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.