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 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.

Working towards a transformative writing centre pedagogy

I attended a really interesting seminar presentation last week by Cecilia Jacobs from Stellenbosch University near Cape Town on ‘academic literacies and the question of knowledge’ (this is also the title of a paper the talk was based on – well worth reading). One of the points she made, referring to a 2007 paper by Theresa Lillis and Mary Scott has really had me thinking, and is the subject of this post: that we need to move, in our academic literacy work, from a more ‘normative’ framing and practice to a more ‘transformative’ framing and practice.

Briefly, Lillis and Scott describe normative practices as those which are focused on identifying textual features or features of practice – genres/moves/’rules’/steps/forms etc – and inducting students into these so that they can become proficient and recognised as belonging to that community of practice. An example would be teaching students how to write argumentative essays by explaining the different stages to them and showing them how to write their own essays following those stages. This is akin, I think, to Lea and Street ‘academic socialisation’ (1998) where the aim of academic literacy work is more to socialise students into the dominant literacy practices in the university rather than to critique or problematise and perhaps even change those practices. I have argued in my own work (Clarence 2012) that much of the work done in academic literacy work in South Africa to date seems to be somewhere between teaching writing especially as a practice bound by certain rules and conventions students must learn about and adapt to rather than as a socially-situated and contestable academic practice.

One of the key problems with normative approaches is that, while it is a very good idea to make overt and visible the oft-hidden rules and conventions that shape writing (the way students make evident their knowing) in the disciplines, these rules and conventions become ‘normal’ and turn into hegemonic and powerful discourses over time. Transformative approaches, then, (what Lea and Street call an ‘academic literacies approach’) seek to question, contextualise and problematise the rules and conventions that shape knowledge-related practices like writing and reading in higher education. These approaches try to see what resources students could be bringing with them to the writing and reading, as well as how the rules and conventions shape and impact on the ways students make meaning and engage with knowledge. They don’t take the dominant practices, rules and conventions as given, but rather seek to understand why certain practices persist, whether and how they could change and what impact staying the same or changing would have on the academic-social practices and context within which the writing is done, and which the writing helps to maintain.

One of the dangers in a transformative academic literacy approach, in spite of its wonderfully progressive agenda, is that the text itself can disappear in all this focus on the writers and contexts (Lillis and Scott 2007). I think this is something those of us working from writing centres and academic literacy development spaces need to think about carefully. Much writing centre practice around the world – certainly in the US, UK, Europe and South Africa – is guided by key principles, among them taking a non-directive approach, engaging extensively in productive dialogue with writers around their texts, and (as Stephen North so famously exhorted us to do) focusing on the writer rather than on the writing. In our writing centre we take this to mean that who the student is and how they feel about and approach their writing is, in the longer term, more important than this one essay in front of us. But we also take it to mean, more recently, that we need to focus on giving students advice and guidance that will not only help them improve on the essay in front of them now, but that they will be able to draw on in further essays and assignments. So, we need to really be mindful of who the students are and make the tutorials we run about them and their process rather than some hegemonic or one-dimensional idea of what their writing should be like. But we also need to focus on the text itself, because not to help them with that text would be irresponsible when the text is what has prompted them to come to us for assistance.

One of the ways we are trying to move away from a normative ‘academic socialisation’ or ‘identify and induct’ approach in our writing centre is by changing the nature of the conversations we initiate and sustain with students. Rather than, for example, trying to show them how to write an introduction, which tends to localise that advice to just this one introduction they are writing now, we try to prompt them to talk about why they think introductions are part of essays or reports, and what kinds of information they think readers need to know upfront in order to understand what they are reading. By looking more at the principles underpinning the writing, we can help students to begin to develop a meta-level of consciousness not just about how to write but about why to write in certain ways. We feel we are, in this way, not quite at the level of transformative writing centre pedagogy, but moving towards this. We are still helping students to identify dominant conventions and practices and to adapt their work to disciplinary expectations and assessment criteria – we think this is necessary as a first step because as Joe Muller as argued, to be unable to see a boundary or a line that one has to cross over and over is to be at the mercy of the power inscribed in that line. In other words, students need to know what the rules are, and how to play by them in order to be more conscious readers and writers. Once we can play by the rules, we can take the next steps towards ‘transformativity’ where we can start to question dominant rules, conventions and practices, contextualise them differently and even break and remake them.

Clarence, S. 2012. Making inter-disciplinary spaces for talk about and change in student writing and literacy development. Teaching in Higher Education, 17(2), 127-137

Jacobs, C. 2013. Academic literacies and the question of knowledge. Journal for Language Teaching, 47(2), 127-140.

Lillis, T. & Scott, M. 2007. Defining academic literacies research: issues of epistemology, ideology and strategy. Journal of Applied Linguistics, 4(1), 5-32.

What does ‘active’ participation look like?

Image from blog.newchurchlive.tv

Image from blog.newchurchlive.tv

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.

Editing and proofreading: why we need to know the difference

Image from The Room 10 Wiki

Image from The Room 10 Wiki

I am writing this post because of a moment of clarity I had recently regarding some of the ways in which students ask for help with their writing when they come to the Writing Centre. For years we have been telling students that we will not edit or proofread their work for them, but that we will rather guide and advise them on revisions and help them to produce a more acceptable (and accepted) piece of writing. We hope that along the way they will grow in self-confidence, too, and come to believe that they can do this thing called ‘academic writing’. We also tell lecturers that we won’t edit or proofread for their students when they ask us to help with their students’ ‘poor language’. This ‘we don’t edit or proofread’ statement becomes a kind of mantra after a while. And recently I had a moment where I realised quite clearly that there is a big difference between these two things and that it might be important for students, lecturers and the Writing Centre itself to understand the difference.

Proofreading is generally taken to be the act of going through a piece of writing and picking up ‘surface errors’ and correcting these for the writer (often proofreaders are paid to do this task). Errors that are commonly corrected in academic writing might include typographical errors, spelling mistakes, pointing out missing references or mismatches between reference lists and what is in the text itself, as well as formatting inconsistencies. The proofreader needs to be an expert, I believe, in the grammar and syntax of the language the writing is using in order to find and fix these errors, but they don’t necessarily need to be a expert in the subject matter to do a good job.

Editing is something quite different. Editing can be taken to mean helping a writer to polish and revise their work by pointing out different kinds of errors that cannot be fixed by the editor but need, more often than not, to be referred back to the writer. An editor reads with understanding and some depth, and comments on issues like repetition of ideas, paragraphs that are out of order leading to a muddled structure, poor organisation and expression of ideas and concepts, coherence and sense-making in a piece of writing – these are just some of the things they can work on with a writer. Thus, an editor does need to have some knowledge of the subjects the writers are working on in order to comment on whether ideas have been properly construed or arguments persuasively constructed. But all editors are critical readers, and can give useful advice on revisions even if they are not subject experts. I think the level of expertise needed in an editor may also depend on the kind of help the writer needs and perhaps also the subject itself.

I think writing tutors are editors. I think we do the work of an editor when we point out parts of students’ essays that are muddled, or missing, or not quite clear. We don’t correct the mistakes, but we help the writers work out how they might do so. I think what we mean when we say we don’t edit is that we don’t proofread, and also that we won’t do the writing for the students – and this is true. But perhaps we need to consider changing our mantra. How about: ‘We listen, and we read your work with a critical and practised eye, and we help you edit and revise it effectively’. It’s longer, but more accurate.

Can we ‘teach’ academic writing (and whose job is it anyway)?

On the face of it, the answer to the first part of this question looks like an easy ‘yes’ doesn’t it? In some ways, it is a yes; easy – well, I’m less sure about that. The answer to the second part of the question is perhaps less easy in practice.

Image from socialutions.co.uk

Image from socialutions.co.uk

A few years ago I was tutoring and teaching in courses in different faculties and this was my job: to teach students how to write academically (as in, in the forms and styles required of the disciplines within those faculties, according to their criteria and standards). But here’s the thing: it was actually a really tough job, and lots of my students really struggled to get what I was trying to tell them about how they should be writing.  We were teaching students to write their essays and paragraphs in courses that stood outside of the disciplines, were not embedded or integrated into these disciplines, and yet were expected to produce good student writers at the end of a semester-long ‘academic writing’ course. And often the content we chose to give students to read and write about was not as relevant as it could have been. So, it was tricky work.

In the writing centre we are often asked by lecturers if they can refer their students to us for help with their writing so that they can concentrate on ‘content’ and don’t have to worry about ‘the writing’, which implies that they don’t see this as their job. This is also tricky work because we work with a wide range of students, many from disciplines we have never studied. So, what I am asking here is:  can we actually ‘teach’ writing to students in a writing centre or writing course with whom we may and may not share disciplinary backgrounds? Whose job is this anyway?

In the Writing Centre we don’t ‘teach’ writing didactically or from a position of being experts with knowledge that we will fill empty student heads and pens with. We  advise, guide, support, converse with, prompt… but perhaps we do teach in a more gentle way, in the sense that there are things students are not sure of, or don’t know, that we help them with in our tutorials, like how to approach a literature review, or how to write a comprehensive introduction. Ideally, writing courses should also be more workshop-based rather than pitched as lectures. We learn to write by writing, and being given feedback we can use to keep working and improving, not by being told what good writing is. So, in some ways an answer would be, ‘yes, we can teach students some of the aspects of academic writing’. But we are all too aware that there are limits to what we can do in a writing centre or literacy course that sits outside of the disciplines students are writing in and for.  We cannot teach or advise on the subtleties of writing and knowing in their disciplines if we do not share this discourse.

So this brings me to the second question: whose job is this, then? I think the answer is both parties – those in the disciplines and those outside of it. I have written elsewhere about the important role people with a specialist interest in academic writing and literacies can play in helping academic lecturers talk and think about the kinds of writing their students need to do, and how to make the standards, criteria and also forms and styles more learnable, and teachable. Many others have written about this too. I think it’s easy to say that all lecturers need to be teaching writing in their disciplines, but this is harder to do from the inside where you know what good writing and poor writing look like, but don’t always have the ‘language’ to talk about this with your students in ways that are helpful to them. We become so immersed in our own discourses that the things that  flummox students look like common sense to us, and it’s not easy to step away without some help from someone who sees thing differently and can help you work it all out.

Partnerships between lecturers and writing tutors or academic literacy specialists can be useful in working out ways to teach students in higher education how to adjust to new ways of thinking, talking and writing about knowledge that are particular to higher education, and to particular disciplines. We can and must teach students how to write (and read and think and speak) about what they know, along with the content knowledge itself rather than in a separate space or course, and the job is that of the lecturers primarily, with the possibility of partnerships and collaborations with writing and literacy specialists. It’s a job for all who take student learning, access, inclusion and social justice in education seriously.

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 thefreedictionary.com 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?