Process Versus Product


with, not for.
-Paolo Freire

In the writing center I help staff, the heuristic we use to guide consultations is to 'focus on the writer, not the writing.' Obviously from a service standpoint this is smart, since we won't be open long if we alienate the people that choose to come to the writing center by ignoring them in favor of their work; this policy also helps us avoid becoming an editing service.

But I suspect the real point of this dictum to focus on a writer and not on their writing is to avoid using what I call a product-oriented worldview during the writing center encounter, because to do so would be to blunt the positive impact of that encounter. A product-oriented worldview is something familiar to us all - think of the way celebrity works, where an individual becomes a 'brand,' or the way advertising works, where the people enjoying the products in a commercial become the thing being sold - but in the writing center encounter it is especially insidious. Viewing the writing as more important than the writer leaves us open to expressing the kind of punishing, shame-based judgment too many student writers are already accustomed to, their inability to perfectly deploy the dominant idiom of their field already a challenge to them without our taking it as a reflection on their worth.

Martin Buber, in his I and Thou (Ich und Du in the German original), argues that our very identities are split into this binary between process and product, though he puts it quite differently. Buber says that there are two basic word-pairs, I-You and I-It, and that when you regard another person as an 'It' you experience them as an object with uses rather than a subject with interiority and self-direction. This in turn has deleterious effects on your 'I.' Seeing the writer as their writing does exactly this, and then the purpose of the writing center encounter becomes hygienic and impersonal: beat the logic of the argument like a carpet, clean up the mechanics, shape the form to its intended generic box and send it on its way. The consultant becomes a (sometimes fairly terrifying) figure of power and control, and whether or not the writing comes out 'improved,' the logic of the product-oriented worldview has taken over an encounter between two people and made them both things.

This is what Paolo Freire was talking about, in part, when he pushed for a 'critical' pedagogy that asked what the ideological effects of teaching in a particular fashion were. He was unsurprised to find that what he called the 'banking method' of teaching, where the instructor has a pot of knowledge she or he doles out among the pupils, was both insidious in exactly the way I have argued a product-oriented worldview in the writing center encounter is, and completely ineffective. The informational senescence that results from a purely transmissive pedagogy is astounding, almost as if people simply cannot incorporate information when they are fighting to be recognized as people. Instead Freire called for a transactional education that recognizes both the humanity and the social relations of the people involved in an educational encounter, and assumes them both to be 'the learner.'

I think this has all sorts of implications, and they're ones I know to be important in the field of writing center research and practice. As I wrote about last week, the cognitive aspects of the writing center encounter are both important and understudied, and taking the product/process dichotomy as a guide might generate an interesting research study on the cognitive differences between a product- and process- oriented consultation. There are certainly educational implications: do process-oriented pedagogies actually increase positive learning outcomes? Does 'focusing on the writer' just work better? There are also philosophical implications, especially in the thorny area of writing center ethics; a process/product theory might help move the ongoing debate over whether paternalism, plagiarism, or patriarchal power relations characterize too much of our work in writing centers into a more productive register. In my own work I'm currently exploring the implications of this binary in terms of how universities function as a whole, and whether or not they demand too much product-orientation from students and faculty in this supposed age of rationalized, economistic, 'corporate' university governance. Certainly, if a process-oriented writing center finds itself ensconced in a product-oriented institution, there could be some problems to be faced there.

But as interesting as I find all this, one of the reasons I love to consult with writers is because once in the writing center encounter I can relax, because it's just two writers talking to each other, trying to learn something together. I think that's a deeply noble thing to make room for in a busy world.