Feeling Good about Difficulty in Writing Center Stories

This work, "Emoji Puzzle," is a derivative of " Jigsaw Puzzle " by Pyson and " Twemoji2 1f642 " and " Twemoji2 1f914 " By Twitter, used under  CC BY . "Emoji Puzzle" is licensed under  CC BY  by Jason Hoppe.

This work, "Emoji Puzzle," is a derivative of "Jigsaw Puzzle" by Pyson and "Twemoji2 1f642" and "Twemoji2 1f914" By Twitter, used under CC BY. "Emoji Puzzle" is licensed under CC BY by Jason Hoppe.

Stories are everywhere.

It’s pretty much a cliché at this point. Who denies the importance of storycraft? Not scientists or humanists. Not business executives, politicians, lawyers, artists, or medical professionals. No matter whether the aim is to discover, express, understand, communicate, or persuade, we hear about the vital role of narrative in seemingly every discipline and genre. Everything’s a story, right?¹

But I’m thinking of something a little more specific—the stories we tell ourselves especially about what we do in the writing center. How we articulate to each other the nuts and bolts of our methods—or our teaching priorities and learning outcomes—when it comes to the one-on-one sessions that, for the most part, remain our bread and butter.

This topic crystallized for me recently as new consultants arrived to one of the regular meetings of the introductory tutor training class I teach. They had only just begun actually consulting in the writing center, after many weeks of study and preparation. And so the room was abuzz with different conversations, the earnest and eager swapping of experiences with particular clients, their idiosyncrasies, expectations, and so forth. I overheard some talk of method, too—clear-cut success or failure in the application of this or that technique. Stories about the writing center were everywhere, and sharing them felt good.

Yet as class settled in, I felt something wasn’t quite right. It nagged at me. Eventually, I realized it seemed to me that the kinds of stories being exchanged and the good feelings they elicited were fine as far as they went—as introductory chatter, as the sort of well-meaning gossip that can initially bond a team. But I also felt certain this wasn’t enough.

The stories I’d overheard were largely about client personalities ("Did you hear about Sonia’s client the other night?") or consultant triumphs ("I saw Hugo’s student after class, and he said he left the writing center completely confident about how to knock out his history essay."). All well and good, sure. As consultants and teachers, getting to know our students and clients as individuals and experiencing gratitude and satisfaction as they progress are large parts of why we do what we do.

Still, I wondered: were there also stories to be shared about difficulty—nuanced, deep, and thrilling? Not just methodological difficulty—that is, how, when, and why we choose which methods to employ with different clients. Nor even the emotional difficulty that comes with the distinct interpersonal labors of every minute of every session. But, above all, the intellectual difficulty of the writing center, our battles to meet students in their minds, to think with and alongside our clients as they build original arguments in topics and disciplines often unfamiliar to us?

Of course, such work doesn’t always feel good as it happens. But its joys well up, sometimes unexpectedly. There are kinds of difficulty that pulse, intermittently, with exhilaration; they seem to depend on the degree of absorption and struggle. Pauses, stutterings, and half-starts; concentration and puzzling, quiet and voluble; epiphanic moments when the dam breaks and the logic comes pouring through; and back again. All this is how hard thinking works, and it happens, in speech and in writing, in just about every writing center session.

What would it mean to tell stories about this sort of difficulty—and still more, to feel good within them and about them? To narrate, with satisfaction, the intrinsic rewards of intellectual struggle in the writing center?

Perhaps there is some reason to be wary of these questions. They are involved. The responses they call for are themselves difficult to construct. They may not come ‘naturally.’

Perhaps just as much to the point, even in academia, they are not on trend: influential scholars in our community have recently stressed the limits and risks of storytelling. Or at least of the kind of storytelling they label “lore.” Take this brief interview with Jackie Grutsch McKinney (author of Peripheral Visions for Writing Centers), in which she criticizes longstanding, self-congratulatory stories that celebrate the comfort and iconoclasm of writing centers in ways that she worries may merely “make us feel good” (Earle). Similarly, Rebecca Day Babcock and Terese Thonus stress that writing centers must get more “scientific,” by which they mean enlist empirical methods of self-study more prevalent in the sciences and social sciences than in the arts and humanities (3). They don’t want to do away with stories, but they do want to change how we create them—out of ‘evidence’ as it is defined by professionals in some disciplines rather than others. Lori Salem’s celebrated recent scholarship, as well as parts of the more controversial interview that followed earlier this year in the Chronicle of Higher Education (Jacobs), supply yet another example.

I see the value of each polemic—these are field-shaping arguments that we are fortunate to have and contend with—but I’m skeptical, too. I think it’s also valuable to make distinctions within the category of good feeling, and I’m not inclined to diminish or discard methods that don’t revolve around numbers.  

Crafting stories out of careful observation, say, with a poet’s or cultural anthropologist’s or journalist’s eye, that embrace the intellectual difficulties we face in writing centers still seems essential. This is especially true in settings where we are talking to each other and trying, resourcefully, to develop as teachers and consultants, scouring diverse disciplines for how they can advance our work.

In a way, such stories would reverse the tidy, complacent narratives lampooned at the outset of Jeff Brooks’s dated though still-useful primer on “Minimalist Tutoring.” Remember: Brooks begins with a cautionary tale about the ‘perfect session’ that is all the more dangerous precisely because “it makes everyone involved feel good” (1). That session doesn’t sputter. It seems to go swimmingly. There is no difficulty, and thus no bad feeling; there is also no learning.

Learning is difficult, at least it can be. So are thinking and writing. But the journalist and creative non-fictionist Verlyn Klinkenborg reminds us, “The difficulty of writing isn’t a sign of failure. It’s simply the nature of the work itself” (68).

So, too, the work of the writing center. It’s not difficult for difficulty’s sake. It is the way of things. We experience difficulty—intellectually—if we want to understand things as they really are, to say true things about an infinitely nuanced world.

Yet an embrace of difficulty needn’t entail suspicion of all good feeling. My claim is that we ought to pay especially good attention when good feelings emerge from difficulty (rather than from ease), and we ought to tell those stories.

And we ought probably tell them not only to each other. One of my goals this semester, as an administrator, is to begin to reshape how our writing center tells others about what we do and how we assess our effectiveness. How can we measure intellectual rigor in everyday sessions? What would it mean to measure success not merely via bean-counting, nor even via the production of greater confidence in our clients, but rather, trusting in the process, by the intellectual labor of our sessions? What if the satisfactions of intellectual struggle—of the experiences we have in discussing ideas that somehow prove, by turns, enervating and energizing—were legible to others as a great day’s work?


1. With a tip of the hat to the title of Andrea A. Lunsford and John Ruszkiewicz’s famous composition text Everything’s an Argument.

Works Cited

Brooks, Jeff. “Minimalist Tutoring: Making the Student Do All the Work.” Writing Lab Newsletter, vol. 15, no. 6 (1991), pp.1-5.

Babcock, Rebecca Day, and Terese Thonus. Researching the Writing Center: Towards an Evidence-Based Practice. Peter Lang, 2012.

Earle, Chris. “An Interview with Jackie Grutsch McKinney, Author of Peripheral Visions for Writing Centers.” Another Word, 3 November 2014.

Jacobs, Rose.  “What's Wrong with Writing Centers.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5 February 2018.

Klinkenborg, Verlyn. Several Short Sentences about Writing.Vintage, 2012.

Lunsford, Andrea A. and John Ruskiewicz. Everything's an Argument. Bedford/St. Martin's, 2000.

McKinney, Jackie Grutsch. “An Interview with Jackie Grutsch McKinney, Author of Peripheral Visions for Writing Centers.” Interview by Chris Earle. Another Word, Writing Center at the University of Madison-Wisconsin, 3 November 2014.

---. Peripheral Visions for Writing Centers. UP of Colorado, 2013.

Author Bio

Jason Hoppe is the founding director of the West Point Writing Program, Writing Fellows Program, and Mounger Writing Center. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect official policies or positions of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or United States Government.