Writing centres and doctors’ offices: fighting the ‘deficit discourse’

Image from fotolia.com

Image from fotolia.com

We sometimes joke at our writing centre that we feel a little like practitioners in a medical clinic. Our ‘patients’ make their appointments and when they do we ask them what they need or want assistance with – telling us about their ‘symptoms’ or ‘aches and pains’. Then they come to see us, and are ushered from the waiting room into the consultation space, where a tutor ‘diagnoses’ issues that need to be looked at and worked on, and advises on a ‘treatment plan’ of sorts. If the issues cannot all be looked at in one session, or if we think more advice may be needed, we advise a follow-up appointment.

While it can be amusing to think of ourselves in this way, it does also give us pause for thought about how students and the wider university community see us, how we see ourselves and how we construct and manage our time and relationships with students and academic lecturers and/or departments. Much has been written in the fields of writing centre research and academic literacy about how the work we do is categorised as ‘remedial’ and often focused towards students who, for whatever reason, do not have what they need to make a success of their university career. These students are often viewed by academic lecturers and tutors as lacking or deficient, and through being made to come to a writing centre ‘to sort out [your] grammar’ or to take an academic literacy course ‘to learn how to write essays properly’, they are often made to feel deficient, lacking or outside of ‘mainstream’ university life. This deficit discourse has been roundly criticised and largely set aside as problematic and unhelpful by most researchers working in the fields of academic writing and literacy. It still, however, persists, and we still need to be vigilant in listening out for it, and in critiquing it. It is a hegemonic discourse in higher education, and has become ‘common sense’, in many contexts where massification and widening participation have been a feature of higher education.

I was at a conference several years ago where Theresa Lillis argued that the reason the deficit discourse is so hard to do away with completely is because it is common sense, and hegemonic, and as such has become invisible. What I think she means is that we don’t see it anymore with critical or questioning eyes because it has become so commonplace to blame students for their inability to succeed, or to blame the school system for not teaching them the right kinds of things, or to blame their parents for not being more involved in their education. It locates the problem within individuals rather than within ways of thinking that underpin wider systems, like education. I am sure that lecturers do not think they are doing anything questionable when they send a student to us for help, with a comment like ‘this would have been a good essay apart from the grammar and spelling. Please go to the writing centre for help’. We’ve seen a lot of this over the years, and we do think that what is behind these kinds of positions and comments is a kind of deficit discourse, where what is focused on is what students don’t have, rather than what they do have. It tends to let the lecturer or university off the hook in terms of who bears the responsibility for teaching students what they need to know and what they need to be doing with what they know in their new academic and learning spaces. These kinds of positions also tend to place a lot of responsibility onto the shoulders of what can be then viewed as ‘remedial’ spaces, like writing centres, academic literacy courses and the like.

We have long maintained in our writing centre, in concert with many other writing centres around the globe and in South Africa, that our work is not remedial. Following Stephen North, we believe we are here to have conversations with writers about their writing: productive, challenging, motivating, helpful, illuminating conversations where both tutor and student are learning, and that ultimately serves the purpose of helping the student to a next step in their own writing process. We can’t ‘fix’ poor writing or poor grammar because the students who come and see us are not ‘broken’. They are learning how to learn in new ways and grappling with new kinds of knowledge in new academic environments, often shaped by unfamiliar and largely tacit conventions. We try, as far as we are able, to make as many of these conventions less tacit by not only helping students to surface the conventions they need to follow (for example, you need to organise your ideas logically into paragraphs; you need to reference your sources accurately) but also helping them to understand why these conventions are there and what following them may yield in terms of their learning and writing.

Image from uab.edu

Image from uab.edu

We are not disciplinary specialists, so we cannot go into all the nuances. Our work cannot stand in for the work a disciplinary expert needs to be doing as well, helping students to see what counts and also understand why and when it counts and how to achieve it. But we believe we provide a valuable space for writers to get feedback that is not couched in any understanding of them being at a deficit, but rather aims to view students as knowers who are entering into, or in the thick of, a learning journey and process that will extend beyond their time at university. We aim to motivate, empower, advise and ultimately encourage student-writers to engage in the process and get more out of learning, reading, thinking and writing.

We may sometimes joke about the similarities between our office and a medical practice, but in reality we work hard to ensure that students enter and exit our spaces feeling ‘well’, rather than ‘sick’ and needing inoculation or a quick course of treatment to get over whatever ails them. Writing centres are no quick fix and we need to guard against falling into remedial gaps. We can be a valuable resource for students, lecturers and tutors, but this requires being clear about our role, and defending against the ‘common sense’ discourses where we encounter them. This work is ongoing and can be tough, but it matters, and this is why we keep at it.

Thinking about the questions we ask students in writing tutorials

As peer writing tutors, we make use of different questioning techniques during tutorials to generate interesting discussions and assist students who come to us at different stages of the writing process to improve their writing. These techniques often vary depending on the student who needs help and the task being examined.  Although we always ask questions, we are seldom conscious of why we ask different types of questions and how useful these questions are in attaining the outcomes of a set tutorial. In this post, we will reflect on the extent to which our questioning techniques have evolved so far this year, or since we started tutoring at the Writing Centre in an attempt to understand the kinds of questions we ask and why as well as how we ask them. Our interest in the approaches to questioning in the context of writing tutoring was sparked by discussions following observations that were conducted as part of a mentorship programme that is ongoing at the UWC Writing Centre.

In terms of starting a discussion with students, we make use of introductory questions to build rapport, glean information on students’ socio-cultural and linguistic background, ease tension, understand and also manage students’ expectations. These types of questions are important in opening up space for conversation and learning to take place. When we meet students for the first time, in order to make them feel comfortable, we ask questions that help us ‘break the ice’ and ‘kickstart’ the tutoring process for both student and tutor. Students respond to us better when we indicate to them that we are interested in their wellbeing as writers and not just in their writing. The focus of such questions is more on getting to know the student as a writer. This gives us an opportunity to understand the emotions that students experience when faced with academic writing tasks. Beard, Clegg & Smith (2005: 235) concur by highlighting the importance of understanding ‘…the affective dimension in pedagogic encounters and the life world of students, and that it is possible to do so without a collapse into therapeutic discourses’. Writing tutorials provide a unique space for students to talk about how they feel about what they are reading and writing about and we encourage them to do that by asking the right questions. These introductory questions also help us to understand student’s own purpose for visiting the Writing Centre and to find out the help that students need in order to improve their writing. For instance, these sorts of questions help tutors distinguish between initial and follow-up tutorials, as well as students who come to us on their own volition and those that are compelled by lecturers and/or tutors to do so. Such information is very useful in informing the strategies that we use to help students understand the process approach to writing which informs our practice.

Introductory questions are usually followed by task and assignment related questions. These include questions that are intended to probe students’ knowledge about academic writing within a specific discourse, as well as their knowledge of the subject matter or content of a specific topic. More open questions are asked to get general information about a topic. Open questions here refer to questions that perform the dual function of encouraging students to talk generally about their writing in order to provide information to the tutor, while also leading the discussion in a specific direction as the tutor can identify gaps or areas for further discussion based on the information provided. Juxtaposing discussions about the task provided and what a student has written in a draft offers a way forward by giving us a sense as to where students need to make revisions. One way in which this can be done is by starting with smaller questions to scaffold into task analysis, always keeping in mind where we want the student to end up in terms of understanding the task at hand. Examples of these would include why, what and how questions. We more often use why and how questions rather than what questions,because these why and how questions shift the discussion from the tutor to the student,  increase the level of engagement between the student and the tutor, and help the tutor to guide the student towards productive answers. Therefore, we ask questions that are carefully crafted to encourage reflection and ultimately to push students’ thinking forward in a process of engaging with and improving their writing. An emphasis on process here indicates we perceive the students who come to us as being on a journey and we help make explicit to them the ways to get to where they need to go through questioning.

For tutors working at the UWC Writing Centre, questioning techniques are negotiated based on the draft received and the student or group of students who sit(s) in front of us during a tutorial. We tend to lean on our intuition instead of having pre-planned questions. However, our intuition is guided by theoretical and practical knowledge of the academic writing process and academic literacies. Therefore, as our conceptual understanding of academic writing has shifted and our confidence has grown, we tend to ask more questions and do less telling during writing tutorials. This approach provides more space for student-centred and learning-centred writing tutorials. What do you think about our approaches to questioning during writing tutorials? What can you relate to and what strategies do you use that are different? We would love to hear from you.

**This post was authored by Thecla Mulu and Lovertte Esambe (peer writing tutors)**


Beard, C., Clegg, S., and Smith, K. 2005. Acknowledging the affective in higher education, British Educational Research Journal, 33(2), 235–252