Friday, April 01, 2005

The Light We See By, The Thing We See

“When you think like a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” – My dad.

In Mystery and Manners, Flannery O’Connor says, “Your beliefs will be the light by which you see, but they will not be what you see and they will not be a substitute for seeing.” Her comment refers of course to religious ideology, but I believe her claim applies to any ideology, including writing center ideology.

The light we see by is theory. A theory gives us questions to ask, privileges certain questions over others, and intentionally or not obscures other questions. One unfortunate result of prevailing writing center theory, to my mind, is that it has not made the distinction between the light we see by and the thing we see; we have confused the two, and at times asserted that the two are one and the same. What I mean is that contrarian theory, the light of the past twenty years, fails to acknowledge (let alone embrace) that we often work toward uncertain ends, that our liberator inclinations are mixed with our deeply held values of sociality, and that in this soup there are likely regulatory beans and broth. The result, at least for me, has been a feeling of disconnection between what I read and what I see in our own writing center and other centers in the southeast.

In Elizabeth Boquet’s history, she describes how writing center work over the years was appropriated by folks in the content disciplines, from Psychology to Composition Studies. In recent years, I’ve read more than one writing center article that--however satisfying as a product of the academic mind--seemed to display a greater understanding of Critical Theory than of writing center reality. I am not advocating a theory that privileges nuts and bolts over the theoretical, though I would say that theory ought to illuminate our everyday practices. To return to O’Connor, I believe the light we see by, our theory, is not a substitute for what we see every day in our writing centers.

Bill and I are interested in what questions we might ask when we see by a different light. To define the work of writing centers as mind work, we believe, gives us new ways of seeing, and, we believe, new things to see. I’ll play around here with the questions we’ve been asking for years:

What are we?
We are a discipline. A discipline is defined as a body of knowledge or a set of methodologies. Both do mind work, but the content disciplines are unique in the first; writing centers are unique in the second. Both serve the tutorial, an event in critical inquiry.

Why do we belong?
First because we contribute in powerful ways to the intellectual and personal growth of students, the core aims of the educative process.

How do we do it?
Though dialogic efforts, the tutee and tutor cooperate in processes that develop those sensibilities required to think with clarity and to write with precision and skill. These efforts are deeply rooted in values of sociality that focus on the whole person, thus the aim is to produce better writers, not better pieces of writing.

What is the role of peer tutors?
Peer tutors have the capacity to positively influence other students’ disposition toward learning in ways that teachers cannot. Their ability to help students shift personas, negotiate the landscape of college life, and perceive themselves as writers are vital, largely unexamined, contributions. Also often overlooked are the reciprocal benefits of these peer experiences for student tutors, adding further to the intellectual and personal life of a campus.

How do we assess what we do?
Because our work is mind work and the way we carry it out aids students’ disposition toward learning, we look to the fields of Psychology and Sociology for assessment tools. We need not reinvent the hammer. Accepted methods, industry standards if you like, already exist.

What about research?
Readers of “The Polyvalent Mission of Writing Centers” will find that research has been redefined to serve writing centers in multiple ways.

What about the future?
When Riley published “The Unpromising Future of Writing Centers,” he was right about a lot of things. First, that our movement is an evolving one. Second, that at the time it was written we were in a period of frustration. He was exceedingly astute in seeing the parallels between writing centers and the birth and growth of American Lit,. composition studies, and literary theory. But I think he (like the rest of us) made a critical mistake in not distinguishing between a content discipline and a discipline of methodologies. How can we attempt to claim purity of content and at the same time claim to be cross-disciplinary? If our status is second class, we share some of the blame because we have not reminded others that we are a discipline equal to and working in tandem with the content disciplines.

There were things Riley could not know at the time. First is that technology would so profoundly alter the profession. When the professor is no longer the repository of knowledge, things change. He could not know that research would come to be more broadly defined. And finally, he couldn’t know that educational methods would actually take a turn in our direction, that things like problem-based learning and learning communities, the stock and trade of writing center work, would come to define new and innovative trends.

Bill and I believe that a new light gives us new ways of seeing and new things to see--like a new future. What do you think?

Phil here


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