Creating writing centres in neocolonialism

Vol. 3 No. 4 (Fall 2021)

Brian Hotson, Editor, CWCR/RCCR
Stevie Bell, Associate Professor, York University
Guest editor: Lauren Mackenzie

In 2008, the then CWCA/ACCR president participated in “setting up of the first writing centre” in India (Holock, 2009, p. 6) through the University of Ottawa. In a piece in the 2009 CWCA/ACCR Newsletter, Writing into India: Setting up the first Writing Centre in the country, Holock describes his experience at Parvatibai Chowgule College of Arts and Science in Gogol, Goa, India in a travel diary style recounting,

On Friday, June 27, 2008, we step off of our fifteen-hour flight in Mumbai, my boss and I, and immediately feel the weight of our endeavour. It is not only the heat and thickness of the air, but the realization that we have finally arrived to start work on Monday, in a country and an educational system that neither of us have ever been exposed to. (Holock, 2009, p. 6)

Holock’s descriptions and accounts of the interactions with his Indian writing instructor colleagues have a voice and tenor of similar British colonial accounts during Britain’s occupation of India (1612-1949) (Penneycook, 1998). Holock’s description here is salvific: the “weight of our endeavour” magnified by the fact that they are about to create a writing centre in “an educational system that neither of us have ever been exposed to.” This is what Siltaoja, Juusola, & Kivijärvi (2019) describe in their paper on university international branch campuses as “world-class fantasy,” a white man’s burden, a “duty to civilize, educate and liberate the Other while simultaneously suffering from unpleasant conditions in an unfamiliar setting” (p. 88).

We think we’re stronger than jet lag, but by Sunday afternoon, we’re both nestled in for long naps in our extravagant hotel rooms, trying to adjust to the 9.5 hour time change and 9.5 degree climate change. Between the monsoon rains, Goa is a sweaty place at the end of June. (Holock, 2009, p. 6)

This fantasy “takes place…through the mobilization of positive illusions that aim to construct a sense of empowerment through ‘the rhetoric of equality, care, and succor’” (Siltaoja, Juusola, & Kivijärvi, 2019, p. 91, quoting Fleming, 2005, p. 1484), a rhetoric embedded in writing centre practices of empathy and assistance, but in this case it’s inverted and self-serving.

On the second day, we are escorted directly to the boardroom to meet the teachers. Fifteen faces stare up at us as we enter the room, waiting for us to tell them all about their new writing centre and how their students will magically transform into fluent [English] communicators, hopefully overnight. Over the next couple hours of discussion, they begin to see how the centre will work, and how it’s just not going to be quite as simple as they initially hoped. (Holock, 2009, p. 7)

Neocolonial language instruction is part of cultural hegemony where “the colonizers are convinced of their own superiority and of their ordained mandate to rule” (Ryan, 1999, p. 288).

Studying the [student] writing, two potential problems become apparent. The first is that students at the college don’t have assignments of the type we’re used to working on at the university at home. The second is that Indian English is a nearly-unwieldy beast of its own, a mélange of British history, American influence and homegrown hybridism. (Holock, 2009, p. 7)

Against what Canagarajah (2006) calls “a multilingual and polyliterate orientation to writing” (p. 587), Holock not only finds Indian Englishes and Indian languages an impediment to a correct version of English-language learning, but that the cultures of these Indian languages are reasons for both the linguistic failures of the students, as well as the linguistic failures of the culture as a whole,

The second is a little more difficult: there is no Indian English dictionary that could compare with the Canadian Oxford, despite the regular usage of Indian-only terms like lakh and crore (numerical terms meaning one hundred thousand and ten million respectively) and the persistence of Victorian constructions. …[Indian students] often skip or misuse articles (a and the) and comma use seems almost random, both problems that are apparent even in national newspapers. (Holock, 2009, p. 7)

The need to find error in difference reinforces the salvation fantasy, as the colonizer, a self-appointed language guardian of a fantasy of Standard English (as set in the Canadian Oxford Dictionary), finds in the variations of Englishes justification and a reinforcement of the standard as proof of a self-fulfilling need for their work,

Much of what we work on is predictable, to a degree. Although their education is entirely in English, much of the students’ writing displays typical second-language issues. That’s because English is not the first language of either the students or the teachers, as many of them use Konkani, or another Indian language, with family or friends, and most Indian popular culture, like Bollywood films and pop music, is in Hindi. (Holock, 2009, p. 7)

Holock and his colleague are able to disregard any language other than their Standard English and ignore “the linguistic/educational/cultural traditions” of Indian students and their writing instruction colleagues because of the colonizer’s “assumption that their work is universal in relevance” (Canagarajah, 2002, p. 74). These assumptions provide confidence within an ethic and a discourse for the colonizer’s work, which allows colonizers to “travel all over the world to practice their expertise gained at home with little consideration of the needs of local communities.” Indian writing centre instructors “are trained according to the pedagogical assumptions and constructs” (p. 74) of the colonizer. What one Indian writing instructor who taught in the west realized is “how damaging has been the practice in India of viewing fluency in English as a measure of intelligence, rather than an indication of privilege” (Chattaraj, 2018, p. 14). In the case of Holock, a colonizer coming from the west who had not been “exposed” to the Indian education system prior to arriving in India (Holock, 2009, p. 6), his privilege becomes apparent. After two weeks on the Gogol campus, Holock concludes,

It’s not a simple task to change the way a college looks at education, and the writing centre model is light years away from traditional instructor-led, passive education. But in a rapidly-modernizing country like India, it’s incredible that this small college is leading the way ahead of much larger universities in much larger cities. (Holock, 2009, p. 8)

Rakowski’s (1993) experience in the Global South finds that host academics emulate the practices of the Global North, as they “assume that the work of a North American or European scholar is inherently superior” because of the reputation of the institution and or nationality of the visiting scholar. This is often aided by the North’s “technological advances…and educational institutions as centers of research and progress” which are “frequently held up as a model for the countries of the South” (p. 74). Further, English language learning is uneven in the Global South, where the elites are able to access foriegn language teachers and schools, leaving the majority without access (see for example, Baker, 2021; Batista, 2014; and Learning English in Brazil, 2014).

In India, this has led to resistance to English-language usage as the language of the colonizer (Canagarajah, 2006, p. 206). While a faculty member at Parvatibai Chowgule College, paraphrased by Holock, states, “Indians had better master the English language, despite the reluctance in the face of their colonialist past, if they want to take part in the brave new world,” the situation is more complex and nuanced. Any standard that is truly global is American English, and any participation in the culture of American English is “presumably influenced by values of pragmatism, economy, and commercialism” of the U.S. (Canagarajah, 2006, p. 201). At the same time, what the Parvatibai Chowgule College faculty member realizes is that the need to participate means giving up not only their own languages but also the cultures of these languages. What Canagarajah (2006) points out, though, is that the decolonization process in India was not completed prior to its globalization. Globalization makes national borders “porous and brings in linguistic influences from outside,” reinserting a dominant language in a neocolonial process (p. 202), further complicating local linguistic cultures and their continuation. Writing centres and writing instruction program creation in the Global South as described by Hollock negate and erase local languages and linguistic cultures, decreasing the use of local languages in knowledge acquisition and scholarly publication.

The first
Holock and his colleague claim to have founded the first writing centre in India. Writing centre literature has others espousing a land-claiming rhetoric. Martinez (2021), a U.S. Department of State (DOS) employee, claims to have created “the first true writing center in Brazil” in 2016 (Martinez, & Cons, 2016, n.p.). In Uganda in 2021, “Academic staff at Uganda Christian University…collaborating with a visiting writing center director from the US,” a Fulbright Scholar and writing centre director at University of Connecticut, were planning “[t]he first writing centre in Ugandan higher education” (Roundtable on Creating, 2021). The U.S. Department of State workbook, Writing Centers in Multilingual Settings: а Workbook (Smith, 2017), claims to have “everything you need to develop your first writing center” (p. iii) in any country, with material that “can be easily adapted and used worldwide” (p. iii).

Neocolonialism, sometimes “referred to as academic imperialism” (Rakowski, 1993, p. 59), is “the continuation of Western colonialism after the end of the colonial era” where the “former colonizers continue to economically, culturally, financially, militarily and ideologically dominate” (Siltaoja, Juusola, & Kivijärvi, 2019, p. 77, quoting Chilisa, 2005, p. 660) former colonized peoples. The significant difference from colonization is that within neocolonialism there are factors that provide cover for colonization’s continuation through a facade of independence and self-government (Wickens, & Sandlin, 2007, p. 278). This hegemonic Potemkin village is constructed using a variety of NGOs, private industries, and institutions of both the colonizer and colonized, especially institutions of higher education. These institutions and their employees through their collaboration with government become as foreign diplomats and hegemonic ideological agents of neocolonialism (Altbach, 1977, 2014; Nye 2005; Siltaoja, Juusola, & Kivijärvi, 2019; Stetar, et al., 2010).

As writing centre professionals, any commitments we may feel to decolonizing the institution must go beyond land acknowledgements, one-to-one tutoring pedagogy, and inclusive framings of English for “nontraditional” and international students in our centres. Decolonial principles must inform our responses to calls for partnering with international institutions—especially non-Western institutions and those in the Global South.

For a current view of a writing centre and critical writing studies in India, see Ashoka University’s Centre for Writing and Communication and Final Draft: The Journal of YIF Critical Writing.


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