In a Writing Center Practice class on Thursday, I lead a discussion on three readings about disability. They were:
- Autism and Rhetoric (Paul Heilker and Melanie Yergeau)
- Learning Disabilities and the Writing Center (Julie Neff)
- Transcending “Conversing”: A Deaf Student in the Writing Center (Margaret E. Weaver)
I want to focus on one thing during the discussion and that involves me deciding to have the final word. But before I write what I said, I want to give you a quick overview of what I was all responding to.
We were discussing the question, “Should we know that a student is disabled when they come into the writing center?” One of the students in the class is a parent of two children with autism. This parent told the entire class that we were, in essence, burying our heads in the sand and ignoring the reality of college. This was in response to the comment another student made saying we need to affirm our client’s writing and recognize that it is different, but that is okay.
This parent then went on a long thing about how their child needs to learn to adapt and act “normal.” Otherwise, the child won’t live a happy life (which this parent defined as “paying bills”). So, as a writing center, we can’t just let these student’s who write differently write differently because college professors are not okay with it. And neither will the people in the real world once they are done with college.
So, basically, this student in 353 was saying we need to make our clients write in the dominant style and only to the expectations of the professor, and make them get rid of their “different writing.” This student also said that their child does things differently, instead of going from A to B like other people, he goes from A to J to Z to R, then to B. And this student has been trying to make him go straight from A to B.
She had a lengthy disagreement with another student in the class, but both of them were incredibly respectful of the other person. Finally, the grads were about to leave and nobody wanted the last word. I spoke up, having been silent and listening the entire time, trying to think of how to respond. “Okay, I’ll have the last word, then.” To my surprise, the grads, who were already standing up to leave, sat back down. That was an honor because they didn’t have to hear what I had to say, they could have left, but they didn’t, so thanks for that.
I agree with Kyle, knowing that a person is disabled doesn’t matter. If they want to tell me, that’s awesome, I will affirm that part of their identity; if they don’t want to tell me, that’s awesome too. It doesn’t matter because the best part of this job is that we are basically Batman. We have a giant utility belt that holds a crap-ton of tools, we also have a cape, and awesome bat ears.
But we have all of these tools and a student comes in and, whether they are disabled or not, we work with them. We begin to use our tools. We take out a batarang and we throw it at them. Wait, no, we don’t throw it at them because that will probably hurt them. We hand it to them. But they may tell us that that doesn’t work for them. So, we take it back or let them keep it because who doesn’t want a Batman batarang! Then, we take out another thing, a bathook and try that, which may work, but it may not. We may go through nearly every tool on our utility belt, but it might be that the last one is the one that is going to work. This is for every client, not just disabled clients.
While I see where you are coming from, that we need to make our clients write in the dominant way to the professors, I disagree. We cannot make them do anything, that’s not our job. Our job is to affirm them as writers because right now, they are getting the message that they are bad writers, bad thinkers, bad people from their professors, from their peers during peer-reviews. If they come into the writing center and hear the same message that they have been hearing everywhere, then what’s the point in coming?
We have to affirm their writing and say, “Okay, I see what you did there, here’s the standard way of doing it, but the way you have it is grammatically and stylistically fine, but doesn’t really have an academic tone.” To go back to the story Kyle brought up about the student who wanted her fourth word to be “fuck,” we can affirm her writing by saying, “Well, you used fuck grammatically correct! However, it is very possible your professor is going to mark you down because it isn’t viewed as very academic.”
So, I agree with you that we need to let them know what the expectations are, but we can’t make them. So, for kids like your son and me who write in the way that goes from A to U to Z to R to J, then to B, we need to be okay with that. We need to affirm that while also let them know that is not the dominant way of writing in academia. There is a very, very fine line between teaching someone something and forcing them to do something. And that is line that we, as a writing center, cannot cross.