Blog from the ‘borderland’: initial thoughts on the tensions inherent in writing centre work

In this post we want to explore some preliminary ideas we are unpacking and writing about in a paper we hope to publish next year. The central claim we are exploring is the idea of a writing centre, shaped in the way so many around the world are as spaces for learning, contesting and practicing different forms of writing and other literacy practices, can be conceived of as a ‘borderland’ (Rijn 2010).

South Africa has a complicated and painful history of unequal access to primary, secondary and tertiary education that has profoundly shaped many aspects of our social, economic and educational landscapes. A long period of educational deprivation aimed at black South Africans has led to a ‘persisting heritage of educational underpreparedness’ (Moore 1996: 7). This has led, starting in the 1980s and continuing to this day, to many universities creating academic development units focused on catering for the educational needs of these underprepared students (Archer 2010).

Historically, academic development work has, in many local and global contexts, sat on the margins of higher education environments and discourses, its teachers and researchers marginalised just as the students they work with have been.  This has been changing in recent years, with this kind of work being integrated more and more into mainstream academic teaching and learning. Writing centres, so many of them in South Africa born out of this academic development context, have faced the same challenges of marginalisation, and working to create spaces for themselves to work more in the mainstream: to be seen less and less as hospital for ‘sick’ writing (North 1984: 435) and more and more as a space where academic identity and institutional power relations are negotiated, formed and reformed through the medium of the writing tasks the students are working on. [Because, of course, writing is a practice shaped by knowledge, and the struggles students have with academic writing also stem from the fact that academic disciplines draw on particular sociocultural capital in generating and debating the knowledge they value, and undergraduate students are not insiders to these ‘ways of knowing’ yet). Yet this quest to be recognised as a more complex, and not-remedial, academic space is ongoing, and can be frustrating at times.

In this post we want to reflect very briefly on some ideas that we are putting into a paper we are writing on the tensions inherent in writing centre work, and how we can understand and theorise the space occupied by writing centres as being a ‘borderland’.  At UWC, and at many other writing centres around the world, the work that is done with student-writers is framed, broadly, by an ‘academic literacies approach’. Briefly, this means that we understand academic literacy (linked to the teaching and learning of academic writing practices) as plural; there are different and multiple ‘literacies’, and these are all socially situated, ideological in nature, and continually shifting and changing.

Learning, reading, writing and thinking are all part of value systems – often shaped by the knowledge that is being learnt and read and written and thought about – and writing and related practices cannot be seen as generic, or discreet or objective (see the work of Boughey 2002; Lea and Street 1998; Lillis 2001, for example). What this means in practice is that we engage with students in conversation about their writing, framing our conversation with this understanding of academic writing and learning, and we aim to help students see and understand more clearly what they need to do to understand, research and answer their assignments in ways that further ‘induct’ them into the literacy practices of their discipline. We also try, where possible, to encourage students to question and challenge the conventions they find as part of their developing an academic identity and working out a place for themselves in the academy.

Herein lies the rub, though. You could argue that writing centres who frame their work thus, and try to work not only to socialise students into the dominant conventions around academic writing and learning, but also try to help students challenge and question these, occupy a kind of ‘borderland’. There are (often) conflicting demands placed on our time. On the one hand, we are tasked with assimilating and socialising students into a hegemonic higher education system that has fairly set ways of knowing, doing, thinking and writing that are often at odds with students’ prior experiences of learning and writing. These ways are underpinned by dominant conceptions of academic literacy/ies that frame students who cannot master them in terms of a deficit discourse; as somehow needing to be ‘fixed’; or worse as being unworthy or unable to manage higher education (Lea and Street 1998; Lillis 2001; Archer 2010).

Yet, on the other hand, many writing centres believe that we also have an ‘allegiance’ to resistance as well. Carter argues that writing centres have been ‘committed to representing literacy…differently’ for more than 40 years. She claims that autonomous conceptions of literacy are ‘ubiquitous’ and it has been the work of writing centres to expose these conceptions and to argue for different, less exclusive, and less ‘neutral’ set of literacies (Carter 2009: 134; 135).  Yet, if we accept this argument as being persuasive or valid, we may well find that this dual allegiance creates tension as writing centres try to occupy a space that falls between assimilation and socialisation into the dominant forms and conceptions of literacy on the one hand, and resistance to and critique of their dominance on the other. Carter captures these tensions so clearly when she argues that: ‘The writing center is made up of a series of rhetorical spaces in which tutors and students attempt to negotiate academic projects assigned by and evaluated by individuals who are not directly associated with/involved in the writing center’s daily activities. We represent the student, not the teacher. We represent the system, not the student. We represent neither, and we represent both’ (2009: 136).

What we are unpacking in our paper are the practical manifestations of these tensions – how we see and experience them with the students who come to us for help with their writing, and how we can use these concept of a ‘borderland’ and the potential it gives for creativity and thinking-outside-of-the-box in forging our writing centre’s identity and the role we play in creating increasingly contestable, flexible and critical spaces in which to teach, write and learn. Watch this space for more!

References

Archer, A. 2010. ‘Challenges and potentials for Writing Centres in South African tertiary institutions. SAJHE,24(4): 495-510.

Boughey, Chrissie. 2002. ‘“Naming” students’ problems: An analysis of language-related discourses at a South African University. Academic Development Centre, Rhodes University [Online]. Available at: http://eprints.ru.ac.za/1107/01/boughey_naming_students_problems.pdf. [Accessed 29 July 2009].

Carter, S. 2009. The Writing Center Paradox: Talk about Legitimacy and the Problem of Institutional Change. College Composition and Communication, 61(1): 133-152.

Lea, Mary and Brian V. Street. 1998. ‘Student writing in higher education: An academic literacies approach’, Studies in Higher Education, 23:2, 157-173.

Lillis, Theresa M. 2001. Student Writing. Access, Regulation, Desire. London and New York: Routledge.

North, Stephen M. 1984. ‘The Idea of a Writing Center’. College English, 46:5, 433 – 446.

Rijn, A. 2010. ‘Resistance One-on-One: An undergraduate peer tutor’s perspective’.Journal of Marxism and Interdisciplinary Inquiry, 3(2): 20-24.

From knowing to not knowing and back again: a student’s tale

This will be a fairly personal musing on the process of becoming an academic scholar, and the iterative and challenging nature of it. Here, I am referring to the journey from the first year of undergraduate studies to graduation three or four or more years later, and, for a number of graduates, the journey into Masters and Phd study beyond that.

In my professional life currently I have two roles: I am a PhD student, but I also work in a writing centre, with undergraduate student writers. My work is focused on helping students to make sense of what they are learning about so that they can write about their knowledge and learning in new and varied forms, that show their lecturers and tutors that they are becoming people who know things. This is perhaps quite a simplistic way of looking at the matter, but this is, in essence, why students write: to demonstrate their ability to work with and communicate knowledge in the forms recognised by the disciplines or environments they are working in. In both of these roles, I have been thinking about this: what is involved in this process of becoming someone who knows and can demonstrate that knowledge, and be recognised as a knower? How can I, as both a student myself and someone who works with students, unpack and understand this process so that I can be more successful in both roles?

I will reflect on my role as a student first. I have been studying, on and off, for fourteen years now, and I am not yet finished. There was quite a long gap – five years – between finishing my MA and registering for my PhD. It took me a while to feel ready to take on this challenge, largely because I shifted fields as a result of the work I was doing during that time. So, I not only took on a hugely challenging task in the form of writing a PhD thesis and all that goes into that, I also took on the task of reading, thinking and writing my way into a new field of research, knowledge and practice. It has been, to say the least, a humbling process, even though it has been quite rewarding at times, and certainly interesting. It has been humbling because of this thing of knowledge and knowing, and the feeling of empowerment and confidence that comes with feeling that you know – what to say, what to write and how to make sense of what you hear and read and fit that new knowledge into what is already in your head.

I don’t often feel that I know, these days. The theory I am drawing on is very new to me, and at times very dense and incomprehensible, even. In my previous field and studies I felt I could speak and write and read with far more confidence, and when I hear people speaking about their research in that field, I feel this wonderful sense of familiarity and being ‘at home’. I have not yet reached this place entirely in my new field, but I am not completely in the dark either. I move between knowing and not knowing – between definitely,  maybe and I have no idea! – fairly often, and it’s not always easy. It’s often frustrating and I find it hard to stay motivated and keen when it gets really tough and I have loads of other pressures on me, from work and family and life in general.

This leads me to my role at work, in the writing centre. I work with undergraduate students who are on this journey from not knowing to knowing, and myself and the writing tutors work to help them make enough sense of what they do know and what they bring with them to tutoring sessions so that they can communicate this knowledge effectively and appropriately. My experience on my own learning journey has been a useful starting point for reflecting on just how frustrating and even alienating this process can be for students who are new to tertiary learning, and to the different ways in which disciplinary knowledge is taught and needs to be learnt and communicated. [It must also be recognised that in addition to this challenge many students in South Africa who come from poor home and school backgrounds have many other educational, personal and financial challenges that further add to their already full plates.] Learning is an iterative journey – students at any level move between knowing and not knowing and back again many times as they encounter new arguments and theories and practices. And the process of learning and integrating new knowledge with existing knowledge is a constant one that will continue beyond the university.

A big part of what tertiary education needs to do is to support students in navigating this iterative process by giving them the tools they need to manage this process effectively, inside and beyond the university. A writing centre is one space in which students can learn useful tools for connecting dots using language, and for practicing the different forms of communicating their knowledge to their peers in ways that will be recognised and rewarded. It is also a space, importantly, where is it okay to not know (at least for a little while :)). As a student and a tutor, these spaces where one can not know and muddle through to a place where knowing seems possible and things are clear, and then move back into a space of doubt and confusion (knowing and hoping it won’t last long!) is so important. It is important because I can be in that space with others who are on the same journey, but perhaps at different points along the way, so there is support and recognition and validation; it is a space where the doubt, confusion and questioning are recognised as a necessary and useful part of the iterative process of learning and becoming and coming to know, rather than viewed as evidence that one is not coping or in the wrong place.

I know, because of my own self-knowledge, and my previous learning experiences at university, that the confusion and doubt are not permanent states, but only part of the process. If I hang in there and keep reading and writing and asking questions, I will get to where I need to me. But, my experience has shown me that many undergraduate students, particularly those from poor socioeconomic and educational backgrounds, do not always have that same kind of self-confidence. For many the not knowing is overwhelming and the challenge of staying motivated and engaged in the learning process is too great.  One of the ways in which I think we could help these students is through creating more spaces, in and outside academic departments and disciplines where not knowing is recognised as a part of the journey towards knowing, and where the iterative and complex process of learning can be seen as such and supported in relevant and creative ways. I am proud to work in one of those spaces.