Robert Zaretsky’s piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Our students can’t write. We have ourselves to blame, still rubs me the wrong way, and it was published in 2019. Not only does he belittle his students who are learning to write, but he also quotes from one of their papers, outing the student and their work as “a tad less coherent than others.” It may be safe to assume he’s quoting the student without consent and breaking confidentiality rules (as they are in most HE institutions in Canada). It’s also in the literature and the media that making fun of students leads to humiliation, shame, poor grades, and dropouts (seehere, here, and here).
Lauren Mckenzie, Language Specialist
Saint Mary’s University Writing Centre and Academic Communication
Vol. 2, No. 2 (Fall 2020)
Lauren Mckenzie lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia and works at the Writing Centre and Academic Communications at Saint Mary’s University. Lauren is currently completing her MA TESOL and research interests include critical and social justice pedagogy, rebellious thinking, fascination and distraction.
Writing can be a challenging process that takes time, thought, revision, and mental focus. Students are challenged more than ever to find or recreate writing spaces as traditional venues such as the library or student lounges have limited or no availability. However, it is possible to create the mental and environmental conditions that will help you to enjoy the writing process and increase productivity as you adjust to studying from home.
Imagine sitting under a shady tree with your hair blowing gently in the breeze — the sound of leaves rustling and songbirds above. You are ready to make a dent in that essay and have everything a human could possibly need to do it. Phone, laptop, earbuds, water, sunblock, hat, healthy snack, unhealthy snack, etc… You shift your weight from side to side, legs stretched out, then folded, then stretched out again. Your laptop balances precariously on your lap as your iced coffee begins to sweat. The trackpad becomes moist and unresponsive. Just then, a bug the size of your thumb disappears beneath you.
You may not be the outdoor type, and perhaps in this scenario writing doesn’t seem possible. However, writing outdoors is good for you. It can decrease mental fatigue and stimulate new ways of thinking. These were the findings of Rachel and Stephen Kaplan, whose environmental psychology research examined the effects of nature on academic performance and personal wellbeing. Their research in the 1970’s helped shape a movement of inquiry into nature and how it affects thinking. Their findings suggest that our brain pays attention in two different ways, and an imbalance creates problems.
“Directed attention fatigues people through overuse,” Stephen Kaplan explains. “If you can find an environment where the attention is automatic, you allow directed attention to rest. And that means an environment that’s strong on fascination” (As qtd. in Clay, 2001). The Kaplans emphasize that a room with a view works as well – so don’t worry if you can’t find an outdoor space to write. If you can find an outdoor setting for your work, a patio or deck, that’s great – consider a desk in the shade, a wireless speaker, and paper weights. Consider a portable tray that helps you set up anywhere the writing feeling strikes. A proximity to nature provides moments of delight and inspiration — to see something different, and that’s refreshing when you are pumping out the work.
Being creative is a big part of academic life and the big questions are meant to be contemplated while lounging under a tree or out for a walk. However, when it is time to produce a written response, you may want to consider a slightly different approach. This is not meant to limit your comfort or creativity, but to increase the efficiency of your process. Set yourself up properly outdoors – even if it is temporary and be prepared with the necessities to limit unfascinating distractions–like bugs.
University has become more and less accessible at the same time. People who couldn’t access campuses are now offered many more options via distance learning. For those who planned for the traditional on-campus delivery of courses, a new framework is emerging. Use what space is available to you in a way that creates opportunities for more high impact stimulation, so that when you look up from your writing, there is a possibility for joy. Above my desk is a bulletin board that I recently gave a makeover. I took down the bills and random notices and replaced them with pictures and handwritten notes from past students. When I look up from my screen, I reflect on relationships and successes. What do you see when you look up?
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:
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.
Interviewed by Brian Hotson, Co-editor, CWCR/RCCR
Vol. 1, No. 11 (Summer 2020)
Linda Bondoc-McCLoud retired from the University of Athabasca writing centre, Write Site, at the end of June 2020. This interview highlights just some of her work and contributions as a way to celebrate her contributions to the field of writing centres and to students and faculty.
Linda Bondoc-McCLoud, Coordinator, Write Site, University of Athabasca I started writing centre work as a tutor at the University of Calgary in 1993 when I was still doing my undergrad in communications and continued when I was doing my graduate work in adult education. I started with Athabasca University as Coordinator in 2005. Prior to my career in writing studies, I worked as an RN for 20 years. Over the years, I have been a member of STLHE and CWCA/ACCR and served one year as president of the CWCA/ACCR.
By Theresa Bell, Manager, Blended Learning Success, Royal Roads University
Vol. 1, No. 10 (Spring 2020)
In recognition of National Indigenous Peoples Day, I am very pleased to share the Four Feathers Writing Guide with the CWCA/ACCR community.
The Four Feathers Writing Guide respectfully presents Coast Salish Traditional Knowledge to support First Nations, Inuit, and Métis students’ development as academic writers. The guide was a collaboration between Elder Shirley THE-LA-ME-YÉ Alphonse, who is from Hul’q’umi’num People of Cowichan Nation and who is a spiritual leader of T’Sou-ke Nation on Vancouver Island; the late Elder D. Nadine TEȺȽIE Charles, who was from Scia’new Nation on Vancouver Island; and me in my role of Manager, Blended Learning Success, at Royal Roads University, which is located on the ancestral lands of the Xwesepsum and Lekwungen families and their ancestors. I am from the traditional territories of the Niitsitapi (Blackfoot) and the people of the Treaty 7 region in Southern Alberta, and I have lived, worked, and learned on the lands of the Xwesepsum and Lekwungen families for 17 years. We also received tremendous support and guidance from the Heron People, who are Elders and Old Ones from Xwsepsum Nation, Lekwungen Nation, Scia’new Nation, T’Sou-ke Nation, Tsawout Nation, and Kwakwaka’wakw Nation. Finally, Indigenous Education and Student Services Manager Asma-na-hi Antoine, who is Nuu-chah-nulth from Toquaht Nation, ensured we moved through the project in a good way.
The guide provides a holistic approach to writing that encourages students to bring their entire selves, traditions, and cultures to their writing processes so they can confidently share their voices in their writing. Structured by the four Traditional stages of learning, which are vision, gathering, knowledge, and sharing, each section of the guide focuses on Traditional Knowledge, including teachings shared by Songhees Elder Elmer Seniemten George, Cowichan Elder Arvid Luschiim Charlie, and T’Sou’ke Nation Chief Gordon HYA-QUATCHA Planes.
The Four Feathers Writing Guide launched on National Indigenous Peoples Day in 2019, and in an interview for a Royal Roads’ news story about the launch, Elder Alphonse encouraged both Indigenous and non-Indigenous students to learn from the guide:
“Abide by it. Enjoy the stories that we share. Understand where we’ve come from. Our lives were very different long ago and nothing was ever written. It was just learned from our parents and grand-parents. Nothing was written down. We learned by living and following our parents and grand-parents and other Elders. All Elders in a community always watched over the children. They could correct the children if they saw them doing something wrong,” she says. “Everything was learned by witnessing. We learned by witnessing everything, seeing everything happen and learning through experience.” (Royal Roads University, 2019, para. 7)
When I asked Elder Alphonse if she would like to share any comments for this post, she returned to that quotation as her ongoing message and gave me permission to share it with you here.
As Program Manager of the Centre for Writing and Scholarly Communication at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, she designs evidence-based programming for undergraduate and graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and faculty members.
“Turning and turning in the widening gyre”
Why do I keep thinking of that opening line from the W. B. Yeats poem “The Second Coming”? Each time I click on a link to join a meeting or start a workshop, my English literature past returns to haunt the rhetorician in me with fragments from the poem. Each day, my fatigue with physical distancing builds, and the at-home workplace finds me slouching toward virtual spaces.
A Writing Centre Directors’ & Managers’ Roundtable
Clare Bermingham, University of Waterloo, Guest editor Stephanie Bell, York University, Co-editor Brian Hotson, Saint Mary’s University, Co-editor
With all the changes to writing centres due to the COVID-19 disruption, many directors and managers are asking questions, wanting to know, “What is everybody doing to manage this change?” To help with this, we organized the blog’s first Video Chat (hopefully the first of many). These Video Chats are moderated text-based and video-based discussions. The blog editors invite proposals for Video Chat topics and guest editors to moderate them.
Below are the elements from the Video Chat, including:
Topics, discussion questions, and agenda
Recording of the video-based discussion
Transcript of the text-based discussion
A google spreadsheet of topics, questions, and ideas from the Video Chat
Come together with other writing centre directors and managers to discuss programming, technology, and resource development during the COVID-19 disruption. Learn from each other, and provide your own strategies, failures and successes.
Registration limited to 7 participants
One participant per writing centre
Clare Bermingham (University of Waterloo) and Brian Hotson (Saint Mary’s University)
CWCR/RCCR editorial team
Liv Marken, Stephanie Bell, & Brian Hotson
Vol. 1, No. 8 (Winter 2020)
Now that we’re all a week into this new reality of writing centre work, and university life in general, here are two final submissions from our colleagues at UBC and UOttawa, and their responses to COVID-19.
CWCR/RCCR editorial team Liv Marken, Stephanie Bell, & Brian Hotson
Over the previous two posts, our colleagues spoke to the adaptation and changes they’ve made due to COVID-19. In this third instalment, writing centres from northern Manitoba, Québec, Ontario, and Alberta speak to their experiences.