Academic journal article WLN: A Journal of Writing Center Scholarship

Can't Fix Anyone: Confronting Our Historical Love Affair with Deficit Thinking

Academic journal article WLN: A Journal of Writing Center Scholarship

Can't Fix Anyone: Confronting Our Historical Love Affair with Deficit Thinking

Article excerpt

The incorporation of critical theories and emancipatory practices within writing center scholarship has opened up new possibilities for how we approach and theorize our work. However, in the midst of this wokefulness, there is still a need to attend to Stephen North's "Idea of a Writing Center," that it is "our job to produce better writers, not better writing" (438), and the entrenchment of The Idea within the writing center grand narrative (Grutsch McKinney). North's essay generated significant impact when initially published in 1984, and its influence persists. A recent Google search revealed the phrase or some variation of it is used on hundreds of writing center websites, and North's article is commonly found on course reading lists.

The Idea persists, in part, because of what it provides: a clear description of what a writing center does conveyed in a way that elicits an "immediate attachment made through emotion" (Mattison 5). There are multiple mindsets about The Idea. Some treat it as gospel. Others cannot wait to move beyond it. There are also those represented by Mike Mattison's essay, "Heading East, Leaving North," who feel some uneasiness with the lore but are understandably cautious in letting go.

For those who approach writing center work through the lens of critical theory, there is a desire to move beyond The Idea and onto more student-centered, asset-oriented, and culturally relevant frameworks of practice (Geller et al.; Ladson-Billings; Paris). Despite this, The Idea remains a fixture within the dominant narrative of writing center practices. I argue the staying power of The Idea should cause concern because of its relationship to and replication of deficit thinking (Valencia). Additionally, I believe we must recognize our collective and historical reliance upon deficit thinking orientations and attend to the unintended consequences that may have emerged from these origins. Finally, while others in the field may be thinking in similar ways, we need to shift this conversation toward concrete models that demonstrate what might lie beyond The Idea.

I approach this essay through a perspective similar to that of Harry Denny, John Nordlof, and Lori Salem, who challenge the "claim of neutrality" (72) within writing center practices and claim our "long history of teaching ourselves to speak the language of universality and neutrality" (73) has rendered the needs and realities of working-class students invisible. Just as the language of universality and neutrality has allowed us to overlook and erase particular needs and perspectives, The Idea has encouraged a sense of neutrality that is neither universal nor value neutral (Taylor and Hughes) while simultaneously obscuring other ways of thinking about the nature of our work.

It is within this critical turn that my work is situated. In the lineage of the many scholars who are more fully attending to the ways in which writing centers are complicit in replicating or maintaining asymmetrical power relationships, I suggest that The Idea should be subjected to a critical critique. When examined this way, troubling underlying assumptions are revealed about the ways The Idea encourages writing centers to view writers primarily as individuals in need of continued interventions as well as the way this view is positioned as universal and neutral. While The Idea emerged from a holistic concern for writers and a desire to see writing centers as something more than "fix-it shops" (North, "Idea"; Harris), it may have only altered the target of what is to be fixed: instead of grammar, we fix writers. Rather than attending to the gifts, assets, and natural abilities of writers, The Idea encourages us to find ways to continually make them better and to address the deficits we assume must exist. I hope to challenge the normative and universal power of The Idea by calling attention to the undercurrents of deficit thinking and unexamined power relationships within it. …

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