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“Writing Center Policies: Where do they come from? Why do they exist?”

The following was presented in a roundtable session at the National Conference on Peer Tutoring in Writing (November 3, 2018) at the South Padre Island Convention Center, Texas with Romeo García of the University of Utah, Jorge Ortega of Weber State University, and Jonathan Ramirez of Salt Lake Community College.

I’m looking at my yellow notepad on which I’ve scrawled “NCPTW 2018” at the top.  Yes, I do still primarily draft by hand, even though I have handwriting that would put even the most diehard pharmacist to the test.  I’ve written a note to myself, lest I forget, “START WITH SOMETHING CONTROVERSIAL” in all caps.  And now, as I’m actually typing this into my computer I’m asking myself why? As a rhetorical device, starting with a controversial statement is, most likely, meant to rile your audience up--get them to pay attention.  I don’t know about you, but I’m a little weary these days of the controversial--the attention-grabbing.
Ok, so in case you were wondering, my “controversial” questions I was thinking of starting with, was about proofreading.  “Why don’t writing centers proofread?” I was going to ask, recounting a conversation I had with Ben Rafoth at the swanky Hotel Murano bar at NCPTW 2016 in Tacoma.  Ben asked the question straight:  “Why don’t we proofread?” It is a good question, but I think we can get lost in the weeds of such an example. We would spend a lot of time (and I hope we don’t spend a lot of time today) defending (anti)proofreading policies, or on the best way to teach and acquire language, as I recently did in a long online conversation with some well-respected scholars in the field when I broached the topic of my contribution to this roundtable. Nothing riles up a swarm of writing center hornets like kicking the proofreading nest.
For today’s discussion, I’m more interested not in the reasons why we may institute a proofreading policy, as much as I’d like to explore what cultural values such policies may derive from and reflect, what unintended consequences that such policies may have, what message such policies send, and why, exactly we implement them.  To reiterate, rather than dig into justifying policies, therefore, I’d rather dig into understanding how writing center policies come about, or explore the veracity of what Lan Wang in her dissertation Behind the Curtain: A Critical View of Theory and Practice of Tutoring International Learners at University Writing Centers called “writing center ideologies :
“WCs have institutionalized a set of full-fledged theories and tutoring practices, which have proved to be effective for L1 writers for years, and which I refer to this study as WC ideology.  At present, I claim that WC ideology applies in the majority of L2 tutorials. Under such circumstances, I am questioning the authority of WC ideology and wanted to find out whether or not they are equally effective with ELLs. In fact, many WC scholars have begun to problematize the current WC ideology employed in L2 tutoring….”
Wang  derives the notion of “ideology” from the work of Eagleton, Pennycook, and Woodlard and Schieffelin :
“In a like manner, linguistic/language ideologies...are ‘sets of beliefs about language articulated by users as a rationalization or justification of perceived language structure and use’ with a greater social emphasis as ‘self-evident ideas and objectives a group holds concerning roles of language in the social experiences of members as they contribute to the expression of the group.’ 
Wang continues:
“Moreover, they view language ideology as ‘the cultural system of ideas and social and linguistic relationships, together with their loading of moral and political interests’ and “shared bodies of commonsense notions about the nature of language in the world.’”
And finally concludes noting Eagleton and Pennycook:
“Ideologies often present themselves as if they were describing the way things actually are, but in fact are ‘self-affirmation.’ Thus, Pennycook holds that ideology, to some extent is ‘political.’” (Eagleton. T. (1991). Ideology: An introduction. London: Verso.; Pennycook, A. (1998). English and the discourse of colonialism. London: Routledge.; Woolard, K. A. & Schieffelin, B. (1994) Language ideology. Annual Review of Anthropology, 23, 55-82.)
I think that “Ideologies” connect clearly with writing center policies.  Policies, then, become self-affirming.  They prove themselves, in other words.  Why don’t we proofread?  Because proofreading is not what we do.  (I’ve heard that tautology stated before.)  But those ideologies bear further exploration; they aren’t just tautologies; we need to get at the heart of such ideologies. Sometimes, however, it isn’t just a tautology, but reflects an unestablished claim of value: we don’t proofread because it is not good for you.
To further complicate the matter, Lori Salem in her now controversial (but IWCA award-winning Writing Center Journal article “Decisions…Decisions: Who Chooses to Use the Writing Center?”  notes that writing center “policies” lead to problematic “policy pedagogy.”
“users of the writing center are diverse, and therefore unlikely to be served by policy-pedagogies that are meant to be applied to all students. And, The very students who are most likely to visit the writing center are the ones who are least likely to be served by our traditional pedagogical practices. And, our efforts to protect writing centers from being seen as remedial, efforts that largely involve clinging to a certain prestigious-seeming pedagogies, have not worked. The idea of a “remedial” writing center serving “underprivileged” students is alive and well. Moreover, this approach probably cannot work, since beliefs about writing centers (what they are for, who they are meant to serve) are deeply rooted, and go well beyond our immediate sphere of influence.” (“Salem, Lori. Decisions…Decisions: Who Chooses to Use the Writing Center?” Writing Center Journal 35.2, 164)
In the piece, Salem concludes that
We should rethink writing center pedagogy to ensure that it meets the needs of students who visit. Or, to put this another way, we should stop allowing the fear of being perceived as remedial to drive our pedagogical practices. Since the 1980s, writing center pedagogy has been dominated by a certain constellation of practices, which, according to some writers, amount to writing center “orthodoxies”: we don’t proofread; we address “higher order” concerns before “lower order concerns; we work with students on assignments they bring to us; we use non-directive questioning preferentially or exclusively; tutors do not hold the pencil; tutors give non-expert (peer) feedback; and so on. In many writing centers, some or all of these practices are treated as “policy.” (“Salem, Lori. Decisions…Decisions: Who Chooses to Use the Writing Center?” Writing Center Journal 35.2 162)
So what both Wan Lang and Lori Salem are getting at, is that we need to explore where policies come from, how are they rooted in seemingly unquestioned ideologies or orthodoxies. Hopefully we can get beyond the simple arguments of “we don’t do that because its not good for you” which, as you might guess, is a self-affirming ideology.  We are the ones that determine what is good for people and what is not.  How do we know this? What ideologies underlie such statements.  “We don’t do that because that is not what we do.”
Here are some  writing center policy pedagogies have I born witness to over the years:

  • Appointment length
  • Number of appointments per day/week
  • No required appointments 
  • Must have printed copy
  • No take home exams
  • Higher order concerns always come before lower order concerns (But call them later order concern, not lower order concerns!)
  • Consultants should be non-directive only
  • No writing on student papers; tutors shouldn’t even hold a pencil
  • No proofreading

Now, I’m pretty confident that there aren’t any writing centers out there these days that would overtly tell a consultant to not speak any other language but English to the writer, but I do know such English-only policies did exist in the not-to-distant past and I talked about them at considerable length with other writing center directors back in the day.   I also know that they were informed by now discredited ESL practices that indicated that language learners must necessarily “think in English” or will be harmful to their development.  Again, such decrepit “conduct sessions only English” policies of the past we probably well-intended, but I believe they circulate with “English Only” policies enacted by frightened legislatures,  or blatantly racist demands of white people for others  to “speak English, damnit!"  We also have to consider that while we may no longer have explicit policies to conduct sessions only in English, we may be covertly sustaining such policies by hiring monolingual writing tutors who are “good at English.”
Further, we must consider the unintended impact of policies such as “no proofreading.”   They may say, in effect, to students that “we won’t talk about language usage (grammar) at all.”  Then again, maybe that is what we want to say to writers.

  • What policies in your writing center are ideological in nature?
  • What are the roots of writing center ideologies that inform these practices?
  • How do those ideologies circulate with white supremacy and whiteliness?
  • What (perhaps) unintended messages do such policies send?


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