Socially Just Writing Center Instruction in the New Decade

Happy New Year from the UW-Madison Writing Center! Our semester has gotten off to a busy start—already, we’ve added extra shifts to our regular schedule. And last Friday, we kicked off 2010 with our first staff meeting. The topic of the meeting was social justice and Writing Center work, which will be the subject of this week’s blog.

Social justice and writing. The connecting between these two abstract nouns may not be immediately apparent, but increasingly, scholars in composition and rhetoric and writing program administrators are discussing the potential intersections. The theme of this year’s SUNY Council on Writing Conference, for example, is “how do we define the work of teaching writing for social justice?”

But before answering that question and others like it, it’s important to understand what we mean by social justice in the first place. In acknowledgment of the fact that any definition is contingent upon the rhetorical situation in which it is called upon, we began our staff meeting by brainstorming associations. We generated a chalkboard full of thoughts, and with those thoughts as our backdrop, we began a discussion about the role of social justice in the University of Wisconsin-Madison at large and the Writing Center in particular.

We were joined by a panel of staff and students from across the University, all of whom had participated in a course called SEED (Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity). Several of the staff members were affiliated with UW-Madison’s Office for Equity and Diversity. We asked our panelists to respond to two questions in order to spark our discussion:

· What has been your experience of social justice on this campus?

· What would you say to Writing Center instructors wanting to make a stronger connection between social justice and their teaching? Put another way: how can the Writing Center help to advance social justice efforts on campus?

Their reflections helped us to understand social justice in this university primarily in terms of access. They encouraged us to ask the question, Is each student getting what they need? while acknowledging that “need” is different for everyone.

By the end of our meeting, we had brainstormed some concrete ways in which we as Writing Center instructors can bring the tenets of social justice into our teaching. These strategies included everything from a recommitment to actively listening to the students who come to see us, rather than assuming that we know what they need; to intervening in respectful but helpful ways when a student brings in a confusing assignment; to revitalizing and growing the membership of our Center’s social justice committee.

I challenged our instructors to keep these goals and others like them in mind as the semester swings into full gear. To those outside the UW-Madison Writing Center who are reading this post: I challenge you to do the same. As we move forward into a new decade of pedagogy and scholarship, I want to encourage us as a community of teachers and administrators to hold one another accountable to socially just standards of writing instruction—whatever that may mean given the diversity in size, funding, locations, and constituents of our respective Centers.

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