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Agency and Becoming: Finding the University in the Writing Center
Nate Thesing

Higher education in America has long been celebrated as mainstream culture’s ideal path to a successful and productive life. As people try to find their way into higher education, they may have a difficult time navigating the expectations, conventions, and discourses found within America’s academic landscape. These academic discourses do not always translate to all students, especially when we consider age, gender, cultural background, and how previous exposure to an American education differs dramatically from person to person. The academy’s own language and discourse is privileged whether found in textbooks, academic journals and essays, or the speech of an instructor. Students may not comprehend how their own personal language and experiences correlate to what is being taught to them in the university setting. Learning how to manage the time, jargon, and privileged discourses found in the academy must be passed along to students before they may be able to enjoy the benefits of earning a college degree.

Ironically, the university usually privileges knowing over learning. The process of learning and making errors is seen as something to correct within the academic environment. Meaning-making is privileged and appropriated by the student as a way of proving they comprehend the discourse of the university. The point of an education does not seem to be making the student’s life easier and more successful as advertised. A university education seems to be a way to privilege one person (student) over another uneducated person (non-student). An education may make students aware of how little they know, despite what they know.

By examining the ways of thinking, knowing, writing, and language that are privileged in academia, we may be able to devise ways students can use their own literacies and language within higher education to better reflect their own needs within the university. We will examine the physical structures, spaces, and places found on university campuses and how they may influence, and possibly dictate, the work happening in them. My research demonstrates that the writing center can be a site  in the structure of the university system where active participation, engagement, and student agency are the privileged discourse. The writing center should be a writing community that cultivates student agency and emergent literacies within the dominant and privileged discourses of academia.

Structure & “Space” in the Academy
How might “space” and “place” affect the learning, knowledge, and meaning-making on a college campus? If the physical spaces students inhabit on their university campus are viewed as spaces of knowing, we may infer students will feel pressured to know how to respond, act, and participate in their education, without feeling like they have a place to learn and grow on their university campus. Yi Fu Tuan offers simple definitions of place and space: “place is security, space is freedom” (3). He elaborates, writing, “Spaces are marked off and defended against intruders. Places are centers of felt value where biological needs, such as those for food, water, rest, and procreation, are satisfied” (4). When we use these connotations as ways of being in physical space via Tuan, we may equate space with knowing and place with learning.

We can see how space is where one “knows” how to behave depending on the context surrounding them, whereas a place is where we may “learn” how to meet our needs based on the context we find ourselves in. When considering a student’s perspective, does the university offer a space of knowing or a place for learning? Knowing the terms, conventions, academic standard language,  and matters of presentation, and then internalizing these context clues enables a student to be labeled successful in the academy. The idea of fostering a place to learn, play, and possibly challenge the university conventions while still working within them is dismissed by the physical structure and attitudes already attributed to the system.

Any person who participates in the university system is affected by the physical structures and spaces found on campus. The language of students is as much a construct of the space as the language traditionally embodied in academia. Edward Soja’s book, Thirdspace, provides us with insights of how students may manipulate the space of higher education to work for them. In his book, Soja writes about three separate spaces, First-, Second-, and Thirdspace, defining Firstspace as “epistemologies…fixated on the material form of things in space: with human spatiality seen primarily as outcome or product” (76, emphasis original). So, in the Firstspace of the university, students are a product of the physical structures and space constructed around the concept of the university. Soja’s definition of Secondspace shows how students may counteract this language and the leverage the space has on them by looking outside of it to find meaning from their own experiences. He suggests “spatial knowledge…is achievable only through approximations, a constant search to move beyond…what is known” (57). Students may better understand what is expected of them not by being told what is expected, but by being allowed to expand on these expectations.

The expectations of a space are further examined by Soja; he writes, “Secondspace epistemologies have tended to arise in reaction to the excessive closure and enforced objectivity of mainstream Firstspace analysis” (78, emphasis original). We can infer dissonance between physical spaces, their construction, how they are used, and how they are viewed as limiting based on the “excessive closure” he describes. When he looks into the epistemology of these two spaces he refers to “a presumption of epistemological completeness that channels the accumulation of spatial knowledge into two main streams…little room is left for a lateral glance beyond the long-established parameters and perimeters that map the overlapping terrains of Firstspace and Secondspace” (78). The “epistemological completeness” Soja references mirrors the idea of the completeness of the space, place, and knowledge of the university. The institution is presented to society as a complete structure and know entity within American culture and history; therefore, academia can engage the American culture and society by holding its value up to those outside of the institution as a way to be successful in America.  

Higher education does not readily acknowledge aspects of distress or areas of contention. The system is working within its cultural context; therefore, higher education may not feel it necessary to address aspects of the prescriptive model within the space provided to its students, faculty, and employees. These participants may be able to critique the university model and primary education system from within, but it may already have what it needs from these participants in the form of active engagement, time, and money. The academy may not need to address the critiques based on someone who has bought into the institutional ideology and privilege. Soja’s view of “Thirdspace” may shed light on ways students and faculty can inject meaning, learning, and agency within the academy, allowing for their critiques to be voiced and heard.

The way we think, talk and live within a space dictates how it is used; therefore, the people who participate in higher education have the ability to transform the space to better reflect their own needs, desires, and sense of becoming within the community.  Soja’s idea of “Thirdspace epistemologies…arising from the sympathetic deconstruction and heuristic reconstruction of the Firstspace-Secondspace duality…to reinvigorate their approaches to spatial knowledge with new possibilities heretofore unthought of inside the traditional spatial disciplines” (81, emphasis original) shows how the people who work in a space change it. Any university has gone through numerous changes since its inception and the principles Soja describes illustrate that change can happen via the people found participating within its physical structures.

One part of the system suggested includes the architecture, space, place, and the designations they are given to denote what is supposed and accepted to occur within the space as Tuan defines it. Although not always verbalized, the space of administrative buildings are known to house important administrators, faculty, meetings, texts, ideas, and knowledge, with the possibility of an endless array of connotations each individual brings from personal experience, societal norms, signs, written and oral communication occurring in varying contexts. One’s sense of space is composed of all of these ideas previously described, yet students in the academy must navigate the space presented to find their place in the context of this system of privilege, structure, and language. They may know how to learn in the space, but where is the place allowing them to question the assumptions, differences, and conflicting information encountered within the university and the real world?

Real World versus Academic Discourse
The privileged discourses found in higher education may not reflect the primary discourse of  many communities. A deeply rooted structure of culture continues to shape how discourse community members make meaning and interact with the world they inhabit. Family members pass on primary discourses based on their parents’ and their own experiences, which may conflict or contrast with those privileged in the university. Any students’ cultural understanding of the American university system and its discourses is directly affected by various factors outside of their own control, including “the names, phrases, events, and other items that are familiar to most literate Americans” (Hirsch et al. x). Using James Paul Gee’s definition of discourse as “ways of being in the world” (6), we can understand how varied and distinct each individual’s discourse may become over a lifetime.  Gee establishes a person’s primary discourse as “being a member of a primary socializing group (family, clan, peer groups)” (7). If a student’s primary discourse is not reflected back to them in academia, the student may be hindered from the moment they attend their first university class.

Upon entering the university, students may not have been taught the differences that characterize privileged academic discourse and their informal, conversational discourse of everyday English, or why those differences matter. Without an understanding of these differences, they may have difficulty appropriating academic discourse in their language and writing set in the university. This inability to “code-switch” may hinder them from the moment they step foot on campus. Student must recognize, and accept, that their everyday discourse does not give them power within academia. David Bartholomae’s essay, “Inventing the University,” addresses how students realize their potential to code-switch while in the academy: “the movement toward a more specialized discourse begins (or perhaps, best begins) when a student can both define a position of privilege, a position that sets him against a ‘common’ discourse, and when he can work self-consciously, critically, against not only the ‘common’ code but his own” (144). It is simply not good enough to be aware of the conventions, jargon, authors and their work within a discipline; student-writers must be able to present their own critical thinking, analysis, and the knowledge they’ve gained, within the discourse itself. The capacity of students to code-switch between academic writing and their own common discourse enables them to synthesize the differences they experience amongst those discourses.

Awareness of university discourse is a prerequisite for a student to be taken seriously in the discussion within their chosen field. Education, a secondary literacy, may be far removed from many students’ primary literacies. Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner pose the question, “Whose schools are they, anyway, and whose interests should they be designed to serve?” (2). Knowledge by itself does not seem to qualify an academic education unless it carves out a place within it by being “new,” whether the newness is found in the larger landscape of academia or a specific niche area of its discourse. Exposure to the American education system for twelve years in conjunction with the dominant culture’s expectations of how to present oneself to succeed in the dominant culture aids in the progress made within it; however, not all students’ sole purpose of learning the academic discourse is to succeed on the terms the language itself labels as success.  

My research is an example of an act Ellen Cushman describes in her essay “The Rhetorician as an Agent of Social Change” in that I try to make sense of the system I am critiquing while acknowledging my work’s place within academia and academic discourse. Cushman compares navigating academic discourse, success, and the people found in higher education with the colonizers of America. Cushman writes, “in order to colonize, the settlers denied the very existence of Turtle Island’s original people…scholars reproduce this colonizing ideology when we maintain a distance from people” (11). Bartholomae furthers the idea of this thesis’s place in academic discourse, writing of a student’s essay, “notice the specialized vocabulary…the way in which the text continually refers to its own language and to the language of others” (143). Bartholomae and Cushman’s ideas do not only refer to the distance language creates within a student’s writing. Their work displays language’s effects on students’ and faculty’s ability to act, perform, and interact together in the physical space that is the university campus. One specific space on university campuses that potentially escapes the colonizer/colonized paradigm by advocating for an understanding, application, and questioning of academic discourse is the writing center.

Writing Center as a Student Community
The writing centers found on university campuses may be considered the place where students encourage, actively engage, and grant agency from peers with the focus on helping them be more successful as writers. Tutors and writers are free to learn from one another in ways that reflect the learning that takes place outside of the university, allowing each participant agency within the system. This agency may lead to informing, shaping, and altering the ways in which students interact with the space and place of the academy. In “Moveable Feasts, Liminal Spaces: Writing Centers and the State of In-Betweenness,” Bonnie S. Sunstein speaks to the center’s unique place in the university: “We help our students learn about the community of the college and the patterns appropriate for academic literacy—but we want them not to give themselves away to it” (11, emphasis original). A tutor’s interactions with a writer during a tutoring session may differ in many ways from a writer’s interaction with a professor or faculty member, because of the distinction Sunstein adds at the end of her statement. Tutors are peers that may be considered “experts” of academic English, including grammar, punctuation, and genre conventions privileged in the academy by faculty; however, tutors are often taught to emphasize higher order concerns, such as organization, clarity and the writer’s sense of audience and purpose. Speaking as a Writing Center Director, Sunstein attempts to further clarify this distinction when she writes, “We strive to create a temporary space—not exactly home, not exactly school—that offers a momentary respite away from the competing cultures to which our students and colleagues belong” (11).  Sunstein hopes writing centers can provide the place of learning as I’ve previously defined it: a place where the often confusing discourse of the university is reviewed, questioned, and made sense of by students actively participating in it. The writing center does not try to offer the truth to writers who seek help during a session; rather, one of its main goals is to show how there may be multiple truths found in their writing. Richard Leahy writes about one way the writing center does this: “one of the most powerful strategies is for a tutor to simply listen and encourage” (47). As Leahy illustrates, sometimes the best way to get the most from a student is to ask questions, sit back, and listen to what they have to say, whether or not it specifically concerns their writing. The tutor is encouraged to listen to their peer and hear their unique perspective. Active listening allows the tutor to offer ways to clarify the writer’s perspective based on what they are hearing. In this case, both students are active participants in an act of collaboration and shared meaning-making, and may lead to literacy of academic discourse.

Learning the discourse of the academy leads to student appropriation of it for one’s own needs. When looking into the development of non-literate cultures in the article by Jack Goody and Ian Watt, The Consequences of Literacy, we begin to see how the standards for “literate” culture became a dominant force and a form of power within society. When examining oral cultures, Goody and Watt write, “the whole content of the social tradition…is held in memory…what the individual remembers tends to be what is of critical importance in his experience of the main social relationship” (307). Using Goody and Watt’s example, the student may be viewed as losing their primary discourse to the privileged secondary discourses of the academy.

Goody and Watts pose this question: “what proportion of society has to write and read before culture as a whole can be described as literate?” (304).  Tutoring exposes one’s illiteracy, orally and on the page, during any given tutoring session. Within a writing center, the student is granted the agency and title of expert about their own writing. The tutor may help the writer clarify their own literacy, not to tell them how to write about something that may be outside of the tutor’s specific academic field. In “Redefining the Writing Center with Ecocomposition,” Bonnie D. Devet advances the idea of the reciprocal relationship of tutor and writer. She writes, “While students often cast their own teachers as sages on stages, consultants (tutors) eschew this hierarchy, forming, instead, a community of cooperation with their clients (writers): students and consultants learn from each other, participating in an interchange where both benefit and support each other” (6). The writing center may be seen as a community for meaning-making and agency beyond the confines of the terms student and tutor may dictate based on strict definitions.

By encouraging students to present their primary and secondary discourses found outside of the university, tutors can facilitate students’ learning how to read academic language with a critical eye to better understand how its everyday use affects their lives. There seems to be little use for the acquisition of academic language if the student does not have a practical use for it within their own life. Postman and Weingartner say, “future shock occurs when you are confronted by the fact that the world you were educated to believe in doesn’t exist” (14), which mimics the necessity for discourse to function in a person’s life outside of higher education. If tutors encourage writers to use the codes found in academic discourse in addition to their own personal discourses, they may facilitate the writer’s understanding of the importance of both discourses.

And yet, the integral role writing centers could play in helping students become adapted to academic discourse is often unexplored. In “Redefining the Writing Center with Ecocomposition,” Bonnie D. Devet compares “centers, like weird relatives that must be relegated to the attic whenever visitors come over, are often ignored or forgotten by the field of composition” (“Redefining” 13). Ecocomposition is based on the idea that all of the writing happening in composition (or any discourse) contributes to the discourse in some way and shows the importance of students within the larger context of the university. Devet defines ecocomposition as “writers entering a ‘place’ or ‘environment’ where they experience ‘interrelationships’…. all are interconnected; all contribute to each other” (“Using Metagenre” n. pag.). The very act of being in and writing in higher education means the student is a part of the system. Devet’s definition of ecocomposition may help students feel integrated into the academic environment, thereby granting them agency to participate as an insider rather than an uninitiated outsider. Based on this research, we may be able to recognize the cultural capital of writing centers rooted in student agency rather than institutional ideas of student interest. By  reimagining the writing center as a place of becoming and advocating student agency, we may change the mindset of people participating in aspects of writing centers on campus, allowing for a redefinition of the work happening within them and cultivating a student community on campus.

Writing Center as a Place of Becoming
By placing students at the center of the conversations happening in tutoring sessions we may see how agency plays a role in a student’s sense of accomplishment, ability, and personal success. The writers in Anne Ruggles Gere’s essay, “Kitchen Tables and Rented Rooms: The Extracurriculum of Composition,” are the privileged participants in the workshops she observes. In her examples, specifically The Tenderloin Women’s Writing Workshop in San Francisco and Lansing, Iowa’s Writing Workshop, she highlights how sharing one’s writing, critiques, and active participation in people’s lives contribute to meaning-making and personal agency outside of academia’s walls. The description of the meeting’s presentation of the writer’s work mirrors the way a tutoring session happens with the writer’s work being read aloud, then a conversation proceeds over the work (Gere 281). Active listening may be viewed as a key asset to writers whether found in the workshops Gere writes about or in a university tutoring session.

It seems the best way to find out what students need from their writing and education is to ask them. Academia and the privileged discourses that it operates within may act as if it knows what students need to be educated regardless of nationality, race, gender, age, class status, or primary discourses. One problem is that the secondary literacy of higher education is privileged over most, if not all, primary discourses in which students have grown up. The writing center may act as a Thirdspace, as defined by Soja, changing the power of the space, as defined by Tuan, into a place of becoming.

A university can be a space of separation for students, but it can be viewed as a place of becoming, community formation, and further development based on the Writing Center Theory. It seems fitting that a student must locate their place within higher education to be able to criticize it and its discourse. Gere’s essay provides a perspective of student agency suggesting, “Our students would benefit if we learned to see them as individuals who seek to write, not be written about, who seek to publish, not be published about, who seek to theorize, not be theorized about” (287). The writing center is a place on university campuses where students, their work, and their questions are prioritized and privileged. Students,  whether  writer or tutor, want to feel like they belong in the academy. They want their writing to be more than a grade. They want to feel like their voices are being heard. The writing center may offer space to use these voices to make meaning, to help them understand academic discourse, primary discourses, and how they  can all work together creating a place of becoming.

Many questions still remain: How does the space of the university change or adapt to the idea of privileging student agency over the dominant discourse of the academy? Do students want the responsibility of shaping the university to the extent implied in this thesis? What is the purpose of faculty and the university administration if student agency becomes the norm on university campuses? These are some of the questions that will inform further research into the writing center as a place of becoming and student agency. Does the writing and student community need to change these institutional ideas to be effective in encouraging student agency within the university system?

Looking forward, we may need to explore if students need the academy’s approval to pursue a place of becoming on campus, or if it is already happening within the context of peer-to-peer tutoring currently taking place in university writing centers across America. If student agency and community is the priority of writing centers, we may feel empowered to seek better ways to inform students, faculty, and administration how to better utilize this resource on university campuses.

Works Cited

Bartholomae, David. “‘Inventing the University.’” When a Writer Can’t Write: Studies in Writer’s Block and Other Composing-Process Problems. Perspectives in Writing Research Series, Ed. by Mike Rose, The Guilford Press, 1985, pp. 134–165.

Cushman, Ellen. “The Rhetorician as an Agent of Social Change.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 47, no. 1, 1996, pp. 7–23., doi:10.2307/358271.

Devet, Bonnie D. “Redefining the Writing Center with Ecocomposition.” Composition Forum, Association of Teachers of Advanced Composition, 2011, Accessed 5 Apr. 2016.

Devet, Bonnie D. “Using Metagenre and Ecocomposition to Train Writing Center Tutors for Writing in the Disciplines.” Praxis: A Writing Center Journal, vol. 11, no. 2, 2014, Accessed 5 Apr. 2016.

Gee, James Paul. “Literacy, Discourse, and Linguistics: Introduction and What is Literacy?” Journal of Education, vol. 171, no. 1, 1989, pp. 5-25.

Gere, Anne Ruggles. “Kitchen Tables and Rented Rooms: The Extracurriculum of Composition.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 45, no.1, February 1994, pp. 75-92.

Goody, Jack, and Ian P. Watt. The Consequences of Literacy. Bobbs-Merrill, 1963.

Hirsch, E. D., Joseph F. Kett, and James Trefil. “Introduction to the First Edition.” The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy. Houghton Mifflin, 2002, pp. x-xi.

Leahy, Richard. “What The College Writing Center Is—And Isn’t.” College Teaching, vol. 38, no. 2, 1990, pp. 43–48. Academic Search Premier [EBSCO], Accessed 19 Apr. 2016.

Postman, Neil, and Charles Weingartner. Teaching as a Subversive Activity. New York, Delacorte Pr., 1970.

Soja, Edward W. “The Trialectics of Spatiality.” Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real-and Imagined Places. Blackwell, 1996, pp. 53-82.

Sunstein, Bonnie S. “Moveable Feasts, Liminal Spaces: Writing Centers and the State of In Betweenness.” The Writing Center Journal, vol. 18, no. 2,  April 1998, pp. 7-26.

Tuan, Yi-fu. Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 1977.

Nate Thesing recently graduated from Grand View University with a BA in English with a writing concentration. His interest in the writing center stems from his time spent as a tutor at Grand View. He enjoyed the sense of community he found within the structure of the university. He considers being a tutor the most rewarding job he has worked.

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