The instructor is not always the most culturally aware person in the room. Still, if you are going to diffuse situations where a student has incurred a slight directly related to his/her identity, you’ll have to be aware of the language at fault. That means you’ll need to be reading (independently and with your group) works from the perspectives of people who are queer, persons of color, people living with disabilities, women, etc. so that you can cultivate familiarity with authentic representations of those experiences.
Often, the student who has been slighted, is the only person present who lives that identity. If they have to point out the moment in their peer’s text with the common trope of minstrelsy and exaggerated racial features, or hypersexuality attributed to sexual orientation, or purity associated with disability, or what-have-you, s/he may feel like s/he’s being forced to speak for an population rather than just her/himself. S/he may feel socially endangered, because the peer group is small and the group will be in the program together for years. It will help your student if you’re attentive and familiar with dated, cliché, and minimalizing representations of non-dominant groups. So, speak up. I would encourage the students to speak up, too. If the offended student speaks up first, listen to them. Ask questions of clarification, then address the concern by going back to the language on the page. If further, more private conversation is necessary, set up a time to talk one-to-one.
Set Ground Rules
From the start, set ground rules for your workshop. When we walk into workshop, we sit down as a group of adults, though not necessarily peers. While your role as professor is to be the most informed, you are not the authority on acceptable behavior. You don’t have to make it a safe space, but it is much easier to make a safe-space, as defined by the people in the group, from the outset than to try to re-build a sense of safety after some infraction has happened. Build trust from the get go by setting expectations that allow for the adult content of workshops and make clear the responsibility of each member to focus on the language of the texts rather than character of the writer.
Typically, the offensive image in a student’s work is unintentional. Ask questions of clarification to avoid unnecessary accusations. This will work even if you have a “fly on the wall” workshop. You can “unfly” the writer once the group has fielded questions like, “Who is present in the narrative?” “What was said?” “What is the sequence of events?” Finding language to clarify meaning is part of a writing instructor’s goal. If you can help your student state what s/he intended, you may find the fault in the language that caused unintentional offense and alter it. In this process, name the elephant in the room. You can say, “This phrase can be interpreted in such as way…,” or “What do you hope to convey with this image?... or “There is a danger that it could be interpreted as…” and then listen to the student. Once you’ve heard it, you can ask the group for input and invite them to make suggestions to clarify the language.
When the student is sure they’re saying what they intend to, discuss questions of interpretation. Make sure your questions are brief, open-ended, clear, and directed to the whole group. A benefit to workshop is that each writer can hear how others respond to their work; we can hear the difference between our intention and what is received and alter our language to reduce the gap. The best thing you can do for anyone when you’re trying to listen to and be heard by them is to behave humanely toward them. That includes maintaining non-threatening body language and direct but non-insistent eye contact.
Consider the implications of the possible interpretations. If you operate in a “fly-on-the-wall” type of workshop space, you should be willing to allow writers to “un-fly themselves.” You can ask questions to push the narrative and to expand the conversation. Again the questions should be brief, clear, and directed toward the group. You might ask whether the circumstance described in the lyric is reflective of any of the experiences of the participants. You can ask the group for other texts with similar content. How did those authors handle the structure of the narrative? Which diction do other writers rely on? To what effect? How have critics responded? Those questions make the conversation around difference and relating generative and usable. These conversations also allow peers to work together professionally in a way that’s mutually beneficial.