Participatory Hospitality and Writing Centers

Michele Eodice

Hospitable Spaces

As an antidote to the core problems of participation as a requirement, Critel challenges us to participate with students about participation:

What if we asked students to tell us how they will participate? What if we asked them what they need from us? (120)

Students do more writing, do more learning, and do more participating than we realize. I have been observing and admiring student writers on a daily basis for over twenty years, and I have seen them engage with many different meaningful writing activities, both in and out of classrooms. I have watched students and here is what they do in order to participate: they seek hospitable spaces, hospitable devices, and hospitable people. When I refer to spaces I mean sites that have been deliberately designed for access and interaction; students do not want to write in uncaring spaces. Their devices now are affordances that cannot be denied access either; many believe a “sense of togetherness” can stem from “a very personal and individualistic gadget” (Mendoza). And to facilitate participatory hospitality we need those hospitable people, the ones who value difference as a means for connection. We might say (indeed, we must hope) that students can find all three of those things in our writing classrooms and our writing centers and that once they arrive in these hospitable spaces we actively participate with student writers and their texts and technologies.

I have come to describe the with as participatory hospitality, as this pairing of words represents two important components of the writing center experience. Many of us working in writing centers are proud of the hospitality we offer, but these (romanticized?) gestures are viewed from the outside as merely making students feel comfortable enough to endure the stresses associated with the writing process. But the hospitality many of us enact daily is not making sure student writers are swaddled in bean-bag chairs sipping skinny mocha cappuccinos; the hospitality we enact derives from historical and cultural definitions and from its contemporary usage as a metaphor for a set of moves—moves made in service to values found in our mission statements: access and equity.

The spaces we occupy—often for more hours a week than any other space in our lives—are academic. These are spaces designed primarily to carry out the missions of our institutions. We enter the buildings, sit in the chairs, and inhale and exhale the discourses. Sometimes we actively try to make these spaces more hospitable in both concrete and symbolic ways. Some spaces are more challenging to convert; as Brandy Grabow states, “Institutional influence in the classroom prevents instructors and students from fully engaging in a hospitable relationship” (37).

Janice Haswell, Richard Haswell, and Glenn Blalock long for hospitable classrooms and ask: “How can the constraints of credit hours, seat time, class size, material classroom, syllabus, and curriculum be adjusted, manipulated, or utilized to maintain undebased course-long hospitality?” (722). These writing teachers acknowledge the risks and fears associated with making such changes to our prevailing “instructional paradigm” (Tagg), and they offer new configurations of participation in the same old (classroom) spaces. Because achieving what they call “transformative hospitality depends on an enhanced sense of how many reciprocal ways both teacher and students can contribute functionally to the learning space” (719), and because of the many ways a writing center supports this reciprocal learning, “the writing center provides the location to which the hospitable metaphor is best applied” (Grabow 135).

So how do academic spaces become truly hospitable places? The space (deliberately designed for universal access and interaction), the devices (to foster productivity, research, and collaboration) and the people (uniquely qualified for their facilitation and improvisation skills) might not be quite enough. If we are truly enacting hospitality, the gesture must move in both directions. As Parker Palmer puts it,

[H]ospitality is always an act that benefits the host even more than the guest . . . . By offering hospitality, one participates in an endless reweaving of a social fabric on which all can depend . . . thus the gift of sustenance for the guest becomes a gift of hope for the host. (50)

The students we see each day offer us a gift of hope. Seeing them, listening to them, learning with them gives us hope for the future. I once coached a grad-student consultant to separate from the writing center based on his answer to my annual-review question. I asked him, "What is the strongest feeling you get about your work in the writing center?" He said he loved the feeling of superiority in knowing the MLA style of documentation and enjoyed lording it over the poor freshmen. He was not hospitable at all and certainly not willing to concede he could learn from students and find their presence a gift of hope.

In The Gift, Lewis Hyde distinguishes "between gift and commodity exchange"; "a gift establishes a feeling-bond . . . while the sale of a commodity leaves no necessary connection” (56). [That difference is why I cringe when I read on a writing center Web site the statement: This is a free service. Or when I hear our visiting writers referred to as clients.]

Next Arrow

Next Section

What is Not Hospitable?