Thinking the Writing Center


In reading Lester Faigley's address to the 2015 South Central Writing Center Association published last week in Praxis, specifically his discussion of how complex writing center consultations are in cognitive terms, I am struck by two things: the importance of writing center practice to writing center theory, and the immense research possibilities presented by writing centers.

In his address Faigley notes Robin Dunbar's work on the correlation between brain size and group size in primates before moving to a micro perspective, where he considers the importance of mentalizing in the writing center encounter between a consultant and a consultee. Mentalizing, he writes, is what someone does when they "infer what the other individuals in the group are thinking and adjust their behavior to accommodate the interests of others as well as to advance their own interests," and Faigley notes that the cognitive work of mentalizing requires a great deal of energy. This is almost a perfect description of the writing center encounter: as I sit down with you as your consultant, I am certainly trying my hardest to infer what you're thinking (and, I would add, what you're feeling; the importance of self-efficacy to successful writing cannot be underestimated) and I'm trying to behave in such a way that you feel relaxed, confident that our time together will be effective, and as though your presence is in your own interests. Since I am intrinsically motivated to have a successful consultation all this is obviously in my own interests as well. Moreover, the mental gymnastics involved in metageneric writing consultations (ones in which the consultant has to infer the features and generic specificities of an unfamiliar style of writing) must be staggering, and in my personal experience laying the complexity of the mentalizing operations necessary for an interpersonally successful consultation over the challenges presented by the more technical aspects of the writing center encounter makes consulting on a stranger's writing one of the hardest, most interesting jobs around.

The importance of writing center practice to writing center theory here is pretty obvious. Without the writing center encounter there is no subject of theory, no opportunity to speculate about our neocortical load-bearing capacities; what I'd like to suggest in addition to this somewhat self-congratulatory emphasis on the self-reflexivity of writing center theory is that without ongoing, embodied writing center encounters non-humanities disciplines like cognitive science lose a deeply interesting object of inquiry that is woefully underappreciated. The cognitive load placed on individual brains during the writing center encounter is a rich source of information about mental processes, were more studies to be done in the area, and one of the major advantages of writing center work is that we typically keep statistics on our consultations and on consultees, allowing for the kind of longitudinal work science needs while keeping a place for the qualitative, thick-descriptive work that connects scientific theory back to writing center processes. Let me be clear- I'm not arguing that no work has been done along these lines; Jo Mackiewicz and Isabelle Thompson recently published a fascinating study of how scaffolding and motivation work, in cognitive terms, during the writing center encounter, and they've also expanded their work into a book-length monograph titled Talk About Writing: The Tutoring Strategies of Experienced Writing Center Tutors (Routledge 2015). However, they note in their preface the surprising lack of attention to the cognitive aspects of the writing center encounter, considering the relative ubiquity of writing centers worldwide.

I suspect more attention to writing center practice would also connect scientific theory more closely to observable fact in the case of cognitive theory. At least in the literary applications of cognitive theory talk of 'The Brain' is commonplace: take just two examples, V.S. Ramachandran's The Tell-Tale Brain (2011) and the Dunbar article Lester Faigley cites in his address, "Neocortex Size as a Constraint on Group Size in Primates" (1992). While separated by almost a decade - a long time in cognitive science - both speak of an archetypal brain, a typical brain, 'The' brain, and the question that occurs to me to ask is: whose brain actually is that? Obviously, observations on which the science is based occurred, and were performed on representative-but-specific subjects, but the power of the writing center is the diversity of subjects who wander in our door every day- can we not somehow use the pre-existing richness of the writing center in the service of better understanding what, cognitively speaking, is happening in the writing center encounter? There are two answers.

The first is obviously that we can, which begs the question of why we haven't; the second answer is that we can but haven't because writing centers are still regarded as (re)mediatory, student-only locations by the vast majority of the campus community. In this way of thinking writing centers are places through which 'bad' writing travels, but not from which 'good' writing comes, especially scholarly, scientific writing. We in the field know this not to be true, but we need to be doing a better job as a community of scholars to prove not only our worth to students, but to our colleagues in other disciplines who should be in our centers not to get help with their writing, but to get help with their research! This would certainly improve the science - I strongly suspect cognitive studies could use a bit more diversity in their models of 'The Brain,' and would benefit immensely from the opportunity to study multiple brains hard at work in the writing center encounter - but it would also improve things like assessment and cross-disciplinary involvement for us, which in turn would enrich our centers not only intellectually but also financially. Since the complexity of the writing center encounter makes it harder to explain to outsiders, we need to be inviting them in so they can help us understand it.