Life on the margins of the ‘mainstream’: skulking or thriving?

We have had a couple of staff meeting discussions in the last few months (and years) where the questions of where the Writing Centre ‘fits’ into the university and what role we can/do/should/could play in student academic support, as well as staff development, have come up. There are no easy answers, and there is lots of rooms for debate and disagreement, which has made for some livelier-than-usual meetings. Here are a few of our thoughts on these questions and what our initial answers could be.

We read Sally Mitchell’s excellent article recently:  ‘Now you don’t see it; now you do : Writing made visible in the university’ (2010) and this sparked questions about, in particular, where we want to ‘live’ in the university. What are the benefits and costs of making ourselves and our work more visible in the university, and are we doing rather well on the margins of the ‘mainstream’ or are we skulking here, trying to find ways into larger conversations about writing in the university? Mitchell reflects that part of this debate about whether to be more ‘visible’ or not is linked to quality assurance; in particular the more frequent use in universities around the world of a set of ‘graduate attributes’ against which curricula and student development and teaching and learning need to be ‘benchmarked’ so that the workplace can be assured of what kinds of graduates they are getting from these universities. We completed an exercise in late 2011 where we ‘matched’ certain applicable graduate attributes to the work we do in The UWC Writing Centre, with students and also with tutor training and improvement. At the time it seemed like a very useful thing to do to make our work more visible, and to make it ‘speak to’ the more dominant discourses within the university of ‘quality assurance’ and ‘control’. We wanted recognition, and we wanted, also, to be seen to be complying so that we were, in essence, ‘earning our keep’.

On reflection, though, we have to wonder what we gained and what we may have given up in completing that exercise and making those claims and connections between the work we do, underpinned as it is by quite a different discourse and set of assumptions about education and academic development and literacies to the discourses and assumptions underpinning quality assurance and charters of graduate attributes. A very simple way of understanding it could be to say that we are focused on who students are and are becoming, and our role in helping them take on academic identities, and join conversations about knowledge in their disciplines with increasing skill and confidence, while the university and the workplace are often more interested in the product: not who you are but what can you offer us and what can you do? We have to wonder if these two discourses are even compatible. Can you pin down everything you teach and everything students learn in a neatly packaged way, and claim that you have indeed produced ‘critical citizens’ who have a ‘scholarly attitude towards knowledge’ and are ‘skilled communicators’? Can we benchmark everything we do against a charter that cannot account for everything that happens in a student’s lifeworld beyond the university or the classroom? And, bringing it down to us and our work, by benchmarking ourselves against those attributes, have we made ourselves visible to the university in ways that may compromise what we do, and would like to be doing, in terms of guiding and assisting students, not just with the assignment in front of us, but also with their transition into academic life, and with asking bigger and more thoughtful questions about what they are learning and how to make sense of it? Have we created a tension between who we are and want to be, and how we want to work, and who the university now wants and expects us to be, and how they want us to work?

There are, we think, always tensions between the work that teachers and academics do in their classrooms and with their curricula and the standards, or benchmarks or goals of the university. In an increasingly commodified and managerialised higher education environment where knowledge is a product to be consumed and we in universities are service providers who must satisfy our student clients, trying to work in ways that challenge and disrupt the notions of students, teachers, teaching, learning and knowledge that attach to this approach to HE is always going to be a challenge, and sometime even a battle. And perhaps, as Terrance Riley (1994) suggested a long time ago, we in these spaces that have the ability to question, challenge, disrupt and act differently should aim to thrive away from the mainstream and resist attempts to draw us to far into these other discourses, so that we can maintain a critical perspective that helps us to continue to think critically about who we are, what we do and the impact we have in this being and doing.

Mitchell, Sally. 2010. ‘Now you don’t see it; now you do: Writing made visible in the university. Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, 9: 2, 133-148.

Riley, Terrance. 1994. The uncompromising future of Writing Centers. The Writing Center Journal, 15: 1, 20-34.

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