Narratives of Student Writer and Writing Center Partnering: Reconstructing Spaces of Academic Literacy

Beatrice Mendez Newman
Rachel R. Gonzalez

However we talk about the writing center, we should acknowledge that it is a space where institutional relationships are reconfigured. Because writing centers help students discover their potentialities as writers, writing centers are also spaces for reconstructing narratives of academic literacy. The three core players in the dynamics of the center—the student writer, the classroom instructor, and the tutor (or writing center director)—operate in an environment of constant readjustment. In the center, authority is reconfigured, access renewed, and advocacy reclaimed. From our complementary perspectives of professor/writing center director and of student with a powerful advocacy story, we contend that writing centers facilitate the recalibration of traditional positionings in institutional pedagogy and, concomitantly, in reconstructions of academic literacy.

Beatrice’s View from the Center: Reshaping Academic Literacy

When I became writing center director, I realized immediately that we weren’t just tutoring student writers; we were, additionally, back-filling gaps in classroom pedagogies that informed students’ understandings of academic literacy. Having arrived at the center from a professor background, I could defensively say that students came to class unprepared, that they failed to pay attention in class, that they appeared to do their assignments with minimal to no interest, that they submitted work late, that they didn’t revise their writing. As a professor, I was (uncomfortably but realistically) aware, as draconian as it sounds, that the classroom instructor is “the master of universe,” completely in charge of what happens and how it happens in the classroom space (Wright, 2013). In the center, I dropped my professorial stance the second I saw the earnestness of students who came seeking an advocate who could support them in producing the best writing possible. I never asked, “Were you paying attention, have you missed a bunch of classes, did you ask questions about the assignment, did you revise this?” Instead, I said, “Let’s see how we can make this better.” As writing center director, I became a partner with my student clients as they worked to find a foothold in academic discourse.

From our position in the center, we should consider the institutional dynamics that foster the pedagogical recalibration provided by writing centers. Classroom instructors, whether they like it or not, represent institutional authority. Trappings of the classroom—the board at the front, the smart console with all the presentation gadgets, the seats facing the front, the rules, the instructor’s expertise, the power of the grade—all create a contact zone environment where the learner continually functions unevenly in the social, political, personal, and pedagogical intersections of the classroom. The contact zone construct richly explains why learning interactions can go awry in institutional contexts: learners and instructors don’t always have the same communicative prowess and literacy equivalencies (Pratt, 1992). Classroom spaces are traditionally set up to cast learning as a uni-directional movement from professor/instructor to learner, where a sort of transference of knowledge occurs; unfortunately, this scenario elides the learner’s agenda as a deviant or insufficient factor in the learning space. In the best classroom spaces, instructors do foster edifying pedagogy, but those spaces are not the norm. Then there is “expert blindness”—professors know their disciplines so well that everything seems obvious and easy to them; they have forgotten how to be novice learners (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005). Expert blindness keeps instructors from sequencing new knowledge, from providing application opportunities, from guiding learners to higher order disciplinary tasks, and from simply seeing things from the learner’s perspective. In the context of reading and writing, instructor expectations for academic literacy further exacerbate the contact zone scenario: If the learner fails to conform to academic discourse norms, the space of the classroom often fails to provide the apprentice-mentor relationship that is vital to learning. When such sponsorship fails to materialize in the classroom, students frequently look to writing centers as alternative spaces for constructing the literacies that can create conduits to academic success.

As writing center director, I worked with students who needed sponsorship and advocacy that had been unavailable in classroom spaces. Rosa brought me essays marked with sarcastic “feedback” (“Don’t you know how to write a thesis?”) and a tally of errors on the last page of each essay; Leo braved office conferences with his instructor but still got no tangible direction on how to improve his writing. Leo and Rosa claimed the space of the center as a site of academic reconstruction where their literacy attempts would be validated (Newman, 2003, pp. 48-52). Larry, like Leo and Rosa, needed to understand how his literacy artifact—in his case, a chemistry lab report—could be recalibrated into acceptable academic discourse. The chemistry lab report he brought me was marked abundantly in red but with no indication of what was wrong. Because the report involved a lot of writing, he sought us out to pull himself out of F territory. Not being a chemistry expert, I asked a lot of questions about his responses, finally realizing the problem was not the writing but the content. Larry showed me where he found the answer to one of the items on the lab report; skimming that section, I immediately understood that he had misread. Larry had no idea why his report was so wrong; all it took was unconditional sponsorship to show him that the content of the chapter was so dense that he needed to read and reread it, slowly.

I wondered why the instructor had not simply written (in red if he wanted), “Please go back and read the chapter carefully, Larry. Your answers indicate that you missed key points. In item #3, for example, you copied the formula incorrectly and that skewed your response. I’m sure a careful rereading will clarify your understanding.” Such a comment would have reinforced Larry’s view of himself as a learner and would have cast the professor in the role of advocate for the learner. Perhaps it’s not our role to be quite this directive, but for me it was impossible to sit at my writing center table and let Larry think of himself as a failure. He reread the chapter and brought back a revised lab report a few days later for a final check. Even without chemistry expertise, I could tell that he had finally gotten the answers right.

Larry, Rosa, Leo, and the hundreds of students I tutored in the center showed me that learners and writing center workers bravely reconstruct spaces of academic literacy. Yes, we work primarily with writing in the center, but we are more expansively helping our student writers forge new understandings of academic literacy where literacy isn’t just a way to fit in but a means of constructing affirmative expression by reshaping traditional literacy structures (Catchings, 2016). In the writing center, pedagogical advocacy necessarily merges into reconstructions of literacy. In extreme cases, student writers show up at the center demoralized because their writing efforts have been severely criticized without any sort of lifeline for finding a way out of what instructors deem to be a morass of error and incompetence in writing. These students come to the writing center because the classroom space feels unsafe, hostile, or insufficient. In the center, when we look at writing that someone in another institutional space has deemed “deficient,” “below par,” “different,” “non academic,” we partner with the learner to claim voice and presence in institutional discourses. Beyond working with the writer, we are working with the learner to reshape spaces of literacy.

While we may fill the traditional role of literacy sponsor (Brandt, 2001) by showing writers how to find their voices in their disciplines and how to reinvent themselves as writers within traditional expectations of literacy, we also challenge notions of a monolithic, absolute standard of “academic literacy.” Frost’s advocacy of “stewardship” (2011) as a more apt term for preserving literacy practices reflective of individual and community traditions works well in the spaces of academic repositioning where novice learners need assurances that difference is not deficiency. Much of the writing we see in writing centers requires what Horner and Lu (2014) refer to as “translation,” a friction that calls for a “(re)construction of meaning out of language in reading and writing” (p.111).

Perhaps our biggest role as writing center workers is to help writers find the “rightness” in their language, even when their languaging is “marked” as different or deficient in the realm of traditional literacy. Students come to the center, in many cases, because someone in traditional institutional spaces has been unwilling to exert the “labor of translation across difference” (Horner & Lu, 2014, p. 115-116). In other words, when instructors deem writing to be deviant, to be noncompliant in comparison to expectations of traditional academic literacy, the meta message is that it is up to the student writer to do all the work of communication. Writing center workers are in a prime position to deconstruct this lopsided view of academic literacy by showing student writers the power, value, and efficacy of their language.

As Rachel shows in her writing center narrative, literacy encompasses unrelenting work and effort as student writers forge partnerships with instructors and writing center personnel to reshape institutional dynamics of learning.

Rachel’s View from Behind the Draft: Tutor as Personal Writing Trainer

The best way to truly understand my fear and hesitation when I first entered the writing center is to associate it with one of my favorite activities: the gym. It takes courage to admit that you need to go to the gym, just as it takes courage to admit you need help with your papers. Your body represents who you are, just as your paper reflects who you are. You are never more vulnerable than when you put yourself out there for other people to see, or other people to read your writing. It makes you self-conscious when you finally decide to step into that room and let everyone see the imperfections that you are already aware of. Thankfully, the writing lab, just like the gym, isn’t as terrifying as it seems. Once you get in there and start going to work, everything else just fades away. I was fortunate enough to have caring and understanding tutors who understood my situation. For me, the writing lab tutors were my “personal writing trainers.”

In my comp. class, our first assignment was a one-page autobiography about who we are, how we got our names, and what we plan to do with our education. Easy enough, right? Wrong! The first draft I turned in was graded 75. No red ink, no editing tips or suggestions, just a grade. When I asked my teacher for feedback on how to better my paper, she suggested I visit the writing lab. A part of me felt let down because I worked up the courage to ask for help, but then again as a freshman in college I thought perhaps it wasn’t her job to “baby” me with a sit down for suggestions. Sadly, like a lot of people in denial (either with their body or paper), I refused to seek help. I thought I could handle it; the paper was about me after all, and maybe it just needed more detail. At this point, I felt too vulnerable to face a “personal writing trainer,” so I kept trying on my own.

I was crushed when I saw my grade: 60. Wow, is that all that I am? Was my name and life choices a 60? Once again, there were no suggestions on my paper—just a circled, red scribble advising me to visit the writing lab for help. After swallowing the lump in my throat and fighting back tears, I decided to visit the writing lab. Like a person who just received horrible medical results, I needed to face facts—I needed help and I was scared.

I spent four hours a day, three times a week at the writing center. I was exhausted and beat. I had half of the tutors double and triple checking my work every time I would turn in a draft or paper but to no avail; I was still getting an average of a 60. But now, I was letting my “writing trainers” condition me, push me when I felt I couldn’t write another sentence. My tutors supported me and my writing style. They helped me discover different ways to write, like starting with the body and leaving the introduction for the end, writing down my ideas before starting my paragraphs, or finding evidence to form paragraphs around. They were always easy to talk to and very helpful. That is one of the main advantages of a tutor: they are not a professor. The professor was someone who, at this point, was seeing my faults but not showing me how to improve; the tutors worked me, like trainers in the gym, showing me how to strengthen my writing—and how to be a braver student.

I like my writing tutors the way I like my trainers, positive and encouraging. For example, I can’t work out with someone yelling at me and telling me that I’m not doing it right. If a trainer takes away my weights and begins to do the exercise for me, not only is he taking my confidence but he is taking my gains. The writing lab showed me how to be confident in my writing which built the bridge that gave me confidence to approach my professors.

After all my time in the writing lab, I was finally convinced that I really did have a knack for English and decided to make it my major. As I began to take my upper level courses, I realized that I went to my tutors less and confided in my professors more. Next time I needed help with my writing, I looked to my professor instead of the writing center. My professor had us schedule some revision time with him during the week before our final draft was due. I was really excited about this gesture because I thought he was going the extra mile to help out his students. I wondered if perhaps he would be a new writing trainer for me. As I waited in the hallway to be called into his office, one of my classmates ran out of his office crying. My heart sank. It was like Comp 1 all over again. I slunk into the room and sat in his oversized arm chair as he read my paper. As he grunted and aggressively flipped through the pages, I felt that I, like this oversized arm chair, didn’t fit into the English program. My palms began to sweat as he marked out and rewrote my paragraphs.

“Write it like this,” he said, “This is better.”

I just nodded, trying not to make eye contact. I’m glad he didn’t use red ink because my paper would have looked like a crime scene. Using the revision he’d written on the back of my pages, I rewrote my essay.

Two weeks went by and he finally brought our papers back: he threw them across his table and said, “You call yourself English majors, these papers make me want me to hang myself on that tree outside.” I was so mad; in my head I was screaming, “Promise! I’ll buy you the rope!” I dug deeply, remembering what my tutors had taught me: be confident in your writing.

The next meeting I had with that professor went the same—more criticism, more rewriting; however, I didn’t take his highly directive revision into too much account. I just took what he wrote into consideration and added some of his ideas in my own words. And it worked!

I was able to maintain a B+ average on every paper with the conditioning skills that my writing tutors laid out and new workout/writing tips that my professor gave me. It was a tough class but my high B showed that I wasn’t a total failure but I still had room to grow, train, and improve—just like I felt every time I worked out in the gym.

The Courageous Space of Advocacy

We’ve presented our stories to examine partnership possibilities between student writers and writing center personnel. From our dual perspective, we pose a question about the conflation of social justice (which allows us to see things from the learner’s perspective) and pedagogical practice (where best practices aren’t always enacted): When students eschew the traditions of the classroom space, should the writing center step in to construct a brave space where power, authority, identity, knowledge-flow, discourse, and access are recalibrated (Arao & Clemens, 2013, pp. 142-143)? We say, “Yes!” In the center, we are doing so much more than improving writing. It takes courage for a student writer to come to the writing center and expose their vulnerabilities as a writer and perceived deficiencies as a member of the academic community. That courageous step, however, is driven by the learner’s search for institutional advocacy. It takes courage for writing center personnel to claim their roles in forging a space where institutional relationships are recalibrated. We agree with Arao and Clemens’ (2013) assertion that ground rules must be reframed to establish brave spaces (p. 149). In the space of the writing center, institutional “ground rules” are reconsidered, reshaped, redirected. As we work with student writers, we become partners in discovering differences in constructions of literacy, differences that fundamentally reveal a new normalcy: To read and write means laboring to “translate” communicative output (Horner & Lu, 2013, pp. 122-123). The advocacy of the center, where we operate as literacy stewards and sponsors, powerfully restructures the pedagogical dynamics of the institution, giving student writers agency and voice that offer a trajectory toward success. This is a role we should celebrate and embrace.

About the Authors

Dr. Beatrice Mendez Newman, Professor in the Writing and Language Studies Department at The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, teaches first year writing and advanced composition classes. Additionally, she has served as Writing Center Director and Director of Freshman English. Her research, focused on translingual writing, has been published in several collections and in the Writing Center Journal, the English Journal, Voices from the Middle, and HETS Online Journal. She has also published several books on preparation for Texas educator certification exams.

Rachel R. Gonzales, Masters student for Liberal Arts at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, is first in her family to attend and graduate college. Her passions include learning and discovering new forms of literature and researching Mexican American Literature. This article grew out of a class assignment in which she applied James Paul Gee’s insights about discourse/Discourse and gaming to gym culture.


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