Academic journal article Composition Studies

Punishment and Possibility: Representing Writing Centers, 1939-1970

Academic journal article Composition Studies

Punishment and Possibility: Representing Writing Centers, 1939-1970

Article excerpt

There is perhaps no term more feared by those who work in and direct writing centers than remedial. After all, remedial teaching holds little cache among state legislators, who don't want to fund it; academic disciplines, who are reluctant to recognize it as a legitimate intellectual enterprise; and students themselves, who don't want to be told-yet again -that their learning has been incomplete or inadequate. Nevertheless, the stigma of remediation continues to shape writing center identity. Take, for example, the wording of a recent call for a journal issue dedicated to current writing center theory and practice: "Many centers are established initially as 'remedial' centers. How does the image of the writing center as a fix-it shop affect the work we are able to do?" (Ahern). As likely any writing center director can attest, despite extensive campus outreach -and a growing disciplinary presence-faculty colleagues will still pull you aside and whisper in harsh tones, "I told one of my students to go to your writing center, but I'm afraid it's hopeless."

Contemporary writing center directors resist this remedial label in a variety of ways. One method is to create a contrast between an imagined writing center past and a bright writing center future. For some, writing center history simply doesn't exist, such as the 1985 statement that "once a rare phenomenon limited to a few innovative schools, the writing center or writing lab is now a common program in colleges and universities" (Haring-Smith, et al. 1), or, more recently, the claim that "if you look back at the history of writing centers, you will discover that few existed before the 1970s" (Bower, et al. 1).' The absence of historical accounts also extends to book-length histories of the larger field of composition studies. In James Berlin's Rhetoric and Reality, Robert Connors's Composition-Rhetoric, and Sharon Crowley's Composition in the University: Historical and Polemical Essays, one finds only the barest mention of writing centers, laboratories, or clinics, whether as a practice or as an intellectual endeavor. If history is "dredged up" at all, it is usually to point out the ways that early writing centers were solely remedial. One common fall guy is Robert Moore, who wrote in a 1950 College English article that "writing clinics and writing laboratories are becoming increasingly popular among American universities and colleges as remedial agencies for removing students' deficiencies in composition" (388).2 Moore's use of the R-word has made his article the example of early writing center scholarship in two recent book-length collections (Murphy and Law; Barnett and Blumner) and given rise to Stephen North's charge in his highly influential 1984 article "The Idea of a Writing Center" that Moore's thinking represented a "limited conception of what such places can do-the fix-it shop image" (436). Early writing center history, then, is best avoided, ignored, or consigned to an early, forgettable era when white-coated "clinicians" treated unfortunate students with endless grammar worksheets until they were "cured" of the malady of poor writing.

While this version of writing center history provides contemporary writing center directors some comfort that they've progressed considerably since those bad old days, it is only partially true. Certainly writing centers have long been associated with punishment for the under-prepared, and contemporary directors work hard to ensure that their centers serve a broad clientele and embody what we currently know about effective ways to teach writing. However, an examination of writing center representations in two composition journals, College English and College Composition and Communication, shows a competing identity that most contemporary writing center directors would likely welcome -the writing center as possibility, whether as a "safe haven" or as an alternative to misguided classroom practices. Still, the ways that this identity has often been squelched by the long-standing association between writing centers and punishment provides an important cautionary tale. …

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