Review of The Writing Center as Cultural and Interdisciplinary Contact Zone by Randall W. Monty

Stephen K. Dadugblor
University of Texas at Austin

Monty, Randall, W. The Writing Center as Cultural and Interdisciplinary Contact Zone. Palgrave Macmillan, 2016. Hardcover. $69.99.

In the decades since the publication of Stephen North’s “The Idea of a Writing Center,” scholars in writing center studies (WCS) have examined the question of disciplinary identity and the place of WCS within the academy. Research in this line of inquiry has yielded productive insights into the nature and work of writing centers. Yet, the increasing interdisciplinary contact engendered by the proliferation of writing centers across our colleges and universities makes exigent the need to define the contours of writing center (inter)disciplinarity across a wide range of spaces.

In The Writing Center as Cultural and Interdisciplinary Contact Zone, Randall W. Monty takes up this task by investigating a comprehensive disciplinary identity for WCS amidst the context of interdisciplinarity. Drawing on the contact phenomenon of cells in biological organisms, Monty argues for a re-visioning of writing centers as epicenters of “cultural and disciplinary contact zones” (1). The book is structured in seven self-contained but related chapters, and is “designed to be read, consulted, analyzed, critiqued, and otherwise consumed achronologically according to the needs and local contexts of the reader” (9).

In the introductory chapter, Monty begins by situating the discussion within the ambit of cell theory, the utility of which derives from the etymology of a cell as a small room, a reference to the physical space occupied by most writing centers. Monty explains that, like cells, WCS is better understood as a separate but interconnected system in which the discipline acts as a contact zone in relation to other disciplines, and reveals fissures, tensions, and commonalities. While Monty recognizes that the human agency that drives change in academic disciplines renders the analogy between cells and academic disciplines inexact, rethinking WCS as cells reveals their “more unified disciplinary identification” (3).

To explicate aspects of this disciplinary identification, in Chapter 2, “Discourse as Framework,” Monty reviews the historical controversies surrounding the place of WCS within the academy. He looks to the suitability of Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) for its theoretical orientation toward critiquing texts and, in this case, WCS practices. In terms of practices, CDA offers a way of opening up WCS’s connection to other disciplines within the academy, in the process revealing how its place and space as a discipline are shaped by prevailing capitalist logics governing the work of the academy. Because CDA shares with WCS a “liberatory ethos, necessary interdisciplinarity, methodological malleability, and participatory nature” (22), analyzing WCS practices through a CDA lens more clearly exposes writing centers as triangulated contact zones of tutor, student, and content area discipline. A CDA approach further unknots WCS from its binary connections to rhetoric and composition, and ultimately establishes its disciplinary identities in relation to other disciplines.

In Chapter 3, “Discursively Constructing the Session,” Monty attends to ways that writing center practices can “reproduce and challenge institutional power” (39). In this regard, he analyzes Electronic Tutor Response Forms (ETRF) as sites of disciplinarity, focusing on the ways that these forms construct tutorial sessions. Monty demonstrates that the prevailing narratives of “help” and “collaboration” that guide much writing center work may not always be true given the “inconsistent power” (57) between tutors and tutees. In order to challenge this power, Monty suggests the triangulated contact zone consisting of tutor, student, and contacted discipline, with the goal of creating knowledge with the contacted discipline. The triangulated contact zone would “make the generalist interaction a more disciplinary one” (57). Without this disciplinary grounding, Monty believes “generalist tutoring sessions can become less predictable, less trackable, and less in line with disciplinary objectives” (59).

Aside from tutorial sessions, Monty investigates a Writing Fellows Initiative (WFI). The data set drawn on for this fourth chapter, “Decentering Writing in the Institution,” is impressively wide-ranging: a “series of surveys completed by the fellows, students, and instructors” (70), information from blog posts, observations, and discussions with stakeholders. Monty asserts here that writing fellows both challenge and reinforce institutional power in the academy. Through their engagement with contacted disciplines, writing fellows—and disciplinary practices that surround their work—help to redistribute “some of the inherent institutional power” (71). Not only fellows’ work of advancing interdisciplinarity, but their engagement with both instructors and students holds enormous academic and interpersonal benefits for stakeholders.

Chapter 5, “Disciplinarity through Discourse,” shifts attention to sites of scholarly activities— academic journals, organizational websites, and blogs. Here, too, the list is comprehensive: the International Writing Center Association (IWCA), the Writing Center Journal, the Writing Lab Newsletter, Praxis, and a host of websites of local writing centers. If the WFI established a contact zone between the writing center, students, and their instructors, the sites of scholarly activities analyzed in this chapter reveal the ways that WCS (re)presents itself vis-a-vis the larger academic community. Not unlike the cells that are the overarching frames of his argument, Monty conceives of these sites of disciplinary work and scholarly fashioning as part of a “disciplinary ecosystem” (85), wherein local writing centers can sustain their work by the identifications that workers establish through networked associations.

It is in Chapter 6, “Writing Center Webspaces as Ecosystem” that Monty more extensively examines the ways in which writing center disciplinarity is fashioned in webspaces. Using a corpus linguistics-based CDA approach, he identifies three types of writing center webspaces— “informational hubs,” “online writing labs,” and “sites of praxis” (103), all three exhibiting to varying degrees naming practices that expose writing center beliefs and commitments. Essentially, local writing centers’ underlying assumptions are undergirded by their naming practices in relation to tasks (e.g., “consultation” or “tutoring session”), stakeholders (e.g. “tutor” or “coach”) and space (e.g., “writing center” or “learning center”). Monty finds through these disciplinary naming practices that only “few writing center webspaces include official statements of diversity[. . .] accessibility [. . .], or non-discrimination [. . .]” (117). Whereas this crucial finding would seem to belie the widely-accepted lore that writing centers are “safe spaces” committed to social justice, it opens up space for more conscious self-referential practices as writing centers continue to forge disciplinary identifications. Again, the naming practices and disciplinary identifications are further enhanced by local writing centers’ interconnectedness—through transcultural flows—to other centers and disciplinary associations like the IWCA. Indeed, while the connectivities ensured by transcultural flows hold enormous benefits for writing centers, Monty rightly points out the danger of linking knowledges, practices, and beliefs intertextually across writing centers, for he fears that certain epistemologies and pedagogies may, unwittingly, be privileged.

In the final chapter, “Discourse as Heuristic,” Monty ties back disciplinary identifications to place and space to argue that while there may be no ideal writing center, “there are many approachable ideals” (133) that encompass a variety of things: a broadened notion of sites where disciplinarity is nurtured and performed, and triangulated methodological approaches comprising multiple data sets and analytical lenses; Monty is here referring to qualitative and quantitative approaches to Student Satisfaction Surveys, Tutor Response Forms, and observations, all geared toward painting a more holistic picture of writing center disciplinary identifications. All told, Monty believes an understanding of writing centers as networked and as contact zones fostering interdisciplinarity would “resituate the field of WCS as a discipline within the discipline of rhetoric and composition” (139).

Although the book’s proposals for resolving the power imbalance between tutors and tutees are well-intended, some readers might find it impractical and counterintuitive that “grounding the consultation with subject area knowledge” (57) would be a corrective to the “inconsistent power” (57) between tutor and tutee. Aside from the obvious logistical challenges that Monty rightly acknowledges, the book provides little information on why specialist, rather than generalist, tutoring sessions necessarily upset the tutor-tutee hierarchy. This limitation opens up a productive line of inquiry for researchers. Given the debate over generalist versus specialist tutoring, and the associated concerns of directiveness that may potentially entrench tutor power over tutee, administrators seeking to implement either approach in specific local writing centers may need to consider an expanded discussion of the relative merits and shortcomings of both approaches.

Overall, Monty’s book offers a fresh, new perspective to the analysis of writing center discourses. Not only does his careful attention to the multiple places and spaces of writing center work offer scholars an expansive view of disciplinary identifications, but his application of different strands of Critical Discourse Analysis to a broadened sense of texts provides useful heuristics for scholars interested in research that exposes the power structures which enable and constrain WCS. Furthermore, Monty’s mixed methodology comprising quantitative and qualitative methods, as well as his corpus-based linguistic lens, demonstrates the utility of such approaches for writing center scholarship that other researchers would find particularly useful. Finally, tutors, instructors, administrators, and students would find the book an invaluable resource on the nature and work of writing centers within today’s academy.

Works Cited

Monty, Randall W. The Writing Center as Cultural and Interdisciplinary Contact Zone. Palgrave MacMillan, 2016.

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