THE CATEGORIES WE KEEP: WRITING CENTER FORMS AND THE TOPOI OF WRITING
At the writing center where I began my career, every session ended with a conundrum. Our database required us to complete the record for the consultation by checking one of some two-dozen checkboxes indicating the topics covered during the session. Because most of the tutors were graduate students concurrently teaching first-year composition, some of these topics were drawn from the standardized curriculum for that course, including a tripartite division of the revision process into the separate stages of revising, editing, and proofreading. These categories were inherently redundant, since the tutor then had to check whatever other aspects of writing revising at each of these levels entailed. As time went on, we added additional categories to reflect the kind of language novice writers brought with them to the writing center, including “flow.” Now covering a single topic like organization might involve checking three boxes, one for revision, one for organization, and one for flow, if the writer’s concept of that ambiguous category included organization.
The conflicting categories on our database form reflected in miniature the many conceptions of writing that come together in any writing center. Administrators had defined these categories based on their experience teaching writing in the classroom and one-on-one in the center. Tutors absorbed these categories as they engaged with these forms after every session and echoed this language to student writers, whose own less-developed concepts of writing were also given voice through categories like flow. This mundane set of checkboxes, then, recorded an ongoing process of articulating and learning what we talk about when we talk about writing (cf. Corbett and Eberly 23).
Rather than merely recording data, such forms reveal how writing center practitioners conceive of writing and pass those conceptions on to others. Precisely because they are designed with everyday purposes in mind, these artifacts reveal our basic assumptions, the most basic of which is that writing can indeed be broken down into various categories, which can then be sorted hierarchically (for example, into higher- and lower-order concerns—see Reigstad and McAndrew 11). These categories amount to the topoi of writing instruction, rhetorical commonplaces that writing center administrators have inherited and which they use to shape their own practice, that of their tutors, and that of the writers who visit the center. After describing such forms in greater detail, I will draw on Aristotelian rhetorical theory to explain how such forms reflect and contribute to disciplinary consensus by continuously passing on administrators’ conceptions of writing to tutors and writers, and thereby reinforcing the topoi of writing studies. As analysis of the forms will show, writing center practitioners share a general consensus on which categories they most commonly address. Consideration of the pedagogy underlying those categories, however, suggests that our day-to-day classification of writing is nowhere near as innovative as our lore would have us believe. Examining the categories on these forms as disciplinary topoi underscores their important role in helping tutors and developing writers conceptualize writing and suggests that we must approach even the most seemingly trivial artifacts of our practice with pedagogical care.
The Form of Forms
Figure 1 illustrates a typical set of categories included on the writing center forms I surveyed. It comprehensively lists various aspects of writing and organizes those aspects into both a hierarchy and a chronology. Categories appear more or less in the order that a writer encounters them during the writing process—understanding the assignment before imagining an audience, for example. In this case, the list is not divided into additional groupings such as stages of the writing process but takes the form of a single uninterrupted string of categories (see Fig. 1).
While the list in Figure 1 includes, at the end, different stages of the writing process, such as “Editing strategies” and “Proofreading strategies,” other forms offer only a short list of such stages without more specific categories. The most thorough forms, such as that in Figure 2, divide the list into sections under various headings. In this case, the writer completes the first half of the form before the session, and the tutor completes the form afterward (see Fig. 2).
As in many forms of this kind, the use of headings and layout clearly articulates a process-based approach to writing. Both forms also generally arrange topics according to a hierarchy of concerns, placing large-scale issues like “Understanding the assignment” (Fig. 1) or “Discussed ideas/selected evidence” (Fig. 2) above finer points like “Word choice” (Fig. 1) or “Punctuation” (Fig. 2). Writing center practitioners in general are so used to taking a process approach and prioritizing “higher-order” over “lower-order” concerns (see Reigstad and McAndrew) that such arrangement may seem intuitive—not even a matter of choice. In the heat of practice, we forget that these ideas did indeed come from somewhere and that they constrain the decisions we make. The forms themselves have been designed for pragmatic purposes—to record information, not to take a stand on writing pedagogy. Nevertheless, such forms argue for a particular conception of writing and construct that conception through the terms that they use. Writing center practitioners shape their practice to these categories and reinforce them by using such terminology in tutorials. Looking at record-keeping forms critically therefore allows us to characterize the topoi of writing center praxis.
Learning from Check-Box Topoi
In ancient Greek rhetoric a topos (topoi, plural) is a figurative “place” that a rhetor visits to find material for argumentation. This spatial metaphor, of argument as the territory and these categories as demarcated areas of that territory, continues an association between ideas and place that predates Aristotle (Kennedy 45; Miller, “The Aristotelian Topos” 134). Discussions of Aristotle’s Rhetoric distinguish two kinds of topoi: the so-called “common” topoi, modes of argumentation such as cause and effect or greater and lesser common to many different fields, and the “special” topoi, topics specific to particular fields. As modern rhetoricians like George A. Kennedy and Carolyn Miller note, Aristotle himself never defines these terms (Kennedy 45; Miller, “The Aristotelian Topos 134). In fact, he frequently uses different words to denote the two, reserving topoi or koina for common topics and idia (“specificities” or “species”) for special topics. He even explicitly distinguishes one kind of topos from the other, stating, “By ‘species’ I mean the premises specific to each genus [of knowledge], and by topoi those common to all” (Kennedy 46). Nevertheless, in other places Aristotle does use topos to indicate topics specific to a field, for example those topoi particular to law (Kennedy 106). Such inconsistencies of terminology prompt Michael C. Leff to dismiss the topos as a “confused notion” with “a bewildering diversity of meanings” (23, qtd in Miller, “Aristotle’s ‘Special’ Topics” 64). Over the past four decades, however, rhetoricians invested in the dynamic and generative properties of rhetoric have sought to clarify (and improve upon) an Aristotelian notion of invention, imposing consistency where they have found little by using the term topos for both common and special topics.
The categories listed on writing center forms by and large name special topics particular to the field of composition studies. Each check box represents an individual topos, an area of writing collectively defined over time by composition theorists, handbook writers, and teachers. As Carolyn Miller explains, “ such [special] rhetorical situations, knowledge and issues available in the institutions and organizations in which those situations occur, and concepts available in specific networks of knowledge (or disciplines)” (“Aristotle’s ‘Special’ Topics” 66). When writing center administrators select which topoi to list on such forms, they therefore draw on and in some cases react against conventional expectations of composition studies as well as the field’s collective knowledge and disciplinary debates—a blend of pedagogical orientations that I will later demonstrate in the forms themselves.
While the origins of special topics in the expectations and conventions of entire discourse communities would seem to limit their utility for producing new knowledge, recall that Aristotle presents them as means of invention. Others may have demarcated the “places” one may visit, but these predefined topics inspire new contributions to the discourse. As Miller observes, “the topoi serve both managerial and generative functions” (“The Aristotelian Topos” 132), constraining the discourse even as they provide grounds for new arguments. For those analyzing the work of others rather than generating their own, topoi can serve “as an aid to pattern recognition,” facilitating “the connection between the abstract and the concrete, between a pattern and the material in which it is instantiated …” (Miller, “The Aristotelian Topos” 142). Tutors working in centers that utilize check-box forms make such connections twice over: first, like all writing instructors, as they detect patterns in the writer’s work and later as they indicate on the form the topics covered in their sessions.
Seen as topoi, the categories on writing center forms engage tutors and writers alike in an educational exchange. Consider first that tutors—not writing center administrators or writers—are the primary audience of such forms. The tutor arguably experiences the most contact with them as he or she reflects on a just-finished session and completes the record. Indeed some forms, like the one reproduced as Figure 2, seem primarily intended to help tutors reflect on the session after the fact. The expert-defined categories used on such forms model a nuanced, complex concept of writing that tutors must engage with every time they complete a record. Each check mark reinforces received knowledge from one’s disciplinary forbears, affirming, “We do writing thus and so.” In some cases, writers also check boxes to indicate what they would like to work on. Even when writers do not have access to the forms, tutors model these categories as they identify and articulate writers’ concerns and help writers address them.
Acquiring these special topoi takes time, however. Experts in the discourse community assume that those working their way into the community share their understanding, but such is not necessarily the case. As Thomas Newkirk finds in his study of student and instructor roles in writing conferences,
Terminology plays an ambiguous role in the performance of teachers and students. Terms like “detail,” or “specifics,” or “organization” are often used by instructors as if the term itself defined or explained the writing operation or criterion being referenced. It is more likely that these terms serve to index, or point to, tacit understandings that capable writers develop from their experiences working with texts (200).
As a result, such topoi “are useful [only] if the writer possesses a grounded tacit sense of how the term functions in the discourse community” (Newkirk 200). Studying the topoi on a range of these forms provides a snapshot of that “grounded tacit sense” within the writing center community: what aspects of writing are considered most salient and what pedagogies underlie writing centers’ hybrid practice.
Check Box Topoi as Disciplinary Consensus
To characterize how writing center practitioners divide writing into various topoi, I surveyed check-box forms from writing centers at twenty-two colleges and universities across the country, provided in response to several requests on the WCENTER e-mail list.¹ While this sample is not, properly speaking, random, it does cover a wide geographical distribution of schools of different types: public and private; two- and four-year colleges; comprehensive and research universities; and professional schools as well as those focused on liberal arts and sciences. I will first tally and characterize the categories that appear most frequently on these forms.
Determining the frequency of topoi gives a sense of which topics the writing center administrators who typically create them agree are most fundamental to writing and writing instruction. Figure 3 tallies all of the topoi included on the forms and groups them according to a hierarchy of concerns—substantive issues like thesis, evidence, and large-scale organization over sentence-level issues, word choice, grammar, and mechanics. Since the actual wording may vary across forms (“citing sources” vs. “citation,” for example) I have considered similarly worded category labels to cover the same topic. In some cases, however, labels include more than one domain: while one form may treat spelling as its own category, another may group spelling and punctuation. I have tallied these combined topoi on their own if they are presented as a single domain (linked by an understood and) but included topoi in separate tallies if they are presented as distinct (linked by an understood or, as in a list separated by commas). In other instances, ambiguous wording has led me to err on the side of caution and tally a category on its own (is “topic management” about selecting a topic, for example, or focusing a discussion?). In cases where topoi were named differently but cover similar domains, I have grouped them under a single heading but not totaled them since some forms include redundant topoi and would therefore inflate the total. Arrows indicate those topoi that appeared on at least half of the forms (n ≥ 11) (see Fig. 3).
Searching for the largest numbers (marked with arrows), we can find some areas of consensus, not only in specific domains of writing but in the wording used to identify them. The most common category, reflected on 20 of the 22 forms, is “Thesis.” “Organization” comes close behind it at 19, followed by “Understanding Assignment” (15), “Punctuation” (13), and “Transitions” (12). “Sentence Structure,” “Wording/Word Choice,” and “Grammar” appear on 11 of the forms. No other category appears on at least half of the forms, though we can see that differently named topoi cover similar domains, and some like “Audience” and “Paragraphs” appear in almost half. All of the forms feature topoi that indicate various approaches to invention, including “Brainstorming” and “Prewriting,” which can be grouped together under “Invention.” If we include “Revision,” “Final Draft,” and “Rewrite” together under the assumption that they all indicate revising a previously written draft, this combined “Revision” grouping would also make it into the majority.
Taken together, these most common topoi provide a snapshot of how writing center practitioners at a wide range of institutions and geographical locations focus their attention within the general domain of writing. The topoi are distributed across the hierarchy of writing concerns—and the frequency of each category is almost in direct proportion to how substantive that issue is. “Thesis,” “Organization,” and “Understanding argument” are macro-level issues, vs. the more specific “Punctuation,” “Wording/Word Choice,” “Sentence Structure, “Grammar,” and “Transitions.” Combined with the “Invention” and “Revision” groupings, this short list covers most of the stops on the way from receiving an assignment to turning in a finished paper. If a writing center director were exiled to a desert island and could choose only ten to include on his or her forms, these ten would about cover it.
The most frequently represented topoi reflect the hybridity of writing center praxis, a combination of process, expressivist, and current-traditional approaches. While the “Revision” grouping draws on process theory, the various terms used to describe what happens before students start writing—“Prewriting,” “Brainstorming,” and “Invention”—are drawn respectively from process, expressivist, and (in rare cases) rhetorical pedagogies.² “Thesis” may show a rhetorical focus, though the notion of supporting a central claim is so fundamental to American academic writing that the concept rises above pedagogical preference. Most of the remaining topoi—“Punctuation,” “Wording/Word Choice,” “Sentence Structure,” “Grammar,” and “Transitions” —reflect a current-traditional focus on conventions of academic writing and micro-level correctness. And “Understanding Assignment,” it could be argued, is simply pragmatic, though some forms put a rhetorical spin on the idea by indicating the purpose and goals of the writer. Half of the most common topoi, therefore, do not reflect the expressivist and process-based pedagogies that informed the development of the modern writing center (North 438; Murphy and Sherwood 2–4; Boquet 476). Explicitly rhetorical topoi are almost missing, and none of the most common topoi reflect a collaborative or social constructionist approach—perhaps because we see collaboration more as a means to an end than an explicit topic to address.
Just as interesting are the topoi and attendant pedagogies that are underrepresented. Terms related to literary analysis, rhetoric, and a corrective response to writing receive short shrift. The ambiguous topoi of “Tone” and “Style,” characteristic of literary studies, each turn up on only four and five of the twenty-two forms, respectively. Despite the reorientation of composition toward rhetoric over the past three decades and writing centers’ wholehearted adoption of rhetorical approaches, only three of the forms include “Rhetoric” as a category—though the rhetorical category of “Audience” is represented on almost half the forms. The relative infrequency of topoi like “Editing,” “Proofreading,” and “Corrections” may more accurately reflect the predispositions of writing center practitioners away from micro-level concerns, however often writers themselves seek help in these areas (see, for example, Beason).
A certain class of topoi seen on the forms reflect no particular pedagogical orientation at all but rather attempt to accommodate the conceptions that students bring to the writing center. The term “Flow,” for example, appears on three forms. Writing center practitioners may joke about the ambiguity of this term and attempt to identify just what topoi in their own expert lexicon map onto it: Organization? Transitions? Conciseness? Including “Flow” or other broad terms like “Polish” on the forms, however, creates a space for more impressionistic views of writing in an otherwise technical context, bridging novice and expert vocabularies. The use of student-defined terms in writing instruction is occasionally advocated by instructors like Dave Waddell, who notes that first-year composition students asked to define “good” writing on their first day of class employ terms like “flowing.”
There is a drawback to including such terms alongside more specialized vocabulary, however, since they necessarily clash with expert-defined terms. If other choices are available, anyone checking “Flow” must also check “Organization” or “Transitions” or “Conciseness” or other topoi, sacrificing descriptive accuracy for accommodation. Perhaps because they give rise to such problems, impressionistic terms appear only on a minority of forms, suggesting that most writing center practitioners are more interested in supplanting novice views with their own more fully developed conceptions, rather than meeting student writers where they are. As Newkirk argues, however, we consider these topoi more accurate and developed precisely because we inhabit the discourse community that uses them. Perhaps for this reason writing center practitioners use such specialized topoi on their “private” record-keeping forms, often translating student-defined concepts into the expert topoi they themselves use and value: the student writer asks whether the paper “sounds good,” and we check “coherence.”
Seen in this light, writing center records play an important role in an educational exchange. When a tutor meets with a writer, the two exchange not only observations about or suggestions for a particular piece of writing but the topoi of writing that the tutor has acquired. The tutor models to the writer the many different areas of focus that experts bring to writing—like all writing instructors encountering the gap between expert and novice understandings of concepts and terminology. With sufficient experience and reflection, the writer’s conception of writing may develop from having few topoi (the stereotypical “Grammar,” “Flow,” and “Sounds Good”) to having all the complexity, hierarchy, and detail reflected on the forms. That process, however, requires the writer to “use terms she does not yet own—and act as if they are hers. She must use terms, saturated with tacit institutional meanings she does not yet understand” (Newkirk 201). By paying closer attention to how we categorize writing on these most mundane artifacts of our daily business, we may facilitate that transfer of topoi and enhance the writing center as a place of learning.
1. Special thanks to the writing center administrators who provided these forms: Deaver Traywick, Black Hills State University (Spearfish, SD); Stephanie K. Carter, Bryant University (Smithfield, RI); Deirdre O'Connor, Bucknell University (Lewisburg, PA); Kathy J. Evertz, Carleton College (Northfield, MN); Diane Gruenberg, College of New Jersey (Trenton, NJ); Vicki Russell, Duke University (Durham, NC); Wendy Menefee-Libey, Harvey Mudd College (Claremont, CA); Haydie Le Corbeiller, Idaho State University (Pocatello, ID); Neal Lerner, Massachusetts College of Pharmacy Health Sciences (Boston, MA); Robert Pickford, San Diego Mesa College (San Diego, CA); Jane DeTullio, Monmouth University (West Long Branch, NJ); Jane Kokernak, Mount Ida College (Newton Center, MA); Paul Ellis, Northern Kentucky University (Highland Heights, KY); Jon Olson, Penn State University (University Park, PA); Diane Dowdey, Sam Houston State University (Huntsville, TX); Shannin Schroeder, Southern Arkansas University (Magnolia, AK); Joan Mullin, University of Texas at Austin, Writing Mentors Program; Vicente Lozano, University of Texas at Austin, Undergraduate Writing Center; Susan Hays Bussey, University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma (Chickasha, OK); Jackie Grutsch McKinney, Ball State University (Muncie, IN); Deanna Odney, University of Southern Indiana (Evansville, IN); and the staff of the Julia N. Visor Academic Center at Illinois State University (Normal, IL).
2. For definitions of these various pedagogical approaches and in-depth literature reviews, see Tate, Rupiper, and Schick. Fulkerson offers a more comprehensive survey of current composition pedagogies, taking Tate et al. to task for not including more recently developed approaches↩
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