Putting Burke in the Center

Posted: December 10, 2013 in Writing Center
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Defining a Writing Center

A writing center possesses charged imagery. Their walls hold an energy that is not only collaborative but also empathetic, which makes it a safe haven for even the most insecure writer. The tables are always full of bustling productivity as the tutor and the writer work side-by-side to share ideas. Paragraphs are rearranged; sentence structure is revised, and style choice is evaluated. In the end, the writer leaves the writing not only with a better paper but also with a better understanding of how to approach the writing process. This noisy hub of conversing, laughing, and learning is home for serious academics, either struggling or successful, who want to succeed in higher education.

No writing center is the same. However, they function in a similar fashion because of Burke’s parlor theory and dramatic pentad.  These theories shape the collaboration, communication, cultures, and communities that make writing centers a successful grassroots movement within higher education. A writing center’s very nature—the centering on developing a writing process—is the dramatic pentad in scholastic hexameter (who, what, where, by what means, why, how, when) described in Burke’s Grammar of Motives (228). Language, when looked at this way, is a mode of action dependent on the situation, circumstances, or dilemma. This inquiry-based, therapeutic language shapes the open-ended, non-directive questions that ping back-and-forth in the writing center.

Writing Center Models

Before Burke is examined in full, however, the different models of writing centers need to be explained. In 1991, Lunsford identified two types of writing centers: the storehouse and the garret (2). The storehouse functions as an information hub that dispenses knowledge out to the individual as he or she needs it. This model is much in line with Freire’s banking concept of education. The garret also focuses on the individual, but in this case, the individual creates his or her own knowledge, voice, and style in a private quest for truth. Lunsford also introduced a new type of writing center based on Burke’s parlor where people of diverse backgrounds socially come together and do work with rhetoric and composition (4). Elbow also favors the Burkean parlor and describes it as a culture of movement:

“Some have already been there a long time working and talking together when new ones arrive. New ones learn from playing the game with the more experienced players. Some leave before others. People continually trickle in and trickle out, but they work and talk together while they are there. Unskilled writers would be there longer, but for that reason, they would often function as veterans, experts, elders, carriers of the culture. They would be better than the hotshot students at the writerly processes of sharing, cooperating, feedback, even revising” (466).

Therefore, writing centers are a perfect representation of the unending conversation that Burke defines in Philosophy of Literary Form. Burke invites us to imagine this conversation as a point of entry that leads toward a larger discussion, a difficult dialogue, and a great debate. The back-and-forth exchange of ideas creates a brighter illumination on the topic at hand even after the participant has long gone.  Boquet’s Noise from the Writing Center describes this kind of tutoring session as having a kind of spontaneous, innovative energy:

We take texts and we turn them around and over and upside down; we cut them into their bits and pieces; we tug at them, tutor to student, student to tutor, back and forth, to and fro, tug-tug-tug. We ball up ideas and we pitch them, sometimes to each other, sometimes away—three points!—into the trash. (Omygodcanwedothat?) (p. 18).

Bruffee considers this natural and unencumbered conversation a “kind of social context in which normal discourse occurs: a community of knowledgeable peers,” and Lunsford considers the exchange as knowledge, power, and control being negotiated and shared (Bruffee 644; Lunsford 5). Just a people come and go in Burke’s parlor, so do the ideas within their conversations. The same holds true for a community of practice where collective knowledge is never static, but always in a perpetual motion (Wenger, McDermott, and Snyder 10).

Communities of Practice

For this reason, a writing center can be considered a “community of practice.” A community of practice creates a particular identity for group members who “share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this area by interacting on an ongoing basis” (Wenger, McDermott, and Snyder 4). Communities of practice are an informal, self-organized joint enterprise that “drive strategy, generate new lines of business, solve problems, promote the spread of best practices, [and] develop people’s professional skills” (Wenger and Snyder 139). These objectives make communities of practice become a “cascading interplay of participation and reification [so] that our experience of life becomes one of identity, and indeed of human existence and consciousness” (Wenger 151). In summation, communities of practice are where learners develop, negotiate, and share our own theories and ways of understanding their reality (Wenger 48).

The community’s perspective-taking accommodates a multitude of new factors, data, inventions, and problems that accumulate over years of working in collaboration. As Lunsford points out, this collaboration is important in aiding practitioners, or members of the community of practice, to unearth new knowledge about problems and abstractions (3). Collaboration also leads to sharper critical thinking, higher achievement, and greater excellence (Lunsford 3).

In any community of practice, these markers are all evidence of success. In particular, a writing center/a Burkean parlor/a community of knowledgeable peers focuses on learning from one another whether one’s status is an old-timer or a newcomer (Theory in/to practice 94). Status in the center of the conversation surrounding writing centers becomes inconsequential. Participation in the dynamic aspects of knowledge creation is vital, and dialectical transactions, not years of experience, are the mark of expertise (Theory in/to 103).

Developing Aptitudes

Tutors who participate in the writing center community learn lessons outside the classroom curriculum (Integrating best practices 29). Teamwork and leadership are obvious skills, but Wenger points out three categories that come with belonging to a community of practice (95).

  • Evolving forms of mutual engagement
    • Discovering how to engage, what helps and what hinders; developing mutual relationships; defining identities.
  • Understanding and tuning their enterprise
    • Aligning their engagement with it, and learning to become and hold each other accountable to it; struggling to define the enterprise and reconciling conflicting interpretations of what the enterprise is about.
  • Developing their repertoire, styles, and discourses
    • Renegotiating the meaning of various elements; producing or adopting tools, artifacts, representations; recording and recalling events; inventing new terms and redefining or abandoning old ones; telling and retelling stories; creating and breaking routines.

Entering an Academic Culture

Within the writing center community of practice, there is an academic culture described by Molly Wingate in 2001. She points out that writing centers permit tutors to gain professional skills, which prepares them for a career choice, management, or client interactions (Wingate 10). Soma Kedia’s anecdotal evidence in her 2007 article, “Everything I Needed to Know about Life I Learned at the Writing Center” puts these categories into context by commenting on her marked shift from an individual approach towards writing to a collaborative one. By tutoring, she learned to approach a hierarchy of concerns through active listening, genuine praise, non-directive questioning (13-15).

A common theme runs through Wingate’s and Kedia’s observations. Writing centers not only shape better students, but better professionals. Wingate writes, “Those serious tutors and writers grow up, finish graduate school, join professions, have neighbors, children, vote, participate in their local schools, get elected, volunteer and protest. Those writing center attitudes go right along with them as they respect themselves and other people” (14). Kedia echoes this concept of carrying on a trend of responsibility and involvement after leaving the writing center. She reflects that “Writing is so much more than the way we put words on a page: writing is conversation, leadership, even therapy. Writing is subversive social action” (Kedia 15).

Conversations, communications, and collaborations in the writing center make a lasting impact. Tutors who work, learn, write, and play in the writing center are a perfect example of those visitors to Burke’s parlor of unending conversation in Philosophy of Literary Form. Although tutors leave the writing center and pursue other careers and interests, the writing center never leaves them just as Burke never leaves the center of conversation in composition. He writes:

“You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally’s assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress” (Burke 110-111).

Works Cited

Burke, Kenneth. Grammar of Motives. Berkley, CA: University of California Press, 1969. Print.

Burke, Kenneth. Philosophy of Literary Form. Berkley, CA: University of California Press, 1973. Print.

Boquet, Elizabeth. Noise from the Writing Center. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 2002. Print.

Bruffee, Kenneth.  Peer Tutoring and the “Conversation of Mankind.” College English. 15.7 (1984): 635-652. Print.

Kedia, Soma. “Everything I Needed to Know about Life I Learned at the Writing Center.” The Writing Lab Newsletter 31.7 (2007): 13-15. Print.

Lunsford, Andrea. “Collaboration, Control, and the Idea of a Writing Center.” The Writing Lab Newsletter 16.4-5 (1991/1992): 1-6. Print.

Wenger, Etienne. Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Print.

Wenger, Etienne, Richard McDermott, and William Snyder. Cultivating Communities of Practice: A Guide to Manage Knowledge. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2002. Print.

Wenger, Etienne and William Snyder. “Communities of Practice: The Organizational Frontier.” Harvard Business Review. 78.1 (2000): 139-145.

Wingate, Molly. “Writing Centers as Sites of Academic Culture.” The Writing Center Journal. 21.2 (2001): 7-20. Print.


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