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Review of Creative Approaches to Writing Center Work.

REVIEW OF CREATIVE APPROACHES TO WRITING CENTER WORK. ED. KEVIN DVORAK AND SHANTI BRUCE. CRESSKILL, NJ: HAMPTON, 2008. $27.00 (PAPER), 277 PP.

As a longtime writing center director (Meg) and a fairly new one (Nicole), we decided to write our review of Creative Approaches to Writing Center Work as a reader-response journal via e-mail.

From Nicole:

I thought Elizabeth Boquet and Michele Eodice's chapter was a good way to open the book. They argue that play is a critical component to creating a learning culture, which extends many of the themes you discussed, Meg, with your co-authors in The Everyday Writing Center (Geller et. al.), I also saw clear connections to Andrea Lunsford's ideal of a writing center as a Burkean Parlor. One of the greatest challenges presented by Lunsford's Burkean Parlor, in my opinion, is in maintaining a collaborative approach to writing center administration. I wear so many hats as director of the Writing Center, and answer to so many stakeholders, that I often find it difficult to remember that decisions, both big and small, are best made through "conversational negotiation and collaborative decision making" (Boquet and Eodice 12) with the Writing Center staff and the writers we serve. Boquet and Eodice's chapter provides another lens for thinking about what it means to be collaborative administrators: instead of acting as conductors of bands or orchestras, we can think of ourselves as jazz musicians who look at errors as opportunities to learn (for ourselves and for those with whom we work). Just as Margaret Marshall argues elsewhere that writing center administration should be valued as an "intellectual project," this chapter makes a strong argument that it should be valued as a creative endeavor.

From Meg:

It's an ambitious project to put together a collection like this. After reading the introduction, I kept wanting to visit a coffeehouse. I thought it was pretty cool--Kevin and Shanti watching all of the different kinds of writing going on around them. Very inviting. Pieces that stick out as particularly valuable--almost touchstones to read the others by--are Boquet and Eodice's (which you've already mentioned), Harry Denny's "Writing Centers and Politics of Community, Identity, and Social Justice," and Anne Ellen Geller's "Drawing the (Play) Spaces of Conferences."

From Nicole:

The Denny piece alone might make this book worth reading/buying. It felt like he was opening up a lot of important questions for writing centers, as a field, and the questions he raises about what "we mean" by the term "creativity" (56) were significant. Throughout his essay, he asks, "If we're focusing on play, what else are we NOT attending to?" When we spoke earlier, you raised the question of whether the authors had a chance to read one another's work. Denny was one of the few who explicitly addressed some of the pieces in the book. In his closing section (66-68), Denny seems to challenge some of his fellow contributors' unexamined positions: "Well-intentioned readers might wish for recipes or a shopping list of activities to create occasions and spaces for creativity and for those who occupy our margins. I oppose these sorts of requests because they are not pedagogically sound (especially for teachers and tutors): The best learning that is internalized and that results in substantial growth happens from inquiry, talk, and experiments" (67).

Also, I am struck by the way that Geller validates silence and ambiguity during the staff education sessions that she describes in her chapter. Because the parameters of Geller's reflective drawing activity are loosely defined and collaboratively negotiated, staff members have the opportunity to develop their own rich identities as writing consultants. I hear clear echoes of Denny's chapter in Geller's, particularly when she argues that writing center administrators must theorize carefully before engaging in creative tutor-education activities (164). She raises a series of questions that all readers of this collection might consider before implementing the activities described in Parts II or III. Geller writes that writing center administrators should ask themselves pointed questions: "Why is this creative exercise valuable for where my staff and I are right now in our thinking? How--and what--will this exercise help us all learn from one another right now? What could we take from this creative exercise back into our work with student writers?" (164). These questions could serve as a heuristic for interpreting many of the essays included in Creative Approaches.

For example, I used Scott L. Miller's metaphor activity in my tutor class (with good results), but in several parts of his chapter I kept writing marginal comments like "Is this true?" I wish he had more fully explored the implications of his list of the "pedagogical aims of play" (37). For example, he writes, "Play socializes" (37). If it's true that play socializes language, then even more reason why we need to examine how we are employing play in our writing centers. Does play really "teach a utopian, egalitarian vision of life?" (37). What if all writers and consultants do not feel equally free? Miller talks about how play has rules, though the rules aren't bound to "real-life" conventions. Who gets to set the rules for WC play? What does abnormal discourse within the context of play look like, and how can we invite more of it? I'm concerned that this anthology is mostly a collection of fun tips and that there are very few articles that problematize "play."

From Meg:

The book does seem largely comprised of "fun tips." There's a danger in simply listing activities whole without reflecting carefully on how those activities might actually function in the context of diverse populations. I think we need to emphasize readers' need to use the theoretical pieces in Part I as touchstones. The activities need to be chosen/adapted wisely in terms of creating a culture of learning that recognizes the complexity of tutoring in the real world.

I agree with what you say about Miller's piece, and although he points out that these activities should be used cautiously when he says that play will be dangerous (22), a further discussion of that point would have been helpful. Play is always risky, but it's worth it if the risks are understood and there's a support system for everyone, diverse tutors and writers. If we apply some of the theory from Part I to the activities in Parts II and III, then, I think, readers can come to an understanding of the risks involved. For example, Miller cites Huizinga's notion that play is free (31), that it creates community, and he later complicates that with Piaget's assertion that play is essentially accommodation and assimilation into one's culture (32). So what about the writer or tutor who isn't from the dominant culture? Where does play leave that person? On the outside.

I think we all need to take Denny's warning seriously: "Creative Pedagogy that ignores the ubiquitous dynamics of social and cultural divisions risks blindness to re-inscription of bitter practices of racism, sexism, and class bias in America" (56). Many of the authors seem to look at play as neutral, not as contextualized by race, gender, and class. And although it appears as if most of the sixteen selections are just fun tips that anyone can use, a reflective practitioner will need to take a hard look at what play and creativity mean in the context of the given activity. For example, although I love the fact that Sandee K. McGlaun brings her expertise in theater to the writing center ("Putting the 'Play' Back into Role Playing"), there are some things that worry me. She says that "In tutor training as in acting, the more real a role-play becomes to the role-player, the more real and engaging it will be to the audience--and the tutor is more likely to learn from that which feels akin to a 'real' experience" (119). I wish that she'd involved her staff in the writing and production of these plays (in other words, in an experience that was more real to them because they had a hand in its creation) and that, together, they had examined the stereotypical characters they created.

Other contributors seem to fall into the same trap. For example, although I applaud Lisa Zimmerelli's impulse to liven up her staff education, I wish she had included her tutors in helping her design all of the activities. In that way, she would learn more about their interests and backgrounds. More important, they might learn together about the value, or lack thereof, in learning brief catch phrases about important scholars in the "Identify the Writing Center Theorist" game. By building a community of learners who design and interrogate such activities, there's opportunity for deep learning.

From Nicole:

There are a few gems to be found in Part III. Carol Severino and Cinda Coggins Mosher's chapter about the University of Iowa Writing Center's "Invitations" program provides a rich history of how one writing center found creative ways to adapt to the changing needs of writers while maintaining the center's sense of mission over a span of more than 40 years. Severino and Coggins Mosher report that the "Invitations" essays provoke thoughtful discussions about race and class because of their "interactive nature" between the writer and tutor, as well as between the writer and a wider audience--the "Invitations" essays can be read on the IU Writing Center's website (246-7).

From Meg:

Another essay in Part III that strikes me as particularly valuable is Wendy Goldberg's "Center Stage: Performing the Culture of Writing at Stanford." The Stanford model is an exciting one, one that ebulliently celebrates writing in the writing center. I think the section about hosting a poetry slam is illustrative of the kind of thinking and revision that might serve as a model for readers who want to try exciting activities and who also want to honor difference, to create a learning culture, and to be open to the risks that all of that implies. For example, one of Stanford's successes (among many) is the poetry slam, and it is interesting to see the honesty with which Goldberg describes the first attempt at hosting what appears to be a cultural event that is foreign to the staff. Through a bit of trial and error, the staff learns that slams never start on time, that lights should be dim, that clapping is soooo not OK. The staff risks saying the improvisational "Yes" to the invitation to host a slam, but they also are ready to be taught, and subsequent activities grow in that organic way Geller illustrates. The staff listens deeply to the participants in their activities, it seems, and they have added celebrations that are a natural outgrowth of the early slam events--Parents' Weekend writing events, the advocacy for Hip-Opera (about three generations of African-American women) which is written, staged, and acted by a student, Debbie Burke. Through all of this activity, the staff has had many opportunities to discuss with students, faculty, and parents the complexities of identity and rhetorical situation--a sometimes tension-filled learning situation, but one that is real, one that is collaborative in the best sense.

Conclusions from the Two of Us

We would caution anyone using this book not to simply Xerox activities, but to read and reflect on the entire sixteen essays and to evaluate the activities based upon the theoretical frames presented in Part I of the text. In some ways, the early chapters are a warning, and the front end of the text isn't necessarily reflected in Parts II and III. Play is not neutral. The realities of race, class, and gender are just as real in the writing center as they are in the rest of the world. The many interesting activities in the book can certainly be adapted to other contexts in responsible ways that support both tutors and writers in the construction of their own knowledge, ones that interrogate what it means to be other(ed). Perhaps one of the greatest values of Creative Approaches is as a reminder to listen to the voices and needs of all those who live in our Burkean Parlors, so that decision-making in our writing centers is truly a creative collaboration.

Works Cited

Geller, Anne Ellen, et al. The Everyday Writing Center: A Community of Practice. Logan: Utah State UP, 2007.

Lunsford, Andrea. "Collaboration, Control, and the Idea of the Writing Center." Writing Center Journal 12.1 (1991): 3-10.

Marshall, Margaret J. "Sites for (Invisible) Intellectual Work." The Politics of Writing Centers. Ed. Jane Nelson and Kathy Evertz. Portsmouth: Boynton/ Cook, 2001. 74-84.

* Nicole Kraemer Munday

Salisbury University

Salisbury, MD

and

* Meg Carroll

Rhode Island College

Providence, RI
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Author:Munday, Nicole Kraemer; Carroll, Meg
Publication:Writing Lab Newsletter
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 1, 2009
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