Comfort Zones and Safe Houses: Writing Centers and Direct Action

When I was an undergrad at UNC Asheville, I protested a lot and often. I joined and eventually presided our university chapter of Amnesty International. We wrote letters to elected officials weekly; we hosted “teach-in” lunches and “bike-in” documentary screenings that engaged the campus community with social justice issues on campus and abroad; we protested the proposed building site of a Wal-Mart that would displace dozens of low-income, immigrant families in West Asheville; we drove to southwestern Georgia and marched in demonstrations against the School of the Americas.

And then, I had to take a step back. I had not yet learned about the importance of self-care (which is an ongoing process) and nearly failed out of school from fatigue. Several years passed, and I found myself drawn to graduate school programs in Rhetoric & Composition because they spoke to my appreciation and fascination with how words contribute to feelings which turn into actions. Powerful, public, political actions.

And now, I write. And I talk about writing with others who write. Since I started graduate school in 2011, I’ve written about social movements from the Civil Rights sit-ins of the 1960s to the “locavore” movement of today. I’ve also written about activism in writing centers. But today, I find myself questioning assumptions graduate school has, at times, enabled me to make.

In “Arts of the Contact Zone,” Mary Louis Pratt introduces the concept of “contact zones” into scholarship about writing, literacy and language learning. Pratt uses the term in reference to “social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power, such as colonialism, slavery, or their aftermaths as they are lived out in many parts of the world today” (34). Since then, many scholars across the field have applied and modified Pratt’s “contact zones” to various spaces and situations. Suresh Canagarajah, for example, writes about the “function of safe houses as an experimental site where students can interrogate, negotiate, and appropriate new rhetorical and discursive forms without fear of institutional penalties” (191). The writing center has been discussed as just such a place, as a “safe house” in the context of the contact zone that is the academy.

As valuable as I think this approach is, and as much as I believe in the importance and impact of the work that writing centers do for people of color and disenfranchised communities across our campuses, recent events around the nation have caused me to ask myself: Is writing about activism enough? Does talking about writing, as we do in writing centers, constitute activism?

The recent killing of an African American man at the hands of a police officer in Charlotte, North Carolina hit close to home. My family is from another Piedmont community in the state, and though I currently live hundreds of miles away, news of Keith Lamont Scott’s death and subsequent demonstrations cause me to recommit to engaging in forms of direct action. The protests in Charlotte and around the country have forced me to reckon with the ways academic work--both inside and outside the writing center--”gets in the way” of direct action. As an Assistant Program Coordinator (aka: Assistant Director, or “AD”) at my university’s writing center, for example, I’ve often used my commitment to the work I do as a graduate student in the writing center--from consulting to administrative tasks and meetings--as a reason not to put my body among others in the streets.

This is not to dismiss the importance of the work writing centers do in the academy as safe houses. However, it feels urgent for me to acknowledge my complicity and take responsibility for my commitments to racial and social justice outside the writing center. I do not intend to admonish the writing center or those who feel empowered to use it as a space that works toward inclusiveness and equality--in fact, I know that’s at the heart of many of the administrative decisions we make at my own writing center. However, as someone who has in the past taken to the streets, I want to add my voice to this forum and recommit myself to placing my body amongst others who take direct action and publically protest. I would like, also, for this to be a call for others to do the same, even if it presses the limits of our comfort zones.

-- Hannah Harrison, Assistant Program Coordinator for the University Writing Center at the University of Texas at Austin. 

Works Cited

Canagarajah, A. Suresh. "Safe houses in the contact zone: Coping strategies of African-American students in the academy." College composition and communication 48.2 (1997): 173-196.

Pratt, Mary Louise. "Arts of the contact zone." Profession (1991): 33-40.