Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Ethics of Tolerance: Thoughts from NEWCA 2012

This past weekend, I, along with two colleagues from St. John's University and one from Montclair State University, presented a panel at the Northeast Writing Center Association Conference (NEWCA). For those who have never been, I do recommend it. The atmosphere there is warm, inviting, and unlike other conferences that I have been to, very interactive.

This year's theme was the Post 9/11 Writing Center. As soon as we saw the theme published in the fall, our small group started thinking about the policies in our centers that evolved out of 9/11, or at least 9/11 rhetoric. In particular, we were concerned with the terms "diversity" and "tolerance." Some of the questions we were wondering were:

  • What did it mean to be tolerant or to promote diversity? 
  • How did our mission to promote tolerance and show acceptance for diversity play itself out in our sessions? 
  • Was demanding tolerance another form of censorship? 
  • Who gets a voice when "tolerance" is demanded? 
  • Are we wiping out the "contact zone" in favor of the "safe house"? 
  • How do we handle writing that personally offends us?

In the end, we put together a panel presentation (more of a roundtable and workshop) titled The Ethics of Tolerance: Knowledge Activism in the Post 9/11 Writing Center.

What I found, both through our groups's research and presentations and the audience feedback, was that tolerance is complicated and its policy implementation is equally complicated. The members of our group and the members of our audience seemed divided on the issue of how to successfully promote tolerance in the writing center or whether that should even be part of our mission. We had a hard time definitively saying what would be classified as "offensive," "intolerant," or "terrorist" writing, and furthermore, even if we knew it when we saw it, not everyone agreed upon what to do about it. Some members of the audience believed it was our job to help clients improve their writing regardless of content; others felt that it was our job to combat offensive/intolerant writing. One challenged, "Is it our job to create better people? No," while another audience member said, "You don't check your humanity at the door."

We also wondered about the "see something, say something" policy. Do we need to police writers and our colleagues? For this, we looked at Chris Anson's "What's Writing Got to Do with Campus Terrorism?" It seemed that writing could be both an indicator of someone who has bad intention (e.g., the Unabomber) or simply a form of expression (e.g., Alice Walker's brutality in The Lovely Bones). How were we to know whether to say something or not? Would we jump to conclusions if we were always looking for suspicious activity?

Regardless of the answer, and I still don't have one, it was evident that tolerance and diversity were discussed as goals in many of writing centers, though we had few policies for dealing with either. We didn't leave completely confused, though. Between the presenters and the participants, some of best practices were proposed:

  • considering context
  • showing students how their language may come across to a larger audience
  • performing rhetorical analysis and showing clients how to do the same
  • considering sources biases and credibility
  • pushing for in-depth analysis
  • demonstrating loopholes and counterarguments
  • reframing assignments


In the end, the conversation was fruitful, though none of the questions were answered absolutely. It is obvious that we need to have these conversations in our centers so that students are prepared to deal with offensive writing in a way that is consistent with the mission of these centers.

1 comment:

Susan Partlan said...

"...tolerance is complicated and its policy implementation is equally complicated." I agree and don't think it's a good idea to design or implement such policies in academic contexts.