Subversive Work: A Response to Melissa Nicolas' "Can WPAs Align Their Beliefs With Their Practices?"

Julien Bell, "Opposite" 2015

Julien Bell, "Opposite" 2015

When I first read Stephen North’s “The Idea of a Writing Center,” I was less than six months removed from completing my undergraduate English degree in literary studies. I had never been to a writing center before. I was an English major, after all, and didn’t need any help producing essays for my coursework. I understood writing centers to be a place where students received help with grammar and organization.  North’s article challenged much of that thinking, but there is perhaps also something very problematic about assigning North’s work to fresh tutors or consultants who work in English departments that have very few ideas about writing centers in general. I was in graduate school to study literature, and it was thus assumed that I knew something about writing.

I did not know much.  I was almost completely unaware of the world of composition or its role in an English department. I was similarly unaware that writing centers had an entire world of discourse around them. I was still binge-writing papers at this point. I was unconvinced that we could ignore grammatical errors in writing, and so I often line-edited essays. Composition theory and practice was quietly regarded by most professors and instructors as a kind of secondary concern at best, an annoyance at worst. Writing center work, like composition teaching, was openly derided by faculty and many graduate students as the menial work that “paid the bills,” akin to scrubbing the intellectual toilets.

In her recent post on the subject, Melissa Nicolas notes that “writing centers sabotage themselves everyday by continuing practices that feed into our perpetual marginalization.” I, and many others like me, represent the result of staffing practices that lead to problems in writing centers. If we halt these practices, though, where would we turn in order to appropriately staff a writing center? The English department? Who exactly is qualified to work in a writing center?

I argue that many experienced English faculty would not be qualified to work in a writing center, mostly because the goals of composition and writing centers are often diametrically opposed.

Many adjuncts, instructors, and professors still cling to the bureaucratic ease of the Current-Traditional paradigm. For many teachers, there is nothing wrong with scoring an essay based on prescriptive grammar or rote formula. As Nicolas noted, TAs are uncomfortably situated as the go-to staff for a writing center, regardless of their research interests or track within a program. Centers are staffed with creative writers, linguistics, and literature specialists with little to no formal composition training. Such individuals often bring with them assumptions about writing that stand in opposition to writing center practices. Namely, an emphasis on grammatically correct, neat, and ordered writing. Expertise in many English departments has little to do with the common goals of composition theory. Staffing a hypothetical writing center with these “experts” would be disastrous.

I witnessed several loud, messy, public disagreements between faculty, students, and consultants. In one such incident, a tutor was publicly humiliated for suggesting that a basic writing student produced a competent essay. A highly regarded instructor from another sub-field in English studies had graded the essay a zero out of one hundred over minor, sentence-level concerns. The center was subsequently labeled subversive, untrustworthy. It was reiterated that writing consultants should mind their position and never undermine the authority of instructors in the department, even if their teaching practices were highly objectionable. The center entered a period in which the staff had to lay low, quietly fixing comma splices and run on sentences. This hiatus from writing center work pleased the department, and we were soon able to quietly re-introduce proper writing work once the gaze of the department became fixed on another issue.

As tutors, we lobbied endlessly for instructors to send us assignment prompts, to be more open to the fluid and unpredictable nature of writing sessions. We asked that instructors not send us entire classes of students. The writing center often functions as a kind of triage space in which instructors can dump their least successful students or offload the tedium of grammar instruction. Many instructors would become frustrated at the lack of visible progress in student writing, despite the fact that tutors and students believed good work had happened. This tension further located the writing center as a space that stood in opposition to the regular workings of the larger English department.

In short, many English departments are simply not in the business of making better writers. Writing centers often exist at the periphery of a department, doing work that is poorly understood, or regarded as outright harmful. The labor practices described by Melissa Nicolas are part of a larger conflict between competing paradigms and ideologies. If we hope to see change in the way writing centers operate, we must also acknowledge and fight the larger ideologies that constrict our institutional role.