Cultivating Kindness in the Writing Center – Part I

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Assistant Professor Shirley Tung and tutor Christie Warren (B.S. ’18, Education) in conversation about the Writing Center at “Spotlight on English” (24 April 2018)

In this first of two posts, we — the 2018-2019 Executive Committee of the Writing Center at K-State — talk about the role kindness plays in writing center work, including welcoming visitors, tutoring, front desk work, and outreach to campus.

Through empathetic observation, writing center tutors and front desk staff have the unique opportunity to actively make a difference not only in the writing processes of our clients, but also their lives. We frame this work through the concept of “cultivating kindness.”

The Writing Center’s Executive Committee consists of four people, a mix of graduate and undergraduate students. Lauren Callihan (M.A. ’19) is a second-year graduate student in English specializing in Composition and Rhetoric. Jake Anderson (B.S. ’20) is a junior studying Secondary Education with a focus in English, with minors in English and in Leadership Studies. Anna Richardson (B.S. ’21) is a sophomore in Education. Lynsey Aiken (B.A. ’20) is a junior studying English Literature and Spanish.

In this post (Part I) and a subsequent one (Part II), we will each offer our own interpretation of what it means to cultivate kindness in writing center practices. We hope that our posts invite you to consider how you can cultivate kindness in your daily life, both within and outside writing centers.


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Above is a picture of an orchid with text by Rumi that reads “Raise your words not your voice. It is rain that grows flowers not thunder.”

“The Germination of a Radical Writing Tradition”

In my section of this post, I focus on the metaphorical and historical meanings of the word “cultivating,” drawing from my interests in both women’s botanical rhetoric and writing center studies. By doing so, I hope to share why staff should embrace what I call the practice of “cultivating kindness” within their own centers.

For those who may not be familiar with the history and purpose of women’s botanical rhetoric, it is important to explain that historically, metaphors were used that compared the female body with flowers and plants, and women writers aligned with and disrupted the use of these botanical metaphors.

Scholar Sam George notes that during the Enlightenment era, the problematic metaphorical relationship between the female body and flowers/plants dominated the majority of the texts that attempted to engage and educate women (George 22). Botany provided a fertile and somewhat socially acceptable field of study that women were able to actively participate in. As was not the case with other sciences, botany enabled women and their writing to move beyond the thresholds of their restrictive domestic spheres. George notes that progressions from “floriculture to Linnaean Botany, from the particular to the universal, changed the way many women thought about flowers and helped generate new genres of women’s writing such as the botanical dialogue or conversation and the botanical poem with scientific notes” (George 4). Had it not been for the field of botany, how long would it have been before women were allowed to write in the public sphere?

During this time, women had to carefully navigate the socially constructed and gendered barriers to education and writing practices. George notes that Johnson’s Dictionary from 1755 explains that to “cultivate” something is to “forward or improve” it (22). Building on Johnson’s definition of cultivation, Rousseau also perpetuated the notion that women undergo a process of “cultivation within the home,” and insisted that women’s education, as a result, should be restricted to their private domestic spheres (22). George additionally notes that Johnson’s gendered definition ties the word “cultivate” to notions of husbandry and tending natural growth in a way that positions women as subordinate subjects to men. For instance, G.W.F. Hegel claimed that the “female mind” is “plant-like” and “rooted” in “its immediate surroundings” and that as a result women’s education needed to be focused on “home learning” (George 26-27). Thus, women’s bodies and minds were linked with the attributes of plants and systematically objectified and restricted to the domestic sphere.

While many of the botanical metaphors that were used to describe the female mind were problematic, the same botanical metaphors also enabled women to participate in a scientific mode of discourse and demonstrate a limited amount of rhetorical agency. Whenever I talk about or write about the practice of “cultivating kindness” within our Writing Center, I am continuing a botanical rhetorical practice that women writers I admire, such as Mary Wollstonecraft and Charlotte M. Yonge, took part in. George notes that Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) “uses hackneyed floral epithets ironically” to push back against the gendered prescripts of her era (30). Charlotte M. Yonge, whose botanical field guide The Herb of the Field and domestic novel The Daisy Chain offer an opportunity to study a defender of the establishment, nonetheless critically interacts with the projects that most concern her: religion and practical, rather than ornamental, education for men and women. I want to continue their work in a very different setting.

Why Kindness is Relevant and Meaningful in Writing Centers

You still may be wondering how the practice of cultivating kindness can be linked to the practices that occur within our Writing Center. For me, cultivating kindness necessitates creativity and flexibility.

In many ways the writing work that we collaboratively facilitate with our tutees is similar to my own gardening practices. Often, writers like plants will have individualized needs and on occasion require us to be flexible and creative when the traditional writing center environment is not appropriately meeting their needs.

When people walk into our Center, they bring more than just their writing. Often, their writing is tangled with a wide array of emotionally charged lived experiences. Sometimes we will show our tutees and fellow center peers kindness by genuinely celebrating each other’s accomplishments. At other times we may find ourselves offering encouragement to someone who is having a difficult time.

As center staff we may not always directly see the metaphorical fruits of our collaboratively cultivated labor but it is through our acts of kindness within our center practices that our clients and peers are able grow stronger in their writing practices. It is because of this that I believe that the practice of cultivating of kindness within our center is one of the most powerful ways we can serve our university.

Lauren Callihan (M.A. ’19)

Work Cited: George, Sam. Botany, Sexuality & Women’s Writing 1730-1830 From Modernist Shoot to Forward Plant. Manchester University Press, 2012.


 

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Pictured above is Jake sitting behind the front desk of the Writing Center, welcoming all who come in.

As a Writing Center Assistant (what we call our front desk staff members), kindness is a crucial part of our jobs while we are at the desk.

Angela Rose notes the importance of such staff when she writes that “your front desk staff is essentially the face of your business, from the moment they greet your guests until the final checkout. Their professionalism and services leave a lasting impression.” We greet people as they come in and help people make appointments. But the most important part of our job starts as soon as someone walks through the door. If they don’t feel welcomed, we as a writing center lose the chance to effectively work with that student and they may not want to come back again. On the flip side, that student may really need our services, but since they didn’t feel welcome, they’ll miss out on getting help with their work.

Being at the front desk also means we are in charge of the overall environment and management of the writing center. We keep the space clean and tidy and free of clutter in order to offer an environment that is welcoming and ideal for work and learning. Our space is open 9:30am-5:00pm Monday-Thursday and 9:30am-2:30pm on Fridays to all students, whether they are receiving help on their work or not. With this in mind, the front desk people manage the space in a way that is helpful to all its occupants.

The kindness doesn’t stop with us at the desk. The tutors then have the responsibility of maintaining a high level of kindness throughout the session. This is as easy as not rushing into the appointment and getting to know the tutee a little better. The importance of maintaining kindness throughout a tutee’s visit is huge. We want every person who walks through our door to feel welcome to come back in the future.

The Writing Center is a resource that everyone across all disciplines can use. We love seeing people with English papers, but often the sessions that we talk about the most are from disciplines in which we are unfamiliar, and we learn a lot from the students who come use our services.

Jake Anderson (B.S. ’20)

Work Cited: Rose, Angela.  “Why Your Hotel Front Desk Manager is One of Your Most Important Hires.” 27 June 2012,  https://www.hcareers.com/article/employer
-articles/why-your-hotel-front-desk-manager-is-one-of-your-most-important-hires. Accessed 9 Aug 2015.

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