Tag Archives: writing center theory

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.