Monthly Archives: August 2012

Literacy in a Material World – in the Writing Center

As I mentioned in my previous post, working in a writing centerreveals the fluid nature of materiality/immateriality when we think about literacy. The material context of literacy can be immediate in a writing center. Students sit down with a draft, an assignment they’ve been handed in class, maybe their notes or a book they’re writing about. Their material text is the focus of their concern and it quickly becomes the focus of our concern as well. The classic image of writing center work is the consultant and student sitting at a table, leaning toward each other, talking intently about the draft in front of them. It provides the focus of the conversation and work on the draft is the central motivation for the student.

What’s more, how the consultant responds to the material text has been a oft-discussed part of writing center scholarship over the years. Should it sit in front of the student or between the student and consultant? Should the student read aloud from the draft? The consultant? If the consultant writes on the draft, does that appropriate agency from the student as a writer? These are all questions that have been on the minds of new consultants to our Writing Center that I’ve been working with the past couple of weeks. If we focus on the images in the writing center, the questions about the text, and the concerns of the student about the draft, if would be easy to imagine that the material artifact is central to our concerns.

Yet, even as the consultant works on the text in front of her, there is a powerful tradition among writing center scholars and consultants that maintains that the material text is not the most important element of the consultation. As I mentioned before, writing centers often drag out the oft-used Stephen North quote that their job should be to produce “to produce better writers, not better writing.” It’s a compelling quotation and I don’t disagree with it – and I’ve pulled it out myself more than once in teaching new consultants or talking about our Writing Center with faculty. Yet, as the students in my Writing Center Theory and Practice course proved the other day, pull out the term “better writers” and begin to unpack it and you quickly find yourself in the realm of the immaterial considerations of literacy. We try to tell ourselves that we know what a “better writer” is, and how to help a student become one. Still, every attempt at the definition leads us to the kind of abstraction that we recognize as elusive and endlessly contextual.

In much of Writing Center scholarship, this conflict between the material text – and the student’s focus on improving that text – and the immaterial goals of creating better writers – often ends with either a lament about students’ inability to get beyond their focus on the material text understand or a somewhat condescending satisfaction that we know what is best for students (even if they don’t recognize it) and should continue to work toward our immaterial goals.

What if we took a different approach? What if we made the tensions between the material artifact on the table and the immaterial concerns of the consultant part of the explicit conversation during the tutoring session? What if the first set of questions consultants’ asked not only addressed the students’ concerns about the draft that motivated them to come to the Writing Center, but also at the less tangible questions about writing that concern us? What if we did a more explicit job of grappling with the abstractions with students first – and not just at the conclusion of the session – and used that as the framework for considering the material text?

If we think that students are intelligent and deserve our respect, let’s not play games about the agenda taking place during a consultation.

More soon.

Literacy in a Material World – Or Not.

The number of administrative emails I’m getting means the summer is clearly about to be over and the new academic year is on its way – the large wave I can sense just beyond the horizon. So, after a summer away from the blog – with some work and some play – I’m drawn back here to start trying to work through some of the things that I’ve been kicking around since May.

In work terms, the highlight of the summer was time spent at the University of Sheffield, both at the Center for the Study of Literacies conference, and in talking with people about plans for my Fulbright there in January. Once again, the conference was a great experience. Small, focused, yet full of surprises, I found myself filling page after page of notes from people like Jennifer Rowsell, Lalitha Vasudevan, Cathy Burnett, Guy Merchant, and Jackie Marsh.

This year the presentations and conversations kept coming back around to the connections/issues/possibilities of how we conceive of literacy as constantly moving between the material and the immaterial. Whether it is the pondering of what being “literate looks, sounds, or feels like” (from Lalitha Vasudevan) or the ways in which children on playgrounds embody in their play the texts they’ve been reading/playing online (Jackie Marsh), or the question of how we think of literacy when it inhabits both the material and immaterial at the same time. This final idea, or the fluid nature of literacy in terms of the material and immaterial has been sticking with me since the conference in July.

Jennifer Rowsell gave a splendid and thoughtful talk about the fluidity of literacy as it exists in the material and immaterial simultaneously. On the one hand, a text, in whether on paper or screen is a material object, and requires material resources to produce. Yet what is produced is simply representation, marks or images on a page or screen that are only meaningful – or bothered with – as immaterial representations of other ideas or things. Literacy is not a material thing. It’s a concept, a skill, an argument. Yet it is perceived by the creation of things. Her talk had been thinking about how the strength of print in particular is its ability to represent the immaterial – emotions, ideas, dreams – and yet can only do so through writing words that are material, but always incomplete representations. And one implication of this fluid sense of the materiality and immateriality of literacy is that it helps explain some of the confusion and conflict that exists in the culture at large when conversations turn to literacy. On the one hand, because there are material artifacts, it seems as if literacy is something we ought to be able to define, categorize, assess, know when we see it. Yet, because all we are seeing in the artifact are incomplete representations of the immaterial, because it is impossible to determine what being literate looks and feels like, any method devised to categorize literacy through work with the materiality of texts inevitably is either simplistic and unenlightening, or contextual and complicated to the point that it isn’t useful (like a map in a Borges story) or is rejected as impractical by institutions interested in efficiency and summary. I think anyone in literacy and education has felt the frustration of others outside the field who push for material and direct – and simplistic – assessments of texts we know to be complex and nuanced.

There are also implications in other areas of our work too. For example, as director of a Writing Center I’m not above trotting out the old chestnut about how the goal of Writing Centers is not just to create better writing, but to create better writers. It’s not that I think that’s a bad philosophy (though I think as many have pointed out there are complexities there that need continual unpacking). But it is the case that when we talk about better writing or better writers, we are also dealing with a situation where a constellation of  material and immaterial concerns come together in subtly complex and shifting ways. The simple concept of having a draft the student wants to improve moves quickly from the material text the student and consultant are reading to the immaterial goal – and perception – of “improvement.” And this is just the start and doesn’t even begin to get at issues of embodied responses, the immaterial presence of the instructor who wrote out the material assignment and so on.

There is much, much more to work on here and I’m only musing on the surface for now. In the meantime I want to point anyone toward the much, much smarter exploration of some of these issues that will be coming out soon from Jennifer Rowsell, Guy Merchant, Kate Pahl, and Cathy Burnett.

For me this conversation came along at a the perfect time as I begin to ponder a new project that will bring me back to the territory of literacy and identity (more on that to come in time.) And, as won’t be a surprise to some who know me, I also found that it connected me back to popular culture and literacy issues (and more on that to come sooner).

Once again, my thanks to the organizers of the conference (Kate Pahl and Julia Davies) and the all the participants who talked of such a range of ideas and perspectives with generosity and insight. More to come soon.