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The Critically Conscious Tutor

The Importance of Being Critically Conscious

The Writing Center strives to be a place where all Pomona students feel welcome and are comfortable talking about their writing. Because the Writing Center is more than just a physical location, the attitudes and behaviors of tutors are fundamental to the construction of the Writing Center as an institution. The Writing Center Mission encourages tutors to “bring respect, energy, curiosity, empathy, tact, flexibility, and a sense of humor” to their consultations. However, ensuring that the Writing Center is and remains a secure space for all students is more complicated than individually asserting the nebulous commitment to be “welcoming.”

Andrew Rihn stresses that the writing center should be “both a ‘contact zone’ and a ‘safe house.’” A safe house is “a social space where meaning can be made, where risk-free learning can take place” (Wolff 45). As a “risk-free learning” environment, a writing center must be a place where any student is comfortable expressing themselves. Contact zones, on the other hand, are “social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power” (Pratt 607). While Rihn agrees that the Writing Center should be a safe house, he also asserts that tutors should take opportunities to “add the valuable element of risk” into the learning of students who already regard the classroom as a safe house. In other words, Rihn suggests that tutors should attempt to challenge students comfortable in academia by creating a contact zone in the Writing Center. As such, the Writing center becomes a voluntary contact zone.

Nonetheless, it should be recognized that the Writing Center is a part of a larger academic institution and is not always immediately perceived as a safe house for every student. As previously noted, different individuals operate with varying degrees of comfort within the academic institution. For some individuals, the majority of spaces on campus constitute a “clash” of cultures, because their experiences often differ from what the institution assumes to be normative. In addition, unlike the contact zone in Rihn’s writing center, these students are not given the choice of participation. Since the values of the academic institution itself are in conflict with the individual, declining participation would mean declining membership to the university itself.

Without knowledge of the Writing Center itself, the student has no way of discerning whether or not the Writing Center is a safe house. This problem is part of the disparity between what the community at large believes the Writing Center to be and what the Writing Center believes itself to be. Just as students may come into the Writing Center expecting tutors to only work on specific papers instead of working on becoming a better writer, students may also come in believing that the Writing Center is another space where ideas contrary to ingrained academic assumptions are unwelcome. Correcting these assumptions is neither easy nor immediate. For instance, the idea of the Writing Center as a place where writers, not writing, are improved may be central to the mission statement, but this goal often does not get communicated to the students themselves. The majority of students still come into the Writing Center with the goal of improving the paper before them.

However, asserting and maintaining the Writing Center as a safe house has particular difficulties not present in the tension between the tutors’ and the students’ interpretations of the Writing Center’s role. The difference between creating better writers versus creating better writing is clear. Even if the students are not aware of the role of the Writing Center as such, tutors are familiar with this concept and can easily parse out strategies that encourage better writers, tasks done just in the service of a single paper, and those techniques that can serve both purposes at the same time.

Creating a safe house, on the other hand, requires being aware of both institutional and personal perceptions of standard behavior and acknowledging this prejudice. This requirement is surprisingly hard to fulfill, because many of these prejudices are hidden as ingrained assumptions. If an assumption is held by the dominant culture, an individual who holds that assumption will rarely have that assumption challenged and will only perpetuate this belief, regardless of its veracity. Furthermore, in perpetuating the dominant culture, the tutor and, by extension, the Writing Center sends a signal that may alienate students in a way that is counterproductive to its definition as a safe house. As such, the creation of the safe house environment requires the tutor to know more than the fact that the Writing Center should be a safe house. The tutor needs to actively learn and examine his or her own prejudices and privileges, because these behaviors are not readily identifiable.

To truly create the environment of a safe house, tutors within the Writing Center should be aware of this dynamic in our spaces on campus. A large part of tutoring is to be understanding listeners to the students, and this job is compromised if the students are uncomfortable voicing their opinions. Moreover, the ability to regard the Writing Center as a safe house and the ability to voluntarily create contact zones are privileges that only some individuals are able to enjoy. Tutors should develop a critical consciousness so that they are better equipped to deal with this phenomenon and more readily respond to each student’s specific needs as an individual.

Applying Critical Consciousness

The General Consultation

Most consultations may not ever directly display a need for a critical consciousness. Furthermore, it is very hard (and rather awkward) just to tell every individual that the Writing Center is a safe house where all opinions are welcome. Even if the tutor were to extol the virtues of the Writing Center as such, it is very unlikely that students will just take the tutor’s word on it. However, tutors can approach each consultation with a certain level of awareness.

The simplest and most important act a tutor can do is to refrain from essentializing experience. When speaking from experience, the tutor should emphasize that he or she is speaking from a personal place. For example, when giving an example about high school writing versus college writing, instead of saying “The five paragraph essay you learn in high school is different from how we are expected to write in college,” the tutor can say “When I was in high school, I learned to write using the five paragraph model and that is very different from the writing I am expected to do here at college. How did you learn to write in high school?” The use of the word “I” denotes that the tutor’s experience was one of many possible experiences, and the question at the end opens up the conversation for the student to expand on his or her own writing assumptions. As a result, the tutor not only avoids making a false presumption, he or she also avoids utilizing that presumption to address the problem from the wrong angle because that “shared experience” may not actually exist.

Another common issue in applying critical consciousness is in how to point out potentially offensive content in their papers to students. The second half of Writing Tutor as a Psychoanalyst gives a thorough overview of a variety of suggestions for tutors. To briefly summarize: the spectrum of approaches ranges from libertarian to prescriptive. The libertarian approach allows students their opinions with the caveat that the tutor should discuss that the offensive material may result in negative reactions and consequences from their professor as well as any flaws in their arguments. The prescriptive approach consists of the tutor urging students to refrain from deviating from academic standards. It is always in the best interest of the student that the tutor point out these issues, but the way these topics are broached are up to the discretion of the tutor.

Essays with Sensitive Topics

Some prompts for essays deal with topics that are identifiably more sensitive and prone to potentially offensive material. If a tutor feels like an essay falls into this category, he or she may want to begin the consultation with an acknowledgment of this fact. Moreover, the tutor may want to stress that everyone, including the tutor him or herself, is subject to these pitfalls to prevent the student from feeling personally targeted. If the student is someone who is part of the group of individuals who regards the majority of spaces on campus as “safe houses,” this conversation introduces the Writing Center as a contact zone like Rihn suggests. Conversely, if the student is not one those individuals, he or she may appreciate that the tutor has acknowledged this particular challenge and may be more willing to openly discuss these issues with the tutor.

Learning about Critical Consciousness

As previously noted, becoming critically conscious is more complicated than just acknowledging the need to be critically conscious. Tutors must actively seek out challenges to their prevailing notions. The more aware a student is about him or herself, the more equipped he or she is for applying that critical consciousness in the Writing Center. In that vein, some resources are listed below to help tutors develop this awareness.

Pomona College (as well as many of the other colleges in the consortium) offers classes that examine the effects of institutional oppression at a variety of levels. These classes are not only offered, but also encouraged as a part of every student’s liberal arts education at Pomona. From the Pomona College Course Catalog:

In spring 2006, the faculty of the College endorsed a new component to its General Education Program dealing with the study of the Dynamics of Difference and Power. Enrollment in a DDP course is not a requirement but an aspiration that all students are urged to fulfill. A DDP course is one that uses class, ethnicity, gender, race, religion and/or sexuality as categories of analysis and that examines power at the interpersonal, local, national and/or international levels.

A list of DDP courses can be found here:

Abridged Recommended Reading List:

  • Racism Without Racists – Eduardo Bonilla-Silva
  • Feminism is for Everybody – bell hooks
  • Where We Stand: Class Matters – bell hooks
  • Covering – Kenji Yoshino

Articles Confronting Privileges:




Geller, Anne et al. “Everyday Racism: Anti-Racism Work and Writing Center Practice.”

The Everyday Writing Center: A Community of Practice. Logan UT: Utah State University Press, 2007. 87-106.

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.

Rihn, Andrew. “Not Playing it Safe: Tutoring an Ethic of Diversity within a Non-Diverse Environment.”

Praxis: A Writing Center Journal. Fall 2007 (Volume 5, Issue 1).

Sherwood, Steve. “Censoring Students, Censoring Ourselves: Constraining Conversations in the Writing Center.”

The St. Martin’s Sourcebook for Writing Tutors. 3rd ed. Ed. Christina Murphy and Steve Sherwood. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008. 129-137.

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.