Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Some Like It Hot

I’ve had a bitterly cold winter this year. First, there was an electric power loss about a month ago, which only a kerosene heater made bearable. Second, I must teach a MWF morning literature class in dreaded Leatherman Science Facility 107, the most frigid classroom on campus. Third is the circulation in my legs—it ain’t what it used to be. Even on warm June days, at home, I wrap a blanket around my legs to keep them from turning blue. In short, unequivocally and emphatically, I am tired of being COLD.
So imagine my surprise yesterday evening when a little green alien from Neptune stopped by for a visit. It was below freezing outside and I hastened to invite him in from the porch. “Hey, man,” he said in a tremulous, counter-tenor squeal, his breath condensing into a visible stream of vapor as soon it touched the cold air; “it’s bloomin’ HOT here on earth.”

Just as hot and cold are not fixed essences but slipping and sliding terms relative to each other, writing centers are neither this nor that.
First the hot and cold. They are poles of the same binary construction, not separate essences. Other than absolute zero, I suppose, there is nothing that, in its “essential nature,” is definitively (and fixedly) cold or hot. To communicate the idea of cold, one must construct the idea of hot, and if you lack one term you lose the other. The linked concepts cold and hot are socially constructed, produced in a signification system that defines through binary differentiation.
Now on to neither this nor that. Is the writing center’s high mission this: to be contrarian and liberatory, enabling students to maintain subject positions vis-à-vis the regulating academy? Or is it that: to legitimate and transfer the culture’s values through social reproduction? The former view has received extraordinary emphasis during the last twenty-five years. The latter (a traditional view that colleges exist to help shape citizens) is reconsidered by Philip Gardner and me in our article “The Polyvalent Mission of the Writing Center” and found to have vital relevance to our deeply marginalized professional situation.
We conclude that these two apparently incompatible perspectives are linked valences in the binary of writing center work. Our mission is not foundationally pure but unavoidably mixed—neither this nor that, yet actually both. As my friend from Neptune illustrates, 30 degrees Fahrenheit can partake of both hotness and coldness.

That is good news.

Writing centers, by engaging clients in critical inquiry through their texts-in-progress, elicit “mind work.” Such work is compatible with the academy at large. We therefore belong, unavoidably, in the Academic Country Club. Indeed the work performed by writing center workers is a form of scholarship—it is both an enacting and eliciting of intellectual inquiry.
Polyvalently, therefore, the “mind work” that writing center workers induce always has liberatory potential, even if rooted in the authority of an institution. In conferring with our tutees, we unavoidably enforce the regulatory constrictions of an assignment, and thus are complicit with a professor’s projection of institutional authority. Yet, we ask questions. Good probative questions. These, we hope, stimulate the tutee’s perspective and thought. Small cognitive shifts (even very small ones) may happen, carrying the writer forward to a new cognitive stance. We might not see the final paper, but in our best moments we sense that the tutee has experienced a useful critical inquiry.

Phillip and I are now curious. What sorts of questions do you ask, either intentionally or in free play, that sometimes shift a tutee’s thought or affective disposition?

Bill here


At 9:20 AM, Blogger Lisa said...

What a thoughtful and rich post--thanks so much!

The question about the kind of questions we ask writing assistants is good one. Here's one that I often bring up--either in response to a journal entry that I've read or to a conversation. Basically, the situation is this: the writing assistant says "That was a really wonderful--or really terrible (or something inbetween--session."

We all have these kinds of gut responses to conferences (and also to teaching).

What I like to do when it feels appropriate is to ask the writing assistant to try to identify what criteria he/she is implicitly using to make this determination. Is the conference wonderful because:

a) The writing assistant is sure the student's writing is better;

b) The student seemed excited and motivated during the conference;

c) The writing assistant was able to practice good listening skills and leave ownership of the writing to the student;

d) They accomplished the writing assistant's agenda for the conference;

e) They accomplished the writer's agenda for the conference.

Obviously, many of these criteria could be at play. But this kind of question has been helpful in getting writing assistants to reflect on their assumptions. This can include reflecting on the larger role that writing centers and writing center conferences play in the academy.

At 10:31 AM, Blogger Tamara Miles said...

You've asked what questions I sometimes ask a student writer, in order to create a cognitive shift --- well, they are less likely to be questions than invitations to use the imagination. Example:

I will find a related analogy and ask the student to imagine it with me. For example, if a student is struggling to express himself clearly in writing (with active verbs and concrete language in general), I'll sometimes ask him to imagine his girlfriend greeting him with a stony silence, and then when prompted with a "What's wrong?" answering "I'm upset." "Isn't that incredibly vague?" I'll ask. "Doesn't it leave you with a lot of questions?" Wouldn't you appreciate it if she said exactly what she meant? For example, she might say, "I'm angry because you left wet towels on the floor again," or "I'm hurt because you don't love me the way I love you," or "I'm frustrated because I can't get you to talk to me." "It's the same concept that we'd like to see happen in your writing."

Another analogy I'll use is that of driving somewhere with the writer. I'll say, "Suppose we are going for a drive, and you've come to pick me up. I get in and shut the door, and you take off. I ask where we are going, and you respond, 'We're going to run a few errands.' Well, I still know little to nothing. I'd feel so much more comfortable if you explained that you are trying to get your mother into a retirement home because of her poor health, and in order to do that you'll first need to see a lawyer, a medical professional, and a banker. (This, I explain, is your 'driving thesis') So --- that's where we're going, and first we're going to the lawyer's office. On the way to the lawyer's office, you might fill me in on what is going to happen at the office when we arrive. (This information, I explain, is your support material for your thesis). Each bit of traveling and stopping along the way are main points." Generally, a student can visualize this easier than just the standard terminology "thesis, main points, development, etc.)

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