By Kirsten Jamsen, Katie Levin, and Kristen Nichols-Besel, University of Minnesota–Twin Cities
Kirsten and Katie are directors and Kristen is a graduate writing consultant at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Writing. Given that Kirsten is an alumna of the UW–Madison Writing Center, where she worked as a graduate student and professional staff member from 1993 to 2001, and that all of us are active members of the Midwest Writing Centers Association, we are thrilled to join the conversation on Another Word.
Although writing centers identify as individual-student–centered institutions, we recognize that we must collect and aggregate client data to survive in a bean-counting universe. And we know that data collection can be pedagogically useful, allowing consultants to provide continuity of service and writers to see their own growth over time. However, we wonder: what happens to agency and ownership in the process of data collection? Specifically, what kinds of identity construction happen when we ask our clients for specific information about themselves?
By data, we are referring here to the everyday client data that we gather and use in daily practice for creating visit records and for tracking previous consultations—rather than the behind-the-scenes data on things like usage and student satisfaction that we report to stakeholders or use as formative feedback for our consultants. We recently led a workshop at the 2013 Midwest Writing Centers Association conference to discuss how we can gather data in ways that align with a student-centered pedagogy that respects and attends to individual identities.
This story begins in spring of 2012 when we began questioning the “givens” of our client data collection in a full staff meeting. Since before Kirsten arrived at Minnesota in 2002, our Center has required that all students identify a “first language” the first time they visit. Although this question helped us track the language diversity of our clients, we came to recognize that asking such a question—and requiring an answer—was problematic for a number of reasons. The question made both clients and consultants needlessly uncomfortable because of the complex system of stereotypes related to language ability, writing ability, help-seeking, and who “belongs” in a university that surrounds us all. Requiring an answer to this one question about identity implied that language background was the only element of student identity that was officially meaningful to us. And the question itself failed to recognize or value students’ multilingualism, even as our website highlights that we value multilingual writers.
This staff meeting conversation wrestled with questions like the following: What does it mean to ask (or not ask) students for specific information, and what does it feel like as a student to be asked (or not asked) for that information? What does the data we collect say about the values, priorities, or institutional position of our writing center? What does it say about how we understand the students who use us, and our relationship to/with them? What relationships are we forming with clients when we ask (or don’t ask) data-related questions? What “counts” as useful information, and useful for what? Who are our clients, according to the categories we choose to place them in? And how can we use data collection to be attentive and responsive to the identities that students choose to share?
We left this discussion ready and eager to revise our internal and external interfaces to be more intentional about what information we would collect and display and how consultants and clients themselves could modify that information. Although our struggles with the “first language” question started this process, we quickly realized there was data we were collecting that we didn’t use (type of document, stage in the writing process) and much we wanted to know and didn’t (preferred name, for example).
Three pieces of scholarship helped us think about how identity construction and client data intersect. First, Pierre Bourdieu’s (1979) concepts of advantageous attributions and the classification-struggle speak to the ways in which recognizing and tracking specific types of client data is a way of maintaining and exercising power. Bourdieu argues that we recognize particular characteristics (or attributions) because that recognition gives us an advantage; our interest in identifying a particular attribution “is never completely independent of the advantage of observing it.” Producing classificatory data is a way of exercising power in larger social structures, because classificatory concepts create groups—think, for instance, of “native speakers” and “non-native speakers”—who struggle for power. Classifications can reduce people to single identities (again, a “non-native speaker”) and thereby maintain oppressive systems: “Attributes…become attributions, powers, capacities, privileges, prerogatives, attributed to the holder of a post, so that war is no longer what the warrior does, but the officium, the specific function, the raison d’être, of the bellator. Classificatory discretio, like law, freezes a certain state of the power relations which it aims to fix forever by enunciating and codifying it.”
The work of discourse analyst Michael Agar (1985) illuminates the ways in which classification functions discursively, particularly in the institutional setting of a writing center. Agar’s three-part schema of an institutional interaction—diagnosis, directives, and report—neatly corresponds with the typical structure of a writing center consultation: intake/agenda setting, figuring out what the writer can/should do, and detailing what happened in the session. We were particularly struck by Agar’s description of the “diagnosis” moment as it relates to the sorts of intake data-gathering we do at the beginning of a session, and the ways in which our classificatory schemes—our “institutional frames”—change who the client is in the institutional space:
First, the institutional representative must diagnose the client. Who is the client? Why is he/she now in contact with the institution? The institution provides a limited number of ways to describe people, their problems and the possible solutions. These ways are called Institutional Frames. Clients, on the other hand, come to the encounter with a variety of ways of thinking about themselves, their problems, and the institution’s relationship to them. They have their own Client Frames. Diagnosis is that part of the discourse where the institutional representative fits the client’s ways of talking about the encounter to ways that fit the institution’s. In our symbolic shorthand, diagnosis is the process through which the institutional representative fits the client frame to the institutional frame. (p. 149)
In other words, when we gather particular kinds of everyday client data, we are shaping those clients to fit the priorities and values of the writing center.
Despite the problematic history writing centers have with the language of medicine and disease, we found it fruitful to examine Agar’s“diagnosis” portion of the writing center visit through the lens of interactions between patients and healthcare providers. Specifically, we used the work of Joshua Aronson (one of the two originators of the concept of “stereotype threat”) et al (2013), who examined the role of stereotype threat in healthcare interactions. As Aronson et al explained, stereotype threat is “a disruptive psychological state that people experience when they feel at risk for confirming a negative stereotype associated with their social identity—their race, gender, ethnicity, social class, sexual orientation, and so on” (p. 50). Originally tested in educational settings, stereotype threat demonstrably inhibited students’ academic performance. In their application of stereotype threat to healthcare settings, Aronson et al explained that patients (or, for us, writing center clients) arrive with “awareness that they belong to a group that is negatively stereotyped,” which makes them “vigilant for cues that the stereotype is relevant.” These cues can be subtle; no matter how difficult to name or identify those cues may be, when they “confirm the relevance of the negative stereotype…, then stereotype threat is aroused” (p. 51).
All students who visit the writing center are at risk of confirming a stereotype, from the basic stigma associated with being A Person Seeking Help to the more complex intersections of identities related to race, class, nation, language, ability, gender, ethnicity, and so on. We wondered whether our data collection processes—particularly the identity-related data we chose to ask or not ask about—created cues that confirm stereotype relevance and therefore created negative outcomes for our clients. We also wondered whether the revisions we made to our data collection processes might have helped to mitigate stereotype threat. Aronson et al pointed out that attending to “a patient’s individuality and strengths” could help disconfirm the relevance of stereotype threat (p. 54).
With these theories in mind, we began working with our student tech specialists, Buyu Chen and Alec von Arx, to create a new tool for our database (accessible both by the consultant through our internal interface and by the student through their mySWS portal by which they make and track their own appointments). Using this Student Profile tool, students would be able to indicate their preferred name/nickname, a guide to pronouncing their name, the gender pronouns they prefer to use to describe themselves, any language(s) they speak and/or write, and anything else they would like our consultants to know about them as writers/learners.
We implemented this new tool in September 2013, asking our consultants to experiment with introducing it to their clients and reflect upon that experience in our internal staff blog. These reflections commented approvingly about the ways the Student Profile honors student choice and agency, as consultants would hand over their keyboards to students to enter their own information or would notice that students had added information even before they came in for a visit. But many noted that using the Profile with students still felt intrusive and uncomfortable, describing how it seemed to confuse students and slow down the start of a consultation, and questioning whether our use could be a form of profiling if we don’t ask everyone.
On the blog and in a full staff meeting, we talked about the new questions the Student Profile raised for us. Does this new tool—particularly its “preferred name” and “pronunciation” features—do the same kinds of linguistic and racial “othering” that the old system did? How can we use this tool equitably? How and when can we help students exercise control of this tool? What are the implications of names, naming, and power with this tool? These conversations were challenging, and we faced a divide between experienced consultants, who were pleased by how much better the tool was than our previous system, and new consultants, many of whom felt obligated and uncomfortable, despite the fact the Profile was optional.
Nonetheless, we appreciate how the conversations we’ve had and continue to have, with both staff and clients, has helped all of us start to uncover, name, and discuss the contested intersections of identity, social location, power, and privilege that indeed have always been there (even when we weren’t talking about those issues). Because writing consultants and administrators have institutional authority, we are always doing identity construction with clients. Recognizing the need to be reflective and intentional about our roles in that identity construction, how might we in the writing center community facilitate and engage in this ongoing work?
Agar, M. (1985). Institutional discourse. Text, 5(3), 147-168.
Aronson, J., Burgess, D., Phelan, S., & Juarez, L. (2013). Unhealthy interactions: The role of
stereotype threat in health disparities. American Journal of Public Health, 103(1), 50-56.
Bourdieu, P. (1979). Classes and classifications. In Distinction: A social critique of the judgement of taste (R. Nice, Trans.) (466-484). Retrieved from http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/fr/bourdieu.htm
Drystone Wall by BinaryApe on Flickr, used under creative commons license.