Thursday, March 31, 2005

Why Theory Failed Me Personally

I entered the world of writing center work in the fall of 1988. Newly hired to teach African-American and American literature at Francis Marion University, where English and the writing center were integrated operations, I gave director Philip Gardner six weekly hours of my service to complement nine hours of comp and lit duties.

Briefly, my career seemed integrated.

But my position had me straddling two disciplinary areas. One was my traditional career in teaching literature and freshman composition. The other was the world of writing center work, a world at that time beginning to define itself in strong contradistinction to my English teaching.

According to the writing center theory, my classroom practices in composition instruction were everything the writing center community should be resisting. In some very provocative rhetoric, theory asserted that in my teaching I was enforcing the university’s most regulatory, hierarchical, and oppressively mass template form of education. Only in the writing center, where one-to-one encounters could be intensively dialogic, could I be truly educating my students—liberating them from institutional assaults on their minds and selves.

Where did that leave me? In effect, theory was defining me as a Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde. Dr. Jekyll, Ph.D., that benign, professionally certified, classroom teacher, was actually Mr. Hyde—a morally twisted monster who, allegedly, through deposition of facts by directive teaching, was snuffing out the life of the mind.

So not only was my dedicated career a delusion, it was a snuff film.

I am sure you see my point. By virtue of my being both a classroom teacher and a writing center tutor, theory was branding one half of me a villain and the other half an angel.

As Philip Gardner likes to insist, theory must explain all of what one does, not part of it. Yet, the last twenty-five years of theory has foregrounded the more resistant, counter-hierarchical impulses in our work while obscuring the educative mission that we have in common with the larger academy.

In short, theory did not work for me because it failed to describe me coherently. It made me an enemy to myself, labeling more than one half my work duties as something educationally shameful. It suggested that, while walking from my composition classroom to the writing center, I should be preparing to undo all that I had just accomplished in my classroom session.

Worse, theory was needlessly marginalizing the writing center profession. True, the material circumstances of writing center professionals in the academy were at times truly abysmal and marginal; but that was no need to base theory predominately on such negatives. What Phillip and I argue is that for twenty-five years writing center theory has driven a wedge between our work and the academy, dividing instead of joining, thus contributing to a deep, self-willed professional marginality. In our embrace of a sometimes doctrinaire discourse laden with what we term “values of autonomy,” we have ascribed to a metanarrative that suppresses some important “values of sociality”—by which we can be seen as vital contributors to legitimate social reproduction.

“Polyvalence” is our way of conjoining these mutually excluding valences into a discourse of professional wholeness.

For no matter how one may try to define the writing center’s “essential” mission, there is no such pure essence. The “contrarian model” of the last two to three decades purports to articulate a foundational, revolutionary purity of mission that actually was socially constructed out of ideologies as well as institutional and cultural conditions of the 1970s and 1980s. Philip and I do not reject that noble effort. It has yielded magnificent results. We wish, however, to explain and participate in equally important, collective practices of the wider institutional setting.

My hunch is that you might as well.

Bill here


At 7:05 PM, Blogger /WCJ/ said...

I'm right with you, Phil and Bill, on the odd bifurcation between the classroom and the writing center. I've had quite a few spirited arguments over my belief that tutoring = teaching and not a separate and somehow more refined space. But, still, educational institutions can be nasty, elitist, money-centered, and downright frightening at times. Back when I was in ed school, we used to point out that the first thing colonial powers did was to take over a country's school system. Thus, schooling as a form of indoctrination or education as transmitting dominant values, ideas, and practices seems just as much of a possibility--if not more so--than the function of education to bring about societal transformation. This transmission vs. transformation is perhaps another of the false binaries that you critique in "The Polyvalent Mission," but those missionaries didn't exactly have benign intent!

Neal Lerner

At 9:54 AM, Blogger Bill Ramsey said...


We believe the concept “polyvalence” captures the very point you make.

In the dreadful process of American empire building, schools indeed were used with the intent of “educating for empire.” One thinks, for instance, of Indian education at Carlisle. Does one decide, however, categorically to reject the whole idea of societal transmission?
Simply to invert the binary (privileging transformation over transmission) is to depend on another for the definition of one’s own presumed “essence.” Phillip and I question that essentialism, and so we call for less “othering” of the mainstream academy.

If we are ever to claim for writing centers a central, positive role in the academy, the mixed nature of our mission (Phillip’s “broth” of both transformation and transmission) must be embraced, even if guardedly. Yet, for the last twenty-five years, theory has invested such enormous energy in suppressing and discrediting cultural transmission that writing centers have missed opportunities to join the dance.

Bill Ramsey

At 4:30 PM, Anonymous Melissa Spore said...

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At 4:54 AM, Blogger Kim said...

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Come have coffee sometime.

At 9:20 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I have a few questions about the "wedge" you mention within this post. I have been working at a writing center for three months and I am still trying to grasp the "theory" behind writing centers. I also teach freshmen composition (1301, 1302). My question is I wonder if it is a "wedge" or more of a natural separateness that needs to exist in order for the theory to actual work within the writing center. But how do you know that it works or does not work based a theory? What theory is it? Social constructionist or… This is what is boggling my mind in my own research right now. It seems that I teach composition underneath a social constructionist theoretical framework, but many other instructors follow a cognitive, grammar, textual, approach to teaching composition. Now that I am in the writing center arena, I find it difficult and sometimes frustrating when I look for the differences and similarities in teaching writing underneath frameworks and connecting those same theories to writing centers and their “separate” theories.

Adam Webb (TAMU-CC)

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At 5:13 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is obviously an old strand, since three years have passed since these postings. Nevertheless, I felt I had to jump in, whether or not my post is read. I'm disturbed about the way the word "theory" is used here, as if there were one humongous, monolithic THEORY that undergirds writing center practice, when a review of writing center scholarship reveals a diversity of theories...plural. I think by taking a stance against THEORY as a static, unitary sort of thing only serves to exacerbate the so-called "wedge" between institutions and writing centers, if indeed there is such a wedge. It would be helpful if Bill named and explained (cited from specific pieces of writing center scholarship, perhaps?)which "theory" he is faulting here and just how it creates a Jekyll and Hyde dichotomy. Also, I'm not exactly clear what is meant by "social transmission" and "social transformation" in this argument. Some examples would be helpful.

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