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Writing, Belonging, and the Safety to Fail

During a meeting recently, I heard a sentence leave my mouth that made me feel uneasy. As I was talking to a prospective writing consultant about our Center’s values, I said: “Of course, the purpose of a writing center consultation is to offer feedback and suggestion, not correction.”

I said it with a lot of conviction. And I believe it. But what made me uneasy was the realization that this purportedly self-evident statement can obscure some important realities in the institutional positioning of writing centers.

Writing centers tend to operate as third-spaces (Soja, 1996; Miley, 2013; Burns, 2014). One of the greatest, most unique things about writing centers in academic contexts is that they offer students the opportunity to work on their writing in a space where they are safe to fail. There are no immediate, material consequences for students of trying something during a consultation that ends up not working because writing consultants don’t grade students’ writing. (Our consultants offer suggestion and feedback, not correction.) Students can experiment, try, and try again—they can work toward their writing goals (in community) and risk failing along the way.

The benefits of failure for learning are well-documented (for a great explanation of this, see How Humans Learn by Josh Eyler), and we know that writing is thinking. Writing is how we create meaning and order through language. The iterative process of writing and re-writing requires failed attempts; getting it wrong is part of the process. The basic structure of a writing consultation—a conversation—is an attempt to facilitate this recursive, iterative nature of writing. The magic of a writing center consultation comes from creating a space in which dialogue can inspire, motivate, and empower a student to give texture and clarity to their ideas. We meet students as fellow writers, and we use pedagogical strategies that encourage them to feel safe to try and to embrace failure as integral to the process.

But, there is a danger in assuming that all students are equally prepared or able to step into this space. It’s a lot easier to risk even small failures if you already feel you belong in a college or university. Therefore, for students who have been historically excluded from and marginalized in academic spaces, the consequences of feeling that they “got it wrong” can be equally or more significant than receiving a “bad” grade. We can’t ignore that often what is at stake when a student visits the writing center is their sense of agency and belonging in their academic lives. Failure is not automatically safe for all in the writing center, despite what tutors and administrators like me may claim.

So, the question I will spend some time reflecting on as I prepare our Center for the upcoming academic year is: how do we create a space in which all student writers are safe to fail?

Initially, I see two categories worth attention:

  1. How we signal belonging in our physical (and online) spaces. Whose sense of belonging is reinforced by the art we hang on our walls, the language we use in our resources, the identities represented on our tutor staff, etc.

  2. The narratives we tell or perpetuate about writing and adversity. Students are often surprised when I tell them how hard writing is for me (presumably because I have a PhD in Rhetoric and Composition, and likely because of the pervasive myth that humans are born as either good or bad writers). As we work to create cultures of writing on our campuses, how can we integrate the narrative that writing is difficult but important labor, that students will encounter adversity when engaging with academic writing, but that they will feel more comfortable and confident in their writing over time? (See Binning, et al., 2020 on the role of adversity narratives in enhancing belonging.)

When I meet with students, they often express hesitation to meet with a writing consultant because they fear being judged. Even though they know writing consultants are their peers, they view the consultants as experts. Students often think that the consultants know something they don’t — that the consultants are failing a lot less than they are. Once they visit, though, students are often relieved to find that they feel welcome and encouraged during their session. They may even feel safe to fail. So, in addition to our consultants’ dispositions and pedagogical excellence, how else can we communicate this safety and belonging?

Check These Out:

Binning, K. R., Kaufmann, N., McGreevy, E. M., Fotuhi, O., Chen, S., Marshman, E., ... & Singh, C. (2020). Changing social contexts to foster equity in college science courses: an ecological-belonging intervention. Psychological Science, 31(9), 1059-1070.

Burns, W. (2014). Critiquing the center: The role of tutor evaluations in an open admissions writing center. Praxis: A Writing Center Journal, 11(2).

Denny, H., Nordlof, J., & Salem, L. (2018). "Tell me exactly what it was that I was doing that was so bad:" Understanding the needs and expectations of working-class students in writing centers. The Writing Center Journal, 37(1), 67-100.

Eyler, J. R. (2018). How humans learn: The science and stories behind effective college teaching. West Virginia University Press.

Miley, M. L. (2013). Thirdspace explorations in online writing studios: Writing centers, writing in the disiplines and first year compsition in the corporate university (Doctoral dissertation, University of Houston).

Soja, E. W. (1996). Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and other real-and-imagined places. Cambridge, Blackwell.

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