Monday, October 03, 2005

First Monday in October

Morning all,
It's a nice cool, clear morning here in Brooklyn. MTA buses are screeching by about every ten minutes, relieving my coffee of some of the burden of helping me wake up. I've transitioned from lying on the couch listening to NPR to switching between Good Day New York (cute weather guy) and CNN.

On Friday, some local writing center folks and I met to talk about WCJ's last issue. Our conversation focused on Gardner and Ramsey's "Polyvalent Mission." A number of their points bothered us, but the framing of oppositionality and marginality struck many of us. All the participants in our group happened to be marked as Other by either gender or sexuality, so being marginal(-ized) is not theoretical or speculative for us. In our discussions, we spoke to the value and costs of maintaining oppositional identities, and we were struck by how dissidence is often framed as naive, immature, and idealistic (and assimilation as reasonable, wise, and pragmatic). Despite Gardner and Ramsey's problematic binary, we appreciated their use of the Carnegie Foundation's call to expand what scholarship means in college and university discourse communities. The authors suggest that the day-to-day performances/work of writing center professional constitutes a sort of organic scholarship that must be celebrated as on par with theoretical, experimental and observational research.

At any rate, the article spurred a good deal of talk that eventually moved from the play of identity in the article to the role of identity among our group. We found ourselves debating what kinds of conversations do we need to have to keep our group growing, and we wondered what constitutes needs for folks that don't come to our meetings like this one where we explore readings and where we discuss (research and writing) projects in progress and reading discussions. This turn in talk got us wondering about professional tracks and professional development for people in writing centers in the area. As Lauren Fitzgerald has discovered, the NYC metro area has more than 100 writing centers, so fit stands to reason many people are doing WC work, often without a whole lot of institutional support or training. We wondered: how do we grow our community and maintain our emphasis on a writing and research collective? Do these imperatives need to be competing imperatives?

All this talk about identity, the politics of margin and center, and outreach made me hopeful. I was worried about my article how might come off to the pool of readers. If it fires up folks like Gardner and Ramsey did for us, then I'll feel good. Already one director has used it as an occasion to come out to her staff--I don't know a better honor to bestow. I love to be subversive, but I tend to prefer to do it from the shadows. So all this talk is very public for me…

At any rate, I remain a strong believer in writing centers as communities, complete with all the baggage that the concept carries. My faith in that term comes from my own experiences at WCs through the years. From Temple to LIU and now Stony Brook, writing centers have been these complicated spaces where the teaching/mentoring/tutoring of writing (process) never just involved helping people understand and do better planning, drafting, revising and editing. In almost every session, the politics of race, ethnicity, sex, class, and language culture have been important, even crucial, variables to engaging in dialogue. It seems axiomatic to me to assume these variables affect us, so in writing centers with diverse constituencies, it seems natural to factor them into interaction. As a field, writing center theory has considered all these variables and refined pedagogy to account for them, or at least to acknowledge them as affecting pedagogy. In all these rich discussions about diversity in the writing center, the perspectives of sexual minorities and our identities have never been a part of the conversation. Part of that oversight has to do with the legibility of our identity--not knowing or seeing queer folks allows for a certain degree of avoidance. Another part, however, is a certain degree of institutional homophobia, or better compulsory heterosexism... I doubt many people are uncomfortable with LGBT people; it's more likely that folks assume a heterosexual mindset in most matters until contested.

So my article, in part, was about bringing those voices out into the public talk. I've been struck by how invisible in official conversation and research sexual minority perspectives are, yet queer folks are very much at home in the field. We're like the lesbian and gay aunts, uncles, or cousins that every family has but rarely talks about. But in my book, it's not enough to know the homos in our midst. I knew that queer theory, like Aftrocentric, feminist, critical, and postmodern theories, provides another lens through which to view our world, but also our pedagogy and perspective on interaction in sessions.

Another motivation for me to press the issue--although I don't talk about it in the piece--is the homophobia I continually encounter through student writing as a teacher and writing center staffer. We talk a good deal about the politics of message and language in this profession, but (sexual) minority perspectives often are not foregrounded outside of SIGs at our conferences. Just this summer, I had a student write up an ethnography in which she talks about the gay folks that come into her Greenwich village laundry. She spoke about how they disgusted her, how she wondered why god let "them" exist, how she pitied them and wondered why they all dressed like women. The venom of the article threw me for a loop and hurt--I thought I had developed a pretty thick skin and good radar for such folks that I could usually avoid them. I had a hard time reconciling this sweet woman in class with the thoughts and language in her paper. But then I remembered when I worked against anti-gay activists in Colorado; these folks were always wonderful and sweet, particularly when they assumed no "gays" were in their presence. Even when we were around, they would be unfailingly polite because they loved us, not our sin. Back to my student... I realized, or assumed, that she must not know I was gay... She didn't cross me as the type to be an in-your-face homophobe, so she must have assumed I was a safe person to use that rhetoric on, that I was a part of her discourse community that wouldn't challenge or question her. There was also this odd point where I found myself wanting to challenge her perception of the queer community--that we're not all like "that." This internalized homophobia of my own bothered me too--I ought to be challenging or pushing her to critically explore her sense of audience, not turning towards an apology for my community -- to performing an act of self-policing. This is one among many stories I could tell--from tutors coming to me for advice when they've encountered such rhetoric to tutors being torn over whether they could ethically refuse help to folks whose thoughts they found offensive. In each case, I advise them and myself to engage the student, to validate their thoughts, and to push their students to interrogate what they may safely assume about the present and assumed audiences.

Alright, time to head out for my morning work-out. Instead of NYSC, I'm going to get the bike out to the harbor and enjoy time away from school. More tomorrow... Harriet Mier and the Supreme Court have my head spinning at the moment.

Harry Denny


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