On Student-Centered Feminist Writing Spaces

By Zizi Li

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In late October 2019, I brought my paper “Transnational Feminist Encounters and its Social Media Updates: Controversies around Naomi ‘Sexy Cyborg’ Wu 机械妖姬” to Rochester, New York, the land of Algonkin and Iroquois people. I was there for a two-day writing collective hosted by the Susan B. Anthony Institute for Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies (SBAI) at the University of Rochester. In this post, I will reflect on my experiences in the workshop and share some thoughts on the hosting of local and/or regional student-centered writing spaces.

I left the SBAI workshop with a sense of comfort and connection that I have never felt before. I attribute this positive feeling to both the structure of the workshop, with a small but strong community of colleagues, and the student-centered intention of this event. Participants included twenty graduate students (mostly from the region), four faculty mentors (professors or alums of the University of Rochester), and many organizing fellows from the Susan B. Anthony Institute. All the activities served the goal of improving graduate students’ ability to edit and publish academic works, including a panel on academic publishing and two afternoons of paper editing sessions. Instead of having to sweat about fitting into the conference culture and be nervous about small-talking and impressing established scholars, this workshop centered graduate students’ work and experiences. Rather than connecting with their old friends and colleagues, faculty mentors at this workshop were invested in the 20 participating students, offering detailed editing feedback, and sharing personal experiences on publishing, networking, and self-care. There was a student-centered dinner reception that provided a space for cross-group bonding, for faculty participants to get to know the students outside of their submitted papers, and for student participants to build a support network.

The workshop groups were arranged around the central concerns of each paper, and each participant was required to read all the papers within their assigned group ahead of time and bring detailed edits, comments, and questions to the discussion. Instead of passively reading a 15-minute script along with a PowerPoint in a near-empty room, as is often the case at big conferences, I spent two afternoons in a group of five with a faculty mentor and three other graduate students. I not only received extensive, practical feedback to edit my paper, but also learned and practiced ways to ask helpful questions and provide constructive suggestions regarding argumentation, evidence and sources, structure, and writing style.

All my group members’ work was broadly situated within visual and performance art, with paper topics ranging from “collaborative timeslips” in Black feminist artist Gabrielle Civil’s writings and performances, to the practice and development of Indigenous feminism through weaving in Chiapas, Mexico.[1] In the process of group editing and conversing, we were able to engage with debates around feminist and decolonial practices across our research. As a group, we reflected on the relationships between writing theories and writing as praxis in works by scholar-practitioners such as bell hooks and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, who modeled genre-defying critical and creative pieces of writing. I left the workshop with a better understanding of the potentials of critical writing, on top of the practical tips and methods of academic editing.

Critical collective writings have long been a part of feminist and activist praxis. The 1977 Statement of the radical Black feminist Combahee River Collective is a prime example.[2] The statement not only was multi-authored, but also a tribute to and built on the knowledge and resistance of previous generations. More recently in 2014, queer feminist scholars T. L. Cowen, Dayna McLeod, and Jasmine Rault published an article in a word document that retained processes of collaboration in the comment section of the margin.[3] The “knowledge in/of the margins” was shared through documentations including group theorizations and reflections, sharing of personal experiences, and collective acts of mourning and healing.[4] Collaborative and dialogic practices of writing, however, are often marginalized in the conventions of disciplinary writing in the humanities and some social sciences. Further, interactive and collaborative processes of scholarly production are erased or hidden in the final publications.

I believe it will be beneficial and necessary for schools and faculty to carve out student-centered spaces for writing, editing, and conversing outside of classrooms. These spaces can exist in multiple forms such as day-long workshops, quarter-long writing and editing groups, and year-long collaborative writing labs. My experience with the SBAI graduate writing collective inspired me to think about the possibilities and importance of cultivating these kinds of student-centered spaces on the UCLA campus, and even cross-campus locally and regionally. Currently, student-driven spaces on campus are mostly reading groups and colloquia organized by different research centers and departments, and UCHRI-funded UC cross-campus graduate student working groups. While there are writing groups organized by the Graduate Writing Center, they are intended to build an accountability mechanism for participants to write, rather than facilitating dialogues and collaboration in the process of writing. Graduate students across departments have been struggling with finding an organized space that centers us beyond the boundaries of schools and departments, and cultivates a safe space to share, interact, and build communities via the process of writing.

Perhaps the almost non-existence of student-centered feminist writing spaces that center collaborative processes is a reflection of these spaces as antithetical to the profit-driven and result-driven operation of our neoliberal universities. Graduate students, as precarious university students and employees, are constantly exploited to maximize profits as cheap labor. Instead, I demand UCLA and other universities to physically and financially provide student-centered writing spaces that support long-term support, collaboration, and mentorship. Investing in spaces of writing as resisting, caring, and healing, in a sense, goes hand in hand with the DIVEST/INVEST UCLA Faculty Collective’s demand for UCLA to divest from the police state.[5] On top of talking about the university’s complicity in the dispossession of Indigenous people as a land-grant institution, UCLA needs to take actions to invest in reparational public goods and attend to students’ needs. A student-centered feminist writing space is one of many infrastructures UCLA needs to invest in, for the purpose of cultivating abolitionist decolonial care that serves its diverse underprivileged student body and their communities.


Zizi Li is a PhD student in Cinema and Media Studies whose work revolves around layered oppressions of race, gender, class, sexuality, and geography. Her dissertation, “Influencer Ecosystem: Labor and Infrastructure of and beyond Digital Platforms,” unpacks the co-constitution of global media networks and commodity chains, and builds transnational feminist solidarities against dark-value-extractions. Her work has appeared in Hyperrhiz: New Media Culture. Li is the recipient of CSW’s Fall 2019 Travel Grant.

[1] Queer scholar Jaclyn I. Pryor uses the term ‘time slips’ to mark moments when linear time is queered in a text, whether in a constant state of disappearance or calls into the past and/or future. ‘Collaborative timeslips’ is a term proposed by Jocelyn E. Marshall in her workshop paper, referring to time slips that concern transgenerational trauma and memory. See: Jaclyn I. Pryor, Time Slips: Queer Temporalities, Contemporary Performance, and the Hole of History (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University, 2017), 9; Jocelyn E. Marshall, “Un/Folding Collaborative Timeslips: Decolonial Practice in Gabrielle Civil’s Writing and Performance,” paper presented at the Susan B. Anthony Institute for Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies (SBAI) Graduate Student Writing Collective (2019).

[2] Combahee River Collective, “The Combahee River Collective Statement (1977),” in The Combahee River Collective Statement: Black Feminist Organizing in the Seventies and Eighties (New York, NY: Kitchen Table, 1986).

[3] T. L. Cowan, Dayna McLeod, and Jasmine Rault, “Speculative praxis towards a queer feminist digital archive: A collaborative research-creation project,” Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media and Technology 5 (2014), doi:10.7264/N3PZ573Z.

[4] Cowan, McLeod, and Rault. “Speculative praxis towards a queer feminist digital archive.”

[5] The digital repository for “DIVEST/INVEST: Organizing the Abolition University” can be accessed via https://challengeinequality.luskin.ucla.edu/abolition-repository/.