Thursday, 22 November 2012

Writing centres as rehearsal spaces: part two – who is rehearsing and what for?

In our previous post, we discussed some ideas we have had as a team about writing centres as rehearsal spaces in the university, and who the participants in those rehearsals might be and what their roles may look like. In this post, we look at the second part of our discussion – who is rehearsing and what they could be rehearsing for, and some of the limitations of this metaphor.

As promised in Part one, the two questions we will look at here are:

2. If we think about the writing centre as a rehearsal space, who is rehearsing and what for? What role are we playing in helping students rehearse, and what constitutes the 'play' or the polished 'product' that will be viewed or read? What forms could these rehearsals take? Are you, as writing tutors, in rehearsal? What for?

3. Is this metaphor useful in thinking through the different roles we take on in a writing centre? Where are the limitations or constraints?

In the first instance, the students who come to talk about their writing are rehearsing. They have tried out a piece of writing, which they bring as a draft to discuss with the peer writing tutors. In working with them we are, to delve into the metaphor of stage and plays, ‘workshopping’ the piece with them. We ask questions and draw them into discussions that try to get them to think about their writing, and whether or not the audience will receive it well; to think about themselves as writers, and what they want to say, or show, to their audience; and about the audience itself – who are they writing to, and what do they need to put into the ‘play’ to show their audience that they have achieved what they were asked to achieve? Students, perhaps, are rehearsing for a range of things. Students want to pass, so they write for the approval and marks that will ensure this. Students also write to develop knowledge and appropriate stances towards that knowledge; they write to gain recognition from the experts and insiders in their field of study; and students write to give evidence of learning, and whether they have achieved certain standards or levels of learning set by the disciplines, departments and faculties they are part of.  It can be tricky, then, for peer writing tutors who take on the roles of coach, or in some instances where additional support is needed, director, to guide the rehearsal and writing process such that students are empowered both ontologically and epistemologically – so that they can rehearse for a multitude of roles and for an appropriate audience with increasing confidence and skill.

I read somewhere that there is no such thing as a ‘final’ draft. There is only a draft that we work on until we have to hand it in for comments or assessment. There will always be work to do on that draft, and we could revisit it over and over down time and make numerous big and small revisions. So, what is the final ‘product’ or ‘play’ that the students produce for their audience? And how do we, in this more hesitant and developmentally-focused rehearsal space, help students to appreciate the process that goes into becoming a more capable and proficient writer (and through that knower) in their fields of study when so much of the focus is not on the rehearsal (and the value of those conversations and false-starts and duffed lines and missteps in developing the ‘play’ that the audience gets to see), but is rather on the polished and finished ‘product’? There is altogether too much focus on product in academic writing, and not enough on process and on mistakes and not-knowing and trying things on and out to get to knowing. This is why this metaphor of writing centres as rehearsal spaces is valuable and why the metaphor of rehearsing for students writing in academia can be a productive and liberating one for both students and lecturers in other contexts as well.

The forms rehearsals could take are many and varied, and in our writing centre we ask students to workshop their assignments using free-writing, conversation, debate and even visual representations of their writing. We draw them into conversations about their writing in a range of ways that we try to vary and play with as we get to know the students a little, and we try to find ourselves in their anxieties, struggles and also triumphs, because we are all writers too, and remembering that is important.

Finally, on this point, the peer writing tutors are also rehearsing. In every tutorial we are rehearsing for future tutorials with students, trying things out and evaluating what works and what doesn’t so that we can keep growing as tutors, and as actors in this space we occupy. For many peer tutors, the rehearsals are also developing their capacity as future academic lecturers. The rehearsal process tutors experience in working with student writing shapes and changes their thinking about the process of learning, and requires them to be reflexive about the role of writing in learning – their own and other students’. As we teach, we also learn, and this constant reflexivity and evaluation creates a process of ongoing development and growth, and insight into writing as a learning and thinking process.

This is not a perfect metaphor for the way writing centres work and what we do every day, or for thinking about a more process-oriented approach to student writing in higher education. Most metaphors tend to fall apart somewhere along the line. However, in spite of the limitations of this metaphor which I don’t have space to delve into here, such as who the audience really is in academia, and thinking of writing as a ‘play’ or ‘act’ (which becomes quite complex), I think that this is a productive, creative and provocative way in which to think about what writing centres, as well as academics, can do in teaching students how to think differently and through writing become different and more proficient kinds of knowers in their chosen fields. If all the world is a stage, and if we are all players on or in it, and if students need to be proficient in certain ways to win accolades, recognition and jobs, then what are the kinds of things we could be doing to create more spaces to make the thinking and writing practices, rules and expectations of the disciplines clearer to novice student actor-writers? What are the ways in which we could turn other spaces in the academy into rehearsal spaces for student writing?

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Writing centres as rehearsal spaces: part one - developing the metaphor of writing as rehearsing

This post, divided into two because it is long, and detailed, comes out of a discussion with the peer writing tutors I work with. As we all work as peer tutors, I will refer to us as a team in these posts, because this is how we work, even though I also play the role of coordinator of the team. These two posts reflect their ideas and inputs on this notion of writing as rehearsing.

I got the idea for the discussion from Lucia Thesen at the University of Cape Town, who is working with the notion of writing as rehearsal in her own work with postgraduate writers. I really liked the idea of a writing centre as a rehearsal space, and wanted us to explore it in relation to our work at UWC, so I set us as a team of peer writing tutors the task of  coming up with this blog post, unpacking and fleshing out this idea. The questions on which the discussion was based are as follows:

1. Think of the metaphor of the writing centre as a theatre - the stage, the actors, the director, the script and the scriptwriters - who else is involved in the production? If we extend this metaphor to writing and a writing centre in a university, who plays these various roles? Who is involved in the writing process?

2. If we think about the writing centre as a rehearsal space, who is rehearsing and what for? What role are we playing in helping students rehearse, and what constitutes the 'play' or the polished 'product' that will be viewed or read? What forms could these rehearsals take? Are you, as writing tutors, in rehearsal? What for?

3. Is this metaphor useful in thinking through the different roles we take on in a writing centre? Where are the limitations or constraints?

In this first post we will unpack and expand on the question in part 1, and in the second post we will comment on parts 2 and 3.

1. In thinking about the Writing Centre in which we work as a ‘theatre’ or as a ‘stage’, we think that often we are in the cast with the students. We have multiple roles here: we are in the cast ‘directed’ by the coordinator and ‘produced’ by the higher levels of administration that set our budget and define our role – write a part of our script so to speak. But within that space, we are also rewriting and revising our roles and our script, so we are also scriptwriters, and directors to a certain extent.  In addition to these two roles, we are also members of a different kind of cast, where the directors and producers are outside of the Writing Centre in the disciplines and departments from which the students come to us for help. Here the scriptwriters, directors and producers are the lecturers who set the assignments and the departments and wider university who set the standards and requirements that the assignments must meet. So we, along with the students, must work with the script they are given to produce, in collaboration, a performance worthy of the praise from the audience.

This also raises the question of audience, and the multiple roles that peer writing tutors can play in this rehearsal space, and also who the rehearsing is for. When we are reading and commenting on the students’ work, before they come and see us if we have a draft, and when we are in the tutorial session with them, we are the audience. We construct ourselves as readers, and as critical friends, and that is, by necessity, the role of an audience. But there are layers of audience here, and these all influence the writing tutorial, and the rehearsal space created there.  There is the person or people the assignment is being written for, usually a lecturer or tutor; this is a largely visible audience, because these are real, tangible people. However, there is also an invisible audience invoked by this visible one; that of the wider academic community into which students are wanting to gain admission. When we write, we write to the person assessing our work, but they represent a discipline, and a community of knowers or ‘insiders’ whose voices and ideas we may be drawing into our work, and whose recognition we want, so that we too can be seen as ‘insiders’, as belonging. This brings to mind Lillis’ point about students inventing themselves through their texts, playing with voices and identities, trying them on to find one that ‘fits’ or feels like them. Linked to this is a point she makes about students also inventing their audience – their tutors and lecturers – and trying to work out how to find the right voice or stance in their writing to gain the approval of the tutor or lecturer in their heads (2001). This highlights just how complex the task of working out who we are writing to (rehearsing for) can be in academic and disciplinary writing. As writers of journal articles, and PhD and MA dissertations, we are all experiencing this process of ‘becoming’ and taking on new identities and a new voice as we write, while also trying to work out who we are writing to and what that audience will want from us so that we will earn standing ovations and calls of ‘Bravo!’ rather than boos and, even worse, silence.

Finally, we thought about the notion of the script – what defines or influences of shapes the interactions we have with students? Again, the notion of multiple layers is at play because there is more than one script involved. Firstly, there is the assignment, and the expectations attached to that assignment; this is the lecturer’s script. Then, there is the conversation the student wants to have about that assignment and their difficulties, questions etc; this is their script for this part of the rehearsal. Then there are our scripts; our plans for the writing tutorial and the advice we think the student will benefit from in (re)writing their assignment. We could probably add to this the wider scripts of the departments and disciplines that impact on the assignments the lecturers design and the criteria they write for students, and these also shape and influence this rehearsal space.

These are complex issues, and the discussion out of which this post and the one to follow have come has highlighted this. In any dialogic space there are a multitude of voices speaking, and silenced, and there are several roles which the participants can play. In the next post we turn to consider what we are rehearsing for and why, and some of the limitations of this metaphor.

Lillis, Theresa M. 2001. Student Writing. Access, Regulation, Desire. London and New York: Routledge.

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Monday, 20 August 2012

Blog from the 'borderland': initial thoughts on the tensions inherent in writing centre work

In this post we want to explore some preliminary ideas we are unpacking and writing about in a paper we hope to publish next year. The central claim we are exploring is the idea of a writing centre, shaped in the way so many around the world are as spaces for learning, contesting and practicing different forms of writing and other literacy practices, can be conceived of as a ‘borderland’ (Rijn 2010).

South Africa has a complicated and painful history of unequal access to primary, secondary and tertiary education that has profoundly shaped many aspects of our social, economic and educational landscapes. A long period of educational deprivation aimed at black South Africans has led to a ‘persisting heritage of educational underpreparedness’ (Moore 1996: 7). This has led, starting in the 1980s and continuing to this day, to many universities creating academic development units focused on catering for the educational needs of these underprepared students (Archer 2010). Historically, academic development work has, in many local and global contexts, sat on the margins of higher education environments and discourses, its teachers and researchers marginalised just as the students they work with have been. This has been changing in recent years, with this kind of work being integrated more and more into mainstream academic teaching and learning. Writing centres, so many of them in South Africa born out of this academic development context, have faced the same challenges of marginalisation, and working to create spaces for themselves to work more in the mainstream: to be seen less and less as hospital for ‘sick’ writing (North 1984: 435) and more and more as a space where academic identity and institutional power relations are negotiated, formed and reformed through the medium of the writing tasks the students are working on. [Because, of course, writing is a practice shaped by knowledge, and the struggles students have with academic writing also stem from the fact that academic disciplines draw on particular sociocultural capital in generating and debating the knowledge they value, and undergraduate students are not insiders to these ‘ways of knowing’ yet). Yet this quest to be recognised as a more complex, and not-remedial, academic space is ongoing, and can be frustrating at times. In this post we want to reflect very briefly on some ideas that we are putting into a paper we are writing on the tensions inherent in writing centre work, and how we can understand and theorise the space occupied by writing centres as being a ‘borderland’.

At UWC, and at many other writing centres around the world, the work that is done with student-writers is framed, broadly, by an ‘academic literacies approach’. Briefly, this means that we understand academic literacy (linked to the teaching and learning of academic writing practices) as plural; there are different and multiple ‘literacies’, and these are all socially situated, ideological in nature, and continually shifting and changing. Learning, reading, writing and thinking are all part of value systems – often shaped by the knowledge that is being learnt and read and written and thought about – and writing and related practices cannot be seen as generic, or discreet or objective (see the work of Boughey 2002; Lea and Street 1998; Lillis 2001, for example). What this means in practice is that we engage with students in conversation about their writing, framing our conversation with this understanding of academic writing and learning, and we aim to help students see and understand more clearly what they need to do to understand, research and answer their assignments in ways that further ‘induct’ them into the literacy practices of their discipline. We also try, where possible, to encourage students to question and challenge the conventions they find as part of their developing an academic identity and working out a place for themselves in the academy. Herein lies the rub, though. You could argue that writing centres who frame their work thus, and try to work not only to socialise students into the dominant conventions around academic writing and learning, but also try to help students challenge and question these, occupy a kind of ‘borderland’. There are (often) conflicting demands placed on our time. On the one hand, we are tasked with assimilating and socialising students into a hegemonic higher education system that has fairly set ways of knowing, doing, thinking and writing that are often at odds with students’ prior experiences of learning and writing. These ways are underpinned by dominant conceptions of academic literacy/ies that frame students who cannot master them in terms of a deficit discourse; as somehow needing to be ‘fixed’; or worse as being unworthy or unable to manage higher education (Lea and Street 1998; Lillis 2001; Archer 2010). Yet, on the other hand, many writing centres believe that we also have an ‘allegiance’ to resistance as well. Carter argues that writing centres have been ‘committed to representing literacy…differently’ for more than 40 years. She claims that autonomous conceptions of literacy are ‘ubiquitous’ and it has been the work of writing centres to expose these conceptions and to argue for different, less exclusive, and less ‘neutral’ set of literacies (Carter 2009: 134; 135). 
Yet, if we accept this argument as being persuasive or valid, we may well find that this dual allegiance creates tension as writing centres try to occupy a space that falls between assimilation and socialisation into the dominant forms and conceptions of literacy on the one hand, and resistance to and critique of their dominance on the other. Carter captures these tensions so clearly when she argues that: ‘The writing center is made up of a series of rhetorical spaces in which tutors and students attempt to negotiate academic projects assigned by and evaluated by individuals who are not directly associated with/involved in the writing center’s daily activities. We represent the student, not the teacher. We represent the system, not the student. We represent neither, and we represent both’ (2009: 136).

What we are unpacking in our paper are the practical manifestations of these tensions – how we see and experience them with the students who come to us for help with their writing, and how we can use these concept of a ‘borderland’ and the potential it gives for creativity and thinking-outside-of-the-box in forging our writing centre’s identity and the role we play in creating increasingly contestable, flexible and critical spaces in which to teach, write and learn. Watch this space for more!

Archer, A. 2010. ‘Challenges and potentials for Writing Centres in South African tertiary institutions. SAJHE, 24(4): 495-510.

Boughey, Chrissie. 2002. ‘“Naming” students’ problems: An analysis of language-related discourses at a South African University. Academic Development Centre, Rhodes University [Online]. Available at: [Accessed 29 July 2009].

Carter, S. 2009. The Writing Center Paradox: Talk about Legitimacy and the Problem of Institutional Change. College Composition and Communication, 61(1): 133-152.

Lea, Mary and Brian V. Street. 1998. ‘Student writing in higher education: An academic literacies approach’, Studies in Higher Education, 23:2, 157-173.

Lillis, Theresa M. 2001. Student Writing. Access, Regulation, Desire. London and New York: Routledge.

North, Stephen M. 1984. ‘The Idea of a Writing Center’. College English, 46:5, 433 – 446.

Rijn, A. 2010. ‘Resistance One-on-One: An undergraduate peer tutor’s perspective’.
Journal of Marxism and Interdisciplinary Inquiry, 3(2): 20-24.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

From knowing to not knowing and back again: a student’s tale

This will be a fairly personal musing on the process of becoming an academic scholar, and the iterative and challenging nature of it. Here, I am referring to the journey from the first year of undergraduate studies to graduation three or four or more years later, and, for a number of graduates, the journey into Masters and Phd study beyond that.  In my professional life currently I have two roles: I am a PhD student, but I also work in a writing centre, with undergraduate student writers. My work is focused on helping students to make sense of what they are learning about so that they can write about their knowledge and learning in new and varied forms, that show their lecturers and tutors that they are becoming people who know things. This is perhaps quite a simplistic way of looking at the matter, but this is, in essence, why students write: to demonstrate their ability to work with and communicate knowledge in the forms recognised by the disciplines or environments they are working in. In both of these roles, I have been thinking about this: what is involved in this process of becoming someone who knows and can demonstrate that knowledge, and be recognised as a knower? How can I, as both a student myself and someone who works with students, unpack and understand this process so that I can be more successful in both roles?

I will reflect on my role as a student first. I have been studying, on and off, for fourteen years now, and I am not yet finished. There was quite a long gap – five years – between finishing my MA and registering for my PhD. It took me a while to feel ready to take on this challenge, largely because I shifted fields as a result of the work I was doing during that time. So, I not only took on a hugely challenging task in the form of writing a PhD thesis and all that goes into that, I also took on the task of reading, thinking and writing my way into a new field of research, knowledge and practice. It has been, to say the least, a humbling process, even though it has been quite rewarding at times, and certainly interesting. It has been humbling because of this thing of knowledge and knowing, and the feeling of empowerment and confidence that comes with feeling that you know – what to say, what to write and how to make sense of what you hear and read and fit that new knowledge into what is already in your head. I don’t often feel that I know, these days. The theory I am drawing on is very new to me, and at times very dense and incomprehensible, even. In my previous field and studies I felt I could speak and write and read with far more confidence, and when I hear people speaking about their research in that field, I feel this wonderful sense of familiarity and being ‘at home’. I have not yet reached this place entirely in my new field, but I am not completely in the dark either. I move between knowing and not knowing – between definitely,  maybe and I have no idea! – fairly often, and it’s not always easy. It’s often frustrating and I find it hard to stay motivated and keen when it gets really tough and I have loads of other pressures on me, from work and family and life in general.

This leads me to my role at work, in the writing centre. I work with undergraduate students who are on this journey from not knowing to knowing, and myself and the writing tutors work to help them make enough sense of what they do know and what they bring with them to tutoring sessions so that they can communicate this knowledge effectively and appropriately. My experience on my own learning journey has been a useful starting point for reflecting on just how frustrating and even alienating this process can be for students who are new to tertiary learning, and to the different ways in which disciplinary knowledge is taught and needs to be learnt and communicated. [It must also be recognised that in addition to this challenge many students in South Africa who come from poor home and school backgrounds have many other educational, personal and financial challenges that further add to their already full plates.] Learning is an iterative journey – students at any level move between knowing and not knowing and back again many times as they encounter new arguments and theories and practices. And the process of learning and integrating new knowledge with existing knowledge is a constant one that will continue beyond the university. A big part of what tertiary education needs to do is to support students in navigating this iterative process by giving them the tools they need to manage this process effectively, inside and beyond the university. A writing centre is one space in which students can learn useful tools for connecting dots using language, and for practicing the different forms of communicating their knowledge to their peers in ways that will be recognised and rewarded. It is also a space, importantly, where is it okay to not know (at least for a little while J). As a student and a tutor, these spaces where one can not know and muddle through to a place where knowing seems possible and things are clear, and then move back into a space of doubt and confusion (knowing and hoping it won’t last long!) is so important. It is important because I can be in that space with others who are on the same journey, but perhaps at different points along the way, so there is support and recognition and validation; it is a space where the doubt, confusion and questioning are recognised as a necessary and useful part of the iterative process of learning and becoming and coming to know, rather than viewed as evidence that one is not coping or in the wrong place.

I know, because of my own self-knowledge, and my previous learning experiences at university, that the confusion and doubt are not permanent states, but only part of the process. If I hang in there and keep reading and writing and asking questions, I will get to where I need to me. But, my experience has shown me that many undergraduate students, particularly those from poor socioeconomic and educational backgrounds, do not always have that same kind of self-confidence. For many the not knowing is overwhelming and the challenge of staying motivated and engaged in the learning process is too great.  One of the ways in which I think we could help these students is through creating more spaces, in and outside academic departments and disciplines where not knowing is recognised as a part of the journey towards knowing, and where the iterative and complex process of learning can be seen as such and supported in relevant and creative ways. I am proud to work in one of those spaces.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

The quest for making the fuzzy work of writing centres worthy of recognition

It took me a good few minutes to think of the title for this blog post. And I have been thinking about writing it for a while. It has been an incredibly busy semester for our small writing centre, and more than 900 students saw us either in person at the Centre or in workshops requested by their lecturers. And it is this number that got me thinking about writing this post. I have been thinking, for a while now, what is in a number? How can we justify the funding we receive and the number of peer tutors we employ and our continued existence in the university at a time when writing centres in other parts of the world, like the UK, are closing down and their roles being diluted, challenged and changed into other kinds of work, like staff development and learning and skills development for students?

This is, I think, a big and pressing question for writing centres, and perhaps even for academic writing development work more broadly. And I think it is hard to answer, because of the nature of the work we do. It is fuzzy, often, and it is hard to show, in pass rates, or throughput numbers, or even in student assignment scripts, exactly what role our intervention has played in students’ ability to succeed (or not). Our work is fuzzy at a time when higher education wants clarity. The managerial or business model that is so pervasive in higher education globally that drives us towards learning outcomes, and targets and a focus on universities as service providers and students as consumers does not leave much room for fuzziness, for not knowing, for exploration and for getting things wrong before we get them right. We are, as a sector, required to train students to work in the ‘knowledge economy’ and this has moved higher education further along the path of quality assurance, and quantification of impact and learning. Many universities globally have graduate attributes and academics have to benchmark their curricula against these to show how they are producing graduates with a range of knowledge, skills and attitudes. Being clear about what you are teaching students and for what purpose, and also being able to show students what they are intended to learn and how they will be assessed, and why, is good teaching practice. University education is often opaque and obscure to students, and even to a lot of academics. Any moves that make transparency and clarity a part of teaching practice are good ones, to my mind. I am not taking issues with outcomes-based education here, or even taking the managerial model for HE to task. What I am concerned about it what all these trends and requirements mean for the kind of work that writing centres and academic developers do, whether working with staff or students.

The concern comes back to the question I asked at the beginning of this post: how do we (writing centres) show what impact we are having on student success when so much of what we do with students is ‘fuzzy’ and difficult to quantify in a pass mark or a certain kind of essay response? I am not yet sure. One response might be to make our work seem less fuzzy; to try and plan research projects that show that students are improving directly because they have come to the writing centre for help. But, as Archer (2010) points out, students do a lot of writing and reading and talking about writing in and outside of class and tutorials and the writing centre It is possible to show that students are improving in their written work, and make a correlation between that and visits to the writing centre, but we can only ever claim to be part of the improvement, rather than the cause of the whole improvement, so we cannot put a number on it, like 8% or something like that. Another response might be to try harder to get the work that we do out of the ‘margins’ and into the mainstream, but creating co-teaching partnerships with lecturers, or by inviting whole classes of students to come to the writing centre and have their attendance recorded, so that a correlation can be made between attendance and success. This is not a bad idea, and many writing centres have had success working in classrooms with lecturers and tutors. I do this, and I enjoy the variation it lends to the work I do, and the opportunities it gives me to be creative and to highlight the importance of thinking carefully about writing. But I am also persuaded by Terrance Riley’s argument that writing centres should avoid mainstreaming their work and their identity too much. In essence, he argues that writing centres, and this could extend to any work done from a space outside of what is considered mainstream, can speak with a different kind of authority, and with a different kind of voice, from the less mainstreamed space. By keeping ourselves and our work outside of the mainstream, we can carve out a different kind of space in which to work, and perhaps can better resist the pushes and pulls that I am sure some of us working in writing centres must feel to justify our work in ways that move us towards discourses of quality assurance and quantification of impact. Perhaps we can continue to make our work worthy of recognition, and the other good things, like funding and praise, if we continue to construct our identities as different from those of academic departments, for example. Not just because we are quite obviously not an academic department, but also because we have a very different and just as valuable role to play in creating access to higher education that will hopefully lead many students towards success as well.

I will close this brief musing with a return to my original prompt. How does a writing centre justify its need to work in fuzzy spaces in a time of increasing desire for clarity and definite-ness? I am disinclined to use the numbers of students we see as a source of evidence for the university’s continued investment in us. But having said this, I do it (as part of a bigger picture of evidence, like student and lecturer feedback and tutor development). Why? Because, I believe, like Shannon Carter, that sometimes it is profitable to speak in the languages that are understood and spoken by the people one is speaking to, rather than only in one’s own language. I do not, in my academic work, speak the language of numbers, and I don’t really think there are many writing centres that do. But universities do. So, when I am asked what we have done all year, and what my budget for the following year is, I am required to form a hybrid language to report in, where I speak a more qualitative language of worth as defined by what the peer tutors and students have gained from their many conversations and debates about writing, and by what my colleagues have gained from partnering with us to run writing workshops for their students. The other part of this hybrid language is numbers, and speaking of our continued value in terms of how many students we have worked with, and how many departments and lecturers have sought our help, and what percentage of students thought we were great as opposed to unhelpful. But I continue to wonder if there are different ways in which to talk about being ‘worthy’ that I have not yet thought of. Thus, the musing continues…

Archer, A. 2008. Investigating the effect of Writing Centre interventions on student writing. SAJHE 22(2): 248–264.

Riley, T. 1994. The unpromising future of writing centers. The Writing Center Journal, 15(1): 20-34

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

What a writing centre is and can be - some thoughts

At the beginning of this year, during our initial training, I posed this question to the team of tutors working in the Writing Centre: 'what is a writing centre - specifically, OUR writing centre - all about?' I thought I would share our collective answers, and then put the question out to readers of this blog.

The first thing we highlighted was 'peer-ness' and the way in which peer-to-peer relationships shape our work at the UWC Writing Centre (and many other centres we know of). In the first instance, the peer writing tutors are all postgraduate students, and are studying at the university, so they try to create learning spaces during writing tutorials in which they are peers to the undergraduate students they are working with. They work with students as 'critical friends', who are closer to them in terms of age and experience than many of their lecturers are. The notion of peer-ness also works to disrupt hierarchical relationships, where the writing tutor is cast as expert and the student as novice who needs to be taught. Rather, the way in which writing centres like the one we are creating prefer to work is in conversation with students, where the talk enables the students to work through their own ideas and thoughts and struggles out loud, with the support and guidance of an experienced and compassionate peer (see Archer 2010; Harris 1995; Nichols 2011). The student and tutor ideally participate equally in the conversation, and the student's knowledge of their subject and their own writing is validated and encouraged, without the tutor assuming a position of dominance and therefore turning the conversation into a didactic teaching session.
In the second instance, the tutors in the team are all peers to one another and to the coordinator, and we work consistently to create a collegial environment that empowers and enables us to learn from one another, in conversation, and to challenge ourselves to grow and develop as academics and as tutors in a space that supports us in this process. We feel very strongly that this environment is far preferable to one in which tutors and coordinator are also set up in a hierarchical relationship when the group is dominated by the interests and plans of one person. As writing tutorials should be an exercise in mutual discussion and exploration of the topic or writing at hand, with the guidance and probing of the more experienced writer to keep things moving towards the goal of the students' growth in skill and confidence, so should the training and support of writing tutors be, with the coordinator as guide and supporter, rather than manager.

The second thing we highlighted was the idea of growth and journeys of discovery, and how working in the writing centre lends itself to reflection on our growth as writers and educators. We talked mostly about ourselves here - our growth and development as educators, academics and writers - and the ways in which we can see or track the growth and the journey so far. One of the thoughts that came through was linked to the issue of identity - and the creation and disruption of identities we feel we have. Who are we as writers, and young academics, and tutors or teachers? How can we take what we have learned about ourselves so far as writers, for example, and use this to shape our tutor identity, and make ourselves more effective writing tutors, for example? If we work in the disciplines, and we all do in various capacities, how do our disciplinary academic identities shape us as writing tutors, and where are the challenges and disruptions? For example, a current tutor who is a scientist finds that working in the writing centre gives him space to explore some aspects of his academic identity that are often taken for granted, like his 'voice' and when and how he is allowed to use it in his writing. He can take his insights into discussions with colleagues and use their input to reflect on his experiences of learning and writing, and hopefully that process will move him forward in terms of his own self-awareness and also his practices as a writing tutor. Many of the tutors have commented over the last three years on how the process of helping students with their writing is making them more self-aware and active writers, and about how that process leads them to improve and to discover new aspects of their identity as academic writers.

Finally, we highlighted the collegial nature of our work. We put a human face and a human heart onto academia for the many students who come here and struggle to find elsewhere the level of care and personal attention that a writing centre can provide by virtue of the way it works – certainly we find this in our case based on student feedback. We work hard to create a space in the Writing Centre where we can share with one another as a team – our ideas, struggles, achievements, triumphs – and where students can share with us their struggles and successes with academic writing. This is a place for mutual learning; where mindsets and ideas can be shifted and changed without fear of judgement or criticism; where we support and guide one another as we support and guide students in their academic and personal journeys, because the two are never separate and discreet. We all find our particular writing centre to be a true ‘happy place’, where we have friends and colleagues we can laugh with and learn from, and where, every day, we get to make a difference, however small, in the lives of the students who choose to come to us for help. This really is rewarding and challenging work, with huge potential to transform those who do the work, and those who benefit from it, and also the wider institutions we are a part of (see Nichols 2011).

So, now I pose the question to our readers, and we would love to hear your thoughts: what is a writing centre in your contexts, and how do you work in ways that are similar or different?


Archer, A. 2010. ‘Challenges and potentials for Writing Centres in South African tertiary institutions. SAJHE, 24(4): 495-510.

Harris, M. 1995. ‘Talking in the middle: Why writers need writing tutors’. College English, 57(1): 27-42.

Nichols, Pamela. 1998 [2011]. ‘A snowball in Africa with a chance of flourishing: Writing centres as shifters of power in a South African university. In Archer, A. and Richards, R. (Eds). Changing Spaces: Writing Centres and Access to Higher Education. Stellenbosch: SUNMedia Press.

Friday, 9 March 2012

Our first posting - is anyone out there?

Welcome to our new blog!!

This is the first of what will hopefully be many postings, and the start of a new online community interested in talking and thinking and writing about academic writing in higher education. There are so many angles from which teachers, tutors and academic literacy practitioners approach the teaching and support of academic writing - for their students and their peers. We at the UWC Writing Centre hope that those of you reading this blog who are interested and involved in working with student writers (or any writers, really) will find these posts helpful and thought-provoking, and we hope you will add to the conversation and help us create this online community. We hope this will be a very vibrant, challenging and also supportive space where we can all share our thoughts and ideas about writing.
If you would like to find out more about the UWC Writing Centre please visit our Facebook page (The UWC Writing Centre) or our website (

Happy writing in the meantime - more news and scribblings soon!