What a writing centre is and can be – some thoughts

At the beginning of this year, during our initial training, I posed this question to the team of tutors working in the Writing Centre: ‘what is a writing centre – specifically, OUR writing centre – all about?’ I thought I would share our collective answers, and then put the question out to readers of this blog.

The first thing we highlighted was ‘peer-ness’ and the way in which peer-to-peer relationships shape our work at the UWC Writing Centre (and many other centres we know of). In the first instance, the peer writing tutors are all postgraduate students, and are studying at the university, so they try to create learning spaces during writing tutorials in which they are peers to the undergraduate students they are working with. They work with students as ‘critical friends’, who are closer to them in terms of age and experience than many of their lecturers are. The notion of peer-ness also works to disrupt hierarchical relationships, where the writing tutor is cast as expert and the student as novice who needs to be taught. Rather, the way in which writing centres like the one we are creating prefer to work is in conversation with students, where the talk enables the students to work through their own ideas and thoughts and struggles out loud, with the support and guidance of an experienced and compassionate peer (see Archer 2010; Harris 1995; Nichols 2011). The student and tutor ideally participate equally in the conversation, and the student’s knowledge of their subject and their own writing is validated and encouraged, without the tutor assuming a position of dominance and therefore turning the conversation into a didactic teaching session.
In the second instance, the tutors in the team are all peers to one another and to the coordinator, and we work consistently to create a collegial environment that empowers and enables us to learn from one another, in conversation, and to challenge ourselves to grow and develop as academics and as tutors in a space that supports us in this process. We feel very strongly that this environment is far preferable to one in which tutors and coordinator are also set up in a hierarchical relationship when the group is dominated by the interests and plans of one person. As writing tutorials should be an exercise in mutual discussion and exploration of the topic or writing at hand, with the guidance and probing of the more experienced writer to keep things moving towards the goal of the students’ growth in skill and confidence, so should the training and support of writing tutors be, with the coordinator as guide and supporter, rather than manager.

The second thing we highlighted was the idea of growth and journeys of discovery, and how working in the writing centre lends itself to reflection on our growth as writers and educators. We talked mostly about ourselves here – our growth and development as educators, academics and writers – and the ways in which we can see or track the growth and the journey so far. One of the thoughts that came through was linked to the issue of identity – and the creation and disruption of identities we feel we have. Who are we as writers, and young academics, and tutors or teachers? How can we take what we have learned about ourselves so far as writers, for example, and use this to shape our tutor identity, and make ourselves more effective writing tutors, for example? If we work in the disciplines, and we all do in various capacities, how do our disciplinary academic identities shape us as writing tutors, and where are the challenges and disruptions? For example, a current tutor who is a scientist finds that working in the writing centre gives him space to explore some aspects of his academic identity that are often taken for granted, like his ‘voice’ and when and how he is allowed to use it in his writing. He can take his insights into discussions with colleagues and use their input to reflect on his experiences of learning and writing, and hopefully that process will move him forward in terms of his own self-awareness and also his practices as a writing tutor. Many of the tutors have commented over the last three years on how the process of helping students with their writing is making them more self-aware and active writers, and about how that process leads them to improve and to discover new aspects of their identity as academic writers.

Finally, we highlighted the collegial nature of our work. We put a human face and a human heart onto academia for the many students who come here and struggle to find elsewhere the level of care and personal attention that a writing centre can provide by virtue of the way it works – certainly we find this in our case based on student feedback. We work hard to create a space in the Writing Centre where we can share with one another as a team – our ideas, struggles, achievements, triumphs – and where students can share with us their struggles and successes with academic writing. This is a place for mutual learning; where mindsets and ideas can be shifted and changed without fear of judgement or criticism; where we support and guide one another as we support and guide students in their academic and personal journeys, because the two are never separate and discreet. We all find our particular writing centre to be a true ‘happy place’, where we have friends and colleagues we can laugh with and learn from, and where, every day, we get to make a difference, however small, in the lives of the students who choose to come to us for help. This really is rewarding and challenging work, with huge potential to transform those who do the work, and those who benefit from it, and also the wider institutions we are a part of (see Nichols 2011).

So, now I pose the question to our readers, and we would love to hear your thoughts: what is a writing centre in your contexts, and how do you work in ways that are similar or different?

References:

Archer, A. 2010. ‘Challenges and potentials for Writing Centres in South African tertiary institutions. SAJHE, 24(4): 495-510.
Harris, M. 1995. ‘Talking in the middle: Why writers need writing tutors’. College English, 57(1): 27-42.
Nichols, Pamela. 1998 [2011]. ‘A snowball in Africa with a chance of flourishing: Writing centres as shifters of power in a South African university. In Archer, A. and Richards, R. (Eds). Changing Spaces: Writing Centres and Access to Higher Education.Stellenbosch: SUNMedia Press.
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