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Safe House vs. Contact Zone

Facilitating tutors’ understanding of the difference between the safe-house model and the contact-zone model

1. Key Pedagogical Approaches

Traditional Model:

  • Writing as a discrete skill independent of the student’s race, gender, class, and education background
  • Purpose of first-year composition class: “disinfect” students in mainstream academic English

Safe House Model:

  • Definition: “a social space where meaning can be made, where risk-free learning can take place” (Wolff 45)
  • Encourages students to write freely about their racial identities and experiences
  • Drawbacks: Creates a mainstream/non-mainstream binary relations and essentialist molds of identity as the exotic Other, leads to a disavowal of political reality

Contact Zone Model:

  • Definition: “social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power” (Pratt 607)
  • Encourages critical interrogation as to how cultural stereotypes inform the way students think about their own voice, the audience, and the purpose of writing.

2. Writing Center as a Contact Zone as a Consciousness-Raising Group

Pamela J. Annas, in “Silences: Feminist Language Research”, suggests turning a writing classroom into a consciousness-raising group as practiced by many feminists in the 1960s. Thinking about the roles and successes of these groups can be a prelude to turning a safe house into a contact zone.

The consciousness-raising groups served to awaken women to the need to voice themselves and helped them forge a connection between self and political reality. The consciousness-raising groups differ from the more casual, afternoon tea-time conversations in that these politically-aware and more-structured groups led to tangible, progressive social change.

The safe-house model, however, may not amount to anything more than the casual, tea-time gossip sessions. Sure, we can sit down and talk about ourselves and our personal lives but the crucial “So what? What now?” component is missing. The safe-house model and its emphasis on personal and diversity essays fall short of providing insights into political reality and the broader historical/social context. The contact zone model, however, takes political reality and social structures of domination into account; we can think of this model as an improved, more nuanced version of the safe-house model.

Under the contact-zone model, personal narrative writing assignments can be used to encourage students to reflect upon their backgrounds and experiences. Writing about personal experiences enables students to step up to a position of expertise. A writing classroom based solely on this approach, however, may fall prey to what Pratt warns against us from: writing classroom as a “safe house.” Despite its intention to pursue cultural diversity, the safe-house often becomes a multicultural bazaar where different viewpoints are introduced merely as the exotic Other, and the difference is explored in relation to the default condition (white, male, heterosexual norms). Students often begin to equate difference with deficiency or inferiority. Also, the safe-house model overlooks political reality by assuming that everyone is on an equal footing despite their racial, class, gender, education backgrounds. Such an assumption allows no room for critical interrogation of politically touchy issues such as how the power dynamics manifests itself in a writing classroom, students’ lives, the broader political context, and most importantly, in how students view language, voice, and the right to subjectivity.

Contact zones should operate like the feminist consciousness-raising groups. We should encourage students to “listen as well as talk, to take criticism as well as give it, to provide support as well as judgment, to experiment and take risks” (Annas 15). Students should use their personal essays as a real-life context to discuss issues such as racial politics and patriarchal domination. The contact zone model will ultimately help students nurture critical consciousness and subvert the dominant paradigm as constructed by academia.


Wolff, Janice. “Tutoring in the Contact Zone.” Stories from the Center: Connecting Narrative and Theory in the Writing Center. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 2000. 43-50

Pratt, Mary Louise. “Arts of the Contact Zone.” Ways of Reading. 6th edition. Ed. David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky. Boston: Bedford/ St. Martin’s, 2002. 605-626.

Annas, Pamela J. “Silences: Feminist Language Research and the Teaching of Writing.” Teaching Writing: Pedagogy, Gender, and Equity. Ed. Cynthia L. Caywood and Gillian R. Overing. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987. 3-18.