What is the mission of a “SafeZone” tutor? In these turbulent times, how can SafeZone tutors support LGBT+ students within the writing center?
When I began my master’s degree at Oklahoma State University in 2016, I discovered the institution of the SafeZone tutor. In the OSU writing center, SafeZone tutors attend training to serve as liaisons between the LGBT+ community and the writing center; whether they fall within the LGBT+ community or serve as allies, they fill this same role. By situating SafeZone tutors as an identifiable resource in the physical space of the writing center and the virtual space of their website, the OSU Writing Center announces their intent to support LGBT+ students and their voices.
As I began to examine the context of the SafeZone tutor within the culture of Oklahoma State University, I realized I needed more perspectives on this issue. Working with other consultants at OSU, I began to assemble an inquiry group as a place for discussion. As Alexandra Weinbaum, David Allen, and Tina Blythe write in Teaching as Inquiry, “[C]ollaborative inquiry is the process by which colleagues gather in groups to pursue, over time, the questions about teaching and learning that the group members identify as important” (2). I wanted my research to be grounded in the collaborative inquiry that only a group can provide.
We met in the Oklahoma State University Writing Center. The space of the center is open and organic. Potted plants curl down the receptionist’s desk, and natural light streams in through the windows. Even the dividing walls that separate different areas do not reach all the way to the ceiling, allowing for easy contact. I wanted to encourage open conversation in a way that mimicked the open context of the writing center: an interactive process with consultants and clients alike.
Many students at OSU come from rural backgrounds; within this context, LGBT+ students are often regarded as rare or even nonexistent by the general student population. Our discussions returned again and again to this factor as we considered the difficulty of advertising SafeZone tutors. We focused primarily upon the issue of homophobia within writing center sessions. One tutor mentioned the fact that within writing center spaces, it may be difficult to even discuss LGBT+ subjects at all. In one session, her student heard the word “lesbian” read aloud in a different session, and the student became distracted, sitting upright in her seat. In such a context, it can be difficult to embark upon challenging conversations, even within the one-on-one sessions of the writing center.
We identified our writing center as a place of openness. When one creates an account on the OSU writing center website, for instance, the system offers you the option to use your preferred name. This installation may seem small, but it does indeed send a message: you are welcome to go by the name you are most comfortable with. Throughout the writing center, one might also spot small triangles of varying rainbow colors, with the words “SafeZone” beneath. This sends a clear message: LGBT+ students are welcome here.
We had begun our meetings as an inquiry group during the fall of 2016. That November, unidentified students strung a sign from the Oklahoma State University student union. It read, “DeDe Westbrook and Baker Mayfield BANG DUDES #OUHATEWEEK.” The sign targeted University of Oklahoma running back DeDe Westbrook and quarterback Baker Mayfield, and many read the sign as homophobic in nature. When I spoke to LGBT+ students at Oklahoma State Queers and Allies (OSU’s LGBT+ organization), most found the sign to be alienating and in poor taste. In this regional context, allies who can intercede on behalf of LGBT+ students are necessary.
In light of recent steps to reverse policies that protect vulnerable LGBT populations, the SafeZone tutor can communicate a valuable message within the writing center. LGBT voices are welcomed, and even more, encouraged. As I pursue this study on LGBT+ writers and SafeZone tutors within the writing center, it is my hope that it will inform the writing center at large as a site of collaborative expansion, allowing writing centers to guide the writing and amplify the voices of LGBT+ students who may feel invisible.
Diamond, Dan. “Trump administration dismantles LGBT-friendly policies.” Politico, February 19, 2018. Accessed April 3, 2018.
Meyer, Anna. “Homophobic sign about OU football players found hanging from the Oklahoma State student union.” OU Daily. November, 28, 2016. Accessed April 3, 2018.
O’Colly Staff. “Multiple signs directed at OU football players appear on OSU campus.” OColly, November, 28, 2016. Accessed April 3, 2018.
Weinbaum, Alexandra, David Allen, and Tina Blythe. Teaching as Inquiry: Asking Hard Questions to Improve Practice and Student Achievement. New York: Teachers College P, 2004.
Galen David Bunting is in the final year of his M.A. in English Literature at Oklahoma State University. He heads the “LGBT+ Writers and Tutors within the Writing Center” research project, which investigates the position of the SafeZone tutor within the broader context of the Writing Center, especially when exploring ways in which writing centers can reach out to LGBT+ students.