Inclusivity, flexibility, and “momentary” activism

I found two things to unite this week’s readings: inclusivity and flexibility.

How can a writing center, composed of a mere sampling of the wide range of identities one finds on a college/university campus, be inclusive of all students, regardless of their race, nationality, class (Bielski), gender (Tipper), sexuality (Rihn & Sloan), dis/ability (Hitt), and academic discipline (Fitzgerald and Ianetta)? There are simply too many distinct identities to think we can function as a microcosm of the student-body at large, yet we must strive to be welcoming to all those who walk in our doors. The answer offered both implicitly and explicitly in this week’s (and last week’s) readings, is, I think, flexibility.

To look specifically at disciplinal diversity, I was interested by Fizgerald and Ianetta’s distinction between specialist and generalist tutoring strategies. A tutor who is a subject area “expert” will be more inclined toward specialist tutoring, they assert, while a subject area “non-expert” will tend toward generalist tutoring strategies. This made me think about my own experiences with lab reports and my ID1 students’ essays, my areas of “non-expertise” and “expertise,” respectively. Of course, I’m not an expert in colonial American history (far from it), but as a history major, I’m familiar enough with the discipline that when I meet with my ID1 students about their papers for First Person Americas, I know the form for which they should aim and sometimes the content as well.

Lab reports on the other hand… Well, let’s just say that until this semester, I hadn’t written a lab report since 11th grade. And the ones I’ve written this semester haven’t gone particularly well. Luckily, I’ve only had one lab report consultation, with two biology students in October. I can safely say it was one of my less-satisfying consultations, simply because I felt tremendously unhelpful. From my consultation report: “I read through their results section a couple times and was at a bit of a loss feedback-wise. They seemed to be confused about what to include in results vs. discussion, so I tried to clarify that. One student suggested that they might have an easier time with results after writing their discussion section, which I thought was quite possible. So I ended up suggesting they work on their discussion section in the Writing Center, and ask me any questions they might have in the process…In the future, I might ask students to explain to me their lab report step by step, take notes as they do so, and then show them that that’s their results section.”

So, flexibility. We’ve read about it in the context of the writing center before. When working with students from diverse academic disciplines, Partners must be comfortable shifting between varying ratios of specialist and generalist strategies (Fitzgerald and Ianetta write that multiple scholars have “ultimately argue[d] for a middle ground,” that is, “blending specialist knowledge with generalist strategies” [149]). In Tipper’s case, flexibility was realizing she needed to change the image and the nature of the Gilman writing center so that more male students would attend (I’m not entirely sure how comfortable I am with Tipper’s premise of “manly men” and the writing center as a feminine space, but her article demonstrates flexibility nonetheless). Flexibility is being able to begin a conversation about homophobia, racism, sexism etc. if a student comes in with an “offensive” or “controversial” argument (Rihn & Sloan). And it’s also being able to take care of oneself, knowing that there’s only so much we can do when a student is not willing to participate in such a conversation.

Flexibility isn’t just the ability to work with students of various identities and needs; it’s also about rejecting complicity when homophobia, racism, sexism etc. crop up in a student’s writing, as Rihn & Sloan, and other scholars have advocated. But flexibility can transcend that, too. A few weeks ago, we read Bawarshi and Pelkowski’s paper, which argued that writing tutors should help develop “critical consciousness” of acculturation in students whose racial, national, or class identities may exclude them from the traditional academic discourse community. Gender and sexuality, on the other hand, do not in-and-of-themselves put individuals at a disadvantage in the academic discourse community when it comes to form; however, the voices and stories of women and the LGBTQ+ community have historically been peripheralized. I love the way Rihn and Sloan put it: “How might tutors discuss identity in these “momentary” sessions…? Alexander and Wallace note the importance of simply “[i]ncluding the usually excluded, speaking the unspoken, and saying the words gay, lesbian, homosexual and transgendered without blushing.” Writing centers thus become sites where we can participate in the slow work of shifting our societal discourse to be more inclusive.

Of course, we won’t have the opportunity to practice this “momentary” activism in every consultation—I’ve been racking by brains to remember if any of my consultations have presented the opportunity—but I think each one of these articles demonstrates that there are numerous ways to be inclusive, that no students are “beyond help” (Hitt 383), and that we must be flexible and take the opportunity to practice inclusion when it presents itself.

Double Contact

“Yet another of the benefits of tutoring,” Fitzgerald and Ianetta point out, “is learning how to build…relationships across the differences that result when we do not share identities” (137). This sentence reminded me of something I recently learned about in my Intro Psych class: the “contact hypothesis.” The contact hypothesis posits that when conflicting groups are forced to collaborate in the pursuit of common goals, each group’s attitude toward the other improves. In 1940, Gordon Allport suggested that the contact hypothesis could be used to minimize prejudice, especially if institutional support was provided and the contact was “of a sort that leads to the perception of common interest and common humanity between members of the two groups.”

In my Psychology class, the contact hypothesis was presented as a potential solution for racial discrimination. One study found that discrimination didn’t cease after schools were desegregated; it was reduced only when students were were forced to collaborate. After reading Fitzgerald and Ianetta, I realized that the contact hypothesis applies to all relationships between groups who “do not share identities.” These relationships may not be fraught, but implicit prejudice or stereotyping often remain, whether because of differences in race, gender, nationality, or ability. The writing center is special in that it serves not only as a “contact zone” in which “student and tutor [can] meet and clash; a space in which to try on language and form without the fear of failure” (137, quoting Baker), but as a site of “contact” in the sense of the contact hypothesis, where members of two groups can work together in the pursuit of a common goal.

Of course, the idea of acculturation complicates this vision of the writing center in certain cases. I don’t know how I feel about the idea of “faking” academic discourse (as mentioned by Baker on page 281); although I grudgingly agree with Bartholomae that student writing is largely an act of appropriation, something about explicitly encouraging students to “fake it” makes me uncomfortable. I think instead we should focus on the idea of multilingualism. Fitzgerald and Ianetta bring up multilingualism in the context of ESL students; I would argue we should think of academic discourse as another language, like English or Spanish or American Sign Language, to be mastered alongside the other languages each student speaks. Multilingualism is tricky, as anyone who has studied another language knows. That’s why the contact zone and the respite it provides from fear of failure are so important. So perhaps what I’m advocating for is a writing center characterized by “double contact”: both that of the contact zone and that of the contact hypothesis.

North’s axiom makes a comeback

I’m having a hard time wrapping my mind around Carino’s argument, partly I think, because I expect it to answer the question I was left with upon finishing last week’s readings: “When does collaboration become plagiarism?”

But that’s not really what Carino is addressing. I understand that he thinks writing centers’ preoccupation with how much help is too much help has led to exaggeratedly staunch adherence to nondirective tutoring techniques. Indeed, he would probably encourage me to stop fixating on when collaboration becomes plagiarism. And I see his point; I know from personal experience that being overly concerned about giving a student “too much” can handicap the productivity of a consultation.

But I feel like Carino dismisses plagiarism too quickly. Where do you draw the line with directive methods? (Is this the same as asking where to draw the line before becoming authoritarian?) This is where Fitzgerald and Ianetta come in. One of their guidelines for ethical tutoring is: “Keep in mind the writer’s learning as your ultimate goal, and work to find what will best support it so that the next time he faces a similar writing situation, he’ll be able to tackle more of it on his own” (50).

That’s pretty abstract guidance, I must admit, but I find it helpful nonetheless. Essentially, it renewed my confidence in North’s “better writers, not better writing” axiom (after reading Bawarshi’s and Pelkowski’s piece on acculturation in the Writing Center, I had begun to doubt its validity): if I think less about perfecting the assignment (the product) and more about helping the student to approach writing in general (the process), it’s less likely I’ll plant an idea in their head or fall into the “too much help” trap.

A final and unrelated note: I found it interesting that Carino has a very different vision of writing centers than do Bawarshi and Pelkowski. He sees them not as sites for challenging or critiquing the conventions of the academic discourse community—for developing “critical consciousness”—but as environments in which “neither [the tutor and student] has the authority or power to change [conventions] without negative consequences” (108).

On originality (and a few other things)

Martin’s study suggests that “collectivists do not plagiarize more than individualists. Indeed they appear to plagiarize less than individualists” (270). Is this true for non-business students? For students who score high on individualism but not on dishonesty or self-interestedness? I ask because I’m wondering if individualists in any discipline feel more pressure to come up with original ideas than do collectivists, and if when they’re at a loss—when they can’t come up with anything original—they’re (ironically) impelled by a sense of failure to pass another’s ideas off as their own in order to maintain an image of originality; after all, “Americans are presumed individualists who focus on the maintenance of personal identity with the self as the basic unit of survival” (Martin 262).

I’m probably getting a bit too theoretical (it certainly feels like it, in light of Martin’s empirical research), but I do think it’s a possibility. If there is any truth to this—if individualists are driven to plagiarize when they can’t come up with original ideas of their own—then I think refocusing on the scholarly conversation would be an appropriate solution. Refocusing on the scholarly conversation and, perhaps, redefining originality. For original ideas don’t exist in a vacuum; as Gaipa argues, those that do don’t have authority. Students should be taught that most of the time, one achieves individuality and originality not by interrupting a conversation to change the subject, but by responding thoughtfully to others.

Another root of plagiarism, I think—perhaps the most significant one—is product-oriented writing pedagogy. In “Framing Plagiarism,” Adler-Kassner et al. cite the BBC News, which “alludes to an ‘epidemic’ of plagiarism, invoking the metaphor of disease…as a frame for understanding plagiarism” (231). Maybe, though, plagiarism isn’t a disease in itself, but a symptom—the culmination, even—of the “writing as product” ideology. Or maybe the writing as product ideology is in fact a symptom of the plagiarism narrative. In the end, it doesn’t matter which came first so long as we recognize that the two are intertwined. I think Adler-Kassner et al. do recognize this, and while they argue for a sort of “critical consciousness” (which is certainly warranted, and probably a much more effective approach than simply demonizing plagiarism) I think the most important thing is to teach writing as a process, and (as Adler-Kassner et al. write) not because doing so “prevents students from fulfilling the role of Web-savvy, duplicitous cheats” (235).

The Writing Center is wonderful because it does all three of these things: focuses on the scholarly conversation, redefines originality, and teaches writing as a process. I will say, though, that my experience with what Adler-Kassner et al. call the “plagiarism narrative” (232) began in second grade, when one of my teachers instilled my class with such intense fear of plagiarism that even now I’m apprehensive about discussing my papers with anyone but the professor, for fear of accidentally appropriating another’s ideas. That’s one of the reasons why I was hesitant to visit the Writing Center last year, and something that continues to bother me as a Writing Partner. Essentially, the question I struggle with is “When does collaboration become plagiarism?” Though the readings were thought provoking, I can’t say they clarified this point for me. Any thoughts?

A few thoughts (plus a question)

Upon finishing “The Idea of a Writing Center,” I couldn’t have agreed with North more; his definition of what a writing center is, or should be, meshed completely with my own. Indeed, I must admit that while reading “Postcolonialism and the Idea of a Writing Center,” I felt almost defensive, for Bawarshi and Pelkowski take issue with some of the very things I value most about the Writing Center.

I’m not sure to what extent the order in which I read the essays influenced my reactions—possibly if I’d begun with the Bawarshi/Pelkowski piece, I would feel differently. But the fact is that though they make some good points, I take issue with the fact that Bawarshi and Pelkowski understand (or at least depict) writing centers as places only for “basic writers”. “In [some instructors’] minds, clearly,” North writes, “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…with ‘special problems’” (435). North clearly argues that this is not the case; Bawarshi and Pelkowski, though, are like those instructors in that they see writing centers only through a remedial lens: “Today, the writing center stands as the most accessible and visible place of remediation within the university” (42). This is the only facet of writing centers they acknowledge.

I suppose they’re correct in that one of the many facets of the Writing Center might be considered remedial. But that is not our sole job, and North’s advocacy of that point is what makes me like his piece so much. He mentions the students whose “primary concern is with their material, with some existential context where new ideas must merge with old, and suddenly writing is a vehicle, a means to an end, and not an end in itself. These opportunities to talk with excited writers at the height of their engagement with their work are the lifeblood of a writing center” (443). The “excited writers” are the “lifeblood” of the Writing Center not because we value them more than other students (including “basic writers”), but because they bring the space to life as an intellectual center where questions transcend those of “right” and “wrong” sentence structure to instead center on content and the interplay between writing and thinking.

Perhaps the biggest challenge we face as Writing Partners is navigating the various roles we have to take on, depending on what each student requires. And I do think that Bawarshi and Pelkowski offer sound advice for consultations with students less familiar with the academic discourse community. At first, I questioned their premise, articulated in the James Berlin epigraph, “To teach writing is to argue for a version of reality.” But the more I thought about it, the more I realized how true this is. Learning to write in a particular way is to learn to think in that way, and to think differently is certainly to inhabit a new “version of reality.” A student’s “learning how to subordinate ideas to one another is not simply an example of his acquiring a new discourse into which he can ‘put’ his thoughts,” they write. Rather, “The very academic discourse in which he has learned to reproduce his experiences reconstitutes his experiences” (47). That “reproduction” may, in fact, be quite illuminating if students can maintain a “critical consciousness” (or a “mestiza consciousness”) that allows them to remain aware of the reproduction, and therefore inhabit two realities—pre- and post-reproduction—at once.

“Our job is to produce better writers, not better writing” (438). Unlike Bawarshi and Pelkowski, I interpret this “axiom” of North’s as a statement of respect for students and their writing. By helping students to become better writers, we acknowledge that their writing is solely their own, and that they can learn to “improve” it themselves. But I do recognize the validity of Bawarshi’s and Pelkowski’s interpretation, and the inherent subjectivity of “improvement.” Their piece reinforced for me why it is impossible to think of learning academic discourse as akin to learning French or Japanese or any other language: academic discourse is a “discourse of power” (48). Like colonial subjects who had to learn the language of their colonizers (51), students are taught that “being academically literate is the most prestigious, most civilized state of being—that, in fact, the university…teach[es] them a universal, objective discourse which provides them access to culture, knowledge, and truth.” (49) The most important thing, then, as argued by Reger, is to share with students that academic discourse is no better than any other; it is simply the language of the academic community, to be learned like any other, and, per Bawarshi’s and Pelkowski’s claim, “self-consciously” used.

(A question completely unrelated to the rest of my blog, but which I can’t resist asking: Should students, under any circumstances, be required to come to the Writing Center? North seems to suggest they shouldn’t…any thoughts?)

Memories of a High School Essay

This week’s readings reminded me of the most transformative piece of feedback I’ve ever been given. I was in 11th grade. My Rhetoric and Argumentation teacher had assigned my class a reflective essay about the different “languages” we use in our daily lives (or, as Bizzell might put it, the different discourse communities to which we belong). Frazzled as I was by chemistry problem sets, Spanish quizzes etc., I decided to crank out a draft during my Wednesday morning free period so that I could meet with my teacher the next day, revise that evening, and have a final version ready to turn in by the Friday deadline. How difficult can this be? I remember thinking as I opened a new Word document.

When I sat down with my teacher the next afternoon, I fully expected him to pronounce my draft more-or-less complete—perfect if I made a few minor changes. Instead, he sighed. “I don’t think,” he said, “that this draft is as good as it could be. It’s not demonstrating your full potential as a writer.”

I wonder if my horror showed. Not once over the past two-and-a-half years of high school had I received such a critique, and I must admit that at first I took it as a “judgment about [my] limitations as a human being [and] about [my] failings as a writer” (Sommers, “Responding to Student Writing” 253). But I admired my teacher and trusted his judgment, so I mustered all my self-control and tried to listen to what he had to say.

Sommers writes that instead of “correcting” students’ writing, professors should ‘read and respond to [its] meaning’” (“Responding to Student Writing” 154). My essay was neither argumentative nor analytical, so my teacher didn’t necessarily respond to its meaning, but he certainly didn’t “correct” it either. No, he suggested I be more experimental with style. I don’t if Sommers would approve, but the fact is that my teacher’s comments “create[d] the motive for revising” (“Responding to Student Writing” 149). That night, as the neighborhood slowly quieted and darkened, I sat hunched over my laptop, slogging through sentence after sentence, reading words and phrases, sentences and paragraphs first as writer, then as audience (or Sommers’ “questioning reader”), then as writer again. I cut dry wording and introduced metaphors, identified themes and symbols and wove them through three increasingly poetic pages. Sommers writes that “constructive criticism, more than encouraging praise, often pushes students forward with their writing; constructive criticism more than praise reveals instructors’ investments in their students’ untapped potential” (“Re-Visions” 251). I must say that I was a case in point.

I turned in my paper the next morning sleep deprived but proud. It turned out, though, that I’d forgotten something. “Beautifully written,” my teacher wrote on the final draft. “But you didn’t quite answer the prompt.”

Yes, I had committed Winalski’s “literary crime far more frightful” than “awkward commas or unclear modifiers” (306)—I, like her, had not answered the assigned question. That being said, I was grateful for the experience, and continue to be. Before writing this post, I quickly reread that essay written a little under three years ago. I can’t say I find it too well written now (I definitely got carried away with figurative language), but the process behind the product helped me begin to rethink feedback not as a matter of approval or disapproval, but as a component of a dialogue—what Sommers calls a “partnership”—between reader and writer, professor and student.

Audience, Authority, and the Scholarly Conversation

I must admit that I find Bartholomae’s depiction of academic writing in “Inventing the University” a tad depressing. “Their [students’] papers don’t begin with a moment of insight, a ‘by God’ moment that is outside of language,” he writes (145). “They begin with a moment of appropriation, a moment when they can offer up a sentence that is not theirs as though it were their own.” Academic writing, in other words, is nothing more than mimicry. Indeed, Bartholomae is in complete agreement with Graff and Birkenstein; not only does he essentially argue in favor of templates, but he writes that what makes one student paper better than another is “the way the writer works against a conventional point of view” (152), that is, by engaging in the “they say/I say” discourse.

Now, I have absolutely no problem with the “they say/I say” discourse. I’m even beginning to make my peace with Graff and Birekenstein’s templates as a way for students to enter the academic discourse community. The idea that student writing is mere “appropriation”, though far from inspiring, is, I think, true (though I don’t think Bartholomae should dismiss the occasional “by God” moment). But is authority really based on nothing more than successful appropriation? If true, wouldn’t that reveal authority to be nothing more than the “social fiction” Pierre Bordieu argues it is?

I’m reading Bordieu’s Language and Symbolic Power in another class, and find it quite relevant here. Bordieu posits that authority (in this case, that of a writer) ceases to exist the moment the audience no longer recognizes it; therefore, it doesn’t matter how a writer establishes authority as long as readers think they have it. Is that why Bartholomae writes, “The student, in effect, has to assume privilege without having any” (143)? What, in the end, is the relationship between audience and authority?

This is, I think, the question tackled by this week’s readings. It took me a while (and a couple re-reads) to wrap my mind around the arguments of Bartholomae, Ede and Lunsford. Indeed, I only began to make sense of them when I stopped thinking as a sophomore History major and instead as an op-ed writer for TSL. For as I write a column, I can imagine my readers’ reactions, try to anticipate their questions, their protests, and attempt to respond. Do I have authority as a columnist? If I do, it’s because I try to be “the writer who, as writer and reader of his or her own text, one guided by a sense of purpose and by the particularities of a specific rhetorical situation, establishes the range of potential roles an audience may play” (Ede & Lunsford 165-6).

And, upon reflection, I recognize that I do this in my academic writing too. Indeed, I’m a huge fan of what Graff and Birkenstein call “metacommentary”. I began to employ metacommentary towards the end of last semester, and I couldn’t agree with Graff and Birkenstien more: by putting me in dialogue with myself, metacommentary allows me to “extract the full potential from [my] ideas, drawing out important implications, explaining ideas from different perspectives, and so forth” (132).

Why, then, did I have a hard time thinking of audience in the context of academic writing while reading these essays? Because there is, I think, a structural flaw in high school and undergraduate writing: your audience is concretely embodied in the figure of your professor and no one else. This makes you feel like you are, in fact, writing for somebody, as Bartholomae writes (134), and limits your ability to “invoke”—i.e. imagine—a wider audience. Maybe it even makes the scholarly conversation feel a bit like a fiction.

This is where the Writing Center comes in. We are that wider audience that the traditional academic structure doesn’t make room for. Here, students can interact with an audience, and can use those interactions to bolster their authority. Not only that, but at the Writing Center, we can truly engage in the scholarly conversation.