This is the presentation I’m giving at C’s this year, part of a larger roundtable titled “Accessing Literacy, Literacies as Access: Reimagining Public Narratives of Disability.”

“Who Gets Accommodated? Writing Center as Retrofit to the Composition Classroom”

Last Spring, I had a Skype conversation with Jay Dolmage wherein he suggested that writing centers are sort of like the retrofit of the composition classroom.

Jay has defined a retrofit as the act of “add[ing] a component or accessory to something that has already been manufactured or built” (20). A classic example is adding a ramp in the back or side of a building once the building’s inaccessibility has been reported. This example introduces an important point about retrofits: they’re forced and occur only after someone recognizes that the space does not meet standards.

If any of you work in writing centers (WCs), you’ve encountered the student who has been forced to visit—even though most WCs have policies asking that teachers do not force their students to visit. The WC becomes a retrofit when students are forced to visit, when we imagine and use it as an added-on component of the composition classroom where students can go for extra help or attention.

I’ve been thinking about this idea since that conversation with Jay. One point I keep returning to is that WCs have historically been viewed as remediation or “fix-it” centers that take in student writers and attempt to “fix” their writing. And WCs have worked diligently to disassociate themselves from this remediation model (North, 1984; Wilson & LaBouff, 1986; Leahy, 1990; Carino, 1992; Grimm, 1996; Babcock 2011). This is apparent in tutor training (Don’t write on student drafts!) and even in the shift from “tutor” to “consultant.” Generally, WC discourse has moved away from remediating (reforming) student papers and practices.

I went to the International Writing Center Association (IWCA) conference this past fall, and I heard—from person after person—what might be familiar to those of us invested in disability and disability studies: the fix-it narrative.

There was so much emphasis on diagnosing students and fixing students’ issues. I even heard an argument that Asperger Syndrome “is an obstacle that can be overcome if the student wants.” An overwhelming statement on its own (to imagine that students can and should choose to overcome their disabilities!), the most staggering part was how many people were in agreement.

This issue is different from the classic WC debate about whether or not we’re responsible for “fixing” student papers. These conversations point to a more personal, more bodied issue: the idea that the WC is responsible for fixing the students themselves by identifying—even diagnosing—traits that contribute to “bad” writing.

I think a large part of this comes from a space of good intention. WC discourse is consistently focused on individualized instruction, alternative pedagogies, and creating inclusive spaces where students feel comfortable. The issue arises, though, when we—as instructors—say that we aren’t prepared to accommodate or teach disabled students and send them to WCs. The issue is compounded, then, when tutors also believe they aren’t prepared to work with disabled students.

These feelings—that we’re not properly trained to work with disabled students and that it’s our responsibility to diagnose them in order to address their needs—contribute to a narrative of remediation. These perspectives feed into larger institutional ideas of writing and literacy—the idea that writing is constrained to good grammar, clear sentence structure, and must result in the fetishized “perfect” paper that Robert McRuer has critiqued. So then these ideas about perfect writing produced by the perfect student body feed into larger cultural narratives of disability—narratives that frame disability as something that must be diagnosed in order for it to be cured.

Example 1 (Institutional Assumptions)

Last semester, I worked repeatedly with a student who self-disclosed as dyslexic. She had been told very directly that she was a bad writer because of her comma use and passive voice constructions. For this student, the WC was only ever a space of remediation where I would sit down with her paper and mark comma splices, unnecessary commas, passive sentences. And in many ways, the WC was a retrofitted space to her regular classroom. That is, her teacher told her to visit—so it became this weird requirement where she came in order to get a better grade, but the sessions didn’t improve her writing as much as they allowed her to meet the most basic literacy standards.

Years ago, the New London Group positioned multiliteracies as an opportunity to move beyond the dominating limitations of literacy-as-grammar and to recognize the potential of other modes—visual, aural, gestural, spatial (28). And Gunther Kress has argued that literacy is embodied, that “[h]uman bodies have a wide range of means of engagement with the world” that occur in various and multiple ways (184). But instead of focusing on the rhetorical possibilities of this student’s embodied literacy practices, I was very actively supporting this narrative of remediation and literacy-as-error-free-writing.

Example 2 (Cultural Assumptions) 

Last November, I participated in a PeerCentered discussion forum. PeerCentered is a “space for peer writing tutors/consultants or anyone interested in writing centers to interact with their colleagues from around the world.” Every month or so folks from different WCs chat about a designated topic, and this one was “Working with Writers with Disabilities.”

The conversation ranged from topics like how WCs work with campus disability services and how to make WC spaces and resources more accessible to—perhaps most controversial—whether or not it’s the role of tutors to diagnose students.

Forum participants expressed anxiety about being able to successfully work with a student (and to meet that student’s needs) if they didn’t know what disability the student had. This concern comes from a good place: the desire to meet the needs of students. However, this is tricky (or “touchy”) for a number of reasons.

First, there’s the idea that we’re not qualified to work with disabled students, so there’s a desire to refer them to disability services.

Then, there’s the idea that if we are qualified to work with disabled students, we can only do so if we know or can determine their diagnosis. This assumes not only that a diagnosis is vital to working with the student but also that particular disabilities benefit from particular practices. In some cases, of course, this is true and WC discourse has pursued this idea in responsible ways—most recently, Rebecca Day Babcock has published a book on working with deaf students. The issue emerges when we assume that all students with a particular disability are a homogenous group.

Here, a dominant narrative emerges: 1) that students must be diagnosed before a consultant can help them and 2) that the consultant (vs. the student) knows better in this situation.

I also want to draw attention to the counter-narratives that emerged in this discussion. One is the idea that students can help to direct this process. Also, the idea that the WC is not responsible for diagnosing.

It is this point about assumption that I’d like to end on.


I have shared two examples that represent the institutional and cultural narratives that circulate about both disability and the literacy practices of students. They also reinforce the notion of retrofitting. Both examples position the WC as a place of remediation, emphasizing the ideas that 1) we must fix student bodies and 2) we must force students to perform in particular ways in order to make them more successful writers.

When we focus merely on remediation, we flatten the diverse range of literacy practices that students have and can access to achieve rhetorical agency. When we focus only on sentence-level issues that may be indicative of a particular LD, we move away from the rhetorical work that WCs so highly value. When we seek only to accommodate diagnosed students, we reject the idea that all students who enter the WC have different cultural backgrounds, personal experiences, physical abilities, levels of literacy, learning needs.

My questions, then, are about how we move away from assumptions that flatten the literacies of disabled students who enter our WC (and classroom) spaces:

  1. WC staff are not trained to work with any ONE group of students. What makes disabled students so radically different from other students who occupy WC space?
  2. Why do we feel responsible—as instructors and as consultants—to diagnose students?
  3. It’s difficult to acknowledge that our good intentions can be harmful to the students we want to help. How do we take those good intentions and channel them into good practices?
  4. How do we create spaces that welcome the (non-normative) literacy practices of disabled students? That is, how do we begin to re-write our institutional and cultural narratives about literacy and disability?

3 thoughts on “#4c13

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