Activist Mapping:
(Re)Framing Narratives about Writing Center Space

Christine Hamel-Brown, Celeste Del Russo, and Amanda Fields
Webtext Design by Marisa Sandoval


Several years ago, in response to the budget cuts most universities have faced in the last decade, our writing center was on the verge of disappearing. The English department, its home since the writing center's conception, could no longer sustain it. Other tutoring and student support services were facing the same threat to their existence. In response, these units were tasked with creating a student learning center that would house all these entities under one roof and one administration, eliminating many overhead costs and service duplication. Thus was born The THINK TANK.

The TANK, as it is affectionately known, lives in the student affairs side of our university, necessitating a shift from being run by an academic department to operating as a student-retention and student-support services unit. This change also necessitated a physical move from our run-down but much-beloved space in the university's original gymnasium to a building where all the units could cohabitate. Our writing center thus underwent a change in the ways in which we conceive of our roles and positioning in terms of both our physical location on campus and the hierarchy of campus support units.

The writing center still maintains strong connections to the writing program and Department of English. For instance, Christine Hamel-Brown, the TANK's writing specialist and coordinator of the writing center, taught through spring 2013 as an adjunct in the writing program, and the two graduate assistant (GA) professional development positions that support the writing specialist are staffed on a two-year rotating basis by graduate teaching assistants from the English department. Beyond these connections, we now work in a more overt partnership with other units, balancing our pedagogical and theoretical history as a member of the writing center community with a student affairs perspective.

Living through this shift was not as neat as this brief summary might suggest. As experienced by the writing specialist and GAs, it was chaotic and, frankly, painful: Roles became confusing, identities were threatened, and long-held (unconscious) values were (and still are) challenged. We felt beleaguered and marginalized as what felt to us like a business model overtook our cherished and long-held academic model. Did the writing specialist owe more philosophical and theoretical allegiance to the academic world of writing centers than to that of Student Affairs? Do we "serve" students or "educate" them? Are there distinctions between the two? Student retention numbers became ever more critical, and tracking visits and seat time by students in the writing center took over more and more time in a given week. In addition, we had to shift our tutor professional development from an academic internship course, complete with theoretical readings and reflective dialogues and writing, to "training and certification," words that felt more corporate than educational and did not seem to allow room for what we had done previously. Our location went from the run-down and hodge-podge but homey space we shared with no one, to a fluorescent-lit, white-walled, conference room managed by a TANK-wide visual ecology emphasizing spareness and open lines.

If you detect notes of frustration, defensiveness, and crankiness in the previous description, you are not wrong. During this transition phase, we fell, basically, into one of the damaging narratives told about writing centers by ourselves and by others: that we are marginalized and devalued when we are characterized as a "service," which often includes moves into spaces that do not reflect our personal approach to student learning (Briggs and Woolbright 2000; Harris 1988; Hobson 1992; North 1994; Schultz 2013). We had to work with our new colleagues, within this new (to us) model to survive on our campus, but we resisted it, feeling as if the very things that made us effective and worthwhile were being erased. We fell into binary, limited thinking, perpetuating damaging narratives when we thought we were fighting for our identity.

Reconsidering Our Roles

The necessity of our move and (initially forced) partnership with other support service units and Student Affairs in general is not an uncommon one for writing centers (Harris, 1988; Simpson, 1996). Writing centers become part of a new organizational structure, yet often maintain ties to other entities they were once part of, such as the English department. This is, in part, because many students who come to the writing center are working on English department and writing program papers; this is also due to the philosophical similarities writing centers may share with writing programs, as well as the personal history of the center (especially if it retains some of the same staff) with these programs. In situations such as this, writing centers are prompted to reconsider roles, which often involves clarifying and resisting certain narratives, sometimes amid tension about who "owns" the writing center and what theoretical underpinnings its space can or should have.

Our purpose here is to look at this common, damaging narrative regarding the "ownership" of writing centers and to consider how we can work to reframe this narrative within the marginalized spaces where we often find ourselves. In this chapter, we examine writing center space around two key ideas. First, we (re)frame narratives in the context of recognizing constrained agency, particularly in kairotic moments. When explored in relational terms, these concepts of damaging narratives and kairos help us to locate the context of the writing center as a space that can make substantial use of constrained agency "in-between." Because writing centers are often positioned between writing programs, communities of students, faculty, and various funding bodies, those of us who occupy and help organize writing center spaces are frequently required to articulate the kinds of work we do for different audiences and in new circumstances. These opportunities to articulate what it is we "do" allow writing center administrators to claim a space within these larger structures—both for ourselves and for others—thus (re)framing narratives about the role of writing centers on campuses and in our communities. We describe the concept of activist mapping and provide examples of how we used postmodern mapping techniques to locate spaces and potential moments of kairos where we could practice constrained agency, leading to our (re)framing of our writing center (WC) space, for ourselves as administrators, our tutors, and the THINK TANK.

Second, in "Kairos Part 1," we use activist mapping to examine the first of these locations: the conceptual shift of how we viewed our WC and the ways we were defined by others within the TANK as we underwent the merger into a student learning center model. In "Kairos Part 2," we examine the physical shift of our space as we began (re)thinking how our conceptualization of the writing center might affect our need for a certain physical space in a proposed new construction of a "multi-storied student services hub." Finally, we conclude with a discussion about how shifting our lens on agency and institutional contexts allowed us to see ourselves anew and make tangible, positive changes from our new position within the TANK.

In many ways, this chapter addresses how we, as writing center administrators and GAs, considered the notion of space during the transition of our WC into a learning center model. For us, space is physical, yes, but also relational, fluid, and conceptual. In viewing our space in this way, we were better able to explore opportunities for activism rather than resigning ourselves to the limitations of physical space.

Framing Narratives

In "The WPA as Activist," Linda Adler-Kassner (2010) addressed the framing of narratives through a writing program administrator lens, warning that "WPAs who want to change frames need to understand the broad outlines currently surrounding stories about writing (and education), lest we inadvertently perpetuate those outlines through stories that seem to be alternative—but are not" (218). The stories WPAs, including writing center administrators (WCAs), tell and the ways in which they interpret and enact resistance are laden with historical contexts that can be conveniently forgotten in the exigency of the moment. At the same time, valuing exigency is key to navigating the marginalized space of the writing center. Rather than attempting to invent new narratives and finding ourselves perpetuating old ones, we (the writing specialist and the GAs at the THINK TANK) came to view our choices in terms of kairotic moments that allow for constrained agency, moments that Carl G. Herndl and Adela C. Licona (2007) defined as "at the intersection of agentive opportunities and the regulatory power of authority" (133). This realization led us to locate kairotic moments to develop from and (re)frame our recent experiences so that we could envision a productive and realistic sense of agency in our new circumstances, as well as minimize the impact of our damaging narrative.

With our local context in mind, we call up Nathalie Singh-Corcoran and Amin Emika's (2012) discussion of the writing center as a "nonplace," articulated in a special issue of Kairos with the theme of Spatial Praxes: Theories of Place, Space, and Pedagogy. They discussed how writing centers often reflect a status as "nonplaces," or places of a temporal nature, places that are "not fixed." Connecting the notion of "nonplace" both with kairos and with Herndl and Licona's theory of constrained agency offers our writing center and, we hope, other writing centers, an avenue through which to activate change with the reality of our positionality in mind. If we can think in terms of how we intersect on several levels with many kinds of university entities (e.g., as direct student support across the disciplines through our tutors; as faculty support in myriad departments as they work to more effectively instruct students in writing in their field; as partners with our university's Center for English as a Second Language, Office of Instruction and Assessment, General Education Committee, writing program, and other writing tutoring centers on campus) rather than view the service narrative as one of simply marginalization and disempowerment, then we might be in a better position to take action to slowly alter these common narratives in ways that sustain our movements within the university while simultaneously perceiving ourselves as a distinct entity with its own unique ability to influence and even help author our university's goals. We would no longer view ourselves as a disempowered entity functioning only as a tool or as auxiliary support for others' projects.

We also see the notion of nonplace as essential in describing how we define space in our given context, in the ways we view our space both conceptually and physically in the new space of the service center. We found inspiration and practical tools for mapping our location in Timothy Peeples's (1999) germane chapter, "Seeing the WPA With/Through Postmodern Mapping," in which he wrote that "postmodern theories of organization and geography have us reconsidering organizational space as both bounded, material structures and dynamic social processes" (154). Postmodern mapping is a research-and-discovery approach that offers a way of reading "complex organizational space" (Peeples, 154). It is a way to represent the complexity of positionalities, as well as to discover what is emphasized or may not be acknowledged when these positionalities are made visible. When we utilized a similar mapping design, we not only examined the institutional spaces surrounding our writing center but also located moments of constrained agency in which we might move to address damaging narratives that restrained us. We found that postmodern mapping allowed us not only to think about spaces we occupy as a writing center, but to explore how we reacted to others across institutional contexts within our own student learning center and beyond to the rest of the university. Although feeling disempowered positions one as static and defensive, our realization of our own potential as WCAs allowed us the opportunity to locate and affect change, not only in our WC, but in the THINK TANK student learning center and within our institution. Still, we needed to visualize the changes we faced. We also needed a plan of action. We turned to the activity of postmodern mapping as one way to visualize the intersections of kairos and constrained agency, shown in map 9.1.


Introduction - Top | Kairos Part 1 | Kairos Part 2 | Conclusion | Activist Mapping | References