Inhabiting a Liminal Space

Laura Detmering, Assistant Director

In “Power and Authority in Peer Tutoring” (2003), Peter Carino argues that “to pretend that there is not a hierarchical relationship between tutor and student is a fallacy, and to engineer peer tutoring techniques that divest the tutor of power and authority is at times foolish and can even be unethical” (98). Carino is speaking here of undergraduate peer tutors specifically within a writing center; however, I contend that his argument extends even more compellingly to graduate student relationships within writing centers, particularly those relationships between graduate-student assistant directors and graduate-student tutors. As Michael Mattison points out in “Just between Me and Me” (2008), “When you become assistant director, you take on an authority role that asks you to supervise tutors, some of whom are other graduate students” (16). Mattison raises important ethical questions about the role of the graduate-student assistant director. I am interested in this dual role graduate-student assistant directors play as not-quite students and not-quite administrators. Specifically, I argue that graduate students are placed in a difficult and often underexamined role as assistant directors in writing centers, inhabiting a sort of  liminal space within the university as well as the writing center.

My work in writing centers began during the fall semester of my second year of college. A successful student, I was invited to apply to work at the university’s writing center, and I nervously accepted the opportunity. The new position was anxiety-inducing not just because I was painfully shy and uncomfortable in social situations but also because I lacked confidence in my own writing. Years later, reading Donald Murray’s A Writer Teaches Writing and Lad Tobin’s “Teaching with a Fake ID” in a pedagogy course, I felt for the first time that someone else understood what I felt at my first writing center consultation, that I was a fraud, someone who was on the verge of being caught, someone who lacked the skills to really help others with their writing because I didn’t know what I was doing in my own. What a relief it was to learn that I was not alone in feeling this way. At the same time, I continue to find it troubling how much this anxiety persists and factors into all my professional experiences. And the academy does little to assuage this anxiety, as it continues to place graduate students into positions of authority which are always unsteady, always at question, especially for those of us who are or at least appear very young.

Melissa Nicolas argues in the introduction to “(E)merging Identities,” a collection of essays about graduate students’ roles in the college or university Writing Center, that “Regardless of the role(s) graduate students play in the center—client, tutor, or administrator—their situation is one of constant negotiation” (2). Indeed, graduate students hold a tenuous position within the writing center, as well as within the academy in general. We are not quite students, not quite faculty. Throw in administrative positions, and our status becomes even more confused. Like Nicolas and Michael Mattison, I often wonder how I am supposed to position myself both in relationship to the Director and Associate Director of my writing center, as well as other faculty and administrators on my campus, and the consultants who work in the Writing Center, all of whom are fellow graduate students. For me, the position is always tenuous because of the fact that I am neither a full-time faculty member and administrator nor a full-time student. I inhabit the liminal space, flitting back-and-forth between the positions, both teacher and student, both administrator and writing consultant.

As assistant directors, we are occasionally asked to lead workshops with our consultants. This raises important questions about our authority. For instance, how do I lead a workshop about good writing center practices when several of the consultants I am leading in the workshop actually have more experience working in writing centers than I do? Why should those consultants trust in my authority on the subject when most of my pedagogical knowledge comes from the classroom, not the writing center, and the two spheres are so very different in many ways? Of course, these questions raise other questions like does it ultimately matter if the consultants have more writing center experience than the Assistant Directors.

I would argue that it does because our status is very shaky to begin with, and when you add to that tenuousness the fact that we are being placed in positions of authority over people who sometimes actually have more experience than us, that has an impact on our confidence and our ability to mentor others in the ways that our job demands of us. Granted, experienced teachers and tutors can always learn how to be better teachers and tutors, even from those who are less experienced, and I personally have learned a great deal from teachers and tutors who are less experienced than me, but there will still always remain these questions of or concerns about authority when we place people into Assistant Director positions without a significant amount of experience or institutional authority. At the same time, it is completely understandable why departments continue to follow these practices because when we graduate and apply for positions as professors, we are expected to have such experience, and the current system allows us to gain such experience. And so the cycle continues.

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