Can a writing centre really be a ‘safe space’ in a university?

In South Africa, this morning, we woke to the news that our president has finally managed to do the unthinkable: he has effectively set us on a path to real economic and political disaster. South Africa is no longer safe, especially for those who were not safe to begin with: poor, unemployed, and unskilled citizens really battling to make a living. The South Africans government should be working for, in other words, yet who are being further hurt by the president’s monstrous and selfish actions. Further afield, Brexit and the reign of Donald Trump are ensuring that, for many – largely, again, those already struggling to get by – the UK and America are not safe. This seems a cold and dark state of affairs, and the end of the tunnel is not yet lit.

In this context, education becomes all the more valuable and important. Making education – in the case of this blog higher education – accessible, just and open to many, is vital to ensuring that the world halts this slide into darkness – politically, economically, environmentally, socio-culturally. Research on making higher education accessible and just argues that students – especially those from backgrounds that are less congruent with the ways of knowing of the university – need to be consciously shown the ‘rules of the game’ in their disciplines, and given tools and opportunities to try these out, and become proficient and knowledgable. However, too often, these students are the ones who eventually drop out of academia; a recent study shows that graduation rates in South Africa are still markedly skewed in racial terms, and almost 50% of students never graduate. This means that, for many students for whom education should represent a way up and out of their present circumstances, universities are not safe.

Writing centres, in published papers, are often called ‘safe spaces’ within the university context. We are there for all students, as critical friends and advisors, not judging or grading their work but rather genuinely concerned with helping them to make sense of at least one set of ‘rules of the game’ so that they can better express and articulate their knowledge to their lecturers and tutors. This non-judgemental, supportive set-up is at the core of who and what writing centres are. And yet, to paraphrase Shannon Carter’s excellent quote: while we are indeed there for the students, we are also there for the university (who funds us and gives us a physical home), and we are also there for ourselves; our own theoretical and methodological underpinnings drive who we are and how we work within our local contexts.

This has led me, of late, to wonder: can writing centres really be ‘safe’, when the university is not safe for so many students, and when the world is not safe for so many people?

barbed wire

Perhaps a good start in unpacking this question is to consider what ‘safe’ means. The dictionary defines ‘safe’ (adjective) as a state where one is not exposed to danger or risk. This definition can indeed apply to the work of a writing centre, as we do work hard to ensure that students feel they can explore ideas and tools in their writing without the risk usually attached to getting it wrong (such as a low grade or negative feedback from a marker). However, safe can also be a verb: to be safe is to be cautious and unenterprising, taking no risks to avoid being harmed. I’m not sure this should apply to writing centre work, or academia.

Part of the work of becoming knowledgeable is encountering knowledge, thinkers, ideas, strategies and so on that may unsettle us, challenge us, shift our sense of self and the world. In her excellent book, Jenni Case argues that a true higher education is transformative on a personal and intellectual level – we should not leave university the same people we were upon entering. This requires risk. We have to be willing to risk being wrong; we have to be willing to risk being challenged; we have to be willing to risk challenging others. Thus, we have to be okay, at least in part, with being unsafe in this sense. However, when we consider that many of our students, in this era of massification or open admissions, are already unsafe in other ways – struggling to pay fees, struggling to find a place to live and food to eat, struggling with poor, unsafe public transport and so on – what kinds of risk can we justify at this level, without further deepening the sense of unsafeness so many of our students must already feel? Yet, what would the unintended consequences be of working too hard to make higher education ‘safe’ and without intellectual or personal risk? What kinds of risk are justifiable, and what kinds are not?

Writing centres can step in here, I believe, in a much more critical way than perhaps they have done previously. Still too often seen as ‘remedial’, ‘skills-imparting’ and ‘soft’ spaces in universities, writing centres now have a rather exciting opportunity to reinvent the discourse that has shaped them, to embrace rather than avoid the larger socio-political context in which they, as part of universities, work. Using critical approaches drawn from work on the ethics of care, and academic literacies, as two examples, writing centres can reimagine what it means to be ‘safe’ spaces, while acknowledging that actual safety may be an illusory goal. We can help students take risks, at least in the arena of academic knowledge-making, and through our tutorials, consultations and workshops, we can more overtly show students how one embraces the challenges of engaging in a truly transformative higher education.

We are not independent of the university: we must acknowledge that the ‘rules of the game’ we help students to play by are often experienced as alienating and unjust. And, perhaps because of the ways in which we are still positioned and conceived of, marginal rather than central to academic development, we do not always take enough risks ourselves in challenging those rules. Thus, we must acknowledge that we have a complicity in perpetuating an unevenly accessible higher education, as much as we work to be non-judgemental, open and welcoming to all students, and as much as we aim to make them feel relatively safe in revising, reworking, and rethinking their academic writing.

life-preserver-1748575_640Rather than leading us to hang our heads, acknowledging our role as insiders can offer a kind of freedom: to use our insider knowledge to challenge dominant discourses around what it means to be literate and knowledgeable; to bring other forms of knowing and knowledge into the writing centre space in creative ways that give already ‘unsafe’ students different tools for exploring their writing; to openly acknowledge the risks involved in academic work, and the challenge inherent in putting ourselves and our ideas out there for judgement, even in an undergraduate essay.

Making the notion of ‘safety’ open for debate and discussion is in keeping with who we are and how we work: it makes the inevitable risks visible, and makes it okay to feel afraid, overwhelmed and unsafe, even in a space that tries to mitigate those feelings. Rather than uncritically adopting a notion that writing centres are an island of safety in a sea of uncertainty, I argue that we need to jump into the water with students and lecturers, and swim next to them as they work out how to get to the shore, transformed, challenged, more resilient, and ultimately more able to grapple with complexity than if they would be if we devoted all our time to make ourselves a safe space in a world that makes such a goal nearly impossible.

Writing as an iterative process: finding the value in drafting and revising

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In the Writing Centre we talk a lot about writing being a process, and we try very hard to teach students through as many tutorials as they will come to, that indeed they will learn to become more confident, capable and skilled writers as they work on their writing, practice, get feedback and learn from their errors and missteps as well as from what they do well. This focus on writing as a process is central to the work that many Writing Centres and academic literacy specialists do around the world and in South Africa. Learning is not a linear process, so why would we imagine that writing about what we are learning would be a linear process too? However, when we present our writing, we do present it in a linear form: introduction, development of argument or discussion, and conclusion followed by references, and this can fool undergraduate students into thinking that the research and writing process should be quite simple and straightforward.

Key to this process is drafting, getting feedback and revision. Student-writers have to move through these steps, iteratively rather than linearly, in order to produce a piece of work they would call the final draft and submit for assessment. But this is a difficult process, and also one that many students do not necessarily welcome. I worked on a project in 2010 where we introduced a drafting, feedback and revision process where previously students had had only one chance to write an essay and receive a mark for it. Several of the students did not enjoy the drafting process and one even commented that it made her feel ‘stupid’ because she felt she should be able to get it right the first time, and upset that the essay was not finished yet. I have often wondered where this notion of getting writing right the first time came from. Did she bring it with her from school? I don’t remember drafting essays at school, and I rarely did so as an undergraduate. If I did, I made my own revisions, often in a very hit and miss manner because I did not often get useful feedback, and did not really understand how my lecturers wanted me to write. So I can empathise with her feeling stupid for not getting it ‘right’ on the first go, and also feeling disheartened when the feedback she got showed her how much work she still had to do. She is certainly not alone in feeling this way. Many academics who send papers to journals and are asked to revise and resubmit,   sometimes by overhauling the whole argument, have felt this way. Yet, we keep going and we keep writing. Why?

We think when we write – before we write, while we write and even after we write. New ideas occur, new connections between ideas become clearer, and sharper and more concise ways of stating our points, supporting them and referring to sources emerge and take shape as we work through the iterative process that is writing. We read and research, think and make notes, write something in the form of a first draft, and hopefully are brave  enough to show someone – a tutor, a friend, a lecturer – who can read critically, offer advice and point our thinking in new directions. Along with our own continued thinking about our work, we use this advice and feedback to reshape what we have written, improving on it and learning more as we do. This is a tough process, and it is time- and energy-consuming. But, it is ultimately also rewarding; there is pleasure in crafting a piece of writing that represents your thinking and that can communicate it skillfully to a reader who enjoys reading it. So this iterative process is one that helps us to grow – in knowledge, ability and also in self-confidence.

I did not appreciate the value of drafting, revising and rethinking my writing until I was a Masters student. I think that some of this had to do with needing to mature emotionally and intellectually. As an undergraduate I did not really see the connections between all the pieces of knowledge I was learning, or how writing about them could help me to do much more than earn the marks I needed to graduate well. Later, as a more mature student, I could appreciate how different each draft was, and I with them. This appreciation for, and even pleasure in, revising and rewriting has served me well as a PhD student, too.

I also think that my coming late to finding value in drafting and revising my own writing had to do with a difference in focus between my undergraduate and postgraduate studies. As an undergraduate the focus was on the thing I produced; the essay or the portfolio or so on. It was not on the process of writing it. I seldom received feedback or was given chances to draft and revise before the final submission. At postgraduate level, even though I had to produce writing that was assessed, the focus in seminars and also in the papers we wrote was far more on the process of thinking, rethinking, debating, challenging and learning as we went, and the writing I did reflected this.

Perhaps this is what is lacking in undergraduate curricula. The focus is more often than not on the the product at the expense of time for the process that is involved in creating a product that shows one’s intellectual ability and also growth. We need to rethink, quite radically, the way we teach and value writing and thinking as iterative rather than linear processes if we are to see the intellectual and also emotional qualities we want in our graduates and postgraduates.

What does ‘active’ participation look like?

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I was mulling this question over recently with some of the tutors I work with. We talk a lot in the Writing Centre about getting students to participate ‘actively’ in the writing tutorials, and not sit passively expecting us to give them all the answers to their questions. A great deal of our training focuses on helping tutors to ask the right questions and draw students into the conversation in ways that enable them to talk about their writing ‘actively’. In education in general ‘active participation’ seems to be contrast in a binary way with ‘passive learning’, the latter being undesirable. I am wondering, here, if we need to be questioning more closely what we mean by actively? Do we mean loudly? Forcefully? With conviction and clear ideas? Or do we mean something else, something less – overt?

This is a difficult question to answer, I think, without wandering into tricky territory fraught with binary oppositions, which are rarely very useful to think with, like active vs passive; teaching as transmission vs teaching as collaborative meaning-making… I am sure there are many others I am not able to think of or express very succinctly here. and I am aware that I am probably gliding over lots of theory and research in this topic. But, this question is an important one because active participation in one’s own learning is so valued in higher education in general, and because much of the current constructivist and ‘authentic learning’ emphasis in approaches to curriculum development and teaching and learning relies on students to be active makers of meaning in their own contexts both within and outside of the classroom.

The question I am pondering, in a very un-theoretical way for the time being is: what does an active learner look like, and if we think he or she looks like just one kind of thing, does this lead us to exclude or discount other kinds of learning and students because they don’t look like this? I think perhaps the Writing Centre has a definition of an ‘active’ participant that we need to examine carefully, to ensure that we are not getting frustrated with students who don’t fit this definition, accusing them perhaps of not being very engaged or interested in their own learning, and wanting to be ‘spoonfed’ the answers. I think, further, that many lecturers think of active learning in certain ways – maybe ways that are quite tacit even to them – and that they often get frustrated or even angry when students in their classrooms do things that fall outside of this ideal that seem not to be active or engaged in these ways.

So, what I will be suggesting to my tutors when we reconvene next term is that we deconstruct our collective and individual notions of what an ‘active’ writing tutorial looks like. What if we sit with a student who doesn’t ask lots of questions and offer answers to all of our questions? Is that student less of an active and participatory student than one who has lots of questions and answers about their own writing? Is that student learning less or making less sense of their writing than the one who asks lots of questions? It is difficult to know the answer to this, and I think we have to be careful if we are assuming that students who raise their hands in class and have lots of answers and ideas are more active learners, and therefore getting more learning done than the quieter students who spend their time making notes, thinking and participating in their own learning differently.

Can we take what we think and know about writing as a process and apply it to our understanding of students and their learning; can we see active learning on a continuum, rather than in binary opposition to passivity and wanting to be ‘spoonfed’? I think if we, and if lecturers, could more critically examine some of our taken-for-granted ideas about the ideal students and their ideal behaviour (and we all, to different extents, have these students in mind when we design curricula and learning programmes) we could approach a larger number of students in ways that both meet them where they are and also include them in the newer and less familiar spaces they need to become comfortable in at university. We could have ideas about what active learning could be in terms of a process of growing and becoming more confident, capable and knowledgeable by degrees, and this could enable us to create more inclusive learning and teaching environments that make space for greater numbers of students to feel like they are okay, that they do belong, and that they are part of a process that will help them to grow, learn, change and become the people they hope to be (and we hope they can be too). Idealistic? Perhaps. Necessary and possible? Definitely.

Writing tutors tutoring students, or writing consultants assisting clients: just semantics?

There are lots of different terms used for the people who work in writing centres, as well as for what the ‘units of time’, if we can call them that for now, are named. In many writing centres in South Africa and globally, the people who work in writing centres are called ‘writing consultants’ and the units of time are similarly named ‘writing consultations’. Another commonly used pair of terms is ‘writing coaches’ and ‘sessions’; a rather vague name for what happens within that unit of time. There are also different kinds of people working in different writing centres, and this has implications, I would think, for what they are named, and also how they are trained, supported and remunerated. For example, in some writing centres the consultants are postgraduate students; many American writing centres employ high-achieveing undergraduates to assist other students as peers; and in some UK and South African writing centres the consultants are academics, often with PhDs and academic posts. I am not going to get into all these details too much, because I want to think rather about whether the titles we give these people and the way we name the units of time  is just ‘semantics’ or whether there is a bit more to it than that.

In the UWC Writing Centre the people who work with students are students, at MA and PhD level, and they are chosen because they are good writers, but also because they have displayed an aptitude for and willingness to do the work that we do. They are passionate in their own ways about writing, and about helping other students to become more confident and capable writers. We started off, in 2009, calling ourselves ‘writing consultants’ working with student writers in ‘writing consultations’. At the time we used the terms that seemed to be most commonly used because I didn’t really know what else to call ourselves. However, in 2010 I realised that the terms didn’t sit well because they were too closely connected to the language of management. The terms ‘consultant’ and ‘consultation’ are often and everywhere used in the broad field of business – ‘management consultants’, tax consultants’, HR consultants’ and so on. All of these professionals provide ‘expert advice’ or a ‘professional service’ according to both and Wikipedia, and they are supposed to have a wide range of specialised or expert knowledge on the subject about which they are consulting. A consultation, then, could be defined as a meeting between one without expert knowledge who needs to be given professional or expert advice in order to become more knowledgeable and take certain action, like seeing a tax consultant and then being able to file a tax return that earns them a large refund. None of this really sounds like a what I think a conversation about writing should sound like between two students – both with knowledge but one needing assistance or help in talking or thinking about it. Also, the language of management, and the ‘managerial turn’ so many universities have taken on where so many academics are valued only in terms of their ability to produce x research units, or y pass rates and so on is not a language we should be speaking in the writing centre, and thus these terms did not feel like a good fit for us.

In 2010, very briefly, I tried out ‘writing coaches’ liking for a while the idea of us being helpers of a sort rather than service providers. But that didn’t really feel like a good fit either – coaches are also experts, and are hired to produce excellent results or risk losing their jobs, even if this metaphor is closer to what we do than ‘consulting’ (think of the South African national soccer coach turnover and number of match wins for the last few years!). So in 2010, and since then, we have been called ‘peer writing tutors’ working with student writers in ‘writing tutorials’, and this feels like the right fit.

These terms are the right fit for us in our writing centre because the term ‘tutor’ is defined as a ‘person employed in the education of others’ (Wikipedia again). The article goes on to discuss the role of a tutor as playing a collaborative role in helping other students to adapt to different ways of learning through sharing their knowledge as well as giving advice or guidance. This is what we aim to do in our writing centre, and many writing centres have this goal. We cannot be specialists or experts in all of the subjects that students are writing about, and our goal is not to be the cleverest person in the room. Rather, though having a conversation that, with careful and insightful questioning borne of training, our own experiences as writers, and our own knowledge about writing in the university, leads students to gain confidence in the knowledge they do have and the way they are writing, and helps them to grow in the ways that they need to. Thus what we do is tutor – we guide, advise, support and collaborate. We are knowledgeable peers, but peers rather than experts or professionals.

I think the language we use to talk about what we do is important. Words are never just words – they have meaning and power, and even though we may make different meanings for the same words in different contexts, in our context the words that we have chosen describe the ways in which we work, and the roles we claim. This is more than just ‘semantics’ – they say something powerful about us, and what we do when we work with student writers.

What words do you use to talk about the work you do in writing centres or higher education? What do they say about you, and the roles you claim?

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.