Good ol'-fashioned medical metaphor

The Writing Center is a real, tangible place (or so I hear), and yet the temptation to examine it in terms of metaphors—its metaphorical space, if you will—is darn near irresistible. One such descriptive metaphor that has fascinated (and irked) many is the idea of the Writing Center as a “lab.” This particular metaphor has found itself in the crosshairs of those who bristle at the thought of the Writing Center as a space in which diagnoses are made and problems are fixed. Certainly there is something distinctly unpleasant about the “fix-it” association, but I am convinced that the medical metaphor did not emerge from the labeling of the Writing Center as a lab. Oh, no. The medical metaphor was created (and is still reinforced) by the actions of the Writing Center consultants that occur in the first two minutes of when a consultee enters the room. Before the session begins, two important questions are asked the writer: 1. “Do you have an appointment?” and 2. “Have you been in before?” This is followed up with: “I have some paperwork for you.” After the consultant sits down with the writer, the next questions inevitably are: “What seems to be the problem?” and “Could you turn and cough?” Okay, those last two questions were made up and are not standard operating practice for the Writing Center.

The point, however, is that the Writing Center actively maintains a deliberate, professional personality of its own construction. This professionalism is necessary, even as it suggests a subtle form of authority. Even though the goal is to have every session be collaborative-oriented, the role of the consultant, by default, has to direct the session in some way. Someone has to hand out paperwork. Someone has to manage appointment times (and sometimes give the bad news that there are no times for a particular hour or day.) This administrative aspect probably does color the Writing Center experience for the writer coming in. The consultant does have the ability to offset this by openly collaborating with the writer on their work. I have to wonder though if the necessary administrative functions in some ways sets up a different expectation on behalf of the writer (like, say, the dreaded “fix-it shop” mentality.)
By having this conversation, I hope that we can be more aware of how the writer views us as they come in. Maybe there are ways in which we can make the administrative duties less informal? (We could wear funny hats, fer’ instance.) At any rate, I expect there are things that we can do to work against the medical metaphor. Or, I don’t know, maybe we could embrace it.

I was walking past the BSU health clinic the other day. Only they don’t call themselves a clinic. On the building in silver letters are the words “Health and Wellness Center.” Hm.


  1. You bring up some really good points, David. I always feel a bit funny about the whole medical-esque feel of the initial visit myself. Sometimes, it feels like the only thing missing is the scanning of their insurance card into the system...

    I've always felt wierd about taking their folder and then saying,"Come right this way" as I am leading them into the back....yuck, huh?

    I've tried not saying anything, just smiling, as I am leading a student to the table (table?)but every now and then the student doesn't follow me. Perhaps they assume I am just going to back there to fetch something? Then, I end up having to say "Come right this way," anyway.

    I think that there's a lot of service related administrave business that can't be avoided--we are offering the students a service after all--yet, we having something that no other doctor's office, or hospital, or clinic has and that's cool, happy, friendly people-loving consultants. Our Center's atmosphere's pretty lax and comfy, too. Play these two things up enough, and maybe we can smother this medical, clinical image...

  2. David,
    A-ha! I think this is relevant to setting the tone . . . the first two minutes indicate that were professionals--you can trust us with (to doctor) your papers, even though we are your peers.

    I think "Come right this way" is an interesting choice. I do the silent follow me, or follow me as I grab your paper and start talking to you and flee, or, if I have to, I say "Let's go find a seat!" or "Come on back!" But I'm not satisfied with either of those invitations. I think I'm going to start saying, "Walk this way" and then doing a goofy walk.


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