The Quiet Game of Writing Center Diplomacy

By Melvin Hall

The author in 2008 on a mountain overlooking the small Christian town of Maaloula whose residents take pride in speaking and preserving the biblical Aramaic spoken by Christ.

The author in 2008 on a mountain overlooking the small Christian town of Maaloula whose residents take pride in speaking and preserving the biblical Aramaic spoken by Christ.

In 2006, I took a leave of absence from the PhD program in Rhetoric and Composition at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to study Arabic language in Syria, 2007-2008. Upon my return, I had the privilege of managing the National Security Language Initiative for Youth at the Department of State’s Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs, Youth Programs, where I visited families in Egypt and Jordan hosting American high school students. And from July 2010 to July 2011, as a social scientist on a Human Terrain Team, I had the privilege of deploying with the 3rd and 4th U.S. Army Infantry Divisions in Northern Iraq to conduct ethnographic research. I recently returned to UW–Madison and finished my PhD dissertation this past summer. During my leave of absence, I met, lived, and worked with many different people from different cultures and bureaucratic institutions from almost every socio-economic strata of society: diplomats, military leaders, soldiers, local political leaders, sheikhs, imams, families; Christian, Druze, Muslim; Arab, Kurdish, Yazidi, and Palestinian.  Between 2006 and the present, I have spoken to and interviewed well over a thousand people in Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Syria, and Morocco.  And my cross-cultural experience and ethnographic research brought me to the following idealistic, if not utopian, conclusion: writing center training and teaching should be required for diplomats, international workers, and researchers.  What makes me confident in this?

I taught in the University of Wisconsin – Madison Writing Center from 2004 to 2006.  While living and conducting research in the Middle East, it became increasingly clear that my tenure in the Writing Center helped prepare me with the practical experience, behaviors, and mindset to bridge cultural and cognitive divides. In short, teaching in the writing center provided a “learning by doing” experience of the cross-cultural and ethnographic theories and methods I developed and studied while in UW–Madison’s Rhetoric and Composition PhD program. It helped me establish a habit of asking questions, treat the making of meaning as a cooperative conversation, forego my own cultural assumptions, and most importantly build respectful relationships. In short, a good place to practice intercultural dialogue is a writing center where writers from vastly different cultures struggle with how to express themselves to disparate and culturally diverse audiences.

Viewing the work of the writing center through the lens of diplomacy reveals the important humanist skills being practiced in writing centers–skills that transcend the writing center and can assist diplomats, researchers, and university instructors in their daily work of building cross-cultural relations.  Seminars teach the theories and power politics of cross-cultural relations and dialogue as an abstract intellectual exercise of reasoning. Researchers study cross-cultural dialogue as an object of knowledge. Writing Center tutors enact these theories as every day practices of human relations.

The Umayyad Mosque in the Old City of Damascus, Syria at night. The Jesus Minaret is in the background. The Umayyad Mosque has survived many “Great Games” since being built in the 7th Century. It is sure to survive the Great Game currently being played in Syria. It is believed that a shrine inside the mosque contains the head of John the Baptist, venerated by Shi’a, Sunni, and Christians alike.  Photo taken by author (2008).

The Umayyad Mosque in the Old City of Damascus, Syria, at night. The Jesus Minaret is in the background. The Umayyad Mosque has survived many “Great Games” since being built in the 7th Century. It is sure to survive the Great Game currently being played in Syria. It is believed that a shrine inside the mosque contains the head of John the Baptist, venerated by Shi’a, Sunni, and Christians alike. Photo taken by author (2008).

The Great Game and the Quiet Game

Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, a Nonresident Senior Fellow for Global Economy and Development at the Brookings Institute, classifies two kinds of diplomacy that will help me make my point: The Great Game and the Quiet Game.  We are familiar with the Great Game because we see and hear about it in the daily news. It is the drama of leaders making deals on behalf of their nations’ interests, international power plays made by countries’ political elite, and the spectacle of grand summits and daily press briefings on behalf of the powerful that move entire nations. The recent negotiations with Iran are a case in point. Salehi-Isfahani notes that the Quiet Game, in contrast, is the “everyday game of life where families get up in the morning, have plans for themselves, [and] for their children.” The Quiet Game takes place off stage and is the game played by average citizens with the object of attaining their individual dreams.

The same classification works well for understanding the writing center as the domain where Universities’ quiet game diplomacy takes place. Universities have their own Great Game in which departments fight to keep funding, territory, relevancy and to advance the domain of their respective field. As the late Wayne C. Booth trenchantly observed, each university department h as its own “nationalisms,” languages, “ethnocentrism,” and borders. The Great Game in universities is the struggle for tenure, power, and control of the academic universe – advancing the interests of one’s field and one’s self. Booth also makes the important point that experts in one field more than likely can’t understand the merits and quality of research in another field.  The cultures (departments) and nations (colleges) simply do not speak the same language.  And this clash of languages and cultures adds to the intrigue and difficulties of building relations across the university.  And if writing is about anything in the University, it is about learning the “good” writing conventions of one’s ethnocentric field.

The Writing Center’s Quiet Game

For me, it was the writing center where the Quiet Game took place.  In the writing center, I learned and practiced cross-cultural communication. I met students from all of the university’s nations (colleges) and cultures (departments), and literally from countries all over the world. Most importantly what I met in the writing center were students’ individual aspirations and dreams.  To be sure students bring their writing problems and desire to simply complete an assignment (sometimes at the last minute).  But attached to these assignments are their daily struggles to succeed and develop their skill and abilities to achieve their aspirations and dreams. I found that to be a good mentor to students in their quiet struggles to succeed, I had to be good at building relationships with them in order to understand their specific writing needs. I was faced with many different writing situations, different levels of writers, and writers from different fields of knowledge who had to meet their individual professors’ standards of “good” writing.

From Jabal Qasiyun overlooking the city of Damascus at sunset. Photo taken by author (2008).

From Jabal Qasiyun overlooking the city of Damascus at sunset. Photo taken by author (2008).

I highlight two examples, in which I met with graduate students once a week for an entire semester, which showcase the writing center’s quiet game. I met with a nursing student from Cambodia who was writing her PhD dissertation on the sexual practices of teenagers and the use of contraceptives in her country. I also met with a Chinese man who was writing his PhD dissertation on the economic theories for the production of micro-chips. In both cases, I made the ideal “dumb reader.” And by this I mean that because I was not an expert in their field, I could ask authentic questions that would allow the writer to talk about their field and become the expert, gaining practice and confidence with their field’s discourse while they answered my questions.  What I brought to the table was expertise with common genres, the discourse of the university in general, scholarly conventions, rhetorical framing strategies, and command of language.  My goal was to blend my expertise with their own knowledge. Added to helping these two writers with their dissertation in general were their ESL writing concerns. The difficulties might seem overwhelming – everything from understanding the general conventions of a dissertation to local paragraph and sentence level concerns (rhetorical and grammatical).  So the first thing I had to do was build a relationship with my writers in order to understand how I could best apply my writing expertise to help them and to outline goals for the semester.

I asked these students questions about themselves in general and specifically about their dissertations. I learned from them what their writing goals were and what their dissertation advisor’s concerns were. I learned from them what their specific writing needs were and what they had the most trouble with – both their global and local writing concerns, everything from the grand organization of the dissertation to specific paragraph and sentence level concerns. I learned from them what their personal aspirations were for this piece of writing.  My favorite question was (and still is) “what do you like about your writing?” This question revealed more than any other the personal aspirations and dreams a writer has for a particular piece of writing. It pinpoints where the writer’s personal investments and identity are in the writing and synthesizes writing techniques and conventions with personal identity. And by learning about where the writer’s dreams, aspirations, and identity were located in this particular piece of writing, I could act, now,  as a “sympathetic reader,” assisting them not only in creating a good piece of writing but in reaching their full potential as fellow scholars and persons.  While mentoring them to speak the language of their respective departments and write their dissertations, I learned about the culture of their departments and their individual aspirations.  In doing so, I allowed them to learn to be the expert of their writing and subject matter.

A point I want to emphasize (more of a belief I have) is that students often know how (or have a hunch) how to critique their own work; they just need the practice. They need a sympathetic reader that takes the time to play the quiet game with them. They need a tutor who can model the art of asking authentic questions that stimulate formative rather than summative critique.

Writing Center’s  Cross-Cultural Skills Overseas

I offer the two examples above to illustrate that writing center tutors practice the quiet game of diplomacy every day when they build relationships with students from different university departments and from around the world.  Writing center tutors must cross many rhetorical and linguistic borders to help students become experts with writing and speaking languages of the university. While the university departments and colleges struggle to sustain themselves in the Great Game, individual students are struggling to realize their full potential in the quiet game. And the same skills that writing tutors employ to “get along” across academic borders, cultures, and languages are the same skills that can be employed by diplomats and international researchers. As a tutor in the writing center I practiced the cross-cultural skills and art of questioning that would help me with my language learning, relationship building, and ethnographic research in the Middle East.

In effect, I learned to be a “dumb reader” of culture so I could learn from Syrians and Iraqis about their individual aspirations and dreams. To be sure, I studied and learned about Middle East cultures in seminars and from reading. But I had to learn to put that knowledge and my own cultural assumptions in my back pocket and to ask questions. I asked questions so that I could learn from individual Syrians and Iraqis what they like most about their culture and what their individual dreams and aspirations are. I did this in the same way I inquired what writers liked most about their writing. And in doing so, I learned their language, built relationships, and tried to practice being a “sympathetic reader” of culture.

As I conducted my ethnographic research, participating in many interviews, I became increasingly aware how the questioning and relationship building skills I learned in the writing center helped me conduct interviews in the Middle East (and in the United States). The skills used in the writing center to play the quiet game (including the art of questioning, the knowledge of genres, framing strategies, and rhetorical conventions) are the same skills used in the field.  I learned to let Syrians and Iraqis be the experts about their culture. I asked authentic and probing questions to be sure, and I have the same hunch about people from different cultures that I have about writers. They know how to critique their own culture. What they prefer is that someone sit down with them as a “sympathetic reader” and play the quiet game. I found this particularly true when speaking with sheikhs and their followers in Syria about philosophy and religion. In doing so, one learns to participate in that culture’s arguments and criticisms from within that culture. My writing center skills translated into effective cross-cultural skills.  In essence, the teaching that occurs in a writing center instills an ideal diplomatic and cross-cultural character in the tutors that are fortunate and privileged enough to teach in one.

Slumming in the Writing Center?

Palmyra (Tedmur), Syria once a place of the Great Game. Home to Queen Zenobia who successfully revolted against Rome in the 3rd Century. Photo taken by author (2008).

Palmyra (Tedmur), Syria once a place of the Great Game. Home to Queen Zenobia who successfully revolted against Rome in the 3rd Century. Photo taken by author (2008).

I am not completely naïve or sanguine, however, that all will see writing centers as a proving ground for cross-cultural skills. Throughout my experiences with government, university, and international institutions, I noticed that there is a lot more emphasis put on the spectacle and power of the Great Game even while talking up the importance of building relationships.  For example, at a recent international conference in Europe, I experienced the university’s Great Game first hand. At a venue where I expected to see the best “diplomatic” behavior on display, I was asked by a prominent communications scholar if my current job search included “slumming” in a writing center.  Apparently some scholars and universities as they play the Great Game don’t include people from “that part of town.”

Which brings me back to the utopian idea that all diplomats, researchers, and university instructors should be privileged enough to tutor in a writing center because it develops the quiet game skills needed to carry out diplomacy and cross-cultural relations no matter where one is.  It allows one to break out of his or her institutional ethnocentrisms. Many seminars and much class time is spent talking about the importance of “learning another language,” “understanding other cultures,” and reading sweeping summaries of other cultures. But if one wants to practice such cosmopolitan skills and witness the power of language to affect someone’s way of thinking first hand, the writing center is one place that practitioners can put these skills to the test and learn the art of building relationships through writing and the struggle to make meaning with language. In doing so, diplomats, university instructors, and researchers learn how to be “sympathetic readers” of other cultures and play the quiet game of diplomacy which values individual aspirations and dreams and reaches across the university’s borders. Ultimately the writing center’s quiet game skills can be applied anywhere in the world to build relationships.

6 thoughts on “The Quiet Game of Writing Center Diplomacy

  1. What an interesting way to connect experiences! It also gives us a practical way to ground the conversation about why the work of educating people to be better writers, thinkers, and humans is vital, particularly in today’s profit-driven world.

    The practice of viewing others as experts — no matter how much we know — is very powerful and provides an excellent foundation for the co-creation of meaning in teaching, travel, and research. Did you find that your interviewees had the same need for confidence that your students did? Did their identities play out differently in their narratives than in the writing of your students in the writing center, or were there essential similarities?

  2. Thank you for this post, Melvin! It’s wonderful to think about writing center work as diplomacy, and you’ve convinced me that the metaphor really does tell us something about the cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary work we do and its wider relevance to ethnographic research and intercultural dialogue.

  3. Thank you for sharing your insights and experiences, Mel. I love reading about the way you connected your writing and rhetorical training with field work in various disciplines as well as with the meaning-making of the beautiful individuals you encountered. This post focuses us on the ethical dimension of writing and responding. The training in writing instruction and rhetoric I received at the UW—which is not found in every program!—has informed my academic and non-academic interactions in so many ways. It has been truly invaluable, and I am constantly amazed to hear people question the value of such training, as when an elementary school principal bemoaned his son’s choice of an English/Rhetoric major at the University of Texas because “what can you do with that?!” You draw our attention to the importance of the Quiet Game and the way writing and literacy impact it. This ability to listen effectively to others and to help them achieve their goals not only enhances diplomatic efforts but also proves useful in business as all levels of organizations/corporations incorporate team efforts, consensus building, and “project management” strategies that require attending to the goals and meaning-making of others as well as in vocations related to social justice efforts. Thank you for providing a strong argument for the value of writing center training and, ultimately, for critical writing instruction.

  4. Thank you for this post, Melvin! It’s wonderful to think about writing center work as diplomacy, and you’ve convinced me that the metaphor really does tell us something about the cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary work we do and its wider relevance to ethnographic research and intercultural dialogue.

  5. Mel, Thanks for offering this important big-picture perspective on writing center work, grounded in your experiences and relationships. Yes, it might sound utopian to suggest that “writing center training and teaching should be required for diplomats, international workers, and researchers,” but you make a great case for its pragmatism. Along the way, you offer writing center tutors another way to see and value their daily interactions with students and colleagues. Here’s to the “Quiet Game”!

  6. To echo others here, thank you, Melvin, for this insightful post! The parallels you draw between diplomacy and writing center work are wonderful. And while so many of your exotic travels and enviable experiences caught my attention, what stuck with me the most was the question you like to ask students: “what do you like about your writing?” I have heard so many tutors ask students what they identify as the strongest part of their writing or what parts of their writing they are comfortable with or confident in, but I rarely hear what students like about their writing. In one stroke, this question brilliantly suggests that students should find some sense of pride or joy in writing as well as acknowledging that students don’t just struggle with certain parts of writing. They excel and enjoy certain parts as well.

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