Thursday, January 24, 2008

Like So Many Mushrooms

To prepare for an orientation meeting in the Writing Center tomorrow, today I leafed back through North's "The Idea of a Writing Center," which is on the short list of recommended readings that will be used to prime the conversation in the meeting. I suppose this just proves what I'd already suspected: I haven't been reading nearly enough lately, but I find North's 1984 CE essay both funny and edgy in a drop-the-gauntlets sort of way. His intensity shows; he is not bored with what he is writing. Consider this passage:

People make similar remarks [about error] all of the time, stopping me or members of my [Writing Center] staff in the halls or calling us into offices, to discuss--in hushed tones, frequently--their current "impossible" or difficult students. There was a time, I will confess, when I let my frustration get the better of me. I would be more or less combative, confrontational, challenging the instructor's often well-intentioned but not very useful "diagnosis." We no longer bother with such confrontations; they never worked out very well, and they risk undermining the genuine compassion our teachers have for the students they single out. Nevertheless, their behavior makes it clear that for them, a writing center is to illiteracy what a cross between Lourdes and a hospice would be to serious illness: one goes there hoping for miracles, but ready to face the inevitable. In their minds, clearly, writers fall into three fairly distinct groups: the talented, the average, and the others; and the Writing Center's only logical raison d'etre must be to handle those others--those, as the flyer proclaims, with "special problems." (435)

North also spars with Maxine Hairston's off-handed remarks about writing centers in her "Winds of Change" essay, where she writes, "Among the first responses were the writing centers that sprang up about ten years ago [1972] to give first aid to students who seemed unable to function within the traditional paradigm. Those labs are still with us, but they're still only giving first aid and treating symptoms. They have not solved the problem" (82, qtd. in North). North calls this a "mistaken history" (among other things); he tells of the anger he felt in "read[ing] one's own professional obituary" (436), and adds that "her dismissal fails to lay the blame for these worst versions of writing centers on the right heads. According to her 'sprang up' historical sketch, these places simply appeared--like so many mushrooms?--to do battle with illiteracy" (437).

The second half of the essay is more constructive; he details his vision for the new writing centers and how they hinge on professionalism, a nuanced understanding of process (also processual complexity), and principles of writers rather than texts alone. I have a few more notes posted here, and it's possible (though not promised) that I will have more to blog in the months ahead about my appointment in the Writing Center this spring.

Writing Center Orientation 2008

Reigstad, Thomas J. and Donald A. McAndrew. Tutoring Writing: A Practical Guide for Conferences. Portsmouth: Boynton/Cook, 2001. 1-30.

These four chapters work through general points related to writing center work. Each chapter consists of bullet-list-like entries, and, as such, the summary notes are best presented as follows:

Chapter One: Theories Underpinning Tutoring Writing

  • Social constructionism: grounded in Bruffee, Bakhtin, and Vygotsky.
  • Reader response: grounded in Bleich's subjective criticism and Rosenblatt's transactional criticism.
  • Talk and writing: emphasis on the power of oral language and conversation.
  • Collaborative learning: emphasis on participatory models of engagement in learning.
  • Feminism: very brief discussion of "women's psychology" and "connected knowing"

Chapter Two: Research Supporting Writing Groups
The second chapter is a brief bibliographic essay (only empirical studies, they note), on peer response groups, conferences, and tutoring (in general, emph. literacy, and emph. writing).

Chapter Three: What Tutoring Writing Isn't
A series of anti-examples:

  • The Editor-Journalist Model: editors tend to be authoritative; journalists often have no choice but to accept heavy-handed corrections (this is how it is depicted, anyway).
  • Cheerleading: Atwell: "Avoid generalized praise." It is better to be candid and honest. Agreed.
  • Correcting errors: Exercise caution not to over-emphasize lower-order concerns before considering higher-order concerns.
  • Therapy: "Do not fall into the trap of becoming the writer's counselor or therapist."
  • Usurping ownership: Remain sensitive to the tutor's recommendations dominating the student's sense of the available options.
  • Being an expert: Don't be a know-it-all.
  • Responding too late: Preferable to work well in advance of deadlines.

Chapter Four: The Writing and Tutoring Processes
This chapter works to complicate processual neatness, and replaces it, instead, with the senses of chaos and fuzziness that govern writing and tutoring. The strong emphasis here is on recursivity, the braid of "generating, translating, and reviewing" that goes on continuously. This complicates the temporality of writing, and should be taken into account in the writing center. Tutoring approaches break down into student-centered, collaborative, and teacher-centered. Along with a final emphasis on chaos and fuzziness, the chapter ends with a discussion of gesture and posture (sit at corner so tutor and writer can see each other and the draft).

Rafoth, Ben. "Helping Writers to Write Analytically." A Tutor's Guide. 2nd ed. Ed. Ben Rafoth. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 2005. 76-84.

This short article echoes many of the points made by Reigstad and McAndrew. Drawing on Bruffee, Rafoth begins by emphasizing conversation as a method for expanding a writer's sense of the possibilities for writing (this is a shift away from individualistic cognition or what he calls a "thinking problem"). Tutoring sessions should be structured around a "shared purpose," he contends, and he goes on to offer practices that will ground a productive session: the examination of perspective, the addition of complexity (viz., missed opportunities, counterpoints, or point of view), and the use of outside sources as "back-up singers" (80). He ends with a point about adding complexity through dialogue--complicating matters by probing more deeply with questions. Conversation is, for Raforth, crucial to analysis, but analysis is an underdeveloped method here--he never deals in much depth with what analysis is, what it does, or what are alternatives to analyzing.

"In most academic writing in the humanities and social sciences that calls for analysis of some issue or controversy, a key move is to define and explain problems, not to solve them" (79).

Gunner, Jeanne. "A Return to the Rhetoric of the Sentence." 11 Jan. 2008. MacGraw Hill Higher Education. Jan. 2002 <>.

Gunner contends that students must be adept at sentence-level matters if they are to be successful with rhetorics of other scales. She refers to Shaughnessy's Errors and Expectations and Lanham's Analyzing Prose as a pair of texts key to her premise in this piece: "the syntactic knowledge of basic writing combined with the purposes of rhetorical study" (para. 2). Gunner emphasizes variation, the placement of clauses that will enrich an otherwise linear style and effect different commands of a reader's attention. The essay includes examples of the effects brought about by participial phrases, adding appositives, and gaining proficiency with variations in punctuation. These techniques make the writing--on a sentence-level--recursive rather than linear.

Brooks, Jeff. "Minimalist Tutoring: Making the Student Do All the Work." The St. Martin's Sourcebook for Writing Tutors. 2nd ed. Eds. Christina Murphy and Steve Sherwood. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2003. 169-174.

Brooks elaborates North's contention that Writing Centers are concerned foremost with improving writers rather than refining the papers they carry in with them. He does so strongly and with conviction, opening with a "worst case scenario" in which the tutor points out mechanical errors and sends the student away with a better paper, having done little to teach the student. The breakdown parallels the advice expressed by Reigstad and McAndrew about the journalist-editor relationship. Brooks also argues that tutors are successful if they can persuade students to pay more careful attention to their writing (171).

The second half of the short piece introduces several maxims for "basic minimalist tutoring":

  1. "Sit beside the student, not across a desk" (171). This is one of many Feng Shui rules for posture and position; odd about this is that it comes down as a truism rather than sensitizing the tutor to the importance of an adaptive disposition that could be necessary for any number of reasons (situation, cultural variation, etc.).
  2. "Try to get the student to be physically close to her paper than you are" (171). Why not have two copies? No, really, this one makes sense.
  3. "If you are right-handed, sit on the student's right" (172).
  4. "Have the student read the paper aloud to you" (172).

Brooks also includes numbered lists for "Advanced Minimalist Tutoring" and "Defensive Minimalist Tutoring":

  1. "Concentrate on success in the paper, not failure" (172).
  2. "Get the student to talk" (172).
  3. "If you have time...give the student a discrete writing task" (173).

If things are not going well, use Brooks' defensive strategies:

  1. "Borrow student body language" (173). This seems to me to assume too much about the situation; better to adapt according to a full sense of the dynamics involved (including why).
  2. "Be completely honest with the student who is giving you a hard time" (173).

Severino, Carol. "Avoiding Appropriation." ESL Writers: A Guide For Writing Center Tutors. Eds. Shanti Bruce and Ben Rafoth. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 2004. 48-59.

Severino's article addresses the problems involved with conversational "reformulation," the variety of appropriation in which a tutor can commandeer the language choices of an L2 writer. She opens by recounting an experience with a language teacher in Italy who effectively re-wrote her prose: "Almost every sentence was changed and elevated to a higher register" (49). For fairly obvious reasons, Severino thinks this can be damaging; appropriation obscures the language choices of the author, and this must be avoided. Taken to its extreme limits, the idea of avoiding appropriation is difficult to reconcile with teacherlessness or with an extreme hands-off approach to the interaction with the writer. The giving of subtle permission and encouragement can "interfere with students' control of their texts" (51). Of course, this isn't inherently bad; it's just that it has limits. Appropriation (or its less insidious partner, assimilation) is a regular, ongoing function of language use, isn't it? Severino ends her article with a list of 10 ideals to follow in an effort to avoid appropriation and, thereby, to respect "authentic" (i.e., unadulterated) voice:

  1. Accord the ESL writer authority.
  2. Work on higher-order concerns (HOCs) before lower-order concerns (LOCs).
  3. Address expressed needs.
  4. Select particular passages to work on.
  5. Ask writers to participate in reformulation decisions (sometimes using read-aloud).
  6. Use speaking-into-writing strategies.
  7. Explain the recommended changes.
  8. Try to assess language learning.
  9. Avoid misrepresenting the student's language level on the page.
  10. Consider the type of writing.

These can become complicated and are contingent on a large number of factors that bear on any consultancy situation.

Staben, Jennifer and Kathryn Dempsey Nordhaus. "Looking at the Whole Text." ESL Writers: A Guide For Writing Center Tutors. Eds. Shanti Bruce and Ben Rafoth. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 2004. 71-83.

Staben and Dempsey emphasize the relevance shared between lower-order concerns and higher-order concerns. In making a case for looking at the whole text, they urge dialogue that stirs up insights into knowledge and reasonable actions related to the writing. Their approach is derived from North's work in "The Idea of a Writing Center," which ranks the improvement of writers above the improvement of text (through Socratic dialogue, patterned questioning, a listening disposition, etc.). They also comment on the value of models (i.e., examples) and honest, candid responses to the text. Staben and Nordhaus contend that many L2 writers view the writing consultant as a "cultural informant" whose knowledge can rescue their texts as they "help them understand the assumptions and expectations of a U.S. academic audience, assumptions that are not usually directly addressed on the assignment sheet" (73). There is some disagreement about the role the tutor must occupy as a cultural informant; certainly, there is a degree to which the tutor helps demystify the process and make it seem more manageable in light of any (misguided) preconceptions about what is expected. The article offers a list of practical advice, from beginning to conversation to being "direct, not directive."

"These are students who often literally cannot see the forest for the trees.: They are so focused on language--on trying to wrestle their complicated thoughts onto paper using language abilities that are not yet sufficient to the task--that they may not realize that the change in language and in culture necessitates a different approach to communicating those thoughts to others" (74).

North, Stephen M. "The Idea of a Writing Center." College English 45.5 (1984): 433-446.

North writes out of frustration about widespread misconceptions about writing centers--their role and function in the scene of writing. His impatience is not so much with those who wouldn't have any reason to think twice about a writing center but instead with his colleagues in Composition Studies: "The source of my frustration? Ignorance: the members of my profession, my colleagues, people I might see at MLA or CCCC or read in the pages of College English, do not understand what I do" (433). North is motivated by this problem; he writes his way into it, blasting through specific references made by Maxine Hairston, who he says gets the history wrong in her "Winds of Change" address and even goes so far as to spell out North's "professional obituary" as a director of a writing center (436). North asserts agency; he argues that the writing centers and the principles they follow belong to "us"--an us he proudly claims. From disassembling claims leveled against writing centers, North shifts--in the second half of the piece--into a mode of positive redescription: "What should they be?" The new writing center focuses on "produc[ing] better writers, not better writing" (438), and this maxim rings through much of the writing center scholarship that follows this 1984 essay.

North characterizes the tutor as a researcher, in a move I think is due for more opening up: "I think probably the best way to describe a writing center tutor is a holist devoted to participant-observer methodology" (439). North explains holism, drawing on Diesing's Patterns of Discovery in the Social Sciences; he introduces a notion of process that is highly flexible and adaptive; and then he recoils a bit from the researcher comparison, commenting, "I do not want to push the participant-observer analogy too far" (439). He works--boldly in some places and tentatively in others--to correct misconceptions while not going too far to idealize the work done in writing centers.

He explains certain advantages held by the writing consultant: "we are here to talk to writers" (440); "we are not the teacher" [as the student seeks us out] (442), and "we can play with options" (443). He emphasizes that students come to the WC to write; they want to be there in almost every case. The WC can function to intensify classroom experiences (440). He also addresses matters of funding and scholarship, resolving that "[o]ne could...mount a pretty strong argument that things have never been better" (445). But the crux of North's "idea" is that we--in writing centers--are first and foremost professional, and that we take ownership of the space and the work done in it, resolving simply to guide and support writers as they write.

"As a profession I think we are holding on tightly to attitudes and beliefs about the teaching and learning of writing that we thought we had left behind" (434).