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.

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.

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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.

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.