Sep 17, 2014
Welcome to mere Rhetoric. The podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movements that have shaped Rhetorical History. I'm Mary Hedengren. You can find mere Rhetoric on iTunes, or by directly subscribing from our rss feed. You can also find us on twitter at @mererhetoricked. Also you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Now me recording this podcast in 2014 is especially timely, because we're going to talk about an important article that came in college english 30 years ago this year. Stephen North's "Idea of a Writing Center" This essay has been hugely influential in the rapidly growing and professionalized field of writing center studies. Back in 1984, though, writing centers couldn't get no respect. Writing labs of the early 20th century, were often responses to a deficiency model of writing education. The students who were coming in were seen as remedial. And thus in need of one on one attention from tutors before they could proceed in their composition classes. This was a response to the same crises that we talked about in the podcast about the Harvard reports. By the 1980's writing centers were becoming more abundant on campuses, but that doesn't mean they were popular. Often shunted to the literal basements of building, with creaky, leaky facilities and an underpaid, non 10 year track director, writing centers were somehow expected to fix students writing, but even under such terrible circumstances, writing center theory, was blossoming. Aided by such scholars as Murial Harris and Stephen North. Stephen North was a good candidate to have written such a manifesto as "The Idea of a Writing Center" In the 1980's, North was a discipline maker. His thorough taxonomy of composition research in "The Making of Knowledge and Composition" has sometimes been tapped as the foundational manifesto of research and composition. We'll probably talk about it in the future, but, the idea of a writing center was no less a manifesto, in the world of writing center studies. The first line of the article reads, "This is an essay that began out of frustration." The frustration is palpable, as North addresses some of the complaints that writing centers have, from, and he means this the nice way, "ignorant colleagues" Everyone is ignorant according to North. Everyone in the profession. Even people in composition are ignorant. They do not understand what does happen, what can happen, in a writing center, says North. And it's not just that North feels misunderstood, it's that this misunderstanding affects the students who come into his door every day. "You can not partial out some portion of a given student for us to deal with," he fumes against his colleagues in writing classes. "You take care of editing, I'll deal with invention. Nor should you require all of your students to drop by with an early draft of a research paper to get a reading from a fresh audience. You should not scrawl at the bottom of a failing paper 'go to the writing center' even those of you, who, out of genuine concern, bring students to a writing center, almost by the hand, to make sure they know that we won't hurt them. Even you are essentially out of line" Ow it seems like a long list of ways to misuse the writing center, and even to a modern audience, all these techniques seem innocent enough. "The main problem" North points out "is that we are not here to serve, supplement, back up, compliment, reinforce, or other wise, be defined by any external curriculum, unless you think North has it out for his colleagues, he even admits that his own writing center includes in it's mission statement, the description of the center as "a tutorial facility for those with special problems and composition" If it's possible to spit something out in a written scholarly article, North fully, spits out the words, in self loathing, and the loathing is that the idea of a writing center can be some sort of skills center, a fix it shop. So, if writing center's aren't just a support for composition, what is the idea of a writing center, anyway? North says "we are here to talk to writers" This definition makes the writing center an independent entity, with it's own purpose in the university. Not just an appendage or fix it shop for composition classes. What a writing center can be is much larger, and North sets out a definition for a writing center that persists to this day. At a writing center, "the object is to make sure that writers, not necessarily their texts, are what gets changed by instruction." In axiom form, it goes like this: Our job is to produce better writers, Not better writing. Ooooohhh. I almost get chills. It's a phrase you hear a lot in writing centers. Better writers, not better writing. What it often means is that writing centers aren't editing services or a way to improve an assignment, or even get an A in the class, but and educational site themselves, that hope to teach writing skills and process that students can take with them in any class and even after graduation. In this sense, the writing center, as North says, is going to be student centered in the strictest sense of the term. It will begin from where the student is and move where the students moves. North suggests that writing centers are uniquely qualified to do this work, since the teaching of writing can take place as much as possible, during writing. During the activity being learned. Instead of before or after the writing in a class. The fact is, North continues, not everyone's interest in writing their need of desire to write or learn to write, coincide with the 15 or 30 weeks they spend in writing courses. Especially when, as is currently the case at so many institutions, those weeks are required. Anyone who has taught composition can attest that students sometimes have a hard time, seeing the point of skills that their teachers immediately identify as critical for future writing. But then imperative of finishing the class, can be the only imperative for students, and so it can be hard for them to understand how these skills apply in other writing situations. On the contrary, at writing centers, North suggests, this is not the case at all, because the motivation is real. Any given project is the material that students bring in, and that particular text, it's success or failure, motivates the students. Students who are motivated by applying to law school or understanding a lab report, are often suddenly willing to see the importance of writing skills, that would have been abstract in a writing class. These students, as North says, are suddenly willing, sometimes overwhelmingly so, to concern themselves with audience, purpose, and persona, and to revise over and over again, because, suddenly writing is a vehicle. A means to an end. And when those ends are important to students, so will the means be. The ideas from North's idea of a writing center have become common place. Both because the resonate with what was already happening in the writing lab newsletter and other places, and also because they set a course that is followed on still today. Journals such as the writing lab newsletter and writing center journal, in North's words, Demonstrate that writing center folk in general, are becoming more research oriented. And that tradition has expanded as peer reviewed articles and writing center studies support half a dozen journals, including one here out of UT called Praxis. Additional, there are articles often being published in journals like College English, and College Composition and Communication, that deal with different aspects of writing center studies. And when North saw that writing center directors were meeting, "as a recognized national assembly, at the national council of teachers of english" he might have foreseen that writing center studies would bloom into the international writing center association, a biannual conference that draws participants from around the world in the hundreds, and all of the regional conferences affiliated with IWCA, which reminds me, one such conference is the South Central WASSAP writing center association conference, which, actually we're hosting here at the University of Texas at Austin, this coming February. I confess that my interest in the topic of North's article was partially inspired by a call for papers for this very conference, which invokes a 30 year anniversary of the idea of the writing center. If you are interested in writing center studies, and would like to submit a proposal for the conference, please come check it out. Our website is uwc.utexas.edu, and you can find additional details there about the conference, and the call for papers, and specific dates. Things like that. Again, that's uwc.utexas.edu The deadline is October 15, so you have plenty of time to put together any ideas of what you think the idea of a writing can, and should be. I'm going to be one of the folks hosting the conference, so, I would love to see you all down here in Texas this winter, as we talk about the ideas of a writing center s and how much has changed in the last 30 years.