Safe space to brave space: Avasha Rambiritch on space & safety in the writing centre

a single cloud in a blue sky

Vol. 3, No. 2 (Spring 2022)
Brian Hotson,
Editor, CWCR/RCCR

Avasha Rambiritch is a lecturer in the Unit for Academic Literacy where she teaches academic literacy and academic writing modules at undergraduate and postgraduate levels. She is co-ordinator of the Humanities Writing Centre at the University of Pretoria, South Africa. Rambiritch is a plenary speaker at the 2022 CWCA/ACCR Conference.

I recently interviewed Rambiritch for CWCR/RCCR about her work and for a preview of her plenary conference talk. The theme for this year’s conference is Space and Safety.


Thank you for this opportunity to speak with you. I’d like to start by asking, how did you get started in writing centres? Was it a direct path?

Image of CWCA/ACCR conference keynote, Avasha Rambiritch
Avasha Rambiritch

Rambiritch: I like to think of my journey to the writing centre as one of ‘pure luck’! I am a full-time lecturer in the Unit for Academic Literacy at the University of Pretoria. As part of my responsibilities, I was the Tutor Coordinator for one of the large Academic Literacy modules offered in the Faculty of Humanities. At the end of 2013 my then Head of Department (HOD) asked if I would be interested in investigating the possibility of establishing a faculty-specific writing centre. I jumped at the opportunity and a few months later in February 2014, we opened the doors to the Humanities Writing Centre (HWC).

What does your writing centre look like on a daily basis?

Rambiritch: Ours is a small, faculty-specific writing centre, situated on the 17th floor of a 23-floor building. Our location is not ideal. Or fancy! We are situated in what was once the Administrator office—so not big enough. And oddly shaped! We do not have (yet) the cubicles and desks we long for. Our consultations take place in 2 or 3 different spots in the writing centre—and often we cannot accommodate more than 3 (undergraduate) consultations as voices travel! Pre-COVID, this small space was a ‘hustle and bustle’ of activity, of the sound of feet coming and going. Laughter (which I miss desperately). Students knocking on our door arriving for a consultation or asking for help to book one on the booking system. Or just to be directed to an office of a lecturer situated on the same floor. Our days are full and busy.

Despite being a small centre, we are the only writing centre on a very large campus, and word of our services have travelled. Very often, we have students and lecturers from other faculties making enquiries. If my Head Consultant is available, he will handle these. If he is not, I will. And, if none of us are available, then we set up a time to meet.

We have a weekly writing centre meeting. We use this time to discuss issues/challenges that we experienced in the past week, cover any aspects of training, invite a guest speaker or a lecturer who wants to talk to us about the needs of his/her group of students, and the accompanying writing task that we will be involved in. Our meetings are pretty informal—we sit around wherever we are comfortable—and on the carpeted floor if someone feels like it. Often, I spoilt my consultants with cake because they keep reminding me that students LOVE free food! And because such individualized consulting is sometimes difficult and mentally draining!

There seems to be a strong network of writing centres in South Africa, a new network that is doing important work. How would you describe writing centres in South Africa?

Rambiritch: The historical context of writing centres in South Africa is not much different to its US counterpart. While nearly 60 years behind in their initiation, writing centres in South Africa have made phenomenal strides in their offering, research, and overall contribution to student access and success. To counter the sometimes negative effects of poor schooling, a disparate education system, and under-preparedness of [especially] first-year students, institutions of higher learning were forced to implement support programmes aimed at better equipping these students with the skills and abilities to achieve academic success.

These took the form of curricular and non-curricular support, with writing centres falling into the latter. The earliest writing centres in the South African context, established in the mid 1990s, thus arose out of this need to support the mass of students seeking entrance to higher education institutions. As the country attempted to rebuild its national identity in the midst of the turbulence of a post-apartheid South Africa, writing centres became ‘safe spaces’ for underprepared, first-generation, and non-traditional students, advancing a transformational agenda, with a view to redressing some of the inequalities of the past. Central to this transformational agenda were questions pertaining to identity (individual and institutional), epistemology, and [theories of] learning and teaching. Writing centres in South Africa thus moved away from a deficit view of writing development necessary only for a select group of students. Underpinned by theories of socio-constructivism, sociocultural theory, and critical pedagogy, and foregrounding the social justice issues of dialogue, problem solving, critical thinking, student empowerment, student-centred pedagogy, and questions of power relations, South African writing centres have transformed into the ‘safe, non-threatening and non-judgemental’ spaces students crave. Support in such centres welcome collaboration, dialogue, multilingualism, and multimodality, embracing pedagogical methods that recognise the experience and dignity of students and their culture.

The mainly postgraduate students who staff these centres are encouraged to draw students into the discussion; to ensure that the interaction remains a dialogue and not an editing session; that the student retains ownership of the text; and that while the focus is on the text, the aim should be the development of the writer and not merely the writing. Influenced, too, by the political changes outside of the writing centre, and being acutely aware of the changing nature of our student body, South African writing centres have attempted to find and adapt current models and approaches to suit our needs and especially that of our students (Adapted from: Rambiritch, Carstens, Prinsloo, & Janse van Rensburg, 2022).

I know of your work from your piece, A social justice approach to providing academic writing support, which, among other things, talks about writing centre space and social justice. Would you talk a bit about how social justice principles are embedded in writing centre work?

Rambiritch: Thank you for this question—it is one I have been thinking about a lot—and is also the focus of an article that is currently under review. In A social justice approach, published in 2018, my assertion was and still is that social justice issues do not need to be abstract concepts or discussion tools for the experts who make policy decisions but, equally importantly, must/can be applied in practice in the academic literacy classroom/writing centre, so that those of us ‘on the ground’ should be able to practically apply these principles to our teaching and the support we render in higher education. Issues related to providing a socially just education to our students cannot remain abstract concepts in policy documents. A truly socially just education system happens practically in the classroom, in our curriculum, in our assessments, and in the everyday support we provide to our students.

In A social justice approach…, my finding was that within the act of dialogue between writing centre consultant and student, there was evidence of the social justice principles of problem solving, critical thinking, student empowerment, social responsibility, student-centred focus, holistic education, and an analysis of power. In this research, I drew largely from the theory of critical pedagogy. Writing nearly three years later, my aim was to extend our understanding of these principles to encompass those experienced in the context of the writing centre, and perhaps use the findings of this study to move our writing centre from a “safe space” to a “brave space.” What I found was that (in the context of my writing centre), while consultants understand the concept of social justice, this understanding is limited to issues related to equality and access and principles of social justice as drawn from the field of education. While these are, no doubt, important principles, this definition must be expanded on to include principles that relate to identity, oppression, power, and privilege, to name a few. So, I think my answer to your question would be that I do believe that writing centre practitioners, in general, work hard to ensure that there is an awareness, and application of principles of social justice in the support we render—our student-centred approach is evidence of this. But, I believe too that this needs to be extended—to principles and concepts that may be more difficult to discuss and apply—but must be done anyway—if, that is, we are committed to further transforming our writing centres. So, I think that in addition to applying the principles in our support and in out training, it is also about the hidden conversations that must now be brought to the fore.

The theme of this year’s conference is space and safety. Traditionally, writing centres have been positioned in the literature as “safe spaces.” On the other hand, Garcìa writes, “For me, the writing center is neither my safe space nor my home.” From your perspective, how does this fit into the work of South African writing centres?

Rambiritch: I think that this larger question comes at exactly the right time and relates quite closely to some of my response to your previous question. For years now, South African writing centres, like their counterparts internationally, have marketed themselves as ‘safe and non-judgmental spaces’. And I think our intention in this was to ‘shout out’ to our students that we were the ‘alternative’ space Bruffee (1984; 2012) wanted us to be—that we were safe because we were NOT the classroom and non-judgmental because we did not mark, assess, and fail students. And we were. Safe for a while at least.

But writing centres are the kind of entity that is constantly in flux, constantly changing and transforming. We can never be fully transformed because our priority is the student, and as long as the world outside is changing, so will our student body, their needs, and our response to these needs. Thus, such constant ‘transforming’ allows us the opportunity to reimagine our spaces. And, I think that the time is ripe for us to acknowledge that, as well-intentioned as we were in creating safe spaces, our spaces may have been safe to only a select few. Safe suggests being ‘protected’, or not being ‘exposed to danger or risk’—but is this not what we do when we critique a student’s writing or when we focus on language related concerns using language that does not protect, but exposes and risks the student’s (first) language, identity, and self-confidence?

Social injustices manifest in (oppressive) language, too. How welcoming is the space of the writing centre, when we insist on consulting in a language that our students very clearly struggle with? Safe spaces are places where each individual feels protected enough to speak their thoughts and share their views without fear of reprisal. And yet I am not sure that I am doing this enough as the writing centre coordinator. In research conducted on ‘taking social justice principles online’, one of my consultants made this worrying comment: “The key question, in my mind, is how to ensure that the people working at the writing centre are not bigots, do not mistreat students, and offer each student the same service.”  Worrying, I say, because I realised that until then I had not created the space for such conversations—and in not doing so had allowed my consultants to work in what could have been an unsafe and, relatedly, unwelcoming space. I am also not convinced that the metaphor as ‘home’ is an apt one—for SA writing centres, and for others across the globe, too. But, I promise more on this in my paper later this month at the conference!

As a plenary speaker for this year’s conference, can you give up a preview of your talk?

Rambiritch: My paper is very closely aligned to the conference themes and is entitled: Navigating the social turn: Reimagining Space and Safety in the South African Writing Centre. It begins by highlighting how five major social turns in South Africa’s history have impacted issues of space and safety in South Africa, and in the South African writing centre. In interrogating issues of space and safety in the writing centre context, I focus, too, on the ways in which the writing centre space has been theorised and metaphored, and how these reflect the evolution of the writing centre. Such close interrogation will also demonstrate how such metaphors may conflict with the space of the South African writing centre.

We’re very much looking forward to your plenary at the conference. Thank you for this.


References

Bruffee, K. A. (2012). Peer tutoring and the “Conversation of Mankind.” In V. Villanueva, (Ed.) Cross-Talk in Comp Theory: A Reader, 3rd ed. (pp. 415-436). National Council of Teachers of English: Urbana, IL.

Rambiritch, A. (2018). A social justice approach to providing academic writing support. Educational Research for Social Change, 7(1), 46–50. https://doi.org/10.17159/2221-4070/2018/v7i1a4

Rambiritch, A., Carstens, A., Prinsloo, S., & Janse van Rensburg, Z. (2022). Skryfsentrumpedagogiek. In W.A.M. Carstens, & T. Van Dyk. (Eds), Toegepaste Taalkunde in Afrikaans. Pretoria: Van Schaik. (In progess).

Rambiritch, A. Reimagining our space: Taking social justice principles online. (Under review).