J. Michael Rifenburg
University of Oklahoma

I eagerly read Alanna Bitzel’s recent column in Praxis titled "Supporting Student-Athletes." For many reasons I am still puzzling through, writing center studies, even academia writ large, often avoid discussing the multi-million dollar stadiums and operating budgets of the high-profile athletic programs sharing our campuses. And when academia does turn its eye toward athletic programs (be it in The Chronicle of Higher Education or in university press books), it decries their big-business approach and loudly bangs the drum of academic reform.

Reading through Bitzel’s column, I felt myself nodding along. Like her, I work in a student-athlete writing center at the University of Oklahoma (OU). And like the University of Texas, where Bitzel works, OU is largely known for football and not, for example, the classics department. My staff and I, too, cater only to student-athletes and work from non-directive, non-evaluative writing center pedagogies while adhering to strict NCAA academic compliance mandates, which, for example, disallow a tutor writing on a student-athlete’s paper or collaboratively brainstorming and requires all writing-tutoring sessions to occur in a pre-designated space with clear staff oversight.   Failure to adhere to these rigid mandates would cripple our institution. I also appreciate the attention she gave to exploring what she considers key strategies for working with football student-athletes who pose “unique challenges” (3).

However, I found the strategies she provided to be strikingly similar to strategies the typical campus writing center would espouse. In other words, Bitzel writes of “unique challenges” and the importance of adhering to NCAA guidelines (both great points), but I don’t see how these challenges and guidelines are practically manifested in her strategies. And I am left wondering: If the strategies for working with student-athletes and under NCAA guidelines are the same as if one were working with traditional students in a traditional campus writing center, then why do student-athletes at, for example, the University of Georgia, Tennessee, and Arizona, have their own writing center? True, many athletic departments operate within an insular culture, largely cut off from the rest of a campus. If this culture is desired, then it makes sense to keep all tutoring—writing included—“in-house.” But, like Bitzel, I believe I work only with student-athletes because of their practical, pedagogical, and theoretical differences. In what follows, I more fully flesh out Bitzel’s argument. Despite her struggles to pronounce actual differences between tutoring student-athletes and traditional students, real differences exist.

For one, accounting for this level of difference and remembering NCAA academic-compliance guidelines force a constrictive hierarchical relationship between tutor and tutee, eliminate space for collaboration, and specify where tutoring may take place. Our tutoring methods cannot mimic what occurs in a traditional campus writing center, as Bitzel indirectly suggests. Sure, we are non-directive and non-evaluative like most other writing centers, but we cannot embrace novel advancements such as the current and important strand of writing center work which embraces chaos and creativity. In “Creativity in the Writing Center,” Elizabeth Boquet and Michele Eodice extend seven principles of jazz to writing center work. One in particular jumps out to me: “embracing errors as a source of learning” (8). Here, Boquet and Eodice aren’t simply imagining writer error (a misplaced comma or a dangling participle). They are also suggesting that errors committed by a tutor during a session are to be embraced, used as a conduit of learning as “judgment [is] suspended in order to explore the consequences of their decisions” (11).  In practice, the idea is nice.  But student-athlete writing centers cannot tolerate tutor error. It results in NCAA sanctions, the firing of a head coach, and the vacancy of wins.  ESPN scrolls tutor errors across the bottom of our television screens. My language may be slightly hyperbolic, but the idea isn’t: student-athlete writing centers cannot embrace error as a source of learning; error simply cannot exist for staff members. 

Embracing error is the chaos I referenced earlier, and this is the chaos which Boquet, in Noise from the Writing Center, believes we should accept: “We [writing center consultants and administrators] must imagine a liminal zone where chaos and order coexist. And we would certainly do a service to ourselves…if we spent as much time championing this chaos…as we do championing the order” (84). While I wholeheartedly agree and would love to champion chaos in my center, I can imagine the horror covering the face of our compliance department if I were to say we are moving away from order and toward chaos—if, for example, we began collaboratively brainstorming ideas with a student-athlete, working with a student-athlete on a park bench, or even (gasp!) allowing a student-athlete who had not signed in to begin a session with us. We are a writing center of strict protocol, of signed forms and constant observations.  More work needs to be done that explores how student-athlete writing centers can get creative and dance with chaos while still adhering to NCAA guidelines. This is a question Bitzel sidesteps, one I don’t fully have an answer for, and one that is currently handcuffing student-athlete writing centers to staid and outdated models of training and practice.

Additionally, while I have never been a big believer in different learning styles (e.g., kinesthetic versus visual), I have been shocked by the unique learning processes many student-athletes bring to my writing center: learning processes refined through constant engagement with plays. Basketball and football, in particular, operate within playbooks. In constructing these plays, coaches have various modes at their disposal: geometrical figures; squiggly, straight, dashed, and looped lines; single alphabetic text; and full words and phrases. Thus coaches and, more importantly, student-athletes operate within a complex discursive community. I have worked with student-athletes who have memorized upwards of 400 of these plays—and can instantaneously and perfectly enact them during practice or game day—but struggle to write a coherent sentence. These student-athletes aren’t poor writers; instead, they are struggling to transfer the successful learning processes they have acquired in sport into the classroom. As Mikhail Bakhtin argues, “[m]any people who have an excellent command of a language often feel… helpless in certain spheres of communication precisely because they do not have a practical command of the generic form used in the given sphere” (80). Extending Bakhtin to student-athlete literacy shows us that it’s a transfer issue, not one of intellect. While scholars such as Elizabeth Wardle, Gavriel Salomon, and David Perkins have argued that all students can struggle mightily with issues of transfer, this issue is even more acute with student-athletes who often excel at their sport—which typically requires just as much mental acumen as physical—but struggle with the mental tasks required for higher education. And our tutoring should account for and facilitate this important work of transfer by studying how one learns the literate activity of, say, football. A clearer understanding of the cognitive processes needed for football would give athletic writing centers a clearer picture of the student-athlete as a learner immersed in a thick and unique stream of literate activity: an initial step toward adapting our writing pedagogy to student-athletes. 

Ultimately, we need a greater awareness of how student-athletes are a unique subset of our student population. A thin slice of scholarship focuses on the nexus of athletics and rhetoric and literacy, but I have yet to come across a source devoted to writing centers and student-athletes.¹ As I wrote up my proposal for the 2012 International Writing Center Association Conference in San Diego, I received an email from a colleague at the University of Arizona.  Like Bitzel and me, my colleague works at the student-athlete writing center. She, too, was thinking about a proposal and wanted to present on student-athlete writing centers and Cartesian theories of the mind/body split.  But she couldn’t locate any sources. This dearth of scholarship, and the fact that student-athletes are struggling with issues of transfer and exposed to outdated models of tutoring, should propel qualitative research into examining how best to tutor our student-athlete under the auspices of NCAA guidelines. We find additional exigency for this research as we consider novel understanding of diversity in the writing center. In the wake of Harry Denny’s Facing the Center, as well as Laura Greenfield and Karen Rowan’s edited Writing Centers and the New Racism, writing center studies are committing to exploring diversity and considering how best to account for diversity in our work. It is only natural that we consider student-athletes when we enlarge our understanding of diversity



1. Here, I am thinking of Debra Hawhee’s interest in the Sophistic intertwining of rhetoric and athletics, and Julie Cheville’s work on student-athlete literacy and ontology.


Works Cited

Bakhtin, Mikhail M. Speech Genres & Other Late Essays. Eds. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Trans. Vern W. McGee. Austin: U of Texas P, 1986. Print.

Bitzel, Alanna. “Supporting Student-Athletes.” Praxis: A Writing Center Journal. 9.1 (2012): Web. 1 Sept. 2012.

Boquet, Elizabeth H. Noise from the Writing Center. Logan: Utah State UP, 2002. Print.

Boquet, Elizabeth H. and Michele Eodice. “Creativity in the Writing Center: A Terrifying Conundrum.” Creative Approaches to Writing Center Work.  Ed. Kevin Dvorak and Shanti Bruce.  Cresskill, NJ: Hampton, 2008.  3-20. Print.