No
two writing centers create the same learning environment. The writing center
functions dually as a space for all students and as a facilitator of the
academic discourse set by the university. Authors Bawarshi and Pelkowski define
“academic discourse” as the “acceptable standard of the university” (Bawarshi
and Pelkowski 80). A university’s academic discourse is the standard and style
of language expected for all university students. Having a one-size fits all
expectation of students ignores the fact that a university is a cultural mecca
with an incredibly diverse student body. Using writing pedagogy and theory,
tutors at the writing center can best be equipped with the tools necessary to
help all student writers. This paper seeks to answer the overarching question-
what is the role of the writing center and how should writing center tutors act
as members of an institution that subscribes to an academic discourse?  

This
research question will be answered in three more in-depth areas of inquiry.
First, what, if any, are the major issues with the current state of academic
discourses? One analysis, offered by Bawarshi and Pelkowski, is a critique of
academic discourses and the structural flaws of the writing center in
supplementing the academic standard or values of the university. Barron and
Grimm qualify this separation between the dominant social group and the
marginalized students as structural oppression. Students are not a monolith,
and the wealth and diversity of the student body is met with the same
expectation- write a paper that meets the classroom’s academic discourse. Barron
and Grimm argue that academic discourses need to discuss race as one example
where student experiences are not all the same. The creation and placement of
an academic discourse has the effect of disassociating personal identities and
experiences from language. Specifically, marginalized students face an erasure
of their identities as a result of having to assimilate into the dominant
group. When writing centers do not address race and identity they enable “colorblindness”
(Barron and Grimm 302). Adhering to colorblindness assumes that racial
diversity does not play a significant role in the experiences of student writers.
Therefore, writing centers should address racial diversity because avoiding these
differences in identity and experiences is akin to erasure of a cultural
history.

After
examining current state of the relationship between writing centers and
academic discourses, the second area of inquiry is the theoretical framework of
navigating through this academic discourse successfully. The notion of success
truly depends on the perspective of the student, the writing center, and the
university. Often being successful means that the student must acculturate to
the current academic discourse. North presents this idea of an ideal writing center
as a place to “examine a student’s text as an indicator of the process that
produced it” (North 31). The notion that a student’s text can change on the
direction of a writing center tutor implies that the writing center itself has
the power to alter a student’s thought. Furthermore, this creates the
implication that there is one standard of English writing set by the academic
discourse. The larger issue here is the pressure to acculturate that student’s race.
Acculturation leads to the development of power structures within an
institution, suggesting the subordination of some writers over others. Bawarshi
and Pelkowski say that acculturation is “administrating one’s own power within
one’s own place” (Bawarshi and Pelkowski 82). Bawarshi and Pelkowski present
this idea of colonization of student’s ideas and writing in the writing center.

This
concept leads to the third area of inquiry which aims to identify the methods
writing centers can evolve to aid students in navigating a university’s
academic discourse. Cooper suggests developing a critical consciousness is the
best way for students navigate within the dominant culture. Bawarshi and
Pelkowski define critical consciousness as being “critical and self-reflective
form of acculturation” (Bawarshi and Pelkowski 81). Cooper presents a theory
where writing centers need to evolve to become organic intellectuals, instead
of remaining stagnant as traditional intellectuals. North argues that the focus
of the writing center sessions should be on the writing process, not the paper.
His ideas about writing center pedagogy are reminiscent of colonialism. Bawarshi
and Pelkowski argue students should not subvert academic discourse, instead
students should use critical consciousness to “use and be used by it academic
discourse” (Bawarshi and Pelkowski 83). In contrast, Denny suggests that
subversion is absolutely needed to change the traditional classroom. These
contrasting viewpoints lead to a nuanced notion of a writing center as a
contact zone. When met with the pressure to be successful, students are
presented with the option to assimilate, do poorly in school, or a third
option, presented by Bawarshi and Pelkowski, the idea of mestiza consciousness.

Only
once a critical consciousness is created, and we have evolved from the
traditional intellectuals to organic intellectuals can writing centers truly
empower their students. Consistent across each of these authors is the notion
that writing centers do need to change in some way in order to best facilitate
student agency. The goal of the writing center is to provide undergraduate
writers with agency. In his landmark essay, Brooks says that students should be
“the primary agent of the writing center session” (Brooks 170). Cooper agrees
that agency is important, but Brooks’ methodology is impractical. Cooper
believes that student agency stems from learning how to create an argument in
texts. Denny applies a queer theory of passing to subvert the academic
discourse present in the writing center and enable marginalized students gain
agency of their own papers. Agency is the one truly freeing form of student
expression for students to be successful within an academic discourse that is riddled
with issues. Writing centers can and should evolve to become a learning
environment run by organic intellectuals that foster student agency.  

Understanding
Issues for Undergraduate Students within Academic Discourses

In
the writing center, one of the current structural flaws within the academic
discourse is that race is not addressed properly. Not every student experience
and identity is the same, so to ask students to conform to an academic
discourse that expects all students to write in the same language and style is
a reductive understanding of the diversity and wealth of the student body. To
illustrate that the student body is not a monolith, authors Grimm and Barron
write, “literacy educators allow us to sometimes use we to signify our unity in purpose, we also employ our individual’s
I’s to mark our different racial,
generational, and cultural perspectives” (Grimm and Barron 303). There is a
stark difference in between the use of “we” and “I” in this case. “We”
indicates a discourse made on behalf larger social group, while “I” is utilized
in academic discourses to mark individual differences. Additionally, use of the
verbal phrase “allow us” indicates a lack of power and subordination of their
personal experiences, when deciding the language to write with. At
universities, academic discourse sets a convention not easily available to
every student. Grimm and Barron illustrate this issue with an example of
student feedback, “The rest of her thinking became the invisible foundation
buried under her ‘white prose,’ as we later called her writing.” (Grimm and
Barron 305). This “invisible foundation” is a culmination of a student trying
to figure out how to write prose that her classroom expects. That might be
especially difficult to facilitate if this student does not come from a white
background, yet the mainstream academic discourse expects this student to write
in “white prose.” The implications of writing specifically in a “white prose”
suggests a subordination of other diverse cultural identities. The fact that
this is registered as writing “later” suggests that this is not the most
natural form of writing for this particular student. Furthermore, this
“invisible foundation” may be attributed to the structural oppression
experienced by diverse identities at universities. Grimm and Barron explain this
structural oppression as a result of the dominant social group projecting their
own experiences on the structurally oppressed. Dominant social groups
experience an inherent privilege in having the academic discourses shifted to
favor their style of writing. Disregarding race and identity in the writing
center is “colorblindness” (Barron and Grimm 302). Adhering to colorblindness
assumes that racial diversity does not play a significant role in the
experiences of student writers, when in reality this is simply not true.
Therefore, writing centers should address racial diversity because this will
help students navigate academic discourses successfully.

Understanding
the metric of success at a university depends on the perspective you examine.
From a university’s perspective success means students are meeting and excelling
in classrooms that expect the university’s academic discourse in papers. From a
writing center’s perspective, success means the writing center successfully
facilitates student learning without being colorblind. From a student’s
perspective, success means sacrificing personal experiences in order to be
qualified as a better writer. One example of a student’s perspective comes from
Bawarshi and Pelkowski. They cite an example of a student Derek who had to
sacrifice aspects of his identity and culture to be considered “successful.”
The article explains, “Derek becomes a ‘better’ writer when he learns to
explore his experiences ‘using conventional academic ways of thinking’ such as
subordination'” (Bawarshi and Pelkowski 82). We have to consider the cost of
Derek subordinating his own culture to match the expectations of his
university’s academic discourse. Due to the nature of the “conventional”
academic discourses Bawarshi and Pelkowski discuss, a standard agenda is
created and by having students emulate this standard, the originality, personal
experiences, the identities of student are lost. Derek’s “subordination” of his
own ideas ranks him powerless in an institutional hierarchy. Barron and Grimm
would consider this subordination of Derek’s identity to be an erasure of his
cultural identity. For example, Barron and Grimm write, “Bilingual students are
supposed to write as though English were their only language” (Barron and Grimm
306). Creating a discourse in only the English language emphasizes the false
hierarchy that English is valued more than other languages at a university. The
issue denying diversity in order for students to be considered successful puts
pressure on writing centers to play a more optimistic role in creating change.

Writing
center pedagogy has historically evolved through the process of authors
remaining in conversation with one another and agreeing with or critiquing each
other’s theoretical framework about the role of a writing center. One such
article was North’s The Idea of a Writing
Center in which North states a writing center is a place where “tutors
should be ‘student-centered rather than text oriented” (North 31). North’s
insinuations that a writing center should aim to focus on the student’s body
rather than the student’s text at first glance seems innocent. However, further
analysis of this concept draws a strong comparison between North’s idea to use
writing centers to alter student thoughts and Bawarshi and Pelkowski’s idea of
a writing center as a post-colonialism product. Specifically, act of a
university outlining principles and expectations in its academic discourse
because it considers them superior and then imposing this standard on students,
even if this involves subordinating their own identities is an extreme yet apt comparison
to the process of colonialization. Both authors highlight the notion that the
goal of a writing center should not be to alter thought. The larger issue at
stake is that together the writing center and pressure to succeed at a
university may force students to acculturate. This leaves students with three
options when faced with the desire to succeed. First, they can acculturate and
give up aspects of their identity. Second, they could defy their university
standard and fail in their classroom setting. Third, writing centers could
evolve to help students navigate within an academic discourse.

How
do Writing Centers Navigate within an Academic Discourse

            If academic discourses favor the
dominant social group how should writing centers operate to best help all
students? North observes that writing centers need to transition from a
“fix-it-shop” (North 31) into something new. The transition North wants to see
involves the role of tutors themselves changing in order to better facilitate
student learning. In fact, Cooper agrees and considers this necessary
transition as the difference between organic intellectuals and traditional tutors.
Cooper describes “organic intellectuals” as “those intellectuals
who understand that their function as intellectuals derives from their
involvement in the work and purposes of their social group” (Cooper 61).
In this context, the “social group” of our concern is the relationship between
tutors and tutees at the writing center. Organic intellectuals differ from other
kinds of tutors and even Brooks’ trap of an “editor” (Brooks 170) because their
role is not centered on fixing the writer or the writer’s paper. Cooper’s
fixation on organic intellectuals marks a decided difference between the theme
of old and new teaching pedagogy. Cooper introduces the idea of organic intellectuals
who are “emergent” (Cooper 61), but not completely part of the dominant
academic discourse. This subtle rise of power illustrates that with organic
intellectuals in the writing center, tutors have some increased power as a
liaison between academic institutions and students. Cooper’s organic
intellectuals theory looks to radically change writing centers. Meanwhile, North’s
observation also provides the framework for Bawarshi and Pelkowski’s argument
of creating a critical consciousness in order to better operate from within an
academic discourse. A critical consciousness provides a way for students to
redefine themselves and to operate within a universities academic discourse
without losing aspects of their identity. Bawarshi and Pelkowski write, that a
critical consciousness “uses colonizer’s discourse- a discourse used to impose
on him a subject position- in order to redefine himself” (Bawarshi and
Pelkowski 90). The perspective of using the colonizers language to redefine
yourself would enable students to succeed. But even if students redefine
themselves they still do not possess the power to choose a discourse that
reflects their personal identities. Using the “colonizer’s discourse” still
places the colonizer’s English at the top of a university’s power structure. Bawarshi
and Pelkowski are careful not to subvert academic discourse in a university,
but Denny believes that the subversion of academic discourse is the only way to
give student’s agency.

            Using the queer theory of passing in
the writing center, Denny seeks to subvert a university’s academic discourse,
thus giving students agency in their own writing. The theory of passing is “to
invoke the literacy codes and identify practices of the dominant, presupposes
that doing so is desirable” (Denny 2750). These “literacy codes” defined by the
dominant social group which in this case is the university’s academic
discourse. The driving force behind why people alter or hide aspects of their
identity in order to pass is that conforming to these standardized codes is
seen as desirable. This sense of belonging and being successful within a social
group drives individuals to pass. Passing in the writing center occurs when
students are encouraged to acculturate and cover parts of their identity. Using
the knowledge that writers are trying to pass, writing center tutors should
encourage individual differences. Subverting the academic discourse restores
identity to writers in a way that academic discourses destroys it. Denny
describes writing centers “liminal zones” which are “transitory arenas always
both privileged and illegitimate. Writing centers are known as cutting-edge and
institutional backwaters” (Denny 265). Denny’s understanding of a writing
center is contradictory. This notion of a liminal zone harkens back to Bawarshi
and Pelkowski’s idea of writing centers as a borderlands. Bawarshi and
Pelkowski describe the mestiza consciousness as a result of “occupying
contradictory and ambivalent subject positions simultaneously, a ‘third element
which is greater than the sum of its severed parts'” (Bawarshi and Pelkowski
88). Bawarshi’s
word choice to describe this level of consciousness is certainly unique because
a “mestiza” refers specifically refers to a woman of Latin American descent
who’s racial ancestry is mixed between Native American, Latin American, and
European descent. This racial ancestry ties into Bawarshi and Pelkowski’s
example of redefining yourself by using the language of the discourse. In this
case, mestiza consciousness has elements of cultural identity and
self-expression all while in the language of a set discourse. “Mestiza” has the
historical connotations and themes of colonization that Bawarshi highlights in
her writing. This word is indicative of Bawarshi’s colonist theory, where the
writing center essential colonizes marginal student’s and systematically forces
them to reevaluate their writing style, and personal identities until they are
in accord with the academic discourse. The idea of a “mestiza consciousness”
certainly holds power to navigate within and challenge using the language of
the discourses against itself. Utilizing a gained mestiza consciousness,
according to Bawarshi and Pelkowski, will enable student agency in their
papers.

            Based on evidence from writing
center pedagogy and theory essay, the ultimate goal of the writing center is
helping students gain agency in their writing. Even though Brooks, Cooper,
Denny, and Bawarshi and Pelkowski have slightly different paths of achieving
this, they are united in this purpose. The concept of minimalist tutoring is
one where the students are “the primary agent of the writing center session”
(Brooks 170). Even though Cooper critiques Brooks’ methodology, both authors
agree that agency is essential in the writing center. Brooks argues that tutors
at the writing center should not spend the session revising and editing student
papers, but focus on the student instead. However since students came to the
writing center because they have questions about their papers, the focus of a
writing center session still remains centered around the papers. Brooks’ sentiment
is a nice one, indeed students should be agents of their own writing. However,
Brooks’ sentiment seems almost idealistic. This is why Cooper agrees with the
sentiment but argues that just promoting agency is not enough. How do you
actually achieve this in a writing center? Cooper would say that agency is not
just dependent “on owning or taking responsibility for a text but on
understanding how to construct subject positions in texts” (Cooper 58). The
crucial aspect here is that student’s come to the writing center and understand
the positions of the texts discussed in the paper. In terms of “owning” and
“taking responsibility” for their papers, the initial step is walking into the
writing center and asking for advice is taking ownership of their work. As a
solution to the problems in Brooks’ methodology, Cooper puts forth the idea of
organic intellectuals as being “agents of change” (Cooper 61). This notion of
an “agent” entertains the idea of this job being a very active role. This
active role contrasts heavily with the traditional teaching style, and how we
teach at the writing centers. Utilizing these principles of agency from various
authors, we can empower students to become better writers, which is the
ultimate goal of the writing center.

  

 

 

 

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