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September Snapshot: Begin by Respecting Difference


I collaborate with students at Penn State Brandywine’s Writing Studio amid a culture clash. I tutor first-year writers one-on-one weekly; for many students, this is the first time they’re receiving sustained, individual educational attention. This year, Penn State’s professors, drawing from generations of institutional and social power, will expect students to compose using standardized citation, annotation, Standard American English grammar, and critical literacy skills. Meanwhile, our students speak and write a plurality of grammars. They grew up among multiple family and community literacies. Faculty and staff may expect students to navigate college as their primary, if not singular, responsibility. Our students hold themselves personally responsible for much more. 

Brandywine’s campus is the second most diverse student community in the Penn State system. My intention this year is to hold space for our differences. When we open intercultural dialogue, my students and I can better acclimate and build a shared community. Previously, I began every semester by reviewing the tutorial’s syllabus: I led with my expectations; I created the terms of a contract for students. I’ve defined students’ success, even delineating their acceptable boundaries for resistance (students are allowed two missed tutorials). My power defined our first communication. This year, I will ask, not tell:

  • What are your expectations for yourself and for me?
  • How do you define success as an individual writer and as writing partners, together?
  • What will we do when we encounter misunderstanding or conflict?
  • How can we hold each other responsible and accountable for our goals and intentions?

Importantly, we both share our answers to these questions. Exploring difference early and developing shared agreements will hopefully reduce students’ isolation when they encounter different values later on. Hopefully, we’ll begin a conversation that makes visible our intercultural exchange and we’ll return to that conversation throughout the semester. I have the privilege of cultivating individual relationships at the Writing Studio. I want to advance that by respecting students’ unique experiences, histories, and strengths as the foundation for their progress.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. janiceewing #

    Liz, this sentence particularly stood out for me: “My intention this year is to hold space for our differences.” What a powerful concept and image! My question — how to help students to navigate the intersection of the shared goals they create with you, vs. the more inflexible and set goals their other instructors might hold?


    September 13, 2019
  2. Ssw #

    What a great plan! It makes total sense. The rapport, trust, and opportunities to learn together will clearly be beneficial. Please write again on how the semester progresses for the students and for you.


    September 13, 2019

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