Writing Centers as Spaces for Dialogue about Social Justice

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While working as a consultant in the Writing Centre at the University of Winnipeg, I have discovered an extremely rewarding—yet completely unexpected—benefit of tutoring that inspires and challenges me.

When I began tutoring, I expected to help writers with any struggles they were experiencing as they transitioned to academic writing, and I thought that in itself would be a great experience. However, I have since discovered that my role as a tutor allows me to do more than talk about writing with my peers; I can openly discuss the importance of the issues featured in their writing. For instance, because our centre sees many humanities students, our consultees often are writing about social-justice issues, many of which I am particularly close to in my own field of women’s and gender studies.

Besides regularly bouncing ideas about writing off each other, many of my consultations often feature me and my consultees building rapport with each other by sharing experiences and ideas about the topic they are writing about and the world around us. Although this is always a sidebar to the actual tutoring about writing that is most important in a session, this rapport-building is a great experience to have, and it often results in important conversations between us—important conversations that should be happening between many more people than just us.

For example, I once worked with a writer in an urban and inner-city studies class who was examining different nonprofit organizations and the work they were doing in communities. We started talking about the lack of resources available for people in poverty or facing homelessness, as well as the systemic factors that play into these issues. As he gave me his opinion, and I, in turn, agreed and provided other insights, his enthusiasm for his paper skyrocketed. Although he had been engaged from the start, I could see a clear change in his demeanor as he began to open up about issues about which he clearly felt strongly and passionately. His words could not keep up with his ideas, as he was so eager to get his thoughts down to paper.

After this session, and a few others like it, I came to realize something significant about the role tutors play in the writing centre, the lives of our consultees—even if just briefly—and the university. We work with writers to establish their ideas, restructure their argument, and clarify their writing. But as we unpack their ideas in these ways, we also unpack our own assumptions, as well as the assumptions and stereotypes that are prevalent in our society.

The writing centre allows us the time and the space to connect and to talk through matters of social justice, to have these conversations that we wouldn’t be having otherwise. The students I connect with in consultations are students I only get the chance to talk to because of the writing centre. I did not think the writing centre would be a space to engage in social-justice dialogue; it had not occurred to me that it could be this kind of space, but it definitely is, and I am thankful for this. I get to talk with writers on a peer level—not just as writers in an academic setting, but as humans—wrestling with big ideas about society and the issues that touch our lives every day, even if they do in subtle ways.

Throughout our consultations we can grow as writers and tutors, in part because consultations allow us the space to bring forward our personal perspectives, to challenge each other’s worldviews, to open our minds to new insights and to even, sometimes, brainstorm possible solutions in the context of writing a paper. Within the process of producing a paper, of answering their questions about writing, we also produce the chance to grow as individuals, to work through everyday problems that occur on a greater scale in the world around us.

Moreover, I get to be part of other students’ growth process. As they return to me for further sessions in the same classes, I get to see their thought processes change and develop further, such as when they grapple with social-justice topics. Quite often, I leave a session feeling inspired, or with substantial food for thought, and I am introduced to social issues I may never have considered otherwise.

Tutoring not only gives me the chance to offer my reassurance about a student’s writing—and for writers to hopefully be reassured by me—but to know that there are others who share similar interests, ideas, and passion for social-justice issues that touch many of us daily. Tutoring sessions such as these leave me feeling very hopeful, and although the issues we discuss may be heavy or disheartening, it is uplifting to know that so many people are also looking for ways to grow as individuals, working to understand complicated issues, and trying to find solutions. I hope my consultees also leave these sessions feeling hopeful—not only about their writing, but also about the opportunities the academic environment allows for them to learn, to explore, and to challenge the perspectives with which we enter the university.

Author Bio:

Jennifer Hammond is a third-year women’s and gender studies major at the University of Winnipeg. She currently consults in the campus Writing Centre. Her future plans include graduate studies in the field of disability studies.