It’s five o’clock on a Monday afternoon, and, while much of campus is shutting down, the Writing Center is buzzing with conversation: there are eight consultations going on, two students checking in, one student filling out an evaluation, a consultant writing a note. Walking through, you hear, over and over, the same thing: consultants asking students about their papers.
In 1978 or 79 (I’m still not sure), I went along with a friend who was applying to intern at the Student Learning Center at our college campus. I’m not sure what I expected, but I was a rhetoric major, and I liked it, and I liked talking to people about writing. I fell in love with it, and decided that I wanted to keep teaching. By the end of my undergraduate career, I liked it enough to go to graduate school in Rhetoric. I wasn’t sure I wanted to become a professor, but I thought it was a possibility, mainly because it might give me the opportunity to run a Writing Center. And so, here, about thirty-five years later, I’m directing a Writing Center.
I had forgotten that that had once been my career plan until I was back in the Writing Center space, and it has been interesting for me to see how things have and have not changed.
The Berkeley Writing Center was part of the Student Learning Center in those days, and that was housed in “temporary” buildings (built immediately after World War II, so already thirty years old by the time I was there). That planning decision epitomized the “deficit model” that dominated much institutional and public discourse about writing in the 60s and 70s. In a world in which education is always in a crisis, because, despite all logic (or research) this set of students is always worse than the previous, needing to provide one-on-one teaching is framed as some kind of temporarily necessary stopgap.
One of the things I have seen change is that narrative.
Already, by the time I left Berkeley (in the mid-80s), the Writing Center was moving into larger and more permanent facilities because people in decision-making roles had figured out what any sensible person had always known: college writing isn’t hard for students because there’s something wrong with those students. College writing is hard because it’s hard.
If students who have trouble writing were simply missing something—if they had some kind of knowledge deficit—then all one would have to do would be to tell them what they don’t know. And then they would write well. But people have been teaching rhetoric for well over 2400 years, and simply telling students to write better has never worked. If it did, we would simply hand all students Aristotle’s Rhetoric and walk away.
In a way, students may know too much about writing—that’s what was suggested long ago by Mike Rose’s research on students with writing blocks. They knew the first sentence had to be engaging, and it had to be the broad part of a funnel that would lead to a thesis, and the thesis had to have three parts, and they couldn’t use I, and they shouldn’t use passive voice, and they had to have four sources. That’s a lot to keep in your head while you’re trying to write a single sentence.
And it turns out that probably the better way to think about writing is not to think about the writing, but to think about what you’re trying to write. It’s hard to write well if you have nothing to say. And, so, as I walk through the Writing Center, I hear consultants help students think about what it is that they want to say. I hear a lot of questions: “What is the important part of this for you?” “What do you want to work on?” “Can you tell me a little bit more about this?” “Would it be helpful for us to work on…?” “Without looking at your paper, can you tell me about your argument?” “What are you saying here?” I hear consultants offer their reactions to papers—“I’m not sure what you’re saying here,” or “I got a little lost here,” or “I’m not sure how this part related to that part.” Non-directive, non-evaluative, but very engaged.
And it's really wonderful to be back in that space.
Trish Roberts-Miller is the new director of the Undergraduate Writing Center at UT Austin.