This week’s readings connected may of the ideas we’ve discussed in previous classes and examined how they converged to reflect on the role of a writing center specifically. I really appreciated how Bawarshi and Pelkowski nuanced North’s claim, which I had initially agreed with on the most fundamental level: writing centers are not “fix-it” shops, rather, they should strive to help students develop the skills necessary to become “successful” writers. There’s the rub these postcolonial theorists point out: how (and by whom) is “success” defined? What is at stake when you, as a tutor, interfere in a student’s writing to “change its rhythm?” (North 239).
Bawarshi and Pelkowski presented the idea of writing centers as “contact zones” between discourse communities to facilitate the creation of a “mestiza consciousness” in which students are aware of and able to navigate multiple (even contradictory) identities while situated in the dominant academic discourse community. In this way, “the writing center can, in a truly postmodern sense, become a structure within the university that examines and exposes its context at the same time as it functions within it” (54).
I found myself applauding this solution as a measured compromise between rejecting acculturation and acknowledging the reality of academic writing in college. Writing centers should totally do this– I stopped halfway through the thought as I realized “writing centers” wasn’t the true subject of that sentence: it’s me, the writing partner, who was going to have to make this change happen. The stakes were suddenly raised, these articles weren’t just abstract musings about the role writing centers anymore, I had a personal responsibility to put their theories into practice. How exactly, though? What does pointing out that academic discourse is just one convention (not necessarily the best convention) of writing? I held out hope that the Reger’s article would show me what a post-structuralist tutor pedagogy looks like.
And low and behold, Reger said in his abstract we’d be dealing with case studies! Good, solid, specific techniques for how to be encourage critical consciousness! Right?
Haha nope. Just two examples of Reger failing at this endeavor.
So far, I haven’t had a consultation in which a student’s writing style is severely tortuous, partially because they come from a marginalized background and a different discourse community. If I had, however, I could easily see myself resorting to just correcting them, as Reger did. He did reflect on what he ought to have done to allow the student to form a mestiza consciousness, but he didn’t show how exactly to articulate the he wanted to communicate. These case studies didn’t do a lot for me.
Finally, at the end of his paper, Reger came close to explaining what I wanted to hear.
“In practice, this means changing how tutors explain errors, as well as academic discourse itself, when responding to the writing of underprepared students. Avoid absolute “wrong” or “right” judgments—identify errors always as what is expected by professors in academic discourse. Emphasize that academic discourse is not necessarily the best or the ideal, but what is expected in the context of the American university. Couch explanations in terms of better understanding academic discourse and how to write within it. Through these methods, the writing center tutor can aid underprepared students by explaining academic discourse and improving their writing within that context—and thus help underprepared students maintain their unique identities by switching between discourses, rather than forcing a permanent choice” (46).
I could hear Young’s screams in the distance.
What if they ask why? “Why do I need to write this way? It doesn’t make more sense to me.”
On some level, these conventions are arbitrary. How should Writing Partners explain that, say, a certain sentence structure is expected by professors (maybe because it improves clarity, or just makes grammatical sense) if the student simply doesn’t see the issue without, on some level, privileging the conventions for academic writing? Is there a sense in which students have to know the rules of academic writing in order to legitimately negotiate their identities and determine when is is appropriate to “switch” between discourses?
What about cases in which students from non-marginalized backgrounds (a white athlete who shared stories from his family’s trip across Europe over the summer), write in a very convoluted manner? What should we tell him about writing conventions? Does he also form a “mestiza consciousness?” I guess what I’m trying to get at here is, on some level, aren’t most people, at least to some extent, switching between discourses when writing an academic paper? How many students were raised in such a way where there wasn’t a moment in which they learned there were specific academic writing conventions? What do y’all think: is a part of the stereotypical affluent white person’s identity changed if the “rhythm” of their writing is altered?
I suppose the role of the writing center is just to make students aware of the fact that these conventions exist, whether they’re legitimate or not. From this point, the student can take this knowledge and fashion their own identity as a writer, but one that is not imposed on them in a “fix-it” shop as the best way to write. They can follow Young’s advice and use their own personal voice in writing, or they can completely conform to academic conventions. The point is, though, that they’re aware of this choice.