It Begins with a Mentality: Disability and the Writing Center

Disability and Writing Centers, Graduate Students, Social Justice Committee, Student Voices, The Online Writing Center, Writing Center Theory, Writing Center Tutors, Writing Centers, Writing Fellows / Monday, December 12th, 2011
Sarah Groeneveld is an instructor at the UW-Madison Writing Center
Sarah Greenfield is an instructor at the UW-Madison Writing Center

By Sarah Greenfield. The day I met Laura (a pseudonym) was a memorable one. It was a slow day at the Writing Center last January, and I had a free hour in the middle of my shift. Laura was scheduled to meet with me later, but had mistaken the time of our appointment and had shown up early. Therefore, we were able to spend a wonderful two hours talking about three things that we both share a passion for: teaching, animals and questions about difference. But what is memorable to me about meeting Laura is that about five seconds after sitting down next to her, I suddenly noticed a gigantic head and deep brown eyes staring at me from underneath the desk. Laura introduced me to Monty (another pseudonym), a German Shepard who helps Laura navigate the world – not only physically, but in ways that Laura explained to me in the following weeks and months.

As a writing tutor who had only been at the UW-Madison Writing Center for a semester, this was the first time I had gotten the chance to think about disability in a Writing Center context. While I’ve had more chances since then, my experience is admittedly limited. Nevertheless, these experiences have in some ways transformed the way that I approach new students whom I meet – what assumptions am I making? Am I trying to fit them into a category? What are the expectations that I make without even realizing that I’m making them?

Logan Middleton has researched disability as identity in the Writing Center context
Logan Middleton has researched disability as identity in the Writing Center context

Luckily, I’ve been able to meet others who have also been thinking about these same questions. Logan Middleton and Nora Brand are two incredible undergraduate Writing Fellows at UW-Madison who both undertook research projects this semester that investigate similar issues. Logan began his research by asking questions around disability as identity, wondering if analogs with LGBTQ discourse could be used to discuss disability self-disclosure and safe space in the writing conference. Nora, who told me that language-based learning disabilities run in her family, thought it important to ask how learning disabilities might pose a challenge to tutors and how certain responses to disability might pose a challenge to students. Ultimately, she wanted to get a sense of how the Writing Center accommodates diverse learning styles. Through the students I have worked with personally and through my conversations with Logan and Nora, I’ve gathered together here a few thoughts about disability and difference – not to position myself as an authority, but to offer up a few things that I think the Writing Center can offer to students who face particular challenges with writing, and to suggest a few things that I think we could do better.

Nora Brand has researched how the Writing Center accommodates diverse learning styles
Nora Brand has researched how the Writing Center accommodates diverse learning styles

What becomes immediately relevant and important to this conversation is the question of accommodation and accessibility – are we, as Writing Center staff, making sure that our spaces and services are accessible to all students? Our collaboration with the University’s McBurney Disability Resource Center, our satellite locations and our online instruction option, I believe, offer at least some relief to this challenge. But this isn’t just about making sure students can get in the door – it’s about expanding our definition of accessibility to make sure that we are encouraging, welcoming, respecting and helping all students. I’d like to suggest, to steal from something that Logan said to me, that what matters most is beginning with a mentality. But what mentality should that be?

Laura, who was kind enough to offer me a few thoughts about her experience at the Writing Center for this blog, helped me think about accommodation differently than I had in the past. Talking about what would happen as she entered our Writing Center, Laura said, “We wrote in whatever writing space was available rather than blowing a bullhorn upon my entrance and ordering all beings in large writing spaces to move the hell out of the way because a 300 pound wheelchair and a gigantic fluffy German Shepherd are about to bulldoze their way into writing.” She added, “I never felt as though I was being patronized in a way that underscored my difference as ‘special.’”

But what Laura also taught me is that as important as it is to not construe difference as “special,” difference does matter – ignoring disability can cause just as much damage to a tutor/writer relationship as blowing a bullhorn that announces it. Erica (a pseudonym), another graduate student I have had the honor to work with, has ADHD. While Erica’s thoughts and ideas are exceptionally keen and insightful, in our sessions she often has some (self-declared) trouble focusing. For this reason, she asked me if we could meet for longer than an hour – a period in which we didn’t seem to be getting quite enough done. The extended time we ended up being able to spend working together was incredibly useful and fun for both of us, because we didn’t need to be as worried about the clock ticking away and could work at a more comfortable pace.

I think this tension – whether to ignore or acknowledge difference – is something that makes a lot of people who have limited experience with disability (including myself) uncomfortable, and that tension unfortunately can make its way into the Writing Center conference. Furthermore, as Logan pointed out to me, disability is “configured as being so visible, so recognizable, but this isn’t always the case, as we see with cognitive or psychiatric disabilities.” At the Writing Center, disability is something that may or may not be relevant a student’s writing or writing process, may or may not be disclosed to the instructor, and may or may not be the subject of what the student is writing about. The difficulty of not knowing or communicating answers to these questions can make things hard for both the instructor and the student.

But I think this question is also the wrong one in many ways, because as writing instructors, we are in the business of difference. When we sit down next to writers for the first time, we know very little: their name, a very general sense of what they might be writing about, and what our eyes tell us (information that can be deceiving). Every student is different, with different concerns, different styles of writing, different ways of communicating, different expectations and different goals. As instructors, one of the main qualities I think we need is the ability to adapt very quickly and very often. We have our set of tools and we both recombine them and add to them with every new student we meet. Thinking of it this way, encountering disability at the Writing Center is just another opportunity for us to expand on and apply those sets of tools. Since we work with individuals, we are able to tailor our instruction to individual needs and wants – a fact that I think is both exciting and challenging.

Nora and Logan, both doing research on Writing Centers and disability, helped me think about this even further. Nora, in her research, ended up organizing instructors’ responses to learning disabilities into four categories: direct engagement (focused attention on aspects of a student’s writing that are affected by his or her disability), overlooking (focused attention on any element of a student’s performance that is not related to his or her disability), celebration (recognition of the positive attributes of a student’s disability) and individualization (tailoring methods to specifically meet the needs of a student). She outlined the pros and cons of each kind of response, but concluded that each of these can be appropriate at different moments and with different students. While no tutors adhered entirely to one category, all of those she interviewed did at times practice individualization. And Logan also ended up talking about how important it is “to target the individual student and give them the tools they need to succeed.”

So, I’d like to suggest, there is at least one mentality that is useful in this context: the mentality of adaptability and flexibility, a mentality that is necessary when meeting any student we encounter. But I’d also like to take this a step further and think about what Logan calls a “spirit of accommodation that’s endemic to composition and disability studies alike.” This is something that I’ve noticed as well: we’re trained as Writing Center instructors to think about writing skill not as a binary (you either have it or you don’t), but as a journey in which students can end up with different styles, voices and methods and yet still be incredibly successful as writers. This idea reminds me a lot of what I’ve read by people who break down the ability/disability binary – ability is not something that some people have and some people do not. Rather, it’s something that looks incredibly different in different contexts: people with radically different kinds of abilities can lead incredibly successful and fulfilling lives, and none of us has one hundred percent ability one hundred percent of the time.

In my work with Laura, I learned that needing to accommodate a German Shepherd’s presence under the desk or around my chair as we worked was anything but a burden. Laura sees Monty as “the true bridge between ability and disability… People see our mutual support and love and suddenly I am constructed equitably rather than as a touch less than human.” For some reason, animals help us think about the things that we have in common, both with each other and with them. Difference becomes exciting, because it also helps us see the points where we connect. At the Writing Center, this point of connection is writing itself – a desire to communicate effectively and powerfully with those who are both similar and dissimilar to us.

Laura told me she appreciates it when Writing Center instructors “[respect] the fact that many things in [her] life take at least twice as long to accomplish, for example typing and writing,” and when they “[demonstrate] patience, understanding, and literary support.” I’m sure that I, and that most of us, don’t succeed at these things all of the time. However, my goal has become to have this mentality – one of adaptability, respect, patience, understanding and support – for all students (and dogs) I have the pleasure of meeting and working with at the Writing Center.

9 Replies to “It Begins with a Mentality: Disability and the Writing Center”

  1. Sarah, this is such a great post! I love that you featured Nora and Logan’s research, two writing fellows who I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know. They are so smart and committed. I think you’re right to point out that we often assume disability is visible, and people can often be slow to think about how to accommodate those who have invisible disabilities. At our recent social justice meeting for the WC, the issue of disability came up. I hope you’ll find time to attend our next meeting, as we’d love to think about your post as a group!

  2. Great job, Sarah. I think this mentality has to translate through into many different venues, my own work venue included, working with a staff and volunteers and making sure they have the tools to succeed. Thanks for some new ways to think about it!

  3. Thanks, Sarah, for this beautiful and thought-provoking post. I love hearing the diverse voices of those who visit our Writing Center, as well as the exciting research that our Writing Fellows are conducting. As you show here, thinking about disability in the Writing Center offers an opportunity to reflect critically on our teaching and to continue to develop a flexible and adaptable mentality for each individual that enters our Center.

  4. I like the idea of flexibility, and the idea of individualization. I feel like individualization is built into working at the Writing Center, as we meet each student and take him or her on his or her own terms. This includes figuring out what will work best for each student. This does not mean that thinking specifically about ability is not helpful–I think it helps make visible the way the Writing Center does and can help a wide spectrum of writers, and how it can do that work even more thoroughly.

  5. this is a really great post, sarah! the tension between overlooking or addressing difference that you mention is something that i think about and struggle with every day, in my personal life as well as in my work as a writing instructor. i really appreciate your thoughts here, and especially the way you incorporate so many different voices into your exploration of this issue.

  6. “…as writing instructors, we are in the business of difference.” Thanks for this wonderful post, Sarah. Your points about adaptability and flexibility are excellent, especially since such an approach would demand writing center work be at its very heart a collaboration, a dialogue, and there is no dialogue without difference. Differences aren’t just about celebrating diversity — they are ultimately what make writing center sessions work. Thanks again!

  7. Thanks for exploring such an important topic, Sarah! Disabilities, as you note, are not always readily apparent and I appreciate the implied importance you placed on self-disclosure. We know that accommodations are not meant to give an advantage but to provide access to a learning environment and opportunities that are equal for all students. I think it is a wonderful reminder to consider what might be behind a student’s request for a longer appointment, for example, while also giving them the choice to disclose. The end of your post is a great encapsulation of the writer center mentality – and makes me think of Melissa Tedrowe’s call for us to be an ally for each and every student. Thanks!

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