Monday, March 28, 2005

Free Play: Bouncing the Ball in WC Sessions

In the two pleasant years that Phillip Gardner and I spent collaborating on “The Polyvalent Mission of Writing Centers,” the best moments were sitting together just to bounce ideas back and forth with unguarded abandon. It was in much the same spirit of free play that I had known way back in grade-school days, when I liked to stand in the parking lot throwing a blue rubber ball at the gymnasium wall. I could hardly miss that huge brick wall, and the ball always came conveniently back—though at times with perversely odd bounces. Snagging it in shortstop style was fun and, as a boyhood Brooklyn Dodgers fan, I fancied myself the next scrappy little Pee Wee Reese.

In my chats with Phil, some of our ideas had lots of bounce, and that felt great. If others did not, it hardly mattered. The fun with Phil was in throwing the ball, in the spontaneity. If ideas came out only half-formed and tentative, or if they died, or if they morphed into curious new shapes, our egos hardly suffered. Gradually and subtly, our collaborative perspective shifted, grew, and matured. And to Phil I say, “Thanks for the ride, my friend.”

Of course, what I describe here also describes what can happen in writing center sessions—free-flow dialogue, unpredictable bounces, serendipity, and spontaneous discovery. Indeed I’ve never found a protocol, template, or fixed heuristic schema that survives more than a minute of writing center work. What little I can predict of a session might take this shape: (1) The client asks questions prompting the session’s agenda; (2) There is some probing, some getting onto the other’s wave-length, some settling into personas that will socially guide the interaction; and (3) Then—well, things start moving, trundling, stumbling, creaking, or zigzagging along in no way I could have foreseen. The sum total of what I know about writing center sessions is this: when the ball bounces—one goes for it.

Writing center theory in the last twenty-five years has strongly implied that writing instruction in the academy denies students their autonomy and freedom. Students are perceived as being written or inscribed upon by the very texts they write, these reflecting the institution’s hierarchical, top-down will to suppress individual agency. Through the written discourse required of them, students are victims of systems, ideologies, and other incursions into the unitary self. For such reasons, it therefore is argued, writing centers must take the contrarian way, helping to emancipate writers from the negative, regulatory forces of social reproduction.

Phillip and I believe that freedom and spontaneity occur in not just the writing center but the academy as well, happening any time that students are asked to think for themselves, or to perform critical inquiry. We do not want to sound Pollyannaish about this. We concede that all individuals express their will through socially mediated contexts, and that a student’s desire often is in tension with institutional forces. Yet, within our many constrictions there are freedoms. How do we know this? From how, in any good interchange of thought, even if the ball bounces within gravity’s constraints—it also happens with serendipity.

Because critical inquiry in the academy is a shared ideal, this value should link writing centers at the hip to their universities. For too long the writing center profession has been trying to construct an anti-curriculum or academic anti-space, to develop exile into an art form. Though some of our practices may differ from classroom teaching (one-to-one exchanges are inherently more dialogic than any other kind of teaching), the educative mission of writing centers and the general academy are vitally connected.

One way to see our shared educative mission better might be to analyze the writing center session as an event in critical inquiry. Is not the unpredictable train of questions popping up during a session a free, spontaneous give-and-take of thought? Are not the tutor and the tutee creatively adopting for that session personas and social roles? (True, these roles may have implicit, socially determined rules, but can’t such codes be chosen, improvised with, and discarded by the players?) And does not a tutee’s affective disposition sometimes shift unexpectedly with the impact of a positive writing center session? Looked at holistically, isn’t good, hard critical thinking in any context an unpredictable course of discovery?

Bill here

4 Comments:

At 9:15 AM, Blogger Tamara Miles said...

I've been on Spring Break, and I've missed so much of this blogversation that I don't know how to begin to get caught up. I think I'll just toss my ball into the game and recommend a savvy little book (and it is a tiny book) called I Want To Tell You About My Feelings, by Mamoru Itoh (illustrated by Hiromi Irogawa and translated by Leslie M. Nielsen).

 
At 9:19 AM, Blogger Tamara Miles said...

Part of my comment didn't come through, I see. What I meant to add was that the Itoh's book uses the "ball" symbol/metaphor for our efforts to communicate. It's sensitive and funny and appropriate for people of all ages. I think it would be great to have handy around the writing center, so I'm going to bring in my copy tomorrow. Thanks for making me think of it (with all your talk about the bouncing ball).

 
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