Experiencing the “Contact Zone”

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“As a reader, I thought you were saying. . . Did you mean to say this?”

Most of the time the answer I get is a simple “yes” or a “no.” When it is a “no,” the student attempts to re-write the sentence.

 Sometimes, though, I get: “Oh My Gosh! No!”

In these situations, a consultee has just realized that they¹ have accidently written something racist, sexist, or one of the several -phobics. Some students might even claim that they intentionally wrote something offensive.

For a consultant, all of the situations mentioned above can be simple cases—even the last one. There is not much one can do in a forty-five-minute consultation to change someone’s hateful  ideology, even though those forty-five-minutes might be very uncomfortable.  

Personally, I have never encountered a student who would answer that they intentionally wrote something offensive, though some of my colleagues tell me they have. I have found myself wondering, at times, whether the consultee I was working with was hateful. But, in my experience, the consultee simply had a different opinion from mine.

One example that sticks out to me was a consultation focusing on immigrants and their healthcare issues. This is where I realized to what extent a writing center is a “contact zone.”²

As for the subject matter in question, I didn’t have a lot of knowledge about healthcare, but I knew quite a bit about immigrant issues—both documented and undocumented. I did not agree with my consultee’s opinion, and he did not agree with mine. Neither one of us had an extremist view of the situation—just a little left and a little right leaning.³ When we talked through the reasoning behind our opinion—none of them fell into one of the million fallacies I was expecting. I paused for a few seconds wondering What am I supposed to do now? as he looked at my face with curiosity.

A frustrated, polarized troll, at this point, might have called the student a snowflake or a basement dweller. That’s where my answer lay: At the writing center, we provide students “a social space where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other” ii in a harmonious system that they might not find elsewhere, i.e. a “Contact Zone” that is almost the opposite of how an internet troll would handle opposing opinions.

So, I had to make a decision: continue without resisting or resist appropriately. For a lot of consultees, I would have chosen the first option for the sake of keeping their writing center experience comfortable, or in the case of shy consultees, not imposing my opinions on them. I have encountered both kinds of consultees. For this particular consultee—a good listener who appreciated his point of views being tested—I chose the latter.

There was a downside to this approach: we didn’t get through his whole paper when we otherwise would have. But the advantages, for both of us, were far greater. We found that his paper was relying on incorrect information about documented immigrants (he had lumped different types of legal immigrants together, which was incorrect for his scenario because they have different rights in the country). We then attempted to modify his arguments, incorporating facts this time. As I went through his research paper, I modified my arguments as well. Our final opinions remained intact.

My resistance coupled with his good attitude helped us identify that error. Otherwise, we would have moved away from the intricacies of the content and focused mostly on improving his writing.

I came out of this consultation feeling exhausted, yet content. I had just experienced writing center as a “contact zone” at its best.

Notes

1. I believe in a singular “they.”

2. Pratt, Mary Louise. “Arts of the Contact Zone.” Profession, 1991, pp. 33–40. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25595469.

3. I have left our personal opinions and its details out of the scope of this post as I do not wish to encourage judgment on any of us. It would also be unfair for the consultee.

Author Bio

Ratnika Batra is a senior Computer Science and Rhetoric and Writing undergraduate student. She has been working at the University of Texas at Austin’s University Writing Center for about a year as a Writing Consultant and more recently as a Course Specialist Consultant. Her interests include helping underprepared and ELL students succeed in college, and she hopes to continue working in the writing studies field after she graduates.