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Monday, April 28, 2008

Wandering in the weeds

I spend a great deal of time wandering around in the weeds of topics and discussions: I see the world in a different light. While that can be frustrating to those around me, I tend to find some great vantage points. On that note, I will take you all on a journey through the maze that is my mind and into the weeds on the edge of authority within the writing center. Be forewarned, this is a ramble; there will be no justification and there is no authority beyond "I said so."

This idea has bothered for most of my time in the WC. While I could ignore it the majority of the time, the more I work with writers and read WC theory and pedagogy, the more I am forced to look at authority in the WC. And I am convinced of one point: Consultants and tutors have authority. They may be titled 'peer tutors' or 'collaborative assistants' or any other title, but the fact is that we have authority and power. And I think this needs to be addressed because our actions are more powerful than we tell ourselves or admit.

To start with, the very nature of our position within the school gives us power. We are pointed to as the 'go to' people for writing. That means everyone who walks and everyone who sends writers to us view us and give us authority. Writers rarely come into the WC to just chat; they have questions and we have the answers! [I use roughly four '!' a year, and this is one of the few. Take that as you wish].

Because we have the answers, and writers know that we do, we are in authority. We hold the key to mysteries of writing. An no amount of fancy titles or clever rhetoric will negate the fact that we are not peers for the majority of the writer who walk in the door. We receive special training and instruction, not only for conducting sessions, but also for grammar, APA, MLA, punctuation, structure, flow, clarity, format. We are trained; we are placed; we are viewed; we are expected; we are authorities.

So what does that mean? Does this mean we should give ourselves fancy robes and hats to flaunt our betterness? Does this mean that would should treat writers as petitioners to the mighty power of the WC? Nope. It means that we need to be aware that we are authorities, no matter how hard we try to dodge the idea. Authority means power, which means expectations and responsibility. Yes, we have authority and by extension power. So how do we use the power?

I posit that we lie to ourselves about our authority so we can easily ignore our power. If we understand that we have power, someone will abuse it. But it we hide the power under the rug--avoid our authority--then we are not tempted to use and abuse our power. Granted, we are not likely to take over the world or anything fun like that, but we can create dissonance within the student population. If we start exerting our authority on the writers that come in, we could start to replace their instructors. The students may like what we have to say and then drag the dreaded "We the WC said I should do it this way" into the classroom. We may give a writer flawed information or they may misunderstand what we tell them and then we look like idiots. Or, we could put on a front of 'peer-ness,' hide the power in the dark corners of a file cabinet, and work with writers as false peers.

One last point: When a writer comes into the WC and wants us to help her sound 'correct,' do we not have the power to indoctrinate her in the power dialect? Is that not what she asked for? But, do we give her a lesson in the power dialect with a preface of what we are doing, or do we forge ahead without acknowledging that she is 'correct' because we understood her, but that she is not using the power dialect? If we fail to acknowledge the separation between her dialect and the power dialect, are we not asking and requiring her to shift part of her identity? And since we are the WC, a part of the institution that has been granted the authority to answer writing questions by instructors and administrators alike, we can affect a change in her identity be not explaining to her the difference.

Is not the ability to change a person the ultimate power? Granted, she may not be changed much, but she will be changed and will not have actively made the choice to change. That is an abuse of power, and it is an abuse that can--and does--happen with in the WC without us seeing of understanding it because we do not acknowledge we have power.

Before miscellaneous debris starts to fly, I will point out that we should help students learn the power dialect because that is what school does, and since we support our schools, we should make every effort to follow our schools' goals and our WC's goals. That all being said, if we do not acknowledge that we have power over our writers, and if we do not understand what the power can do, we fail our writers because we are not being honest with them.

Oh look, a rabbit in a vest diving down a hole; I guess I will follow it….

2 comments:

  1. Wow, Zack. First of all--YES to the fancy robes and hats, all the better to perform the grammar dance!

    I think I'm on board with acknowledging that we have writing power in most situations, but to allay my discomfort with that idea I've decided that the writer has equal power of a different sort. For example, I can tell him how to use active voice, but he has to have something to say. Or maybe it's his challenge to be a better writer, but it's my challenge to be a better . . . teacher. And I might learn something about health insurance, diet, computer technology, or Turabian citation in the process. And so, we're both peers in learning.

    Plus, I think it's dangerous to go into a consultation with an assumption that you have the answers. In a short time span, it can be hard to get to know what the writer is trying to say and you must do that before you can anticipate helping him to say it. And of course--here's the big one--he's ultimately accountable for the results and I'm NOT.

    A bunny? Where?

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  2. Yeah, Zach, I do think that we have power and many students do perceive us in this way. I am, however, super uncomfortable with it, and it's something I am guilty of ignoring--intentionally.

    When I first started consulting, I felt the power surge the most. Students would come into the center, sit in front of me, and wait for my expert opinion. Expert? Expert? The consultation was in the red before it even was started...

    I am not an expert on anything, especially writing. I'm still trying to figure it all it out, myself, and having someone place a sense of authority on me was/is intimidating and scary.

    The power that is so often pushed in my direction feels false, to me. If I assume that authority, I feel false.

    I think that I try to dissolve this "power" by letting the writer know where my thoughts or opinions come from. For example, if I thought the transitions needed a little smoothing, then I'd tell them about my troubles with transitions and how I, personally, dealt with them. When applicable, I try to let the writer know that I do struggle, too, and sometimes I rely on the WC or workshops to help me through tough papers.

    I guess the power issue will always be there, and I'll always have a tough time dealing with it. Sometimes pretending that the writer and I are just having a simple conversation does help me a lot.

    Thanks for the post, Zach!

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