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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

In Search of Theory

The Writing Center field is relatively new to me and I'm sure she will show me many more tactics and strategies for consultations and collaborative leaning, but as of now, I have not been satisfied with the way "theories" are being presented. I think my problem is that I have an image/definition in my mind about what a theory is (right or wrong), and it is not matching up to the "theories" within writing center publications for consultants. To me, a theory is far more than a quibble, or a call-to-arms. When I here the word "theory," I think of Kant's "Hypothetical/Categorical Imperatives," Barthes' "Dead Author," Said's "Orientalism," etc. I do not view North's opinion statements and proposals to be theory (this is not to say that it isn't valuable, or unscholarly - just not theory). Of all the readings that our BSU 303 class has examined, I would argue that there is no theory (according to my definition) in any of them thus far- Lisa Ede even mentions this in her article, "Writing as a Social Process" when she asserts that there has been no new theories since Bruffee's Collaborative Learning. Is this true, or is my definition of theory bankrupt? I don't mean to come off as a bully or some idealistic snob. I would just like to find some theory within writing center R&D if it is out there, or else, reconcile the two conflicting definitions of theory.

4 comments:

  1. This is actually a rather common response to the WC field, Shaun. Many times the work is not seen as theoretically based or just a sort of fly-by-night concern. While I can see that happening in some situations, it would seem better to understand writing center work as praxis--the place where theory becomes practice and, indeed, the practice is the theory. Collaborative learning is key to this notion, as is social construction of knowledge. Praxis, in and of itself, is a bit messy, but it does have its action.

    I also think that writing center theory may seem invisible unless one considers it in contrast to its educational counter-part the classroom. Is there theory behind the classroom? That is, has anyone proposed a theory of the classroom? I don't mean classroom practice, mind you, I mean the classroom as a educational space as the writing center is an educational space.

    Now with that, I don't think there is, or ever could be an all-encompassing theory of writing center work. WC work, like any teaching, embraces many different theories. It also embraces a different notion from classroom practice in and of itself.

    What a very provocative post you have! That's excellent.

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  2. Hey, Shaun.

    Here's my take, for what it's worth.

    Normally, I would define theory the scientific way: the analysis of a set of facts in their relation to one another, or a plausible or scientifically acceptable general principle or body of principles offered to explain phenomena. And with that in mind, I would agree with you that we students in BSU's English 303 class have not been presented with a writing-center "theory." On the other hand, many people define theory in a broader way: an ideal or hypothetical set of facts, principles, or circumstances proposed or followed as the basis of action. Using that definition, I'd say that North and his followers do indeed offer a theory. As we've learned through readings and discussions in class, "Northians" believe that writing is a social process (as opposed to an isolated, individual one), and they therefore conclude that writing-center consultants should avoid the temptation to merely "fix" a student's paper and should, instead, dialogue with the student about the strengths and weaknesses in the paper overall. During the course of the dialogue, North and his disciples say, the student and the consultant will "discover" ways to exploit the strengths in the students paper and, in turn, to overcome or eliminate the weaknesses. (A simplified explanation of Northian philosophy, true, but that's it in a nutshell.) So you can see that this fits that broader definition of theory, if not the scientific one.

    So what it boils down to, then, is that what constitutes theory depends on your definition of the word. What we're getting as theory in English 303 is a set of beliefs and ideals about what writing is, followed by a set of how-to guidelines for writing-center tutoring that are based on those ideals and beliefs.

    I hope this helps.

    Michael

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  3. Clint & Michael, thank you both for your comments. Over the last few weeks, I have been contemplating the ways in which theory can be defined, and also, what purposes it serves. I agree with Clint on the notion of practice itself being theory. As I mentioned in my post, the writing center is a new frontier for me. I really enjoy big-picture ideas/theories about why things are, or should be, and I suppose I am simply looking forward to reading about what sort of academic work has/is being done in the writing center area. I'll keep my eyes and mind open, then.

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  4. Shaun-
    I am purposely writing this response BEFORE I read Clint and Michael's responses so as not to be skewed or possibly come off as combative. As I have found in the readings and the classes, I believe that the Theory of Writing Centers is as unique as the Theory of Life. Each tutor has a different style and beliefs they take into their sessions. I believe that every tutor has the same basic, broad spectrum goal but how each of us achieves that goal is based on our own experiences. We do what we believe in and what works for us! Not to sound preachy here but the theory comes from within you!
    Take it as it comes to you. I think as you will find later, your "pedagogy" will develop itself.

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