Dismantling Knowledge: Liberating the Role of the Writing Center

Writing centers and their institutions have a history of challenging relationships. In the early 20th century, writing centers emerged as methods of instruction. In the 1940s, they became physical sites, a shift that reflected emerging ideological clashes between institutional goals for writing centers and individual center pedagogies. During this time, institutional goals became “clearly linked to remediation, to preparing the un(der)prepared, conflicting with the goals of individual writing center staff members, who reject the marginalization of either the writing lab or the students who chose (or were sent) to use it” (Boquet 470).

Despite this shift, the goals of writing centers and institutions often remain at-odds. On many campuses, there is still an assumption that students who go to the writing center require “fixing.” Staff members know that this characterization often misrepresents our intended purpose, reflecting two different expectations. The question becomes: how do we resist the assumed “role” of writing centers created by our institutions?

Institutions, by nature, are experts at looking the other way when there is a demand for change. According to Simone de Beauvoir, oppression feeds on “changing the consciousness of the oppressed, not the situation which oppressed them” (Freire 74). In essence, oppressive structures preserve themselves by changing individuals to fit their mold or suppressing them altogether. For this reason, Paolo Freire argues that we cannot achieve liberation through institutions; rather, it must come from people on the “inside” who have been oppressed: “The solution is not to “integrate” them into the structure of oppression, but to transform that structure” (74).

For Freire, the structure that needs transformation is the “banking” concept, which characterizes students as depositories who must receive knowledge from more informed individuals, such as professors or, in this case, writing center consultants. Although Freire’s book was published in 1970, this assumption persists. Even at my small college, many students and professors expect consultations to be a one-way street in which the client listens and the consultant corrects.

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Teresa McCarthy’s “safety zone theory” provides one framework by which to challenge institutional objectives. Her model uses two circles, one inside the other. On the inside is a “Safety” zone where there can be “Non-threatening/Allowable Cultural Difference”; outside is an another zone where “Dangerous/Proscribed Difference” lives (McCarthy 43). The Safety Zone includes people and things that comply with institutional goals, whereas anything or anyone that might threaten the institution is considered unsafe.

Take Freire’s banking concept, for example. With banking, students do not question the knowledge of their professors and a hierarchical relationship is upheld, as the institution intends. In contrast, students or professors who want to co-create knowledge—instead of banking—threaten the knowledge hierarchy and become deemed “unsafe.” Similarly, framing writing centers as “remedial” spaces protects power relations around knowledge by validating one person’s knowledge and invalidating another’s.

Knowing this, how can writing centers use safety zone theory to resist institutional goals and redefine our role? I believe we can use McCarty’s model as a tool to reconsider the way we pursue institutional change. So much of today’s writing center scholarship focuses on power dynamics within consultations, and, while this topic is valuable, only focusing on it can place the burden of change on individual students and consultants. As writing centers, part of our goal is to help students succeed within the institution. Though we might like to empower students to challenge safety zones in their writing (and that is certainly a choice that each student can make), doing so can hurt their grades.

Instead, I suggest that writing centers should build relationships with members of campus who are also trying to disrupt safety zones and should collaborate as a group to bring alternative discourses to the table. For example, at my college, a partnership is growing between the Kalamazoo College Writing Center and the Department of Critical Ethnic Studies, an interdisciplinary field that critically interrogates knowledge creation. Such a partnership can help empower students but does not rely on them to individually shoulder the responsibility of change, at the possible expense of their own academic success.

Laura Greenfield and Karen Rowan write, “As tutors begin to think, write, and produce new knowledge in and through the boundary regions of theory and practice, not only do they begin to (re)create and transform their own identities, but also the identity of the community of practice within and to which they speak and write” (105-6). By exploring safety zones in collaboration with members of our campus, I think we can attempt to communally redefine oppressive ideas around knowledge and, in turn, resist our assumed role as writing centers.

Works Cited

Boquet, Elizabeth H. “‘Our Little Secret’: A History of Writing Centers, Pre- to Post-Open Admissions.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 50, no. 3, 1999, pp. 463–82.

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. 30th Anniversary ed. Continuum, 2000.

Greenfield, Laura, and Karen Rowan. Writing Centers and the New Racism: A Call for Sustainable Dialogue and Change. Utah State UP, 2011.

McCarty, Teresa L., and Richard E. Littlebear. Language Planning and Policy in Native America: History, Theory, Praxis. Multilingual Matters, 2013.

Author Bio

Ayla Hull is a fourth-year undergraduate student at Kalamazoo College, studying Anthropology and Sociology. She currently serves as Assistant Co-Director of the Kalamazoo College Writing Center, where she has been a peer consultant for three years.