Archive for April, 2015

April 9, 2015

The Writing Center as Bike Co-Op

bike co op

“What does a Writing Center do?” It’s a complicated question, and people have come up with a number of metaphors to explain what writing center consultants actually do. The one thing that we’re darn sure we’re not  is a “fix-it shop.” Many articles about writing centers criticize those who consider a writing center a place where students take papers to get them cleaned up and “fixed,” with no real collaboration between the student and the WC consultant. Of course, this is a good message: we want to avoid merely “fixing” a paper for a student like the Best Buy “Geek Squad” fixes computers (or used to, anyway.) The focus is on trying to change a writer’s writing process for the better, not just make one paper look nicer. (“Teach a man to fish…”)


However, I think that perhaps part of the reason that the “fix-it shop” metaphor works so well as a straw man is because it feeds the English major’s (often) inherent mistrust of the mechanical world, of being connected to technological work, working with one’s hands–an area of expertise most of us (definitely me) do not have much experience in. No, ours is a loftier mission. We aren’t a fix-it shop, we’re artists!


But I’ve seen mechanical metaphors for writing work very well. For example, Roy Peter Clark’s writing handbook “Writing Tools” ( pushes against the Romantic ideal of the writer as tortured soul and diviner of spirits, replacing it with a straightforward, mechanical mindset of things that often work and things that definitely don’t. He provides a tool set of 50 well-tested strategies in the book, including writing instruction greatest hits like “The Ladder of Abstraction” (move up it and down it, but don’t stay in the middle!) This mindset is not just for beginning writers. I think it can help clear the head of a more experienced writer desperately trying to reinvent the wheel instead of looking into her trusty set of tools that have worked just fine in many situations.


And to the list of metaphors we’ve heard for the mission of the Writing Center, I’ll add my own, somewhat Truman-specific: “The Center as Bike-Co-op.” I recently took my bike to the co-op for the first time to have a broken spoke replaced. I have very little experience in fixing bikes, and so I like how the co-op gets students to fix the bike themselves while the co-op member tells the student what to do. When it came time to true the wheel, the student helping me first began tightening spokes to show me how to do it. Then suddenly came the terrifying offer: “Now you try!” Terrifying because I hadn’t really been paying attention, thinking he’d do all the work for me. But I quickly figured out the simple process with his guidance and trued the wheel on my own. (By the way, I didn’t know ‘true’ was a verb before that day. Auto/bike shop neologism?)


Might we have something to learn from this model? In many situations, we deal with students with very little prior experience either in one specific aspect of writing or many. They don’t have the tools, and we do. In such cases, it’s best to invite the student to try out the tools themselves. The co-op’s method of providing the tools, showing how something is done, and then having the bike owner do it for themselves clearly works very well in such situations.


I ran into a situation like this the other day. A student used passive voice several times in each paragraph. After explaining the difference between active and passive voice, and the advantage of active voice, I showed an example of how you would go about fixing a sentence with an avoidable passive voice problem. Then I had her fix a couple sentences on her own. First I told her exactly what to do, but then she had to take ownership of the process. And once you learn how to fix a bike…well, hopefully that works the same as learning to ride it.