Writing Centres in Context: The Quick and Dirty

Stephanie Bell, Co-Editor, CWCR/RCCR
Vol. 2 No. 1 (Fall 2020)

As this new academic year begins, I find myself putting writing centre praxis into historical context for the team of graduate writing instructors joining us at York. Writing Centre studies is a field of practice with a contentious history and a rich body of research. Because the pedagogical approaches we choose to put into practice are shaped by these discourses, it is useful for all writing centre tutors to know this context. So, in the spirit of orientation at the outset of this new year, I am providing here a “quick and dirty” accounting of this history.

Our current conception of writing centres began to emerge in the 1980s when writing centre professionals set about constructing arguments that writing centres are a part of regular, normative scholarly life. These arguments involve theorizations of writing centres as places in which writers are nurtured, offered access to academic discourse and academic identities, and invited to engage in collaborative talk about writing (Dinitz & Kiedaisch, p. 63).

At their core, Stephen North contended in 1984, writing centres are places where students, teachers, and researchers come to talk about writing;  it is on this basis that Wingate (2001) and Kinkead and Harris (2000) reasoned that they contribute to the academic culture of the university. Persuading students, faculty, and administrators of this vision of writing centres is our ongoing work as we counter the stigmatization of learning supports that occurred in the post-war era with open admissions.

From the centre to the margins

The history of writing centre pedagogy is as old as higher education itself, though it has been under-reported and under-studied. Arendale’s (2010) history of “learning assistance,” a broad category of learning support programming, shows that the model of one-to-one tutoring prominent in today’s writing centres was a fixture in the earliest American institutions, from 1600 through 1800.

We see its prevalence in early Canadian institutions, as well; in 1838, Thomas McCulloch, the first principal of Dalhousie, held “special night classes in composition and logic,” with a “practical emphasis on both writing and oratory” (Hubert, 1994, 31). McCulloch’s impetus:

Thomas McCulloch, first Principal of Dalhousie College, 1838 (Dalhousie, 2018)

Instead of enabling [students] to display their pedantry by interlarding Latin and Greek phrases with the chit chat of life, it would be more profitable to give them an accurate acquaintance with the operation of their own minds, to teach them to classify their knowledge and communicate their sentiments, and to furnish them with those duties, and that knowledge of mathematical and physical science, which would be every day useful to the community and honourable to themselves. (McCulloch as quoted in Hubert, 1994, p. 52)

During this period, tutoring was a central and highly regarded aspect of higher education, which was accessible only to privileged families.

It was with the post-war opening of education to “nontraditional” students of diverse socioeconomic backgrounds that learning supports became stigmatized and caught up in dog whistles about who belongs at university.

Perception of stigma leads some to argue that the presence of students who are academically under-prepared for some academic areas undermine the entire education enterprise. The natural extension of this perception leads critics to argue that some students do not belong in college and that therefore learning assistance is unnecessary (Arendale, 2010, p. 10).

With their missions of access and advocacy, costly programs, and institution-controlled funding, writing centres are caught up in contentious policy battles around admissions, retention, and systemic exclusion. This marginalized positioning has informed the development of writing centre pedagogy and policy.

Apologist policy & pedagogy

Accusations of helping students cheat was one of the ways the racially and socioeconomically driven stigma of learning assistance challenged writing centres after open admissions in the 1970s and 80s.

During this period, writing labs or clinics were sometimes dubbed “plagiarism centres” because of concerns that tutors took heavy-handed approaches to fixing grammatical and content issues in student papers (see Waller, 2002), colluding with remedial students to help them achieve what they did not earn on their own.

Writing centres have endeavoured to counter this negative perception and their marginalization, with much effort:

    • moving away from the metaphor of the “lab” or “clinic”—which participated in the stigma by implying a corrective approach to diagnosing and fixing ailments— toward the label “centre,” and more recently variations on “studio”;
    • developing policies that forebode heavy-handedness and theorized non-directive or less-directive tutoring approaches centred on empowering student writers to recognize, weigh, and (independently) make rhetorical choices;
    • shifting away (though not entirely) from “tutor” to seemingly more professional terms, such as consultants, assistants, mentors, coaches, advisors, fellows (data source);
    • fighting to define themselves as academic units rather than service units, some with tenure-line academic staff and sometimes within academic departments;
    • establishing scholarly literature, where an early emphasis on theories of collaborative learning worked to counter the myth of solitary genius (which served to obscure privilege and render the long history of learning assistance invisible).

How many of these reactions against stigma and marginalization are evident in the writing centre at your institution?

At York’s  Liberal Arts & Professional Studies’ Writing Centre where I am situated, most of these are present. They’re evident in everything from the Centre’s location in an academic unit and its faculty writing instructors to its long-standing mission– to “assist students from across the University to become effective independent critical thinkers and writers”–and the collaborative learning approach to describing itself.

Identity in context

It is within this historical context that today’s writing tutors are instructed that their role is to support students as they develop the skills, strategies, tactics, and disciplinary awareness required of advanced writing tasks. Writing centres are in the business of mentoring writers, not producing better writing.

We now train tutors to perform a careful  balancing act between guidance and mentorship and respect for the authority of student writers. Elizabeth Kleinfeld, director of the Metro State Writing Centre, captures this well in her advice for writing tutors: “We should not make decisions for students, but we should make explicit for them that they have choices and every choice has consequences.”

Putting into practice an approach of talking with students about writing can be challenging. This is especially true for tutors  who are not equipped with an understanding of the ongoing need to resist stigmatizing perspectives of writing and writing tutoring. These negative perspectives are prevalent in the pressures from students and faculty to provide transactional and remedial writing, proofreading, and editing services.

It is a difficult task for writing tutors to reframe the narrative for both student writers and, ideally, the wider university community—What are writing centres? Equally so, the question, “Why writing centres?” is connected to the history accounted for here, as well as the now rich and diverse writing studies’ scholarship on writing as process, as epistemological tool, as communication, as culture.

This is an academic year like no other in our memories. Providing context helps frame what we are doing now; we can find direction and stability by looking to where we’ve come, especially given the uncertainty and confusion of our current context and absence of available models on which to base our future. While our “special night classes” are now zoom classes, much of what we are experiencing with our students is based on models we know and that have been developed through experience and study. Our praxis has always been shifting, COVID or not.


Suggestions for further reading:

Arendale, D. R. (2010). Access at the Crossroads–Learning Assistance in Higher Education. ASHE Higher Education Report, 35(6), 1-145.

Bell, S. (24 Feb 2020). A deeper understanding of writing: A reflection on advocacy. Canadian Writing Centre Review, 1(1). https://cwcaaccr.com/2020/02/24/writing-is-the-classroom/

Bruffee, K. A. (1984). Collaborative learning and the” conversation of mankind”. College English, 46(7), 635-652.

Butts, J. (2017). The more writing process, the better. In C.E. Ball & D.M. Loewe (Eds.), Bad Ideas about Writing (pp. 109-114). West Virginia University Libraries Digital Publishing Institute Morgantown, WV. https://textbooks.lib.wvu.edu/badideas/badideasaboutwriting-book.pdf

Carr, A.D. (2017). Failure is not an option. In C.E. Ball & D.M. Loewe (Eds.), Bad Ideas about Writing (p. 76). West Virginia University Libraries Digital Publishing Institute Morgantown, WV. https://textbooks.lib.wvu.edu/badideas/badideasaboutwriting-book.pdf

Clark, I. (2001). Perspectives on the directive/non-directive continuum in the writing center. The Writing Center Journal, 22(1), 33-58.

Dinitz, S. & Kiedaishc, J. (2003). Creating theory: Moving tutors to the center. The Writing Center Journal Online, 23(2), 63-76.

Giovanelli, L. (2017). Strong writing and writers don’t need revision. In C.E. Ball & D.M. Loewe (Eds.), Bad Ideas about Writing (pp. 104-108). West Virginia University Libraries Digital Publishing Institute Morgantown, WV. https://textbooks.lib.wvu.edu/badideas/badideasaboutwriting-book.pdf

Hubert, Henry (1994). Harmonious Perfection: The Development of English Studies in Nineteenth-Century Anglo-Canadian Colleges. East Lansing, Michigan: Michigan State University Press.

Kinkead, J., & Harris, J. (2000). What’s next for writing centres? The Writing Center Journal, 20(2), 23-24.

Kleinfeld, E. (n.d). Writing Centres, Ethics, and Excessive Research. http://www.bgsu.edu/departments/english/cconline/ethics_special_issue/Kleinfeld/index.html

North, S. (1984). The idea of a writing center. College English, 46(5), 433-446.

Oatley, K., & Djikic, M. (2008). Writing as thinking. Review of General Psychology, 12(1), 9-27. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1037/1089-2680.12.1.9

Pattanayak, A. (2017). There is one correct way of writing and speaking. In C.E. Ball & D.M. Loewe (Eds.), Bad Ideas about Writing (pp. 82-87). West Virginia University Libraries Digital Publishing Institute Morgantown, WV. https://textbooks.lib.wvu.edu/badideas/badideasaboutwriting-book.pdf

Paré, A. (2009). What we know about writing, and why it matters. Compendium2, 2(1), 1-7. https://ojs.library.dal.ca/C2/article/viewFile/3720/3408

Rodriguez, R.J. (2017). Leave yourself out of your writing. In C.E. Ball & D.M. Loewe (Eds.), Bad Ideas about Writing (p. 131). West Virginia University Libraries Digital Publishing Institute Morgantown, WV. https://textbooks.lib.wvu.edu/badideas/badideasaboutwriting-book.pdf

Thompson, I. (2009). Scaffolding in the writing center: A microanalysis of an experienced tutor’s verbal and nonverbal tutoring strategies. Written Communication, 26(4), 417-453.

Waller, S. (2002). A brief history of university writing centres: Variety and diversity. New Foundations Available online here: http://www.newfoundations.com/History/WritingCtr.html

Wardle, E. (2017). You can learn to write in general. In C.E. Ball & D.M. Loewe (Eds.), Bad Ideas about Writing (p. 30-33). West Virginia University Libraries Digital Publishing Institute Morgantown, WV. https://textbooks.lib.wvu.edu/badideas/badideasaboutwriting-book.pdf

Wingate, M. (2001). Writing centers as sites of academic culture. The Writing Center Journal, 21(2).