On 'feminized space' in the Writing Center

Al Ibrahim, 'Unity: XX/XY' 2009.

Al Ibrahim, 'Unity: XX/XY' 2009.

I’ve spent a lot of time as the only man in the room. Having worked (mostly with infants) in early childhood education after earning my English degree, and having attended a master’s program in feminist theory, spaces where women are the norm are familiar and pleasant places to me. Maybe this is why I like writing centers.

There is a long critical tradition in writing center studies of treating the ‘feminized space’ of the writing center as a problematic, if not a problem, and today I want to track the way the feminized space of the writing center has been discussed over time in order to better understand how it has and is working, both as a lived reality and as a discourse.

It is worthwhile to first enunciate the problematic as clearly as possible. ‘Feminized’ in this usage indicates ‘made-feminine’ and ‘coded as pertaining to or occupied by women,’ and thus to call the writing center a ‘feminized space’ is to indicate that it is discursively coded via a sociospatial logic that categorizes physical locations according to their gendered meanings and associations, but characterizing writing centers as feminized also constitutes a claim that it is mostly women who want, use, and staff them. Thus ‘feminized space’ is both a quantitative and a qualitative statement; one question that immediately arises is whether or not it also constitutes a narrative. Is the ‘feminized space’ of the writing center actually something other than it appears? Is the gender of the writing center, so to speak, distinct from its sex? Was the writing center previously a masculine space, or an androgynous space, or an entirely neutral space which has been elevated (or lowered) by being gendered feminine? Does ‘feminized’ space, whatever its previous condition, have effects on its inhabitants? Who did this feminizing?

Mary Trachsel writes in a 1995 Writing Center Journal article that her thinking about these questions has been informed by Nancy Grimm’s 1994 keynote address to the Midwest Writing Center Association Conference in which she comments on the “gendered service role” many writing centers are tasked with in their institutions. Trachsel, a former director of the University of Texas writing lab, understands these questions in terms of work/life balance, labor practices and a feminist ethic of care. The keynote address Trachsel writes in response to is clearly making the quantitative argument; as she notes, “the term ‘gendered’ when applied to the role of writing centers in the academy seems to invite an essentialist definition: writing centers are sites where women are concentrated in the academic labor force” (27). She uses this insight as a springboard to the qualitative argument, in which she genders the institution as a whole, calling it “patriarchal,” and says that this dichotomous categorization has real effects. By gendering the writing center in opposition to the institution as a whole, other academic laborers are led to see the task of the writing center -composition in general, and writing assistance in particular- and the logistics of its operation (in which I would include both method, methodology, and administration) as somehow distinct from their own labor. Trachsel notes that this is neither inherently good nor bad: where Elizabeth Flynn sees the feminization of composition as a transformative and progressive development away from previous, patriarchal norms, Muriel Harris cautions that some academic laborers attached to writing centers must still contend with those who understand feminization as a sign of lack and also, paradoxically, as a sign of excess. Trachsel frames the entire discussion within a narrative about her life as the parent of young children and an academic laborer, and the ways in which ‘feminization’ is, for her, a pervasive and constantly-felt experience.

This is in strong contrast to Elizabeth Boquet’s discussion of the feminized writing center in Noise from the Writing Center (2002). Boquet describes a meeting with prospective consultants where a single male was present, and relates his evident discomfort to the ways in which writing centers are both gendered and sexed so that his is not the normate body. This experience serves to remind Boquet of the extent to which she is engaged in feminized work (in both senses of the word); as a writing center researcher Boquet writes that she feels uncomfortable poised between a masculinized, ‘scientific’ world of research and a feminized, ‘maternal’ world of service-work and sees the two as descriptive of the academic institution as a whole. In Boquet’s vision of the problematic, the difficulty posed by the feminized writing center lies in choosing your complicities – with the patriarchal or the feminized, neither of which are entirely noble or entirely blameless – as both a director and an academic researcher.

Jackie Grutsch McKinney recasts this highly politicized version of the feminized writing center as a precursor stage on the path to the feminist writing center in her Peripheral Visions for Writing Centers (2012). Instead of acceding to the vision of writing centers as ‘cozy’ spaces of laborious, caring service to writers who are themselves in thrall to the (patriarchal) desires of the institution, Boquet suggests we discard the ‘homey-cozy’ narrative as one incompatible with the actual work done in writing centers. By “looking at our spaces as opposed to through them” McKinney states that any comfortable grand narrative about writing centers is revealed as partial and motivated. In contrast to the ‘ideal’ writing centers she describes, whether they are described thusly by tutors, administrators, or design professionals, McKinney points out that “what gets used most… what is indeed indispensable for us, include computers, Kleenex, a stapler, cleaning spray, pencils, trash cans, breath mints, bulleting boards, our telephone, forms, the front desk, a coat rack, and our worn copies of the Everyday Writer handbook.” For McKinney, this litany of quotidiana is a signal that the labor occurring in writing centers is deeply pragmatic, processual, and engaged, and finally incompatible with any grand narrative unable to recognize how writing centers transcend convenient binaries and, in doing so, often transform them.

If, after this too-concise genealogy of the problematic, we return to the question of how the ‘feminized’ writing center constitutes an object of inquiry and how far that inquiry has thus far progressed, there seems to be very little to say. The consensus is that writing centers are feminized both in terms of qualitative and quantitative measures (some of the time) and that this has effects (though they are sometimes unpredictable or debatable). Writing centers often exist in some tension with their institutional homes, and this can both cause problems for writing centers and help them to inhabit a liminal, hybrid space with specific potential as drivers of change. As a consensus this is fairly lackluster. I agree with the authors I’ve quoted in seeing the writing center as a space where women are the majority, and in assuming that this has implications both ideological and practical, but what I would add to this discussion is that the university is also becoming such a space. As demonstrated by the figure below, the University of Texas is majority-female and has been for over a decade; if current enrollment trends continue, women will continue to outnumber their male counterparts across the board in ever-increasing numbers.

This, along with the widespread recognition that higher education is undergoing a period of rapid change driven by historically unprecedented enrollment combined with an ongoing loss of government funding, would seem to suggest that the terms of this particular debate may be up for review. Not just in the sense that McKinney acknowledges, either: simply put, it is no longer as qualitatively or quantitatively accurate to describe the university as ‘masculine,’ though it may or may not remain highly patriarchal. It remains to be seen what effects this demographic change will have on specific writing centers, since different institutions will have accordingly different on-campus gender ratios and those ratios may or may not have an effect on entrenched gender ideologies. If ‘feminized’ universities begin to see writing centers as useful tools for retention and recruitment and manage to somehow fully imbricate them in neo-liberal ways of being and learning in the corporate university, have writing centers then been ‘masculinized?’ If the continued existence of a writing center is assured, due to its utility to the institution finally being recognized, are the politics in play at all simplified? Is the gender binary at work within these analyses – a binary inherent to the problematic, seemingly – still descriptively powerful enough to retain? Only time will tell.


Works Cited

Boquet, Elizabeth. Noise from the Writing Center. Logan, UT: Utah State UP, 2002. Print.

McKinney, Jackie Grutsch. Peripheral Visions for Writing Centers. Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado, 2013. Print.

Trachsel, Mary. “Nurturant Ethics and Academic Ideals: Convergence in the Writing Center.” Writing Center Journal 16.1 (1995): 24-45. Print.