Writing Center as a Storycenter : A “New” Metaphor for Tutors

By Adedoyin Ogunfeyimi

Adedoyin Ogunfeyimi, a Fulbright scholar from Nigeria, completed his Ph.D. in rhetoric and composition studies at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Ogunfeyimi explores the place-based notion of ethos and focuses on how disenfranchised groups often invoke their cultural ethos to negotiate a hospitable ecology for their survival. While doing his doctorate in Wisconsin, Ogunfeyimi tutored at the writing center for five years, drawing on his research interest to create hospitable writing sessions for a diverse range of student-writers. Presently, he teaches writing courses and participates in a data-driven writing research project at the Institute for Writing and Rhetoric at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire.

What If . . . ?

What if we also begin to think about the writing center as a storycenter, a place where student-writers come, meet, and share their stories? What if we begin to think about the work that we do in the writing center as storytelling, a way of encountering student-writers and their writings as repositories of stories? And if we must recast our writing center location as a storycenter, what might this “new” metaphor afford us, open up for us, and how might it shape how we see, engage, and interact with student-writers who frequent or visit the writing center?

Writers’ Stories in the Writing Center

Adedoyin Ogunfeyimi

Not until I began to reflect on the role of storytelling in my writing class did I consider these questions while working with the student-writers at the writing center. But I had always engaged with these writers from this metaphorical lens. That is, I had paid attention to the stories that the writers brought to my writing sessions and shared about themselves and (through) their writing experiences. Some of these stories touched on their college transition experiences, commemorated their migration struggles, reminisced about their community advocacy, contested their racialized identities and bodies, narrated their escapes from war-torn nations, etc. Through these stories and their vast rhetorical purposes, I came to understand that my work in the writing center had always figured as a storytelling project, that is, as an opportune moment seized upon by the writers to share their writing and writerly experiences, and, more importantly, as a way of encountering the writers as storytellers.

When I met with these writers in the writing center, I always looked forward to the moments they would tell their stories. I anticipated these moments because their stories and the ways they crafted such stories often helped to repurpose, reorder, and reshape our writing sessions. And because these stories showed the writers’ ways of writing about and seeing their worlds, their stories also constituted the meaningful ways of ordering and talking through their writings. For instance, these writers invoked their stories to clarify the directions of their drafts, redirect the conversations for better understanding, and contextualize their writing purpose.

An aerial view of Helen C. White Hall (in the foreground), home of the Writing Center at UW-Madison. Photo by Jeff Miller, University Communications.

While these writers visited the writing center to tell their stories, they also invited me to cast my stories about my writing experience, disciplinary affiliation, nationality, research interests, etc. Some of these writers wanted my stories out of curiosity: how did I end up here? For others, this curiosity was more about tutoring agency: can I satisfactorily respond to their writing? Whatever reasons that called up their curiosity, I had to respond to their questions, especially if my responses would present me as someone they could trust with their stories and as someone who could value such stories. Sometimes, I didn’t have to wait to be invited; I seized on the moments to tell the successful stories of the writing process in my class. In my telling, I also acknowledged the problem I had to face, invoking the problem as a useful pedagogical resource for the sessions. For instance, I recalled my teaching experience when I realized that these writers struggled with the assignments/projects that required them to weave and sustain their narratives around a concept which must often reoccur (as a lexical category) throughout the narrative. These assignments/projects appeared in multiple genres—many of which featured as an ethnographic narrative genre, etc. Of course, many of these writers—most of whom were still in their first year—loved to write about their experiences, but not so many of them could cast such narratives around a concept throughout their writing. In other words, these writers did not compose narrative as a genre for conceptualizing and complicating a concept in their stories. So, when I noticed this struggle in their stories, I drew on my teaching experience to walk them through the struggle. For those who focused on the narrative without any concept, I would ask them to return to each paragraph and identify recurring key concepts. For those writers who didn’t use their concepts in some parts of their narratives, I would ask them to identify where the concepts didn’t show up, track words that might inform the concepts, or redirect their topic sentences to focus more on the concepts. However, when I shared my stories—including my pedagogical practice—I tried to not rewrite their stories with/through my stories, but to constantly look for such moments that, in the course of sharing my stories, the writers and I might open up other better ways to walk through the talk.

Seizing on the moments and recalling your teaching experiences to teach may not always work for other students; one must listen through the moments that come with different, nuanced writers’ experience. This was the lesson I learnt when I worked with a graduate student-writer.

Between Writerly Orientation and Tutorly Perspective

This writer visited the writing center to discuss his fellowship application with me. In this application, the writer tracked his career trajectory from his home country in Africa to the US. He emphasized his political persecution, escape, interest in scholarship, community service, and other grassroots commitments in the US. The writer wanted his audience to read him in this order—in the order that he had evolved and that he could make sense of his reality. On the other hand, when I read through his application draft, I was only reading and making sense of his stories from the standpoint of writing as a coherent knowledge production practice. But this practice—the tutorly perspective—as far as the writer was concerned, did not resonate with his experience and the ways he preferred to represent his trajectory. For him, coherence already figured in his stories and in his ways of telling the stories. To persuade me to see coherence in his stories and in how he made sense of the stories, this writer would recount his stories many times and re-tracked his journey trajectory to clarify his experiences to me. Every time he retold his stories, he would invite me to re-see transition and coherence in the stories and not in the writing conventions that were far removed from the writer’s experience. At some point in the session, I did realize that writing in that moment was rooted in the writer’s stories and in how he ordered such stories to underscore his experiences. And I realized that it would be more meaningful for me to reconcile my way of reading the writer’s stories with how he preferred to order his experience, how he wanted to relive his experience, and how he wanted the selection committee to encounter him. While he came to the writing center to find good listeners that would help him talk through his stories, he was not desperate to compromise the ordering pattern of his stories for the fellowship application. His intent for composing his stories was not merely to satisfy the fellowship award, but to inhabit his experience again.

The Senate House, University of Lagos. Photo from http://www.nairaland.com/1470334/beautiful-pictures-nigerian-universities-upload

Interior of the University of Lagos Library. From http://library.unilag.edu.ng/

University of Lagos Library. From http://library.unilag.edu.ng/

Tutoring with “New” Intelligence

This writer returned to my sessions many times. But for the most part, his return, to be honest, was not entirely motivated by my intelligent ethos—even if intelligence is a big part of the work we do in the writing center—but by the pleasure of someone who listened and reasoned with his stories. I said that because the idea of tutoring almost always intertwines with intelligence—the tutors’ ability to successfully walk writers through their writing. Or why and how should I work as a tutor in the writing center if I could not participate in the stories in which the students invite me to take part? So, intelligence is a basic, significant requirement for working with student-writers.

That being said, I did not merely ground intelligence in the cognitive sense in my sessions. Instead, intelligence figured as a careful way of listening to and understanding their stories; as a way of knowing how to not only enter and exit a stretch of talks, but also knowing when and how to take turns in talks without interrupting the rhythm of the writers’ stories and without inserting oneself in the stories that one does not own, invent, or know how to tell; as a strategic mode of entering and exiting talks that inspire the writers to bring into their stories their origins and shared cultures from their nations, communities, public and private places and lives; as a way of rethinking the writing sessions from its whole ecological dimension which recognizes and accommodates writers’ culture, race, nationality, ethnicity, sexuality, etc. Intelligence is a way of reimagining the work in the writing center as a storytelling project and the site of this project as a storycenter.

Baker Library, home of the Dartmouth Institute for Writing and Rhetoric. Photo credit: Eli Burakian ’00, Dartmouth Office of Communications.

Storytelling and Storycenter: A Pedagogical Standpoint

The stories of this writer and others had implications for the work we do in the writing center; writing center as storycenter constitutes a “new” form of pedagogy that is shaped by student-writers’ experience and writerly perspectives. It does so by offering storytelling as a new way tutors can encounter writers and understand their writing: that these writers often visit the writing location to tell their stories—written and verbal—and to find someone to listen to them; that tutoring isn’t and shouldn’t always be outside the domain of the stories shared by these writers, but should be considered as deeply integrated with it.

So, when I encountered these writers in the writing center, I did so not only through their writing, but through their writing and writerly experiences as sites of stories. When I encountered them in the writing location, I did so not only from the perspective of a writing center—a place where they frequent to get help for their writing—but also and more importantly through the lens of a storycenter—a place where they’ve come to tell their own stories, where they’ve come to occupy and claim agency, and where they’ve come to find intelligent audiences that know how to listen to—and make sense of—their stories.

My work at the writing center has also shaped my teaching. For instance, when I discuss drafts with student-writers, I take a storycenter approach by positioning myself as a worthy listener, someone that these writers can trust with their writing. Before joining the writing center staff, I used to tell the student-writers in my class what to do, what to change, and what to strengthen. Perhaps, I took this approach—and maybe other instructors did and still do—because I designed the courses I taught and drafted the prompts, and for these reasons, I expected that the written responses from the student-writers should fulfill the course goals. It is therefore easy to talk on—rather than listen through—a written piece drafted by these writers. Of course, there are stages of the writing processes that I still invoke “what-to-do-approach” when I meet with student-writers in my one-on-one conferences, but that rarely happens when we engage their drafts as the objects of our conversation. I have reused my writing center knowledge to reorganize my teaching method, and I have reimagined the writing center as a storycenter.

So-What?

I did not call for storycenter to replace writing center. This call is certainly not necessary. Instead, I only want writing center tutors to re-see the work we do from the standpoint of a storytelling, a stance that might open us up to a new way of encountering student-writers as storytellers, and that, by reimagining our work through that lens, might accentuate writers’ ownership of their work.

6 thoughts on “Writing Center as a Storycenter : A “New” Metaphor for Tutors

  1. This is quite interesting. Rethinking the writing center as a storycenter in order to accommodate writers’ lived experience will no doubt have a rewarding effect on what writers take away from their sessions. Listening to writers’ stories will also help tutors build a commonality with the writers they serve, particularly those who are from disadvantaged groups.

  2. This is a very intriguing read. I am especially fascinated by how you craft the writing tutor as one who should read and assess the writer’s work through the lens of the writer’s experience/story. While I do not undermine the writing conventions, it is important to see the writer as one who crafts a story and would like to own it. In fact, I am beginning to see every form of writing both academic and otherwise as a piece of narrative, which should be structured to give agency to the writer’s voice and or experiences.

  3. This essay provides an important angle from which to address academic writing as narrative regardless of its subject. As a writing center tutor, I could see how a change of perspective might help one to be more involved in the stories the academic paper tells. Thanks for this piece.

  4. The format of your post—its narrative approach—and its content—the emphasis on humility for tutors and teachers and the emphasis on the work and value of listening—gave me a new way to think about the function of writing centers, tutors and teachers in general. I think you’re right that listening and centering experiences around what’s needed rather than a script devised beforehand would allow for encountering writers where they are, not where you want them to be. That has the potential to be a transformative experience for everyone involved. Thanks for writing this!

  5. Thank you so much for sharing this post. I think this metaphor is so useful. It’s making me think about how often the personal pushes in with writing, even when it’s a text that’s not meant to be a narrative. I’m also thinking about the stories people tell about their writing and their writing process that are not connected to what we’re reading for that day in a session. Thanks again for writing this!

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