What Are We Doing Here? by Tim Buchanan

posted Feb 28, 2018, 3:07 PM by Writing Center
The number one question of any writing consultant in a given session is going to be What do I do? As part of my recent writing center training, I was asked what we as consultants should be doing for writers. Should we be teaching technique, remediating points of style and grammar, providing moral support, steering the writer in a conventional direction, supplementing normal writing instruction?  And it’s a good question. In response to the multiplicity of options for what we should be doing in our capacity as writing consultants, the only answer I can give is yes.

I see the primary––though not solitary––role of the writing consultant as a navigator of contexts. We start from the question What brings you to the writing center? and from there begin to place the writer in a series of flexible contexts––are they a student, a professional, writing for an assignment, writing for a promotion, writing for personal pleasure, is English their first language––that will help inform our understanding of the writer’s needs. Those needs will necessarily vary from remedial help, to focused teaching on specific concepts, to general support of their ability to achieve success beyond the level they find themselves at, and more. It is important to know whether they were instructed to come by a professor/superior or if they came of their own interest in writing development. A writer instructed to come to us may feel resistant to the help we offer, or they may have low self-esteem about their ability.

What they know or how they feel about the writing center should be taken into account in our approach to the session. The writer may feel defensive or uninterested in developing further. Worst of all, they may have the impression that being sent to the writing center is a kind of punishment, a sign that they are a “bad” writer. What we do as navigators of context is bring the writer to a place of perspective on their approach to writing. Whatever we do––cheerleading, instructing, guiding, questioning––re-contextualizes the writing moment for the writer. The writing consultant then should be aware of how they are impacting and orienting each writer that comes to them. In this way, the role of writing consultant should remain unspecific and open to possibility, able to shift according to the writer and the individual needs of a session.

Another question posed in the same training module was For whom are we doing all of this? and, of course, Why? My answer is similarly open in that we come to the writing center for a variety of reasons, not all of which are purely altruistic or wholly self-centered. I might reframe the question to ask who (or what) does the writing center serve, to which I would risk grandiosity to say, in the end, everyone. If the purpose of a writing center is as Stephen North says––and I have always believed it is––“to produce better writers not better writing,” (438)  then I say the writing center is serving whatever community is improved by increasing the quality of its writers, which is to say all communities. This is admittedly a grandiose statement, and one that is difficult to make explicitly, but if we are truly determined to make better writers we are by necessity not focusing on one particular writer or population of writers. We are not focusing on those writers’ teachers––who we in some cases are. We are not focusing on ourselves, who inevitably learn as we guide, teach, and support.

The why of it all may yet be the most grandiose part: making writers better will make the world better. If we help improve a writer’s ability to communicate through writing, we are by extension aiding others in their ability to understand this individual. If we extend this condition outward to the largest possible group of writers then we have helped whole communities understand one another, and those communities to understand other communities, until we have a world that is better able to understand itself. This is dramatic in scope, and may suggest that I have an unrealistic view of the power of the writing center. So be it. The romantic notion that writing centers everywhere persist in the attempt is appealing to me.

Of course the we evoked here is meant to be understood as the collective idea of the writing center. Each one of us comes to the writing center as consultants for our own reasons, although I see us ultimately fulfilling the same end. For my part, I do honestly love this work. My earliest assignments as an undergraduate doing work study in the Writing Center at Western Michigan University ignited my passion for teaching. In turn, teaching has made me yearn for the close collaboration of a writing center consultation. My love for writing center consulting may be a selfish thing in that, much more than teaching, I feel myself making a difference for those writers who come.

North, Stephen M. “The Idea of a Writing Center.” College English, vol. 46, no. 5, 1984, pp. 433-446