Category Archives: Theory

The Construction of Identity in Digital Consultations

Something to consider in online writing consultations is your process of identity construction, the power relations these identities rely on/reify/endorse and how this all affects the goal of peer revision, collaborative meaning-making and the writing center consultation.

When we engage in online writing consultations via Twiddla and discuss writing with a student by chatting and engaging the text (without audio or video) we are engaging writing through writing, as opposed to in-person consultations that sometimes involve very little actual writing. The creation of a writing space through online, real-time, digital communication is affected by similar pressures that exist in parallel online, constructed environments—like social media, blogging platforms and discussion boards. One such guiding pressure in this writing space is the construction of identity through written text. In an online setting as a writing center tutor, you are expected to endorse an attitude of peer revision and collaborative meaning-making, while also constructing an identity to engage with another peer in revision. Engaging in collaborative meaning-making requires people, and so both (sometimes more) people in the online writing center consultation are engaged in revision and are constructing their identities simultaneously, all through text.

This could be said of an in-person consultation too. I would argue that in person, though, we rely on bodily cues to signify identity. We rely on physical interactions and performative indicators to relate to each other as bodies and people. Considering the dynamics of identity construction in a virtual space can open up possibilities of change and awareness in the online consultation setting. What identity are you presenting/creating/relying on? Is your process active or assumed? What identity are you inferring about the “student” or “client” or “peer” you are working with and does that affect how you work with them?

ECWCA Reflection

A couple of weeks ago I had the great pleasure of attending the ECWCA Conference in South Bend, Indiana. For those of you who are not familiar with the ECWCA, the East Central Writing Center Association, is an organization that brings writing centers from across the Midwest together for an annual conference where consultants, directors, and administrators share what they have been working on for the last year.

This is my second time going and presenting at this conference and it is a great chance to see what other folks are working on. This year the theme focused on Ethics in the WC and I would like to take a chance to reflect on one of the keynote speakers’ presentations.

John Duffy is the founder of the Writing Center at Notre Dame and has maintained a working relationship with the WC at Notre Dame. He is now the writing program administrator for the writing program at Notre Dame. Dr. Duffy began his talk outlining what it means to ethically consult with students, describing ways to help students create ethical arguments and fact checking their opinions to provide solid evidence for scholarly research.

As the talk progressed, Dr. Duffy highlighted the responsibilities of writing consultants as a sounding board, bringing the long standing argument against WC work as peer to peer tutoring being one step away from cheating. Dr. Duffy discussed the many ways that this argument is ludicrous (it is rare to have a consultant working on the same assignment, WC’s aren’t copy editing services where students can drop off their papers and pick up polished essays, etc.) and provided context for the potential intervention moments consultants have to help students really engage in their ideas.

At the conclusion of his conversation Dr. Duffy provided some great advice on how to approach these kinds of conversations with clients, such as: ask the client if they have check multiple sources, talk with the client about how they are framing their arguments, try to find out what is the most important part of the argument to the client.

For me as a consultant these kinds of conversations are great, but I often feel that all of the outcomes of these conversations are based on the proverbial “difficult” client who needs to be helped. I also feel that these kinds of discussions start off with the assumption that the consultant is qualified and prepared to ethically engage with clients who have completely different world views and life experience.

During the discussion part of Dr. Duffy’s talk, it was clear to me that those who engaged Dr. Duffy were taking the assumptions as truths by the way that they conversations were framed. “Those students” are our client base and I take issue with placing all of the responsibility for ethical practice on the consultant. Similarly, I fear it is an even bigger issue to assume that our clients are unable to engage in ethical ways themselves.

At this point, I have to provide a disclaimer, I was one person listening and engaging with this conversation. It is totally possible that I heard/understood everything incorrectly during this discussion, but either way I do think that because of what I have been feeling in regards to all of this, it is an appropriate time to talk about it.

It is as much our responsibility to train our consultants in ways of ethical behavior and understandings as it is to work our clients on these ideas. It is not a safe assumption that consultants are prepared for ethical discourse, nor is acceptable to forget that consultants are students as well. We are not knowledge keepers and by putting the focus only on the client base, I believe there is a huge risk of distancing ourselves with the very folks we are claiming to help.

I have written multiple times about meeting students where they are at, but this is a reciprocal process. There are some things that I am great at as a consultant, but to assume that those things don’t need further work is a terrifying idea to me. As a consultant it is my job to continually investigate my position and knowledge base to best help clients, but more importantly it is my job to know that help looks and feels different for each client.

It is as much our responsibility to engage in our own ethical process as writing center communities as it is to work with our clients. I think the ideas that Dr. Duffy discussed are extremely important and are for the most part applicable, so much so that I would like to see conversations of how to make these ideas the focal point of consultant training modules.

At the end of the day, this is one of the reasons why I love being part of this community. My thoughts about the conference didn’t end when I left. I am still thinking about these ideas and still trying to figure out ways to best meet the needs of my clients. The ECWCA community is a great place to explore ideas and to meet like minded people.

What Type of Way: Post-Structuralism and Rich Homie Quan

Since its release in 2013, Rich Homie Quan’s masterwork, “Type of Way” has drawn the attention of rap-enthusiasts and literary critics alike. It could be argued that “Type of Way” is a vapid song whose vague lyrics refuse even to describe how, exactly, the speaker feels. It has been said that Rich Homie Quan’s song does not state a particular feeling, rendering the lyrics “feel some type of way” meaningless. After all, doesn’t everyone always feel some type of way? As the author refuses to describe the particular type of way the narrator is feeling, the entirety of the song is unclear. Which type of way does the speaker feel, critics wonder, and to what intensity do they feel this way? However, a closer, and critical, examination of Rich Homie Quan’s masterpiece reveals its true genius. The profound nature of Rich Homie Quan’s “Some Type of Way” is revealed only through a thorough and theoretical examination of the idea of a “type of way”; a detailed reading reveals that describing an emotion as “some type of way” is the only way to truly and accurately describe a feeling.

Approaching the song from Sign Theory, as described by Saussure, we can see that by intentionally neglecting to name a particular feeling, Rich Homie Quan creates a positive, and therefore unique, relationship between his feelings and the words used to describe it. Saussure describes the nature of speech by saying that, “in language there are only differences. Even more important: a difference generally implies positive terms between which the difference is set up; but in language there are only differences without positive terms” (Richter 848). In Saussure’s view, concepts in language are defined only by what they are not; in is in because it is not out, hot is hot because it is not cold. Were Rich Homie Quan to name a particular emotion in his song, he would be defining his feelings only in the negative, describing them only as not being other feelings. However, our brilliant song-master does not do this. Instead, Rich Homie Quan leaves the particular way that he is feeling unnamed, thus refusing to define it in the negative. Thus, “some type of way” becomes a positive statement, eliminating the arbitrary nature of language and defining feeling on its own terms.

Similarly, a reading in the tradition of Foucault indicates that referring to a feeling as “some type of way” does not create arbitrary distinctions between feelings, thus accessing the “thing in itself” of feeling in a way that naming a particular feeling does, and can, not. According to Foucault, the act of creating a word creates a conceptual distinction, thus creating a category. These distinctions define ideas by their similarities, thus ignoring their differences. In creating the category of “cat”, one groups a series of animals by their similar characteristics, ignoring their individual differences is size, temperament, and color. Foucault argues that these distinctions are manufactured, and necessarily inexact. Rich Homie Quan rejects this convention, however, by refusing to categorize his feelings. By feeling “some type of way”, as opposed to “sad”, or “happy”, Quan does not create categories that ignore the complex and fluid nature of feeling, describing feelings as they are in reality.

After thoroughly analyzing “Type of Way”, it is clear that the song is a masterwork, calling into question our ideas of feeling and the nature of language. In this work, Rich Homie Quan forces us to wonder, should we really create distinctions between feelings, or should we reject our false system of naming, thus accessing feelings as they are, not just as they are described to be? These age-old questions have yet to be answered, but perhaps Rich Homie has brought us just a little closer

Or, you know, it’s a really awful, vague song. Either way.

Works Cited
Richter, David H. The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007. Print.

Postmodernism in the Writing Center

In conjunction with the Cultural Rhetorics Conference** this past weekend here at MSU, it is time for another installment of Theories in the Center. This time around we will be looking at postmodern theory in relation with writing center theory and practice.

There are many ideas that postmodern theory brings to the WC that can be helpful for consultants and the work we do. There is a freeness that has become associated with postmodern theory, and for new consultants the language surrounding postmodernism is easy enough to understand and offer a jumping off point for consultants trying to theorize their experiences and consulting philosophies.

Nancy Grimm’s work Good Intentions describes the ongoing changes in the WC in terms of programmatic shifts in composition and population base, and frames postmodernism as theoretical lens through which to understand issues of diversity and resisting grand narratives that cause our clients high levels of anxiety. Grimm cites Standard English among one of the largest institutional grand narratives that needs to be examined and understood by practitioners of WC philosophies.

In many ways I agree with the theorized outcomes of Grimm’s work with postmodernism in the WC, due to the fact that postmodernism resists definitions for definition’s sake and does provide an entry point for clients to discuss and understand the theoretical side of why they are doing what they are doing. The populations of clients who utilize our center’s services at MSU are certainly concerned with the pressures of existing grand narratives about what is academic writing and what is not, and these beliefs are enforced daily in classroom environments where requirements of Standard English are the norm.

But I can’t help but feel like there are greater and maybe more important pieces of the puzzle that need to be discussed in conjunction with postmodernism in the WC. I get that in one book conversations of diversity and the academic grand narratives are a good place to start, and while there are many authors who discuss postmodernism in the WC, the narratives that are constructed within these texts seem to shape a new grand narrative that rebels against the institution for rebellion’s sake. In the texts that I have found, Grimm’s is the most diverse in application and is often considered an authority on this topic.

The elephant in the room though is the connotation of continued whiteness that is associated with postmodern theory. It is easy to push back against the institutional system if the person pushing is of the status quo, assuming an incomplete view of otherness. This is often my critique of postmodernism as theoretical framework: postmodern scholars talk about diversity without understanding (most of the time) what is at stake. Additionally, postmodern scholars take up an assumed otherness by choice, which often times degrades, or at least lessens the impact of, folks who don’t have a choice in being seen or treated as others.

There is a sense of falseness that comes with an assumed sense of otherness. As bell hooks states in Post-Modern Blackness, postmodern theory is devoid of the voices of African Americans. A theory that shapes itself around notions of diversity but does not include diverse individuals seems confused to me, and it often times concerns me when I see applications of postmodern theory without an understanding of both sides of the theory. To paraphrase hooks, postmodernism casts away identity at the very moment that people of color are beginning to define, explore, and defend the identities that have been stripped by governmental institutions. The timing here seems too convenient to me. Building off of what hooks has already built, there are instances and practices of postmodernism that do work well in the WC context, but to base one’s entire consulting philosophy on postmodern theory alone will not provide a complete view of issues concerning race, education, sexual orientation, economics, and meeting clients where they are at in their life’s journey.

This critique is not to say that postmodernism should be ignored. It is one of the most accessible theories that could be directly applied to a writing center context and should be investigated. It is a good starting point towards critical thought and I believe that there are aspects of postmodernism that should be talked about and synthesized in practice.

I really enjoy the idea of deconstructing grand narratives, but something needs to be built that is theoretically sound ansi that provides our clients with alternative options that are compassionate and ethical in regards to their particular needs. Go ahead and deconstruct those totalizing grand narratives, but also help build something from the paradigm shift.

**For more information on the Cultural Rhetorics Conference, see its Facebook page or Twitter hashtag (#crcon). 

Decolonial Options for Writing Consultations

I have been a writing consultant for nearly 7 years and I have seen many students struggle with the nuanced rules and regulations imposed by academic writing and convention. These rules and regulations are troublesome for native speakers as much as international students. Often times instructors suggest that students come to The Writing Center for help on their “Standard English”. In many ways, “Standard English” is the vehicle of furthered colonial oppression due to the fact that there is no actual standard. Disciplinary writing is standard within a discipline, and sure there are specific rules that are generally applicable in most contexts, but all of these rules can and are broken daily in successful well thought out ways.

As a consultant, I see my job as support for students attempting the balancing act that is academic writing. Over the last few weeks I have engaged in a personal exercise to further my understandings of Decolonial theory in the context of writing center consultations. In this post I  weave the concept of options for Decolonial thought, as laid out by  Walter Mignolo and Shawn Wilson, into productive tools for understanding the larger academic system and the expectations this system imposes on students’ writing.

Why is this important you ask? The answer to this question is a difficult one, because academic colonality functions on multiple levels and not all of these levels are evil. In a writing context, understanding the “language of the oppressor” (Fanon, Richardson, Perryman-Clark) holds power that enables students to pass, to achieve, to graduate. None of these things are bad, but there is a sense of oppression that often times goes un-discussed.

I see it as part of my job to enter this discussion. When I am working with clients and we are struggling together, I find it useful to reflect on why this process is necessary. Last week I was in the middle of a consultation with a student who was struggling with understanding the function of the article ‘the’. This was an instance where I found myself providing options to understand, but in the end I had to acknowledge that the inclusion or exclusion of ‘the’ does not impede comprehension. This student stated bluntly that they needed to know why their instructor focused so much on grammar when the class that they were in was Marketing.

This presents an interesting situation to me, as a consultant, because English was not this student’s primary language and was in fact the third language they were learning/knew, but there was a continued push for this student to conform to “Standard English”. Within the discussion to understand articles, we talked about how neither of the languages the student knew used articles, and we came to the conclusion that the focus on grammar thus becomes a tool to function within the academe, not some life sustaining knowledge that provides meaning and depth to live, but a hurdle to acknowledge and choose to overcome, or not.

As an active learner of Decolonial theory, I see this acknowledgement as a Decolonial option for students. This is one example, but an example that occurs frequently. How do you explain to a student who possesses mastery of multiple languages that these formalities are not a reflection on their intelligence but rather an issue of passing? I have found that talking about the students options often times helps us both get to this point, because we both know internally that “Standard English” serves a function in academic discourse, but rarely reflects where students are in their classrooms. As a consultant, I believe it is my job to help empower students and sometimes this means providing options, other times it means breaking down the academic structures to be understood as optional. I try to help my students understand the outcomes of resisting theses structures as well as following them, but these conversations are situated on the client’s terms and needs, not mine.