After the Election: The Work of the University Writing Center
Bronwyn T. Williams, Director
Franklin Roosevelt, in 1938 in face of the rise of fascism around the world, had this to say about the role of education in politics:
Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education. It has been well said that no system of government gives so much to the individual or exacts so much as a democracy. Upon our educational system must largely depend the perpetuity of those institutions upon which our freedom and our security rest. To prepare each citizen to choose wisely and to enable him to choose freely are paramount functions of the schools in a democracy.
This quote has been on my mind the past few days in the run up to, and in the wake of, the recent presidential election. I’ve been thinking about the role of education in civic and political discourse and, more specifically, the role we should play in such issues in the University Writing Center. We have always welcomed and worked with writers from every political position, and that will not change. Our goal will continue to be help each writer become a stronger writer, but also to create writing that reflects ethical critical thinking and a commitment to civil discourse. Still, I think there is more to be said, and more to be done, on our part. Although it may seem that an organization of fewer than 20 people in a large university and larger city is limited in the impact it can have on such issues, I believe that the daily work of small groups of committed people is one essential way that education – and by extension, change – happens. At this moment, then, I want to make a more explicit, more emphatic statement about the principles we hold in the University Writing Center and the actions we intend to take to support those principles.
An Inclusive, Safe Space: The University Writing Center Mission Statement says that “The Writing Center is dedicated to being a safe, inclusive environment. We work to make the Writing Center a welcoming place where writers feel comfortable bringing the diverse range of perspectives found in the university community.” There is nothing wrong with that statement. Yet, I want to be clearer about what it means today when friends and colleagues whose identity positions – whether by race, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, cultural background, or others – are making them feel further marginalized, silenced, and threatened. We need to be more than welcoming. We need to be advocates. We need to be activists. We will renew our commitment to making the University Writing Center a place were writers can express their identities and be assured that they will receive a respectful and supportive response. Trust and safety are key elements to writing and teaching and we will continue to work as a staff to educate ourselves, listen carefully, and reflect on issues of identity, language, and power so that we can respond as allies and advocates for writers in the UofL community. We will also work harder to get the word out about this aspect of our work in University Writing Center sessions.
Supporting Writing on Campus and in the Community. We will commit ourselves to more events and activities that support the writing and voices of people who feel silenced and marginalized in our culture and that engage conversations about the political nature of reading and writing. We have been engaging in these kinds of activities through our LGBTQ Writing Group, our events during Banned Books week, and our plans to celebrate International Mother Language Day in February. We will continue with our plans to engage in literacy tutoring in the community through Family Scholar House and the Western Branch of the Louisville Free Public Library to support the writing and expression of ideas of people in the city. At this point I do not know what other events we will be planning. I want to listen to the community, in and out of the university, to think about how best we can support literacy practices that are empowering on both an individual level and community level. We will also renew our commitment to be part of conversations about the role of writing in culture and politics.
Education and Civil Discourse: Finally, we will continue to do what we do best: Educate. Our mission statement also says that we consider “writing to be an indispensable part of the intellectual life of the university as both a vital means of communication and an essential tool for learning.” What is not explicit in that statement, but is part of our mission and identity is a commitment to critical thinking and civil discourse. We will work with all writers, from all political viewpoints, to help them learn how to create arguments that are evidence-based, nuanced, and engage respectfully with opposing points of view. We will work with all writers to encourage a discourse that, even when in opposition, is respectful of the humanity of others. We will engage in conversations that help writers understand the influence of culture and systems of power on issues of education, language, and learning. We will work to help writers understand how their identities are positioned by larger cultural ideologies and narratives and help them explore options on how to communicate their ideas most effectively to their intended audiences. We will continue to believe in and advocate the value in listening, and responding, thoughtfully to the ideas of others. We regard empathy as a strength, not a weakness.
We will do our part, small though it may be, to keep communication and conversation going. We will continue to work toward writing that connects our minds and our shared humanity.