Thursday, March 31, 2005

Spies Coming In from the Cold

In a tensely weary, jaded style of gritty alienation, Richard Burton gave perhaps his most convincing performance in John Le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, a film astutely made in the bleakest black and white during the reign of gaudily saturated Technicolor. I recommend the film to anyone in the writing center movement itching to come in from the cold of our professional margin. Over in Berlin, at least, the Wall has come down.

This film connection struck me one day as Philip Gardner and I were collaborating on our essay “The Polyvalent Mission of Writing Centers.” We had finished our year-long discussion of writing theory, much of it saturated with a rhetoric of alienation and marginality that we saw as expressive of the profession’s determined refusal to feel at home in the big, bad cold war of institutional instructional practices.

“Phil,” I observed, “what we’re saying seems to be that it’s time—really time—for spies like us to come in from the cold.”

I still feel that way. Moreover, I think a great many of us have reached a point of exhaustion. Because it’s tough—really tough—to spend a whole career resisting the institutionalized practice of writing; subverting the academy’s hierarchical, hegemonic will to coerce and inscribe upon its clients; and relentlessly opposing the efforts of classroom professors whose hope, like ours, is to help young people toward productive futures. All while casting ourselves into monochromatic, rain-drenched exile.

The appeal we make in our essay is for professional assimilation. The way we see it, we work in the academy, we are paid by the academy, and we enable both students and professors in the academy. So inescapably we belong in their enterprise. Theory, however, has been telling us otherwise, insisting that the mission of writing centers is to create an alternate and oppositional anti-space, to favor contrarian identities, and to fear that dreaded bugaboo—cooption by the academy. Resistance is as sacred as free-world democracy, says theory, because the mainstream is tyranny.

In the concept of “polyvalence” we have tried to find room for both resistant and assimilative impulses of the writing center movement, room where we may embrace without guilt the hybridity of a more central presence in the academy. It is untenable, we think, to regard ourselves as perennial, underground double agents in the academy’s intellectual enterprise. Many things that the academy values are things that we too value and practice. Our essay therefore urges a broadening of theory, arguing that the wondrous critical inquiry occurring in a writing center’s “quality-time” sessions (bowing here to Anne Ellen Geller) binds us to, rather than separating us from, the curriculum and thus the academy.

Have you, too, felt an itch to come in from the cold?

Bill here


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