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.

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