Writing Centers: Providing the Transitional Discourse Community



by Christy Shannon



Over the years, there have been many different approaches taken in order to teach writing. In many of these methods, talking about writing plays a crucial role. In nearly every writing course, some sort of discourse is going on, whether it be among students or between student and instructor. According to Kenneth Bruffee, discourse communities are composed of "People who speak the same language. . ." (214). The students, for the most part, belong to one discourse community while the instructor belongs to another. The idea is to move the students into the instructorís discourse community in order to better facilitate communication, but this move can be difficult to make without some sort of stepping stone: the writing center.

In his article "The Idea of a Writing Center," Stephen North emphasizes that writing centers should not be viewed as supplementary components to the curriculum. Ideally, students would come to the writing center to improve their writing simply for the sake of becoming better writers. In practice, though, students generally some to the writing center to improve papers for their classes. Given this sort of context, the job of the tutor is to help the student compose a text that fits into the discourse community of the instructor. This context of writing requires that certain rules be followed in order to better communicate with the instructor, even if the rules may inhibit the studentís personal writing style. In the end, it comes down to what is most important to the student. He can either remain in his own discourse community, following the rules of that community, or he can learn the rules of the instructorís discourse community and write in a way that promotes communication between the student and the instructor. Many of the rules already apply to both discourse communities, but students who want the better grade must be willing to learn the rules of other discourse communities. However, learning how to communicate in the instructorís discourse community does not mean that the student gives up his residency in his own discourse community. He may be in several discourse communities at once. The writing center helps to bridge the gap between discourse communities.

While the writing center has many roles, one of the most important is that of a transitional discourse community. In describing the "new" writing center, Stephen North writes, "It represents the marriage of what are arguably the two most powerful contemporary perspectives on teaching writing: first, that writing is most usefully viewed as a process; and second, that writing curricula need to be student-centered" (27). He makes some valid points here. In any setting, whether it be the writing center or a classroom, writing should be viewed as a process, rather than a product. Also, students do need to be the focus of writing curricula, as each student is going to write differently. There is no one set of rules that is going to apply to every student. 

In order to get a better idea of how each student writes, teachers and tutors need to provide an environment that allows students to speak freely about their writing. Teachers and tutors also need to focus on writing as a process, whether the student does or not. While the objective for the tutor is to improve the studentís writing process, the objective for the student may be to merely improve the product in order to get a better grade, a scholarship, or a job, depending on what kind of text the student is working on. One of the best ways to improve the writing process is by talking about it. "Writing centers are simply one manifestation . . . of a dialogue about writing that is central to higher education" (North 29).

Unlike the composition classroom, most students go to the writing center on a voluntary basis. This is one of the main differences between a writing course and the writing center. The bulk of learning how to write is going to come from the classroom, but the writing center can help students perfect their writing processes by allowing students to work with tutors on a one-to-one basis. By doing this, specific problems can be identified and corrected, and the student becomes the focus of the tutoring session. In a writing course, the student cannot always get the individual attention he or she needs. The instructor may identify problems that are common to several writers in his class, but he probably does not have the time to go over every problem of each student.

In the classroom, one professor may be trying to advance fifteen to thirty students to a new discourse community. This environment does not really allow for each student to get personal attention from the instructor. Also, each student may already be in his or her own discourse community. It cannot be assumed that just because twenty or so students are put in a class together that they all have essentially the same knowledge base. In addition to these complications, the student may be apprehensive about joining a new discourse community. Students who are resistant to learning ways to improve their writing provide instructors with another obstacle to overcome.
Another point North addresses is the way in which tutors and students interact. He says, "What we want to do in a writing center is fit into - observe and participate in - this ordinarily solo ritual of writing" (28). This is an entirely different approach than most writing courses, where the instructor gives an assignment and the majority of the writing is done outside of class. In fact, the instructor may see only the final draft of a paper, whereas writing center tutors may see several drafts of the same paper. Tutors may indeed participate in the studentís writing, but observation may not be so easy to do. The student may not feel comfortable being observed while writing. Furthermore, the majority of the students coming to the writing center do so in order to receive help, to collaborate with tutors, or simply to get reassurance about their writing, rather than to be observed.

As Bruffee writes in his essay "Thinking and Writing as Social Acts," the most important aspect of social constructionism is the talking that goes on between student and tutor or student and teacher. He says, "good writing requires us to be able to talk about writing in a way agreed upon by the conversational community we are members of. . ." (216). To change the writing process, then, we have to talk about writing. According to North, "The essence of the writing center method . . .is this talking" (32). By talking about writing, tutors help students advance to the next discourse community. The classroom also serves this function, but writing centers are more capable of providing the necessary transitional discourse community.

While writing centers tutorials are designed to be student-centered, North points out that they are not here to replace writing classrooms.

    We all recognize and value the power of classroom teaching, and we take pride in ourselves as professionals in that setting too. But working in both situations makes us acutely aware of crucial differences between talking about writing in the context of the class, and talking about it in the context of the Center (North 31).

One of the main differences is that of authority. Students see their instructors as "assigners and evaluators" (North 31) of their work, while tutors are seen more as peers who donít have the final say in the evaluation of the studentís writing. This may make tutors appear less intimidating and threatening than instructors.

In the writing center, tutors can work with students on a one-to-one basis and give them individual attention. By doing this, the tutor can get a better sense of each studentís discourse community and, thereby, tailor the tutoring session to meet each studentís particular needs. Because most students coming to the writing center do so on a voluntary basis, they are more receptive to the instruction they receive. In addition, the move from the studentís discourse community to that of the tutor is not as large, and therefore not as intimidating, as the move to the discourse community of the instructor.

Writing centers provide the student-centered learning environment that North describes in a way that classrooms canít. Students can come to the writing center and know that while they are there, they will have the undivided attention of the tutor. The individual student is always the focus of the tutoring session. As North points out, "Maybe in a perfect world, all writers would have their own ready auditor - a teacher, a classmate, a roommate, an editor - who would not only listen but draw them out, ask them questions they would not think to ask themselves. A writing center is an institutional response to this need" (29). Tutors provide students with new ways of looking at things and new ways of expressing themselves.

The writing center uses the social constructionist theory in other ways as well. In a study conducted by Robert Child of Purdue University, the activities of classroom teachers were examined. Two teachers, Greg and John, are graduate students who work as classroom teachers and writing center tutors. In the study, they discuss ways in which tutoring in the writing center has affected their classroom teaching styles. "John believes that tutoring in the writing center has Ďradically improvedí his classroom teaching, that he is much more comfortable in the classroom as a result of his writing center experience, and that rather than conducting a class he now promotes an interactive classroom" (Child 174).

    The other teacher in the study, Greg, said that "As a result of his experiences as a tutor. . .he knew that he could not dominate the classroom, that he had to get his students involved through peer group and individual activities, whole-class discussions, and question and answer sessions" (Child 177).

It appears, then, that teachers who have previously worked as tutors in writing centers recognize the importance of talking about writing. They seem to move away from the traditional lecturing of the classroom and, instead, allow their students to voice their own opinions about their writing styles. By allowing students to participate more in the classroom, teachers are enabling them to learn more about the writing process and encouraging them to move into other discourse communities. When teachers bring the skills they have acquired as tutors into their classrooms, they make both the classroom and the writing center more effective. Students can more easily discuss the writing process and the more they talk about their writing, the easier it will be for them to move from one discourse community into another.

Writing centers, then, have two important purposes. First, they provide an ideal transitional discourse community for students. When students work one-on-one with tutors, each studentís writing style can be examined and improved more effectively. Second, writing centers provide training for future composition teachers. Although the tutorial and the writing course have several differences, the skills tutors learn in the writing center can carry over into the classroom. Instead of lecturing, teachers who were tutors employ a more student-centered method, which allows students the opportunity to voice their own views and opinions on writing. The talking that goes on in the writing center and in the student-centered classroom is a key component of the social constructionist approach. The best way to help students continue to move into new discourse communities is to recognize the importance of environments that encourage talking about writing.

As technology and the Internet have progressed and expanded, the creation of the on-line writing center has occurred. While on-line writing centers do not allow people to "talk" with one another, they do provide much larger discourse communities. They still maintain their function of transitional discourse community, but now tutors can work with a much larger and more diverse group of people. Like the traditional writing center, the on-line version is still very much student-centered. Tutors and students retain their one-to-one ratio and students continue to get the individual attention they need. Most importantly, the talking about writing that is crucial for the move to a new discourse community remains intact.

However, there is a downside. Since all of the tutor-student interaction is via computer, the face-to-face contact is lost. For some students, this may present a challenge because, for them, hearing how the tutor speaks is just as important as hearing what he says. This seems to be particularly true for ESL students. So, in some cases, the on-line writing center may not be as helpful as the traditional one.

In any case, the writing center, either traditional or on-line, serves as an ideal transitional discourse community. It helps to ease students into the move from one discourse community to another and emphasizes the importance of having a student-centered writing program. It also helps to make students more fluent when talking about their writing. All of these things make the writing process a lot less painful for the student by providing support and boosting the confidence of the student in regard to his or her writing skills. By using the writing center as a stepping stone, students feel less intimidated about the move to a new discourse community, and they are more capable of discussing and improving their writing, both now and in the future.

Works Cited

Bruffee, Kenneth A.  "Thinking and Writing as Social Acts."   

Child, Robert. "Tutor-Teachers: An Examination of How Writing Center and Classroom   
Environments Inform Each Other." The Writing Center: New Directions. Ed. Ray Wallace and Jeanne Simpson. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1991.  

North, Stephen M. "The Idea of a Writing Center." The St. Martinís Sourcebook for   
Writing Tutors. Ed. Christina Murphy and Steve Sherwood. New York: St. Martinís Press, 1995.