Guns In/And Writing Centers

Thomas Spitzer-Hanks, 'Guncil' 2016

Thomas Spitzer-Hanks, 'Guncil' 2016


By now the internet rage cycle has moved on, but last week a great many people were looking at and talking about a powerpoint slide from a University of Houston Faculty Senate meeting. Aside from the remarkable fact that 1) something exciting and noteworthy happened at a faculty senate meeting, and 2) a powerpoint slide was that ‘something exciting,’ the presentation itself did make some remarkable recommendations. The question is whether these types of recommendations, and the heightened presence of guns on Texas campuses after August 1st, make any difference to writing centers.

Among the recommendations were fairly obvious ones like “[C]lassroom disturbances involving guns, or the threat of violence are extremely serious,” “concealed means concealed,” and “[I]t’s in your interest and the University’s interest to be very guarded and careful about this issue.” While true, these statements are not the ones that caught mass attention. What did was this slide:

Reactions were swift and furious. Among my own colleagues there were concerns about the possible effects on academic freedom of having self-censorship become a way of life for college instructors. They argued that the advice to not “go there” seems like an easy way of putting the burden of safety on possible victims of violence rather than on perpetrators. Some also asked whether “that student” may face intensified negative attention from instructors, and what the effects of this negative attention might be; they seem likely to include the restricted availability of assistance from instructors. It is worth asking: does asking instructors to identify “that student” leave too much room for stereotyping? If a child can bring a clock to school and get arrested for it, based primarily on other people’s perceptions of his identity and capacities, how will our institutions treat “that student?” By what (and whose) criteria will “that student” be identified?

These are deeply worthwhile questions, and ones I don’t intend to try to answer. What struck me, though, in looking at this slide, is the sense that this faculty senate meeting was very much imagining a classroom or office hour interaction between instructor and student. Without a curriculum, without drop-by office hours, in circumstances that already feature limited, controlled student access, why should writing centers be concerned about concealed weapons on campus?

It seems to be because consultants (and their directors) are worried. This topic was dealt with recently on a listserv I follow, the impetus being a query from a regional campus’ writing center director asking what training or engagement with administration other WC directors had pursued. Some suggested educating consultants on CHL training to assuage their worries, while others suggested training them for active-shooter scenarios instead; one director had done an informal survey of consultant opinion and noted that while consultants at their center generally rejected the idea of campus carry they also rejected the idea of having the writing center become a gun-free or “safe” zone, assuming that in doing so the writing center would become a target. In this survey consultants noted that while they would not feel safe on a weaponized campus in general, they would feel less safe in a “safe zone” on such a campus.

The solutions offered on the listserv were not much different from those offered to the Houston Faculty Senate. Know ‘what to look for,’ change the environment and your own use of it to avoid unnecessary exposure to danger, hope for the best; the only new suggestion was to let tutors work from home by consulting online. This gets at the nub of the problem, I think: within the legal framework we have there is very little we can ‘do about’ concealed weapons on campuses (and in fact this has always been true) except leave campuses, and while instructors could move to MOOCs and distance-learning, a great deal of the work of a writing center still occurs in the personal encounter between two people. This will probably change as more centers add online services, but as long as writing centers remain physical spaces on residential campuses they will have to reckon with the real possibility of gun violence, and as Writing Center Studies matures as a discipline we will have to accommodate this reality in our planning, training, and scholarship. We will have to do so nationwide, too - not just in Texas. The changes we feel (or do not feel) compelled to make to writing center working conditions, philosophy, and practice in response to concealed campus carry will be an important part of the entire field for the foreseeable future.