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.

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