Writing Centers and the Rhetoric of Toleration

a brick wall

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Here at the University of Texas at Austin, we train our interns in an intensive, semester-long course in writing center pedagogy. In the spring, a few other graduate student administrators and I had the pleasure of leading workshops in the course with our newest batch of interns. Our task was to walk our students through an exercise in which students discussed how they would deal with difficult consultations in specific scenarios. The scenario I was given (assisting a student who grew up on a farm and helped animals using homeopathic remedies with a vet school application) was tame in comparison with the one my colleague received: helping a student revise a Teach for America application that makes some thoughtless, insensitive, and racially coded remarks about people of lower socioeconomic status.

A few students wondered aloud why they should even bother to help the student at all, especially one applying for Teach for America who needed to do some serious self-interrogation. These reactions, I think, were understandable, and ones that we wrestle with often in training consultants. And they boil down to a couple of questions: how do we deal with these moments, and why should we at all?

As we discussed as a class how we would handle this situation, I was reminded (as I often am, since I’m writing my dissertation on it) of the discourse of toleration. As political theorist Gary A. Remer describes, the 16th-century humanist discourse of toleration—with Desiderius Erasmus as the paradigmatic practitioner—arose to serve as a tourniquet to the bloodshed caused by religious differences in northern Europe. In contrast to the rampant intolerance that sparked the French Wars of Religion, the Thirty Years’ War, and the English Civil Wars, among others, the humanist scholars thought about toleration as a rhetorical practice that offered a way out of the irreconcilable differences caused by opposing religious confessions. Solving intolerance would only happen through sermo (conversation), and that required adopting a stance of epistemological humility and willingness to listen. Remer writes that the interlocutors of humanist dialogues “acknowledge the inherent uncertainty of their subject matter and accord the other speakers the freedom to expound their opinions and arrive at their own, different conclusions” (87). The humanists saw conversation rooted in skepticism toward not only your opponent’s ideas but also your own as key to ensuring a productive, harmonious way forward. While our work as consultants requires a degree of certainty (otherwise why would students come to us and want us to collaborate with them?) and students’ composition papers aren’t typically, say, calling for the death of their heretical Anabaptist foes, there is a disposition in the humanists’ argumentative style that might be useful to adopt in consulting when we fundamentally disagree with the student’s position.

What struck me about this conversation was that the students’ solutions all resembled this disposition. Our consultants suggested encouraging the student to acknowledge the inherent uncertainty of her own views, while also giving her the freedom to express and ask questions herself. For instance, they proposed breaking down the claims and asking what kinds of assumptions made up those claims or making a table that compared the claims the student made about herself with the claims she made about other people. They also suggested asking the student about the claims, opening the conversation charitably: “I know you didn’t mean this, but it sounds like you’re saying. . .” Our own Praxis editor Sarah Riddick—the graduate student asked to work with the group who received this prompt—walked students through the logical syllogism and the enthymeme and suggested that using these tools would encourage the consultee to really think carefully about her views. In each case, though, the humanist disposition was present and struck me as fruitful in dealing with a tough consultation.

I think these strategies do a few things that are useful in a writing consultation, and almost certainly more useful than just refusing to help the student. First, they take the emphasis off of the student. Deeming the student a bad person and refusing to help would likely cause more harm than good. These strategies also offered the consultee the opportunity for more rigorous self-analysis and meta-awareness of her own writing, giving her some conceptual tools to begin thinking about her own views in a more nuanced way than her initial assumptions would allow. Finally, approaching difficult writing conversations this way takes the responsibility of challenging the consultee’s way of thinking off the shoulders of the consultant and instead encourages the consultee to think carefully through her own argument, with the consultant helping to point out flawed premises and conclusions.  

Thinking about the humanist approach to toleration as a paradigm for approaching writing centers isn’t perfect, however, and I can anticipate at least two difficulties to approaching consultations with a humanistic approach to writing centers. Part of the difficulty, of course, is accepting that your conversation might not go the way you want it to—in offering the student the freedom to question and express her views, there’s always the possibility that she will go a direction that you think is fundamentally wrong. The student might dig her heels in and insist that her way of thinking is correct. She might leave you a nasty exit survey. The other difficulty resides in the potential for propping up bad ideas about civility and power—that is, as we’ve seen recently in the news, civility and decorum are often bludgeons used to silence marginalized communities.

Of course, the other important rub is this: we always want our consultants to feel safe. There might be perfectly legitimate reasons to refuse to help a student and pass them to someone who doesn’t feel that working with the student might cause them harm. I could see it being a problem, for instance, if we asked a consultant who has experienced racial prejudice to continue working with a student whose work is making racist claims. Here at UT, we encourage any consultant who feels unsafe that they are free to tag out with an administrator or another consultant. We encourage them to be mindful of what they do and do not want to deal with in a consultation, and if they don’t want to talk to someone about the problematic implications of their argument, that’s okay, too. It’s not their job to change their consultee’s mind about what they’re writing about, and they shouldn’t feel burdened to do so. Despite these potential dangers, the work that we do in assisting students we disagree with is valuable because it has the potential to plant a seed that you might not see come to fruition in a 45-minute session. You might be the only person in their sphere to question their assumptions. That kind of potential, to me, makes having these kinds of difficult consultations worthwhile.

It’s also important to keep in mind that by and large, our students probably aren’t terrible people even when they’re espousing terrible ideas, accidentally or otherwise—they simply have preconceptions that they’ve never been encouraged to think too hard about. And this is the real work of the humanist model of toleration. You push against someone’s ideas to offer an alternative way of seeing the world, hopefully to enlarge their imagination or get them to see as many sides as possible of an issue. The work of tolerance and acceptance, and the work of teaching writing, is getting people to think about their preconceived notions. This is why we should help those students we disagree with. We can’t change their worldview, but the writing center consultation has the potential to encourage students to start asking more and better questions about what they think and why they think it, and we can, if this isn’t too arrogant, serve as a space where students can enlarge their understanding.

And that’s the conclusion that we arrived at as a class. We aren’t and can’t be responsible for changing our consultees’ opinions. As much as we might hope to, we are still only working with a student for 45 minutes on one paper. Even so, writing consultations still have plenty of potential to do good. A recurring theme in discussions about toleration is that tolerance is hard work (see, for instance, Rainer Forst’s recent book Toleration in Conflict, in which he teases out the many valences of his book’s title), and I think most of us would agree that teaching writing is hard for many of the same reasons. A single consultation isn’t enough time to save the world, but it is enough time to have a conversation and to promote humility and introspection by helping your consultee question their assumptions.