Kristi Girdharry: Exploring Race Through Writing

Kristi Girdharry, director of the Writing Center at Babson College

Kristi Girdharry, lecturer and director of the Babson Writing Center, is interested in stories—the stories we create about the world we live in, the stories we tell ourselves. She came to Babson two years ago and is making an impact on the way students, staff, faculty, and others in the community express themselves through writing and collaborate on projects together.

She holds a doctorate in English from Northeastern University and has published extensively on subjects ranging from crowdsourcing to the Boston Marathon bombings to the way oral histories are created and shared. Her research often examines who participates in story-sharing spaces and what those stories reveal about race, class, and inclusion/exclusion. Recently, she wrote an article, “Mindfully Shifting to an Explicitly Antiracist Writing Center,” and, along her with staff, has started to apply that practice to Babson’s Writing Center.

The Q&A

What does it mean to be an Antiracist Writing Center?

“In the past few years, there’s been a lot of public discourse on the fact that it’s not enough to be ‘not a racist,’ it’s important to be ‘anti-racism.’ One is a state of being, the other is an active agent in recognizing and working to change policies and procedures that affect larger systems of racism and oppression. But, public discourse can feel a bit out of reach—how am I, as a college student or even a professor, supposed to do this while also trying to survive all of the current stresses of our world? When it came to running the Writing Center, it didn’t feel right to add this as an agenda item along with how to care for oneself during a pandemic, and so on. So, I took a mindfulness approach. I started thinking about how we can academically understand something without knowing what it feels like for another person to understand that very same thing.

“In spring 2021, a small, voluntary group of Writing Center consultants shared stories about how we became aware of race in the first place. The stories, shared anonymously, were sweet and sad and thought-provoking—for some, race was a random thing they became aware of as kids; for others, there was never a moment where race didn’t feel part of their lives. Shifting a culture doesn’t happen overnight, but perhaps developing exercises that have us start from within could make larger impacts as we think outwardly. Perhaps we start reaching out to others in the Babson community to share in these conversations. Rather than seeing diversity, equity, and inclusion as a unit or part of training, my goal is that it’s just what we do in the same ways we talk about how to tutor writers.”

You talk about embracing the “willingness to be disturbed.” What has the reaction been so far—from your staff at the Writing Center and the students? Are they willing to be disturbed?

“I think sometimes when we hear the word ‘disturbed’ we attach a negative connotation, and that is completely fair when it comes to challenging conversations regarding race. But, our students are not blank slates, and they come to us with great knowledge. For some, feeling disturbed in a conversation about race is similar to how my cat might react if I disturbed them while sleeping (a slight flinch but otherwise back to the nap). For others, they really haven’t had to contend with the ways in which what’s ‘normal’ to them might be problematic, and that can be a larger mental disruption. Our Peer Consultants in Writing are some of the most compassionate students on campus, but I am still thinking about how to make these conversations accessible to all. I’d say that our students are the ones making the disturbances in really fruitful ways.”

How did you get into writing, and what kind of writing do you do yourself?

“Growing up, I always loved writing. When I was really young, I’d write short mystery stories where the culprit was painfully obvious (‘How did you know?!’ I’d ask my dad, flabbergasted that he could figure it out so quickly). In high school, I wrote some truly terrible poetry. In college, I became interested in memoir. Right now, my focus has been on academic writing. However, even in this, I like to blend the personal with the academic. I actually love creative nonfiction and have enjoyed writing introductory letters for publications by the BOW (Babson, Olin, and Wellesley collaboration) student organization empoWer, which has published two volumes of writing from students who identify as women and non-binary across the three colleges. Here are a couple things you won’t find on my faculty page that give a sense of what I would like to write if I weren’t currently working on an academic book project: a reflection on teaching at an elementary school in Costa Rica and an article on being a stepparent.”

What’s the most important piece of advice you would give to aspiring student writers?

“Write a little every day. Whether that’s through journaling, keeping the Notes app updated on your phone, or putting yourself out there with a blog. For those of us who just want to be better casual, business, or academic writers, it takes practice—try new things and develop a process (or multiple processes you can access like a menu) that works for you. And, of course, come see us in the Writing Center! We’re well trained in giving students advice on how to better whatever writing they’re currently working on for Babson and job-related areas—essays, proposals, cover letters, scholarship essays—but we’d also be thrilled to give you a reader’s perspective on your creative efforts as well.”

You’ve been at Babson for two years now. What are your long-term goals for the Writing Center and this practice?

“My goals are simple: to keep providing Babson community members with writing assistance through our Peer Consultants in Writing, to nurture a culture of writing on campus, and to keep slowly and mindfully building antiracism into our Writing Center and curriculum.”

Two More for Kristi Girdharry

What does Babson mean to you?

“To me, Babson means possibility. That might sound like a trite answer that anyone anywhere could say about their school, but there is something special about the curriculum here that I think sets it apart from others: students have chosen a school wherein half their courses are in business and half are in the liberal arts. We’re in a time where there’s much critique about the value of a liberal arts curriculum. My sense is that plenty of students are receiving quality business education at other institutions, but Babson students are also engaging in the kinds of deep, critical thinking (and writing, speaking, listening, reading) skills that bring their exceptional business education to the next level. The more students can see connections between the two driving forces of their degrees, the bigger the possibilities.”

Right now, what are you …

    • Watching? “When I want to zone out, I love game shows—a fun fact is that I actually won some money on ‘Let’s Make a Deal!’—and I enjoy watching sports (particularly football and basketball). Recently, I’ve been watching ‘Succession’ and am a sucker for emotional dramas like ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ and ‘This Is Us.’ ‘The Office’ is my total comfort show, and I will watch it anytime it’s on.”
    • Listening to? “I feel like I’m the last middle-aged-ish person to get into podcasts, but I really enjoy ‘Morbid’ (and balance those nightmarish tales with ‘The Office Ladies’).”
    • Reading? “I rarely read newer books more than once, but I’m actually gearing up for a reread of You’ll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey: Crazy Stories of Racism by comedian Amber Ruffin and her sister, Lacey Lamar. It’s the first book club pick for the Writing Center in case any students, staff, or faculty would like to join us! It’s timely and quite different from other writing centers I see taking up ‘heavier’ texts on antiracism, but it’s still a powerful read.”
    • Doing in your free time? “I love to spend time with my family, cook (and eat!), and work out. I’m also planning a wedding, which is super fun. (I feel like that sounds like sarcasm, but I am really enjoying it all!)”

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