Why Do You Need to Know That About Me?

Uncategorized / Monday, November 4th, 2013

By Kirsten Jamsen, Katie Levin, and Kristen Nichols-Besel, University of Minnesota–Twin Cities

KirstenKatieKristenKirsten 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.

picture of pop-up list of languages
Pop-up formerly faced by all writing consultants when meeting for the first time with a new student. This student’s language is still “Unspecified,” as the alarming red letters reveal. The consultant cannot move forward with the session until he or she asks the student for his or her “first language,” then selects it from the list to enter into the database.

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).

A smiling Kirsten at front desk reception
Kirsten welcomes students at the front desk. No matter how friendly Kirsten is, we know that this part of the institutional interaction can also be a site of increased vigilance for stereotype threat.

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.

View of "my profile" questions including preferred name/nickname, how to pronounce my name, preferred pronouns to describe me (example: she/her, he/him, they/them, etc.), language(s) I speak and/or write, and Additional information I'd like SWS consultants to know about me as a writer/learner.
A student’s view of the new “my profile” feature in mySWS. For this image, tech specialist Alec von Arx volunteered his profile data and enabled all the pop-up explanations of each category.

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.

8 Replies to “Why Do You Need to Know That About Me?”

  1. Neat stuff! 2 (multi-part) questions off the bat:

    1. Could you say a little bit more about student reactions/use? Were they generally willing to do it or not so much? How frequnetly did students who signed up online fill out that information?

    2. What kind of info. were you hoping to get for the “addtional information” part and how would you use it? How much are tutors obligated to try to follow that info.? And how much does that question influence students’ expectations for a session?

  2. Thank you for the questions!

    1. Generally, students have seemed willing to and appreciative of filling out the “preferred name” option. The same applies to pronunciation, though often consultant help is needed to portray the pronunciation. We’ve had mixed responses to the “preferred pronoun” and “additional information” options. Consultants have reported that conversations related to providing this information become a bit awkward at times. However, we have had a few students fill out both (on their own and in consultations). Students who sign up for appointment online have filled out the information on their own, but I’m not sure in terms of numbers. Generally, we’ve been somewhat surprised by the number of students (more than expected) who have found and used the student profile on their own (without first being shown by a consultant). I would guess this number is less than (maybe far less than) 50% of students we see, but I’m not sure how that number relates to the total number of students who signed up online verses called or walked in to make an appointment/walked in for a last minute appointment.

    2. The “additional information” was meant to allow students to write anything that they felt might be helpful for a consultant during a consultation. For example, we’ve had students indicate that they don’t want their papers read out loud; we’ve also had students explain their status (for instance as a returning student who hasn’t written a paper for x number of years). As consultants, we are encouraged to look over the information provided and adhere to it as closely as we can, or at least to acknowledge it and talk with the client about what would be most useful for the present session. I appreciate the last question (influence on student expectations) but must close this post so that I can meet with a student 🙂

  3. Thanks for sharing your engagement with this issue! I for one must say I’m a big fan of the interface you’ve implemented. I think it’s really great that you ask for a preferred pronoun, which has two interesting implications. First, for transgender student, this kind of thing often brings a sigh of relief when interacting with an institutional interface. So rarely are trans folks able to represent themselves within information systems in ways that honor their gender identity. Second, it’s an interesting pedagogical moment for cisgender clients who may have never been asked this question before. While that might be awkward or uncomfortable, it’s doing important work to change institutional discourse.

    Does your system draw information from student data held by the college? Ours does at UW, and that pulls in a preferred name if students use a newly implemented system here at Wisconsin to change their preferred name, but it still pulls in the sex marker in a way the tutor can see before the session if s/he chooses to. We also had a way to modify student instructional records directly, but there is an intermediary person (the receptionists or the tutors) who must modify this information. It’s fascinating to me how different systems work around these kind of questions and the effects they have upon student users before the session even begins.

    Finally, as a tutor, I wish we had an option for name pronunciation! This is an important way to make your space welcome to clients!

  4. Thanks for posting, Kirsten, Katie, and Kristen! I’m going to share this with my writing advisors, as we’ve been talking about stereotype threat and ethics in data collection. This is perfect!

  5. Thanks, Neil and Julie! Neil, our system does draw info from the college, and although students can change their official University name, most seem not to. When we first began consulting online, we configured our database to display the university’s listed gender for students using our SWS.online interface—consultants wanted to be able to “picture” the gender of who they were working with, and the pronoun helped them write comments (Agar’s “report”) at the end of a session. Although I understood the consultants’ desire for comfort—and for trying, as all consultants do, to be attentive to the individual person next to them at the e-table—I was troubled by this practice. Why, really, did we need to be able to “picture” a student, based on gender or any other cues? Why did we need to know a student’s listed gender? And what if the listed gender did not match the student’s own gender identity? It seemed disrespectful to (wrongly) gender students for our own comfort and advantage. And, similar to the situation you describe about cisgender clients learning from the Profile, the extra gender info in SWS.online made me (a cis woman) think more broadly about the assumptions we consultants already made in f2f sessions. We stopped pulling that info for SWS.online, and really, this was one of the roots of our adding the “preferred pronoun” field to the Student Profile.

  6. Thanks for the very thoughtful approach and ideas on this topic. At our WC, we’ve similarly asked for “first-language” data in our intake form, and for the reasons you describe it’s problematic. I do wonder about a few assumptions, however, that we seem to have in collecting these sorts of data. Namely, what do we plan to do with language demographic data about our clients? Is it evidence we need to know and report to others? What I’m thinking here is that I’ve reported for the last two years that the majority of students who come to the Writing Center do not name English as their first language, but I really don’t know at all if those I’m reporting to really care about this issue! If anything, it speaks to the need for staff training and attention to working with multilingual writers, but we could have figured that out without collecting the specific data! In sum, I’m questioning our assumptions about the institutional data we think we should collect: What’s the rhetorical context for those data? Are they really as important as we think they might be in terms of advancing the work of the Writing Center?

    Neal Lerner
    Northeastern Univ
    Boston, MA

  7. Thanks Kirsten, Katie, and Kristen for this great post, as well as for your excellent panel at MWCA, which I really enjoyed. As I think I mentioned then, you inspired me to consider making modifications to our own registration forms, and I especially like how the modifications you inspired me to consider are ones that would (hopefully) benefit the clients and consultants in our writing center more than they would (necessarily) aggregate data for the university. That said, I have a confession: I attended your panel because I thought it would focus on the latter. And so, to extend the question that Neal posed in a slightly different direction, I want to ask how writing centers might gather data that *is* important to the administrators who allocate and determine our funding? In other words, are there ways to meaningfully represent the positive impact writing centers have on students that don’t reduce students to numbers (e.g., GPA or time-to-degree), but still provide something like an aggregate (rather than an anecdotal) representation?

    Elizabeth Lenaghan
    Assistant Director, Writing Place
    Lecturer, Writing Program
    Northwestern University

  8. Thanks, Neal and Elizabeth, for these questions about institutional data and reporting to the administrative stakeholders in our institutions. Indeed, I think a lot about the questions you’ve both posed, and I just came from a meeting on academic support for international students in which I talked about our data on students’ international status and language. Like many institutions, we’ve experienced an increase in international and multilingual students, and there is a lot of administrator interest (not to mention money being collected in fees and allocated in resources!) around those identity markers.

    For me, asking students about their languages is both a useful opening to discussions about language learning among consultants and writers (and how academic English is no one’s first language) AND a means to educate the larger University about language diversity on our campus. I often find myself reminding the higher ups that our student clients identify more than 80 different languages; that many clients are learning English as a 3rd, 4th, 5th, etc. language; and that our multilingual students are both international and domestic from a variety of educational and social backgrounds (not merely the current stereotype being lamented: wealthy Chinese student who worked with an admissions coach).

    Although I suspect, like you do, Neal, that many of our higher ups are just looking for numbers to plug into their own data-driven reports and ask for money, I hope sharing more nuanced and qualitative data (and if I give someone numbers, I always also give them student voices!) can help resist the ways that our institution tends to flatten and narrow our student writers (unfortunately, too often as “problems to be fixed”). So, as you say, Elizabeth, it is a challenge to provide data that shows our positive effect on students, since I don’t necessarily think those effects are neatly measurable. I am most interested in how students assess the value of the writing center in their academic lives, so I typically share numbers on usage, repeat usage, and the Likert scales in our student satisfaction survey, along with (always with!) representative comments. And we continue to work with our Inst Research Office (and other units on campus) to add Qs about writing experiences in their assessments like our graduating student exit surveys, the SERU survey, etc. And I’m learning a lot from Neal and others as I dive into Schendel and Macauley’s Building Writing Center Assessments that Matter, which I highly recommend.

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