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). 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *