Pedagogical Discourse(s) in the Writing Center

bass_nroll, 'blu#1' 2006

bass_nroll, 'blu#1' 2006


One of the recurrent questions we ask ourselves as writing center practitioners is what we’re doing: basically, what our theoretical assumptions are about our work, and how they inform (or fail to inform, or even hinder) that work. As I’ve written here before, in the center that houses AXIS “what we’re doing” is consulting with writers using non-directive and non-evaluative means, the theory behind those guidelines as complicated and multifarious as their practical outcomes in individual consultations. Today I will ask what it means to be non-directive and non-evaluative in the context of the theory of educative discourse laid out in Basil Bernstein’s Pedagogy, symbolic control and identity: Theory, research, critique (1996), which assumes pedagogic practice to be a “fundamental social context through which cultural reproduction-production takes place,” thus necessarily taking part in power relations originating outside itself (17). Bernstein argues that

Theories of cultural reproduction view education as a carrier of power relations external to education. From this point of view, pedagogic discourse becomes a carrier for something other than itself. It is a carrier of power relations external to the school, a carrier of patterns of dominance with respect to class, patriarchy, race. It is a matter of great interest that the actual structure which enables power to be relayed, power to be carried, is itself not subject to analysis. 18

While it is deservedly a matter of some pride in the field that writing center theory works to avoid participation in this aporetic tradition, holding its pedagogic discourse subject to searching analysis in the work of numerous scholars, Bernstein’s point is well taken. Writing center pedagogic discourse is just as capable of reifying problematic power relations as any other collegiate pedagogic discourse, and this is why one of Praxis’ overriding concerns is to map those power relations through publishing work that uses intersectional analyses attentive to class, patriarchy, ethnicity, dialect, and ability. To carry that project forward I want to ask how non-directive, non-evaluative pedagogic discourse can be construed according to Bernstein’s theory dividing pedagogic discourse into regulative and instructional discourses.

Instructional discourses we are all familiar with: they are content-oriented, seeking to transmit, transfer, or share points of fact or traditions of practice and to relate them to each other, thus creating ‘knowledge.’ The regulative discourse we are also aware of, but to a lesser degree, in part because we tend not to associate it as closely with the instructional discourse as we ought, instead seeing it as a side-issue, a distraction from the real business of the writing center. The regulative discourse, as Bernstein says, is "a moral discourse which creates order, (interpersonal) relations and identity” (46). This discourse is called ‘discipline’ when primary and secondary teachers do it, and it is one of the remarkable aspects of collegiate pedagogical discourse that we have constructed a system in which we largely rescind the duty to ‘discipline’ our students, relying on policies in our unread syllabi and institutional pressures brought to bear on students outside the classroom to carry out the regulative discourse with which we remain complicit. It is highly debatable what the outcome of these pervasive regulative discourses are on individual students, but this makes it of greater importance to ask what the outcome of an alternate regulative regime in the writing center might be.

So what are these discourses as they appear in the writing center? It seems fairly clear that in non-directive, non-evaluative writing center work, it is the prohibition on direction that is the instructive discourse and the prohibition on evaluation that is the regulative discourse; it is tempting to pretend these are actually anti-instructive and anti-regulative discourses and that writing centers have thus escaped the reach of collegiate pedagogical discourses and their external power relations, instead establishing writing centers as bastions of utopian liberty in an otherwise restrictive educative regime. However, we know that in fact there are instructional and regulative discourses at work in writing center consultations, and that there is a complex relationship with external instructive and regulative discourses as well.

While we are non-directive, what that means in an actual consultation is a multiplication of possible directions rather than a dead end, just as our being non-evaluative means not that we fail to evaluate writing but instead that we acknowledge the multiple evaluative schema brought to bear on writers from without the center, while we also try to retain a place for a writer's intrinsic evaluative schema. In other words, writing centers work through excess: by offering multiple possible explicatory structures appropriate to a specific writing situation, or by noting how the interplay between a professor’s rubric and a writer's spirit may influence writerly choices in multiple ways, we allow instructive and regulative possibilities to proliferate without subordinating ourselves completely to them, thus creating a metadiscourse that treats our engagement with external forces as constitutive of the theoretical and practical boundaries of the center. In a perfect world writing centers thus carve out a third, hybrid space for collegiate writers where they can get help writing to external standards while still fostering their own intrinsic motivation. 

If this sounds more than a little utopian, that may be because it is; as we’ve seen in multiple posts here at AXIS, the boundaries of the center are chosen for us even as we constitute them ourselves, whether that be because some writing centers are housed in closets or because others are tied to hostile departments of English whose own regulative/instructive discourses are so rigid as to extirpate the intellectual liberty necessary for effective writing center work. So even as we avoid the aporetic stance taken by some collegiate knowledge workers in which the regulative aspects of their pedagogical discourse are ignored, it is clear that we do so because in our case the instructive and regulative discourses of pedagogies originating outside the center so constantly impinge and shape the ways we do our work. That the point of contact between the institution and the writing center is so overdetermined, so excessive, and so contentious may be a necessary part of the place writing centers have made for themselves in modern collegiate institutions, but it remains both one of the principal challenges of writing center work, and one of the principal reasons to continue to engage in it.