWCs opens up the potential to provide transformative mentorship for graduate student writers and collect invaluable data that could improve the viable enterprise of graduate studies, in general (Bloom; Grav and Cayley; Madden and Stinnett; Snively and Prentice; Summers; Tauber). Overall, the article calls for more research about the work and positionality of tutors working at Writing Centers (WCs), and especially GWCs. GWCs, in particular, are locations that are severely understudied. Furthermore, the perspectives of racially marginalized tutors are overwhelmingly absent from WC scholarship, in general. We need more information about our/their experiences.

Indeed, location, as I will argue throughout this piece, must be considered as one of the major factors that obscures the relationship between race and how students are socialized to understand graduate writing conventions. Learning how to write, as a graduate student, depends on moving through clandestine places like faculty offices, selective reading groups, and brief cubicle chats among peers, as well as publicly sanctioned intimate spaces like coffee shops where graduate students may be meeting with their mentors and colleagues about any number of projects. Indeed, learning support services for graduate students offer researchers, administrators, and faculty a rare glimpse of diverse experiences of graduate students writing across disciplines.  

Writing Centers as Racialized Locale

As an alternative to teaching in predominantly white male student classrooms, I requested to work in the undergraduate Writing Center in 2011. I jokingly dubbed it the “academic ghetto” for two reasons.  First, it was the only place that I encountered such a large volume of historically underrepresented students at the university in the same space. Next, few if any doctoral students worked there. The WC had an unspoken reputation as a difficult, “less than” space where people assisted “basic” or “developmental” writers, given that the “best” grad students were measured by their ability to be selected to teach a survey course or even an elective for upperclass students. In sum, status among graduate students seemed to depend on the locale of one’s employment. With exception of those who were researching the WC, English graduate students understood that it was typical to teach any class, but teaching classes that weren’t first-year Writing, or serving as an RA for a prestigious professor were more competitive opportunities. Working in the Writing Center was often met with surprise, and—unless the graduate student was only in their first or second year—it was rarely considered as a viable place to work.

In calling the WC an “academic ghetto,” I recognize that some may be offended. However, I am signifying as is common black cultural practice (Smitherman; Mitchell-Kernan). The word ghetto can be a sign of veneration. From my working-class Southern black perspective, ghetto does not necessarily conjure up images of impoverished black and brown bodies behaving raucously. For me, the term means a place that is both outta sight and out of sight, as in a space in which outrageously fascinating events are unfolding, but little is actually said about its merits because it is occupied by low-income social classes. Outsiders fail to recognize its nuanced rules of power exchange, or see it at all.  It's just “them folk over there.” But those who “represent” have experienced both joy and disappointment there. Many people leave WCs unsatisfied and never come back. Some people do.

In the “academic ghetto,” linguistic and racial violence is happening everywhere. There are costs to claiming marginalized languages and ethnic identities, or “hoods.”  It is not a “safe space,” as if any place marking failure could be (Boquet 469-470). It’s not a place for the weak, or the meek.  It's a place where you better speak up to get what you need. It’s a place of occasional success—sometimes people get out the hood.  But a lot of people do not. Some people coming through won't graduate, or pass some of their classes that semester regardless of how hard they try. All expression in the WC occurs beneath the panoptic microscope of teachers and administrators who make it clear that the function of the place is to improve a dilapidated physical and mental condition—funding depends on that problem’s existence and the hope of fixing it. Its stigma directs deficient learners to go to some “project” outside of their departments or commons places like libraries. Rarely does a WC stand alone in its own building or is the place featured in one of the most populated locations on campus. Sometimes we’ll find the WC in a library, but often it is in a basement or on some less trafficked upper-floor. It could be in a musty old building on campus. It may be a tiny room inside a much larger, more glamorous, learning space such as the all-purpose student success center that is inhabited by more “important” tutoring work in subjects like math or computer science.  

In attempting to make WCs a “respectable” place, which is code for a certain ideology of whiteness that is concealed through the word “professionalism,” researchers risk neglecting that very place--much like well-meaning social workers do when they go to “check on” clients from the hood. It is very much a place that is under all kinds of surveillance. The “residents” are objects of study, as well as currency traded through transactions to be verified through routine paperwork circulated among peer tutors, other writing consultants, their teachers, and other administrators. Through “training” courses meant to “handle” the clientele, often conducted and administered by people who do not look like them or share their life experiences and academic struggles. Despite this structural reality, the ghetto generates pride in oneself, as well as ingenuity: compelling artwork, critical conversations about human suffering, and hacking limited resources for their maximum value.  

This section’s extrapolation of the concept of the “academic ghetto” offers a novel contribution to contemporary research. However, the use of this is not new, nor has it been used with the kind of adoration that I have expressed here. Since at least the 1960s, scholars across divisions and fields of study, including anthropology, English studies, philosophy, political science, public relations, sociology, women’s studies, and writing studies have described the need to “break out of” or resist being put in the “academic ghetto” to describe their fear of disciplinary marginalization (Caplan; Cotkin; Waymer and Dyson; Weiss; Wolf; Zirin). It is also used, perhaps more appropriately, to talk about the way institutions and other disciplines handle interdisciplinary fields that focus on identity, such as women’s studies, and especially black studies (Rabaka). Several queer studies theorists also employ the concept. For example, Lisa Duggan uses the term in her article, “Making it Perfectly Queer,” when she describes how gay and lesbian histories were ghettoized before Michel Foucault legitimized these narratives through History of Sexuality. For Duggan, “Theory is now working—finally—to get us out of the academic ghetto” (23). Duggan’s claim accounts for the veneration of Critical Theory in English Studies and its influence on knowledge creation in Rhetoric, Composition, and Writing Studies (RCWS). The “postmodern turn” certainly didn’t get our field out of isolation, but the spread of “high theory” was appropriated across the humanities and social sciences like fashion and music that originates in the hood and ends up on a Macy’s or Nordstrom Rack.

Other elitist references to this term appear during the roughly the same time period (1992), when Bernadine Healy critiques the marginalization of women faculty in medical schools. She argues that,

With some 14,171 women now teaching in medical schools, women represent 21.5% of all medical school faculty. However, they occupy what might be called an academic ghetto: 49.8% are clustered at the assistant professor level, only 9.8% are full professors, and there are no women deans. (1333)

Healy’s use of the term “academic ghetto” may not be the most appropriate way to talk about gender discrimination in the workplace. Although men dominate STEM fields, as well as the health professions (except Nursing), comparing the labor of women medical school professors to an “academic ghetto” feels offensive when considering the extreme labor issues facing humanities disciplines like RCWS and English Studies. Her discussion of tenure and promotion within the context of tenure-track positions is hardly applicable to the countless adjunct professors and graduate students whose pedagogical labor earns at or below minimum wage.

Given these labor conditions and the novelty of its disciplinary emergence, I was hardly surprised to finally discover RCWS and English Studies scholars comparing the field to the academic ghetto.  This metaphor is used within the historical context of general education and basic writing scholarship which have long focused on how to get “deficient” students (e.g. racial minorities) up to speed on learning how to master academic writing conventions.  Fear of being part of disciplines relegated to the “academic ghetto” is so deep that it is at core of the disciplinary origins of RCWS.  In her call for Rhet/Comp to disciplinize, Janice Lauer opens her essay with reference to the academic ghetto. She claims that, “freshman English will never reach the status of a respectable intellectual discipline unless both its theorizers and its practitioners break out of the ghetto” (396).  

RCWS scholarship also contains one of the few references that compare WCs to academic ghettos. In Mark Waldo’s, “The Last Best Place for Writing Across the Curriculum: The writing center,” Valerie Balester compares WCs to the academic ghetto because she is “mindful of its connotations of poverty, isolation, and low prestige” (166). Feminist compositionists Rhonda Grego and Nancy Thomson invoke the notion of ghettos while also comparing writing instructors to housewives.  They argue that:

It is not hard to see the work of compositionists in this depiction of how the housewife must organize her very consciousness as well as her day-to- day activities in response to other's needs, others' lives: composition's ghetto, its carnival, has been and is full of workers (often women, often untenured, unbenefitted, etc.) for years washing the masses, turning aside those who don't clean up well. (67)

As this (white) feminist use of “academic ghetto” shows, scholarly adoptions of the concept of the ghetto are utilized to strengthen a message of gendered labor injustice and disciplinary discrimination.  The next two examples take on even more overtly racial tones.

Apparently, American Studies, too, faces so-called oppression when too much race, class, and gender occupies theoretical, literary, and cultural space.  According to one scholar, George Cotkin, “identity politics” has ghettoized American Studies.  In his review of Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America, Cotkin argues that,

In an age when so many books are confined to an academic ghetto, Menand’s book stands out as a work that will remain popular outside of academe and be a continued presence in undergraduate survey courses in the history of American thought.

To suggest that the robust American canon of nineteenth through twenty-first century white male authors are suddenly placed into a ghetto because of contemporary multicultural interventions is absurd and, quite frankly, racist.  It is a “There goes the neighborhood” type of argument. The emergence of fields like black, queer, and women studies is only a threat to the hegemony of Western patriarchal intellectual traditions when those who seek to rigidly protect that hegemony continue preserving a canon that clearly marginalizes work produced by non-white authors.

Of course, one of the few excusable instances of scholars employing the “academic ghetto” metaphor is in the context of Black Studies.  These scholars have not simply complained about being relegated to the academic ghetto as mere hyperbole.  They have fleshed out their rationale for this metaphor, carefully relating it to the desegregation of colleges and universities, its history of resistance and violence, as well as the history of Black Studies in relation to the exhaustive fight for civil rights.  For example, Darlene Hine explains,

Unfortunately, the early development and subsequent evolution of Black Studies was further tainted by the media’s sensationalized coverage of armed black students at Cornell University and the 1969 shoot-out at UCLA, which left two students dead. In the minds of many, Black Studies would forever remain nothing more than a new kind of academic ghetto. (9)

Nellie McKay uses the term in a similar way in her article, “A Troubled Place: Black Women in the Halls of the White Academy.”  Like Hine, McKay identifies the racial characteristics of this notion of the “academic ghetto.” She states,

but in the 1960s and 1970s, for many black scholars there was no choice. Black studies were the only spaces available to them in colleges and universities. Nor in the academic ghetto of black studies, did the militant political rhetoric that so dramatically challenged racism build bridges between the new field and its disciplinary departments. (13)

She further describes how white faculty attempted to delegitimize black studies by calling it “unsound academically” and “intellectually inferior” to other disciplines.    

Overall, the notion of an “academic ghetto” serves as a rhetorical appeal for those—mostly in the humanities and social sciences—to claim their right to higher pay, visibility, and rank.  However, such a term deserves to be analyzed and evaluated in the various academic contexts that it appears.  Situating a term like ghetto within such predominantly white, prestigious locations is more offensive than provocative.  Such flippant comparison reminds me of that middle-upper class white friend who is ignorant of her race and class privilege.  She picks you up in her five-year-old car and as soon as you compliment her expensive possession, she retorts with, “It’s so ghetto!” because it isn’t brand new.  

Race and GWC Clientele

In the last section, I described why I refer to WCs as the academic ghetto by juxtaposing my interpretation with the limited ways in which (primarily white) scholars operating from a position of privilege have sloppily applied this concept to describe their working conditions or “oppressed” disciplinary situatedness in the academy. With exception of references to Black Studies, few scholars push the “academic ghetto” metaphor in ways that deal with how race actually affects place in colleges and universities. In this section, I want to draw readers’ attention back to the Graduate Writing Center space.

Researchers should further investigate the demographics of GWC tutors and writers because race matters when it comes to whether a student might actually use GWC services. In my lived experience as a graduate student, I did not enter the Writing Center space as a client.  I avoided this space for at least three interrelated reasons.  Similar to most graduate students, I wondered whether I was “good enough” to pursue doctoral studies.  However, this feeling was intensified by my hypervisibility at my university.  As a queer black woman student at a predominantly white R1 institution, I was especially sensitive to being perceived as someone who needed “extra” help, as I mentioned in the introduction.  Moreover, I did not want that help to come from my peers.  The culture of both my M.A. and Ph.D. programs were collegial, but very competitive.  Independently doing my work was absolutely necessary for me to prove my authorship, as I never wanted to be accused of not creating my own ideas.  In sum, assistance seemed like something that could be used against me.

This certainly happened to Cedric Burrows after he decided to visit a writing center to address his tendency to erase dissertation writing under the pressure of feeling as if nothing he wrote could be good enough.  As he describes in “Writing While Black: The Black Tax on African American Graduate Writers,” Burrows went to the campus writing center where he, “met with the tutor, an undergraduate English education major who would begin student-teaching the next semester.”  He describes the disastrous appointment, which was mostly a failure because the scope of the tutor’s critique fails to acknowledge the value of Burrows’ position as a Ph.D. student nearing degree completion, as well as his experience as a teacher of writing.  He reflects on this dilemma in the following passage:

After thanking him for his time, I left the center feeling frustrated. Did he not understand what I was writing? Or, did he not even try to understand? I couldn’t tell my committee for fear that they would think I wasn’t strong enough to deal with criticism, and I didn’t want to go back to the writing center after that experience. So, I resolved to try writing some more and hope it would work. But the double consciousness of being black and a dissertation writer kept me from writing more.

Burrows was not interested in whether his writing would offend white readers, as the tutor critiqued, but sought to discover strategies for composing without feeling the compulsion of self-erasure through his literal deletion of each day’s writing. However, Burrows remarks on the meaning of race during that WC appointment,

Instead of learning to know who I am, the tutor took it upon himself to create an image that fit his expectation of what an African American writer should be. He didn’t show any sign of revising this expectation and expected all revision to be on my part. His reaction shows how the mere presence of the African American subject serves as an intrusion within predominantly white institutions.

Since the tutor/client knowledge gap is too vast, Burrowes’ must “pay” for making “prospective white readers” of his work uncomfortable by his claims about race and racism.  After reading about Burrows’ experience being marginalized in a writing center by an undergraduate writing tutor, I felt compelled to wonder if what Burrows calls the “black tax” should be more broadly interpreted to include all sorts of ways people pay for their historical disenfranchisement by being visible and present in the dominant learning scene.  Would access to a GWC, where his peers may have shared more common ground with him as fellow graduate writers, have enabled him to address his writing issues with less hostility? We must ponder this question as we consider the relationship between racial diversity of scene and “student success” within the scene of graduate/professional studies.

Nevertheless, Burrows opted out of the WC space.  Race and rank played a role in his decision to cultivate his own vision of what writing support for a black male graduate student. He attended a dissertation support group with colleagues going through the same writing experience.  Furthermore, he connected with other black students who felt they were paying a “black tax” for being in white-dominant learning spaces, even when they sought additional learning support resources.  Therefore, Burrows co-organized independent writing groups with those students.  In that learning space, he feels comfortable sharing and discussing the clarity of his work with other underserved students, which in turn increases his productivity and enables him to successfully produce both his dissertation and job search documents that led to his ability to attain a tenure-track position at an R1 institution.  This experience also helped him gain additional understanding about what was insufficient about visiting the writing center, which demonstrates the need for WC scholarship and practice to adopt an antiracist methodology of inclusion (Condon; Villaneuva).     

Race, Place, and the Tutor/Writer Dynamic

Spatial investigations of Writing Centers occupy a central part of its literature since method constructs place.  The kind of place a writing center is perceived to be—by its tutors, clients, director, and administrative assistants—affects what will happen there.  Such metaphoric exploration is expressed by Elizabeth Boquet, who asks,

Is the writing center, in other words, primarily a space, a “laundry” where work is dropped off and picked up, where students are bruised off and cleaned up?  Or is it primarily a temporality, an interaction between people over time, in which the nature of the interaction is determined not by site but by method?. (464) 

It would seem, based on the academic ghetto metaphor, that WCs are both.  Literally, a place where events occur that won't tend to happen elsewhere, as well as a space in which certain attitudes and habits construct the nature of that place.  

Since I became a Graduate Writing Center tutor around the same time as I had successfully defended my dissertation (2013), I held a joint appointment (2013-14) with the English Department and my university’s online branch campus. The growth of this distance graduate education effort, as well as retention concerns, led to some investment in online tutoring. Thus, I worked with students online and offline.  I also continued to work at the undergraduate writing center where I had been employed since 2011. This appointment was also rare, as a lack of interest in the WC opened up the possibility for me to combine these positions.

Our offline GWC space was not inviting. Liana M. Silvia-Ford’s description of her “office” vividly illustrates the place that I occupied for slightly over a year. She remarks, “[. . .] it was a hidden office, an office that could easily be mistaken for something else. It had no windows, and [. . .] had been used for storage” (“Help Wanted”). The GWC’s rather unappealing spatial location in a former storage space in my PhD institution’s graduate school building contributed to its nebulous definition. It currently sits across from a noisy, heavily trafficked coffee shop and is adjacent to a large auditorium. It is several doors away from the main entrance, which features the Graduate School’s main office. This building also hosts some classroom and administrative meeting spaces, the Office of the Provost, as well as the “minority support services” such as the Office of Graduate Equity Educational Programs (OGEEP) and the McNair program.  

Two people could comfortably occupy the space, and three would make it stuffy and uncomfortable. We tutors respectfully attempted to avoid booking appointments on top of each other when we needed the “office.” The spatial limitations greatly affected session activity. We had to bootstrap resources and adapt to the flow. If we were in the office, it was a rather private one-on-one consultation. If it was at the coffee shop, our noise synced up with the quick pace of the place and tended to maintain our focus on the “task at hand.” Online sessions were a combination of both, as the distance produced a sense of urgency, but also a one-on-one experience.  

In that office formerly known as a janitor’s closet, I became accustomed to the feeling of being used like the mops and brooms and worn chairs and broken file cabinets that once collected dust in the little room. One day, an Asian student came into the center, slammed his paper in front of me, sat down and looked at me with expectation in his eyes. Not a word escaped his lips to establish respect or trust, and his folded arms protected him from my flippant reaction. I slid the paper slowly back to him, bit my lip, and said, “I don’t do that.” He shot a dirty look my way, shook his head, and said, “Aren’t you the writing center?  I need you to fix this.” His frank rejection of my refusal felt like a sexual violation. I felt a flash of shame and temporarily wondered if he was right. Was it my job to “go over the paper” as he wanted--with him passively accepting or rejecting my editorial suggestions?

Before you think I’m just another black girl with a bad attitude, I want you to rewind this story for a second—omitting our racial markers of difference and simply examining the implications of the labor request happening here. I’m sitting; he is standing. I’m opening my mouth to greet him; he is making a request.  He pushes something towards me; I push it away. He insists; I refuse. Clearly these images conjure associations to assault and rape. This wave of guilt quickly washed over me because I reminded myself that I do not owe the client any and every request. Tutors should not feel that it is their job to edit a paper unless they are teaching the client how to edit a paper.¹  

This lack of clarity about tutorials has been written about by several scholars (Brady and Singh-Corcoran; Cohn; Mannon; Silva-Ford; Simpson; Snively et. al; Summers; Tauber).  It results from the fact that WC practitioners hardly agree about when we should say no to certain expectations of service.  The following questions might offer some guidance:

  • What, then, is intellectual service?  

  • How can it be performed without issues of ownership and its Western cultural ideologies of correctness and colonization compromising the integrity of the session?

  • How do these questions come to relief when the racial difference of tutors and clients affects the work that happens in the WC?

  • How does this narrative allow us to (re)negotiate the terms of the argument about tutoring and grammar work, especially in the context of graduate writers?

Erica Cirillo-McCarthy, et al. argue that, “By telling a student that we don’t “do” grammar, we are also telling them that their work is too deficient for the writing center.” They also claim that paying attention to stories about writing centers present researchers and practitioners with, “the opportunity to unpack and question stories often told about writing centers with regard to our work with GMLWs [graduate multilingual writers].”

There seems to be a discrepancy between WC scholarship’s discourses of inclusion and customer service. Arguably, this gap stems from the lack of non-white tutor perspectives in the research. Despite the fact that Cirillo-McCarthy, et al. look to, “interrogate, disrupt, and complicate narratives, search[ing] for untold stories or misrepresented voices buried in grand narratives of writing center missions and praxis,” their construct of the GMLW does not address race. The notion of “multilingual writers,” especially at the graduate-level, does not necessarily include first-generation graduate students, Black and Latinx graduate students, LGBTQ students. These populations, depending on the language and identity issue in question, may be considered “native English” speakers, but not necessarily multilingual writers. A significant portion of interdisciplinary research about graduate writers focuses on the “multilingual” writer, which is often code for “international students” (Canagarajah; Philips). The concept of multilingualism repudiates the habit of referring to international students as ESL and L2 since these historical terms position them as deficient English speakers rather than gifted individuals whose geographic movement has led them to acquire a complex linguistic identity that may include proficiency in several languages and/or Englishes.

In fact, some researchers have critiqued studies about multilingual and translingual writers because for lacking sufficient attention on race (Curtis & Romney; Kubota & Lin; Liu and Tannacito; Motha; Ruecker). To illustrate, Pei-Hsun Emma Liu and Dan J. Tannacito remind us that some multilingual writers believe that Americanism and whiteness are superior forms of expression, which may motivate them to seek out white tutors at WCs. One Taiwanese student they interviewed [Monica] claimed that she thought, “white people have the better race” (365). Since race affects one’s motivation to learn “proper grammar,” or “sound white,” Cirillo-McCarthy, et al.’s discussion of deficiency should include considerations of how clients may treat non-white and/or non-American tutors as unable to help them attain the white American English proficiency they seek to attain. This certainly may have been the case when I was treated with gendered contempt by the Chinese student before I signified my refusal to be treated disrespectfully by denying his request for me to correct his grammar.

Indeed, a session about grammar may need to also include serious dialogue about a client’s racial attitudes when arguments unintentionally exhibits or reinforces white supremacist attitudes. As Pei-Hsun Emma Liu and Dan J. Tannacito argue,

Because race is implicated in L2 discourse and behavior, it is important for L2 writing professionals to be aware of students’ construction of whiteness in literacy practices. This may be as basic as discussing and discerning tendencies from stereotypes (e.g. ‘Chinese are often passive in writing class’). (371)

When considering the relationship between race and linguistic identity, we may encounter narratives of difference that illustrate a diversity of needs that may not result in cohesive notions of access. This will especially be the case if I am not as interested in helping clients obtain some variation of Standard American English that reinforces their view of black and brown people as inferior races.  

In sum, what clients want can sometimes interfere with their own learning, especially in cases where they may decide to decline services from non-white or non-American tutors because they automatically dismiss the very idea that they could speak or write “better English” than their white colleagues. These issues translate to contexts of learning graduate writing because students’ expectations of who ought to be mentoring them and teaching them affects language learning since the very definition of “professional writing,” and “scholarly writing” signifies expression that will likely incorporate many assumptions about how to perform and elevate whiteness.  

While I agree with Cirillo-McCarthy, et al. in regards to their argument about being cognizant about what we see as “deficient,” I think that writing consultants should be willing to assert boundaries and resist being utilized as an unlimited service object when they are too exhausted to labor under conditions that prevent us from comprehensively assisting clients. For example, I should actually define editing for writers, as I understand it, at the very beginning of a tutoring appointment.  This establishes the kind of role(s) they can expect me to occupy during a one-hour session. I communicate that I am not an editor, that context, because “tutoring” means that I want the client to actually learn how to identify and strategically revise what could be considered “surface-level” issues on their own. For new clients, I explicitly discuss the difference between editing—which often means that the client sits there and silently watches you “correct” the paper—vs. tutoring, which involves engaging the client in a problem-solving process that will increase their ability to revise. Occasionally, I have to remind returning clients about these boundaries, especially when they are pushing a thesis/dissertation deadline and trying to get me to work faster than I can realistically read that scope of writing.  

Race and the Economic Conditions of Tutoring Writers

Unknowingly, Cirillo-McCarthy, et al. advance an argument that oversimplifies the racial aspects of the economic contexts affecting learning support labor. When considering the labor burdens on writing tutors vs. instructors, race, gender, and sexuality intensify labor demands on tutors who are “women of color.” The GWC demands its consultants to develop writing and writing pedagogy across the disciplines and cultural backgrounds throughout different stages of a program that might last for several years, exceeding the duration of an undergraduate degree. As universities pay more and more attention to the success of graduate students, especially those doing distance education programs, GWCs ought to receive more financial resources in exchange for the invaluable services they provide an institution. The freelance cost of consulting graduate writers far exceeds the university pay grade for teaching assistant and adjunct laborer positions. Affluent (mostly international) students might pay upwards of $50-$70 per hour for private tutoring sessions, which some students’ families have already budgeted into the cost of graduate studies. Directors seeking to create an antiracist space might be more vocal with administrations about increasing GWC budgets, which could be more strategically connected to entities like equity programs to attract more racially diverse clients and tutors.

Their efforts might be ably assisted by the fact that few studies document the experiences of black women composition teachers, writing center tutors and writing program administrators (WPAs).  Composition Studies and Writing Center scholarship tends to almost always exclusively position marginalized students as students not instructors, clients rather than tutors or directors (Denny; Lederman; Lamos; Malenczyk; Wallace and Bell). Typical narratives about access and equity often describe “people of color,” “queers,” and “first-generation” populations as patrons-only. When such demographics are elaborated on at all, the research may argue that WCs need to be “safe spaces.” The ‘safe spaces’ arguments reveal that the work of tutoring English writing, in such contexts, is clearly understood to advance standardized English and particular conventions of academic communication.

We need to realize how WCs function as academic ghettos, especially to those who must live and labor in that space as those who institutions have historically isolated. The work of getting someone to talk and write like “educated (white) folks” is an act of violence because it functions on the basis that patriarchal white supremacist manners of expression superior to those of unassimilated non-white people. “Good English,” then, is provided paramount linguistic value solely on the basis of the transferability of its socio-economic viability. This impression of WCs as racist and colonial spaces, in fact, increased my desire to participate in leadership roles in the field.  

Moreover, we need to talk more about race as it relates to those who labor in WCs.  This article integrated personal narrative and rhetorical criticism for the purposes of challenging readers to think critically about race, place, and WCs.  I was “a black graduate writing center tutor,” and that does matter.  We are extremely rare.  Little research exists about the experiences of black women composition teachers, writing center tutors and writing program administrators (WPAs).  For example, Composition Studies and Writing Center scholarship tends to almost always exclusively position marginalized students as students rather than instructors, clients rather than tutors or directors, as previously discussed. This typical narrative, in which “only minorities need help with their writing,” as I discussed earlier in this article, increased my desire to participate in leadership roles in the field.  

I definitely recognized myself in the first scene in Harry Denny’s chapter on race in his book Facing the Center, and was grateful to see a discussion about an underrepresented student in the role of the tutor (32).  However, published autobiographical accounts of our lived experience as graduate students writing, let alone as tutors of graduate students writing, are nearly non-existent with rare exceptions like Burrows’s account and frequent blog posts published on Conditionally Accepted—an InsideHigherEd blog/column. In terms of scholarship, Dwedor Morais Ford’s recent work, “HBCU Writing Centers Claiming an Identity in the Academy” describes specific challenges facing black graduate student writers. Black Women WPAs such as Karen Keaton Jackson and Carmen Kynard, respectively, have also published significant work that confronts the negative effects of standardizing American English at the expense of the intellectual value of multilingual, multicultural, and diasporic language and discourse. Kynard’s continuously models exemplary geographic and technocultural critiques of institutional racism by identifying how scholars in the field benefit from doing research on race and racism while also inhibiting racially marginalized students and colleagues from fully participating in the academy (Teaching While Black 14; Stayin Woke 523). Jackson urges us to pay attention to the intensity of labor required from underfunded WPAs at HBCUs, as well as black college instructors teaching about race in predominantly white classrooms. Their combined works are exceptional because of the careful and unique attention paid to the relevance of HBCUs and black language learners.

Furthermore, Romeo García’s “Unmaking Gringo-Centers” presents a nuanced Mexican-American perspective on WC tutoring that seeks to broaden racial perspectives beyond the poles of black and white (32; 38-9). His investigation of thirty years of WC scholarship revealed a “low frequency” of articles regarding racial identities (34). However, García’s attempt to make racial discourses in WC scholarship more plural should recognize the complexity of gender and sexuality that exists within the dominant black/white racial narrative. We must theorize race from both the decolonial point of view that García advocates, as well as an intersectional perspective that considers gendered and economic mediations of race.

Consequently, this article contributes to black perspectives on graduate writing with a call for an increase in scholarship that explicitly addresses race and racism, as it relates to “formal” learning places. This work is messy and meaningful, traditional and transgressive, hopeless and servile, empowering and violent depending on the day, the client, our attitude, our outlook, our training, our staff morale, our literal teaching and tutoring space (which can vary widely--online and offline), among so many other factors.

Conclusion: Towards More Racially Inclusive Tutoring Models

What are the demographics of your WC? Of the directors, assistants, tutors, and clients? When considering the place of a WC, do you consider what kind of languages you expect to be spoken around you? What is your relationship to Standard White English? To Black English? To languages other than English? What kind of order do you assert in your WC? Do you discourage people from getting up to move? Do your tutoring practices include whiteboard mapping, desktop note-taking, or recording the audio of sessions? Do you sit down for the entire hour? Are breaks encouraged? Do you tend to follow the same script of approaches?  Do you call those approaches “best practices?” 

In sum, antiracism in WCs pays attention to the spaces, in which we labor, as often we people are untenured and/or temporary laborers working the space.  In the quest to serve for low pay and little recognition, we are most certainly disenfranchising those who have been historically underserved.  To document how tutors resist labor exploitation in their practices would be a major step in beginning to articulate antiracist WC praxis. As I conclude this piece, I invite you to recognize how the previous paragraph guides you through a process that might enable you to more clearly recognize and articulate the inclusion politics of your WCs. The disclosure of y/our own lived experience is an integral part of the work we should all be doing to more comprehensively interpret what might be happening with race and WCs.  


1. While editing papers can involve a transactional and rewarding relationship between clients and editors, this relationship is much different when a person is paying $40-50/hr., and willing to provide continuous feedback.  This kind of relationship cannot happen in a one-hour session, nor should it ever be attempted.

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