Writing centres as rehearsal spaces: part one – developing the metaphor of writing as rehearsing

This post, divided into two because it is long, and detailed, comes out of a discussion with the peer writing tutors I work with. As we all work as peer tutors, I will refer to us as a team in these posts, because this is how we work, even though I also play the role of coordinator of the team. These two posts reflect their ideas and inputs on this notion of writing as rehearsing.

I got the idea for the discussion from Lucia Thesen at the University of Cape Town, who is working with the notion of writing as rehearsal in her own work with postgraduate writers. I really liked the idea of a writing centre as a rehearsal space, and wanted us to explore it in relation to our work at UWC, so I set us as a team of peer writing tutors the task of  coming up with this blog post, unpacking and fleshing out this idea. The questions on which the discussion was based are as follows:

1. Think of the metaphor of the writing centre as a theatre – the stage, the actors, the director, the script and the scriptwriters – who else is involved in the production? If we extend this metaphor to writing and a writing centre in a university, who plays these various roles? Who is involved in the writing process?

2. If we think about the writing centre as a rehearsal space, who is rehearsing and what for? What role are we playing in helping students rehearse, and what constitutes the ‘play’ or the polished ‘product’ that will be viewed or read? What forms could these rehearsals take? Are you, as writing tutors, in rehearsal? What for?

3. Is this metaphor useful in thinking through the different roles we take on in a writing centre? Where are the limitations or constraints?

In this first post we will unpack and expand on the question in part 1, and in the second post we will comment on parts 2 and 3.

1. In thinking about the Writing Centre in which we work as a ‘theatre’ or as a ‘stage’, we think that often we are in the cast with the students. We have multiple roles here: we are in the cast ‘directed’ by the coordinator and ‘produced’ by the higher levels of administration that set our budget and define our role – write a part of our script so to speak. But within that space, we are also rewriting and revising our roles and our script, so we are also scriptwriters, and directors to a certain extent.  In addition to these two roles, we are also members of a different kind of cast, where the directors and producers are outside of the Writing Centre in the disciplines and departments from which the students come to us for help. Here the scriptwriters, directors and producers are the lecturers who set the assignments and the departments and wider university who set the standards and requirements that the assignments must meet. So we, along with the students, must work with the script they are given to produce, in collaboration, a performance worthy of the praise from the audience.

This also raises the question of audience, and the multiple roles that peer writing tutors can play in this rehearsal space, and also who the rehearsing is for. When we are reading and commenting on the students’ work, before they come and see us if we have a draft, and when we are in the tutorial session with them, we are the audience. We construct ourselves as readers, and as critical friends, and that is, by necessity, the role of an audience. But there are layers of audience here, and these all influence the writing tutorial, and the rehearsal space created there.  There is the person or people the assignment is being written for, usually a lecturer or tutor; this is a largely visible audience, because these are real, tangible people. However, there is also an invisible audience invoked by this visible one; that of the wider academic community into which students are wanting to gain admission. When we write, we write to the person assessing our work, but they represent a discipline, and a community of knowers or ‘insiders’ whose voices and ideas we may be drawing into our work, and whose recognition we want, so that we too can be seen as ‘insiders’, as belonging. This brings to mind Lillis’ point about students inventing themselves through their texts, playing with voices and identities, trying them on to find one that ‘fits’ or feels like them. Linked to this is a point she makes about students also inventing their audience – their tutors and lecturers – and trying to work out how to find the right voice or stance in their writing to gain the approval of the tutor or lecturer in their heads (2001). This highlights just how complex the task of working out who we are writing to (rehearsing for) can be in academic and disciplinary writing. As writers of journal articles, and PhD and MA dissertations, we are all experiencing this process of ‘becoming’ and taking on new identities and a new voice as we write, while also trying to work out who we are writing to and what that audience will want from us so that we will earn standing ovations and calls of ‘Bravo!’ rather than boos and, even worse, silence.

Finally, we thought about the notion of the script – what defines or influences of shapes the interactions we have with students? Again, the notion of multiple layers is at play because there is more than one script involved. Firstly, there is the assignment, and the expectations attached to that assignment; this is the lecturer’s script. Then, there is the conversation the student wants to have about that assignment and their difficulties, questions etc; this is their script for this part of the rehearsal. Then there are our scripts; our plans for the writing tutorial and the advice we think the student will benefit from in (re)writing their assignment. We could probably add to this the wider scripts of the departments and disciplines that impact on the assignments the lecturers design and the criteria they write for students, and these also shape and influence this rehearsal space.

These are complex issues, and the discussion out of which this post and the one to follow have come has highlighted this. In any dialogic space there are a multitude of voices speaking, and silenced, and there are several roles which the participants can play. In the next post we turn to consider what we are rehearsing for and why, and some of the limitations of this metaphor.

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

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