Writing centres as rehearsal spaces: part two – who is rehearsing and what for?

In our previous post, we discussed some ideas we have had as a team about writing centres as rehearsal spaces in the university, and who the participants in those rehearsals might be and what their roles may look like. In this post, we look at the second part of our discussion – who is rehearsing and what they could be rehearsing for, and some of the limitations of this metaphor.

As promised in Part one, the two questions we will look at here are:

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 the first instance, the students who come to talk about their writing are rehearsing. They have tried out a piece of writing, which they bring as a draft to discuss with the peer writing tutors. In working with them we are, to delve into the metaphor of stage and plays, ‘workshopping’ the piece with them. We ask questions and draw them into discussions that try to get them to think about their writing, and whether or not the audience will receive it well; to think about themselves as writers, and what they want to say, or show, to their audience; and about the audience itself – who are they writing to, and what do they need to put into the ‘play’ to show their audience that they have achieved what they were asked to achieve? Students, perhaps, are rehearsing for a range of things. Students want to pass, so they write for the approval and marks that will ensure this. Students also write to develop knowledge and appropriate stances towards that knowledge; they write to gain recognition from the experts and insiders in their field of study; and students write to give evidence of learning, and whether they have achieved certain standards or levels of learning set by the disciplines, departments and faculties they are part of.  It can be tricky, then, for peer writing tutors who take on the roles of coach, or in some instances where additional support is needed, director, to guide the rehearsal and writing process such that students are empowered both ontologically and epistemologically – so that they can rehearse for a multitude of roles and for an appropriate audience with increasing confidence and skill.

I read somewhere that there is no such thing as a ‘final’ draft. There is only a draft that we work on until we have to hand it in for comments or assessment. There will always be work to do on that draft, and we could revisit it over and over down time and make numerous big and small revisions. So, what is the final ‘product’ or ‘play’ that the students produce for their audience? And how do we, in this more hesitant and developmentally-focused rehearsal space, help students to appreciate the process that goes into becoming a more capable and proficient writer (and through that knower) in their fields of study when so much of the focus is not on the rehearsal (and the value of those conversations and false-starts and duffed lines and missteps in developing the ‘play’ that the audience gets to see), but is rather on the polished and finished ‘product’? There is altogether too much focus on product in academic writing, and not enough on process and on mistakes and not-knowing and trying things on and out to get to knowing. This is why this metaphor of writing centres as rehearsal spaces is valuable and why the metaphor of rehearsing for students writing in academia can be a productive and liberating one for both students and lecturers in other contexts as well.

The forms rehearsals could take are many and varied, and in our writing centre we ask students to workshop their assignments using free-writing, conversation, debate and even visual representations of their writing. We draw them into conversations about their writing in a range of ways that we try to vary and play with as we get to know the students a little, and we try to find ourselves in their anxieties, struggles and also triumphs, because we are all writers too, and remembering that is important.

Finally, on this point, the peer writing tutors are also rehearsing. In every tutorial we are rehearsing for future tutorials with students, trying things out and evaluating what works and what doesn’t so that we can keep growing as tutors, and as actors in this space we occupy. For many peer tutors, the rehearsals are also developing their capacity as future academic lecturers. The rehearsal process tutors experience in working with student writing shapes and changes their thinking about the process of learning, and requires them to be reflexive about the role of writing in learning – their own and other students’. As we teach, we also learn, and this constant reflexivity and evaluation creates a process of ongoing development and growth, and insight into writing as a learning and thinking process.

This is not a perfect metaphor for the way writing centres work and what we do every day, or for thinking about a more process-oriented approach to student writing in higher education. Most metaphors tend to fall apart somewhere along the line. However, in spite of the limitations of this metaphor which I don’t have space to delve into here, such as who the audience really is in academia, and thinking of writing as a ‘play’ or ‘act’ (which becomes quite complex), I think that this is a productive, creative and provocative way in which to think about what writing centres, as well as academics, can do in teaching students how to think differently and through writing become different and more proficient kinds of knowers in their chosen fields. If all the world is a stage, and if we are all players on or in it, and if students need to be proficient in certain ways to win accolades, recognition and jobs, then what are the kinds of things we could be doing to create more spaces to make the thinking and writing practices, rules and expectations of the disciplines clearer to novice student actor-writers? What are the ways in which we could turn other spaces in the academy into rehearsal spaces for student writing?