- (Writing) Centers and Margins
Harry C. Denny’s Facing the Center takes as its concern the matrix of identity positions and politics “most central in our national context, faces whose politics have the greatest material consequences” (23) — race and ethnicity, class, sex and gender, and nationality. Denny poses questions about what kind of face is given to a writing center (face as noun) and how people confront its dynamics (face as verb). The center metaphor also encompasses more than just writing centers, for Denny calls for readers “to be aware of margins and center, to think of ways of privileging, to explore the dynamics of ordinary caste” (2). The book came into being because, as Denny writes, subject positions play a vital, if often unacknowledged, role in writing center work, and the experiences of Others are often missing from the writing center community’s conversations. Facing the Center, then, represents an important contribution to the growing body of literature on the politics of identity in writing center scholarship.
Denny opens each chapter with a brief scene drawn from his or a former tutor’s experience, to “unpack” moments when identity becomes explicit in the writing center, as when students express racist opinions or make sexual advances, “working to theorize what makes them possible as well as their [End Page 387] implications” (8, 9). In so doing, Denny not only makes the abstract concrete but also avoids “exchanging recipes and how-to’s” in favor of “fostering deeper thinking and problem-posing” (30). It also implicates him in the discussion, rather than “sit[ting] back, all sanctimonious. … I’m just as guilty as the next person, wielding whatever privilege comes easily and naturally to me with little thought to its immediate and long-term consequences” (33). Such a move strikes me as more encouraging than not — encounters with identity can be fraught with difficulty. Denny’s examples make it easier to see that failure to be aware of identity’s implications is not just possible but virtually inevitable. Still, that does not mean we have no chance for success. Rather, failures can be used as opportunities for learning, for better practice in the future.
After the brief scenarios and some preliminary remarks, in each chapter Denny provides some theoretical perspective on the given topic, so that readers have a “common grounding” in understanding the identity dynamics at work in writing centers and the larger culture, both academic and public (122). Thereafter, Denny examines the ways writing centers paper over issues of identity, through “everyday practices … reify[ing] larger, more abstract forces” (44) and notes that issues of identity elicit anxiety: students, tutors, and teachers are often reluctant to discuss sensitive topics such as race, sex, and gender. Denny writes, “I’ve become sensitive to the reality that students reach my classroom (anybody’s classroom) not necessarily signing on to be proselytized in multiculturalism or primed to embrace my subject positions” (106). Even if students and those involved in writing instruction are prepared for dialogue about identity politics, to not “learn and perform the codes of cultural dominance” (75) brings real material consequences, including scholastic, economic, and cultural marginalization (76, 130).
Denny recognizes the false binary of assimilation and separation. Assimilation presents people in the minority with “pressure to adopt the social and cultural practices of the majority,” while through separation a community “maintains autonomy over its ideology, expression and space, excluding the majority but also claiming agency over its own self-exile” (15). But separation/opposition, like assimilation, has its own set of consequences; direct action in the form of opposition requires “energy and commitment … [that] is just not sustainable” (17). Rather than posit the either-or of assimilation and opposition, Denny proposes subversion as a third strategy, one more sustainable than opposition and without the loss assimilation entails. Subversion involves “a certain rhetorical manipulation and cageyness in relation to dominant discourses and practices,” in other words, borrowing practices [End Page 388] from the dominant discourse while simultaneously offering “a means of change and challenge...