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.

Advertisements

Teaching, learning, writing and ‘The Matrix’

From sandboxtactics.com

From sandboxtactics.com

I used the metaphor of The Matrix (from the Wachowski Brothers’ iconic film) in a PhD blog post I wrote recently (here), and I have been thinking a bit more about how it can be used as a metaphor for becoming a more conscious writer and knower in higher education. Perhaps by unpacking this idea (and having a bit of fun with it) we can understand a little more about how to make what we are doing as teachers and expecting of students’ learning more open and visible for our students, and we can fill gaps and make connections more overtly.

For those who have not seen the film, the basic premise is that a computer programmer/hacker, Thomas Anderson or Neo, is approached by a character called Morpheus who tells him that life is not it seems, and Neo is special. He has the power to change the world. Morpheus shows him a glimpse of this layer beneath the world he can see – there is a Matrix that we are all plugged into and most of us don’t even know it’s there. Knowing about it and seeing it can bring danger – powerful people don’t want us educated about the Matrix and our power to change it – but it can also bring freedom, choice. After this glimpse, Morpheus tells Neo he can choose – take the blue pill and he wakes up tomorrow and nothing is different. Take the red pill and he goes on a journey towards consciousness, learning, emancipation. Neo chooses the red pill and with Morpheus as his mentor off he goes, eventually learning how to see the inner workings of the Matrix and change the world he lives in, and by extension, himself and those around him. His is a journey of transformation. There is way more to the story, but this is enough for you to follow my thinking here.

I’ve been playing with the idea of higher education teaching, learning (and writing) being like a Matrix. The students are the Neos,  with potential and talent that needs to be recognised, brought out and nurtured. They have the power to change the world but they often don’t know how to. Peer tutors and colleagues students engage with are like the crew on the Nebuchadnezzar (the ship they all live on): Trinity, Tank, Dozer, who support, teach, and challenge Neo on his journey. Lecturers can probably be more like Morpheus – a little older, more experienced and knowledgeable, ideally mentors and teachers. When students enter university, they often know that the world is bigger than they think it is, and that there are many more things out there for them to know and do and see and be. They come to us to be taught and to learn because they want access to this wider world of possibilities; they want to be transformed and changed and have opportunities to live bigger, more exciting and often more comfortable lives. I have worked with many students over the years, and most of them really do want the red pill rather than the blue one, even if they can’t phrase their desires in these terms, and even though they have very little sense of how much hard work and dedication it will take and that it’s a lifelong process of learning. I think part of our job as the Trinitys or Morpheuses in their journey is to build into learning and teaching more of a sense of what the Matrix is all about and what they can and should be doing to be learning about how to see it, understand it and eventually change it. Our assessments, teaching approaches, student activities, writing tasks etc all need to be pulling students towards not just knowing what’s out there on the surface, but more importantly the principled knowledges and ways of knowing that underpin, give rise to, shape what we see on the surface. In other words, we need to be teaching not just what we can know, but why we need to know it, and how we would/could know it and what we could do with it.

Writing is one way of getting deeper into the Matrix, because writing is one of the main ways in which we ask students to show us their knowledge and understanding. Becoming a more conscious and powerful writer is a bit like going on a Neo-like journey. We start off being shown (or told) to write in quite formulaic ways. These are the three steps of an introduction; this is a topic sentence; a conclusion does these three things, and so on. Undergraduate students often see these ‘formulae’ in quite basic, surface ways because this is often how they are taught. They can struggle, often, to become more creative writers because the formulae feel safer. The whys and hows are there, of course, but for many students they are often tacit or hidden. One of the ways in which we become more conscious writers, who make choices about how we write because we understand what the requirements are and why they are so, is by learning precisely these things: the criteria, what they mean and why they are there. As we go, through feedback (from Morpheus-like mentors), reflection (on our own and with peers) and more writing, we can begin to see the Matrix and eventually, write the code ourselves.

From dan-dare.org

From dan-dare.org

If we can understand not just that there is a Matrix (and this is what it is, and what we must do if we want to live in it), but also begin to see the hidden code that makes up the Matrix, and possibly change it and ourselves to act and think differently, we can truly be transformed by learning, and by studying at university. I think we can more readily achieve ‘graduate attribute’ type goals with our students – for example, graduating civic-minded and active citizens who are aware of and have the tools to change their environment and society – by orienting them (and ourselves) towards making visible the systems of meaning* that we are hoping students will engage with. We can more readily show students how to become lifelong and ongoing learners, and we can equip them with tools – principled and applied knowledges – that make them able to not just see the Matrix (whether at university or in the world around them) but also able to change it. If we can shift our focus from the ‘stuffed’ curriculum** full of ‘content and skills’ by beginning to understanding who our graduates in particular disciplines need to be and what they need to know and do, and connecting this to the kinds of teaching we do and the kinds of tasks, assessment etc that we ask students to engage in, we can begin to work within systems of meaning and knowing  more consciously and overtly.  I’m thinking that this might be a way of getting to the heart of higher education and its transformative potential and purpose. It’s not easy to get into the Matrix and make the changes, but it most certainly is possible.

* Wheelahan, L. 2013. Keynote address. Rhodes University, Department of Education PhD conference, October 2013.

** Cousin, G. 2006. ‘An introduction to threshold concepts’, Planet, 17: 4-5.