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Power Dynamics in the Writing Center

It pretty much goes without saying that you’re going to work with quite the range of student writers on your adventures in the Writing Center. The students, of course, are as varied and distinct as their papers and thus merit unique treatment. Because we’ve accepted North’s vision of the WC as changing students, not just their papers, we must be conscious of how we treat them.

Enter the power dynamics of the Writing Center. There are two theoretical camps when it comes to this issue: one that would locate ultimate power with the Fellow and another that would place authority with the student.


Power to the Fellow

The basic rationale for giving the Fellow authority during a writing consultation is that the Fellow is the “professional” in the relationship; the student has come for help, and the Fellow has been tired because she is skilled enough at writing to give that help.

The deeper implication of this setup is, as Andrea Lunsford claims in Collaboration, Control, and the Idea of a Writing Center (1991), “that writing is a means of accessing an external knowledge.” Under this model, Fellows should “[prescribe and hand] out skills and strategies” according to the needs of each student.

One of the great things about this model is that it necessitates a meaningful diagnosis of the student’s difficulties and focuses on remedying them (ideally once and for all). And, as Shamoon and Burns point out in A Critique of Pure Tutoring (1995), directive tutoring (in which the Fellow takes charge, pointing out what is wrong and shows how to fix it, so that the student can emulate and internalize those improvements) allows “crucial information about a discipline and about writing [to be] transmitted,” and that this transmission makes writing, that particular discipline, and academia in general more accessible.

In short, a Fellow that has assumed authority can show a consult the ropes, pointing out problems and their solutions along with the techniques and expectations of college-level academic writing. You have skills and special knowledge about writing; why not spread the wealth?

There are, of course, problems with this model. Taken to the extreme, Fellows will end up taking too much responsibility for the student’s paper—not to mention that such a strong dynamic could create unhealthy expectations about the Writing Center. Aficionados of Paolo Freire and Marxism in general would be quick to point out that the assumption of expertise is a continuation of the banking-model of education, which perpetuates the academic status quo and stifles individual voices (Bawarshi and Pelkowski 1999; Miller 1998). This model, taken at face value, is undemocratic at best and colonialist at its worst.

The degree to which you assume control depends largely on your ideological position, level of comfort with that authority and its attendant responsibility, and your perception of the student’s needs. If you like being hands-on or your client needs a great deal of help and doesn’t have a clue, taking that power might be the way to go.


Power to the Student

At the opposite end of the ideological spectrum lies the idea that “truth” is always internal and very personal. Because the student has internalized truth, it is the Writing Center’s function to “[help] students get in touch with this knowledge, as a way to find t heir unique voices, their individual and unique power” (Lunsford 1991). Fellows, then, are best employed in talking to students, asking them exactly what they really think. In this model, writing is not so much a means of accessing truth as it is a method for locating yourself in the general academic discourse community—ideally without changing the student’s innate ideas (Bawarshi and Pelkowski 1999).

This model is particularly convenient and appealing for the Writing Center because it places the burden of work on the student: with Writing Fellows and sounding boards, clients must be willing to express, examine and reevaluate their ideas—while figuring out how to make these thoughts publishable. Jeff Brooks takes this model to its logical conclusion in his argument in Minimalist Tutoring: Making Students Do All the Work (1991). “The tutor,” he says, “[serves] mainly to keep the student focused on the paper,” suggesting that perhaps students have difficulty with writing because they can’t concentrate on developing their ideas and phrasing them in academically appropriate ways. Enough time and a good faith effort on their part should remedy that problem—at least, by Brooks’ logic.

As pleasant as the idea that students already know what they’re doing is, there is a great deal of opposition to it. Non-traditional and foreign students might not be familiar with the conventions of American (Western) academic writing, so it would be a disservice to them—as well as to other students having difficulty—to sit back and struggle, in the hope that their ideas and texts remain completely their own.

This student-centered model does, of course, have its useful application. With enough time, dialogue with the student can help them achieve a greater understanding of the rhetorical moves at their disposal. And, in general, it is an excellent idea to start a session with the student “in power” to give you a better notion of what the student wants to say, where she stands in her paper, and what she is having difficulty with.


What this Means for You

Unless you’ve had consultations with some very extreme students, you most likely recognize that your consultations have employed elements of both power dynamic models with every student, according to the necessities of the moment. Which is, of course, exactly the point; to be successful in the Writing Center, a careful sharing of power between the student and the Fellow is necessary, and it is in constructing this coalition that we can move towards Lunsford’s ideal of collaboration.

For more on power dynamics in the act of writing, please see The Politics of College Writing