Participatory Hospitality and Writing Centers

Michele Eodice

Participatory Hospitality

The concept of participatory hospitality is the result of merging the qualities of academic hospitality and guided participation. Despite the observation by Peter H. Felton, H-Dirksen L. Bauman, and Aaron Kheriaty that “we rarely talk about hospitality in the academy” (33), Allison Phipps and Ronald Barnett actually find academic hospitality “a way of conceptualizing academic life” (252). Acknowledged or not, the academy has already constructed a type of hospitality that is played out in the ways we do or do not interact with each other, the ways we reject or welcome others, the ways we remain open—or not—to others’ views, cultures, languages, and beliefs. Bennett believes the following:

True academic hospitality is centered in the relationship of self and others on matters of learning . . . . Being hospitable involves treating others at least initially as worthy of intellectual attention, letting them know they matter as fellow inquirers, and working toward mutual interaction and reciprocity. (51, 53)

Phipps and Barnett describe two levels of hospitable conversation in the academy: "first, the offering to share and to receive perspectives on knowledge” (and they say these do not always co-exist); and second, “the sharing and offering of analysis and feedback” (246). These familiar acts are not only part of what we do in the writing center but also the bread and butter of ALL we do as academics when we conduct research to make new knowledge. We must seek others to confirm our direction and bestow credibility through the publishing process; that this practice runs in both directions is not always apparent to students and new faculty, but the whole enterprise hinges on the assumption that everyone will take part as both the writer who needs response and as the reader who is responsible to respond. Rauna Kuokkanen contributes this call: “There is a need in the academy to revive an understanding of hospitality grounded on a sense of social responsibility and reciprocity” (285).

The power differentials in higher education settings potentially undermine, for example, the work writing centers engage in each day. Moving students from insistent individualism to valuing interdependence by offering a series of conversations that “treat students as worthy of intellectual attention” (Bruffee 23) is a productive way of engendering academic hospitality. Kenneth Bruffee describes the result: “Communities that foster a culture of interdependence and productive group effort . . . do not exploit differences but explore and negotiate them” (23). The infrastructure of productive group work, or interaction with peers in a writing center or classroom, is provided by guided participation, “wherein individuals and their social partners are mutually involved in communication and coordination in a socioculturally structured collective activity” (Mascolo 11). I recognize and honor this infrastructure; I surely do not want to suggest hospitable spaces in the academy are magically effective in transforming learning and learners. According to Michael Mascolo, “The concept of participation goes beyond the idea that students must be active in their learning. Instead, the concept of participation stands in opposition to any conception that separates the learner from the social and cultural processes of which he or she is an integral part” (11). Thus, hospitality is prerequisite in order to situate learners in sharp relief to any threats to their identities; hospitality provides the infrastructure for participation as students become open to asking and answering, to collaborating fully, in their own time and in their own ways.

In this developmental approach, we see our work, particularly in writing centers, as fostering interdependence through collaboration. Felton et al. describe how this kind of hospitality works:

Making learning environments more hospitable does not necessarily mean that we wait on our “guests” and they don’t have to lift a finger. How can we convey to students that they can make themselves at home in this space of learning—that if they want something, they can help themselves, but be sure to get enough to share with others and that they too have a role in helping to create and sustain the hospitality of the space? (35)

While we might start a session asking a student if they would like a cup of coffee as a hospitable gesture, we also might ask, "What do I need to know today about you as a learner?" The answers to that question—“What do I need to know today about you as a learner?”—allow us to perform academic hospitality. Asking this is an act of teaching, and what we do in writing centers is teaching, whether we are willing to acknowledge that or not. I agree with Parker Palmer that “good teaching is an act of hospitality . . .” (50).

As we work to revive participation as a positive commonplace of teaching, to further Critel’s work, we will need to enact the participatory hospitality we claim to value. For example, in our recent practicum, peer tutors were invited to challenge my vision of participatory hospitality for the writing center. The questions they generated are now part of a shared project of exploration. Here are some of their thoughts:

To demonstrate participatory hospitality we might also view the texts students bring us as living documents that breathe and grow with each performance (I’m reading aloud to the tutor, reading aloud to my roommate, reading aloud to myself, telling my professor what my document will do . . . returning to the writing center on Wednesday to talk about my revisions . . . ).

If we view our writing centers as communities of practice, and I and many others do, we have to include even the one-time visitor in this community; however challenging, we need to provide opportunities for their participation and motivate these newcomers (Lave and Wenger). Writing center pedagogies often echo this statement: “One way to tell if people are learning through participation is they take on more responsibility in the central tasks of the practice” (Schwartz et al. 199).


A student writer in the writing center has a pretty productive session for about twenty-eight minutes and then is nudged by the peer tutor: “Hey, how about this: now you go over to that table, okay, and talk with her about her writing?” Or what if the peer tutor says, “My turn!” and whips out their own current draft and hopes the student writer will stay awhile and read it with them?

Imagine the ways a participatory-hospitality experience could not only influence a student to transfer the ability to enact this type of engagement in classrooms or other settings, but to demand that others learn to reach across into this common space as well.

What I have learned most of all over twenty years is that the relational is powerful and that spaces, devices, and people must be hospitable in order for learners to shed insistent individualism and find value in interdependence. And all of that pays off if we participate fully in multiple directions, across differences and languages. It becomes our responsibility to build places where “relational power is honored and celebrated . . . [where] the ability to incorporate and reflect the contributions of others is judged as a mark of strength” (Bennett 40). Considering the ways participation was framed by the teachers of writing in Critel’s study, I’d like to believe she would have promoted participatory hospitality as a goal for writing teachers so they might position themselves as learners and design for a richer and more mutual conversation with students about writing.

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