Sherri Winans
Whatcom Community College
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Playing in the Center: Tutor as Renegade Rhetor
Sherri Winans, Whatcom Community College
Session J.07: "Access, Success, and Recess: Re-playing the College Game"
CCCC Convention, 18 March 2005, San Francisco

A Context
This past fall, in the first edition of Whatcom Community College’s student newspaper, the beginning-of-the-year question asked of students was this: “How do you battle the back-to-school blues?”  Responses included “I keep looking up every day” and “It’s just life, deal with it.”  But the one that caught my attention was this: “I bite my lip and force myself to do it.”  Alex Lukic was voicing a familiar opinion, but one that still startles me.  I bite my lip and force myself to do it. 

You may remember T. R. Johnson’s 2001 CCC article “School Sucks.”   Johnson argues that school sucks for students because it sucks for too many of their teachers—and his focus is on their writing teachers.  Johnson says that we college writing teachers are likely to abandon the joys of writing because joy, pleasure, surprise, excitement, and the magical are considered to be unprofessional, renegade.  He asserts, “Dominant pedagogy, in short, turns us to stone” (634). 

We want to start with this context, because it is, at least in part, the one we work in at Whatcom Community College.  School doesn’t suck for all, of course, but the writers we work with in the writing center and in our classes too often believe that school is something to be got-through, a series of tasks, rather than, as we would hope, a place to learn and grow and get excited—and to join with other scholars doing the same thing.  Many view their writing assignments as tasks that they must force themselves to do.  We meet writers who seem to be biting their lips and forcing themselves to do it. 

In my thinking on this subject, I keep coming back to the story of another student, Joe.  In Good Intentions, Nancy Grimm tells us about Joe, an easy-going, quiet engineering student from a family of mink farmers, who was writing a paper for a composition course.  Joe had all the right conditions, we might think, for writing a paper that was meaningful to him and to a reader.  He had an assignment that asked him to “confront real intellectual problems needing real solutions” (Grimm 16).  He had an instructor and a regular writing center tutor who encouraged his personal engagement with the subject.  He had a topic that he was personally interested in: the tactics used by animal rights advocates.  He had a background in mink-farming that gave him unique insight into the issue and a family back home that was involved in the subject and in his writing about it.   

Yet, in spite of all of this, Joe wrote a paper that did not include his experiences or his views; he wrote favorably and uncritically about ideas that his experience led him, privately, to question and to reject.  Joe believed, for example, that the mink-farm conditions described by the popular press were not accurate and, in some cases, could not be accurate: Joe knew from experience that overcrowded farms and underfed animals do not produce good pelts, the point of the mink-farm.  In short, Joe wrote a paper he did not agree with.  He wrote a paper that he did not show his family, in spite of their interest in his project, one that he did not even keep.  Grimm concludes that “Joe completed the [course] without a sense of how his experience might count as evidence, without having contributed to anyone’s understanding of life as a mink farmer, without a voice. . . ” (17).  So, in spite of an assignment that asked him to write seriously about an issue that mattered to him, Joe wrote the paper he thought he was supposed to write, jumping through the academic hoops. 

I’m struck, as I think about Joe, by this: for every Joe, there are many students who switch classes or leave college when they realize that their views and experiences don’t mesh with those of the experts they’re reading for their papers.  Joe had the skill with language and the drive to write around his own views—and get an A.  Many don’t.  Joe is just one we know about because he stayed in school and participated in a study. 

Here’s what Joe and Alex and T. R. remind me: the system that is school can lead to unimaginative, safe, rote behavior—on the part of both student and teacher—the very opposite of what so many of us believe to be scholarship, learning. 

We’re here to recommend play as a way to address the issues raised by Joe and Alex, T. R. Johnson, Nancy Grimm, and others.  We’d like to tell you about our playful pedagogy and several of our practices. 

A Playful Practice
I’ve thought about Joe’s story and Alex’s comment a lot since I first read them.  I’ve thought of Joe especially as I’ve worked with the tutors at our community college writing center.  In meetings, I’ve told his story, and we have asked ourselves important questions: what the hell is it we hope to be accomplishing with writing in college?  Why write?  Why read?  If we in the writing center hope to encourage engaged, active learning, thinking, and writing, what can we do?  How do we invite people like Joe and Alex to tell us of their real experiences and views? 

I want to tell you about one thing we writing center tutors have tried that is helping us as we talk about these things and as we work with writers. 

We play in many ways in the writing center, and I’ll talk more about why in a moment.  One thing we do very deliberately is a kind of writing workshop we call a playshop.  The idea for playshops as we do them comes from the writing center people at Sonoma State University (who call them playshops), from games played on Whose Line is it Anyway? on TV, and from my own experiences in an improvisation class in my community, the same class Brian has been in. 

A playshop at Whatcom Community College is a workshop for the writing center tutors and others: we do it as part of our “tutor training” but invite others to play with us and don’t require anyone to attend.  It is a gathering for people interested in having some fun with their writing.  At a playshop, we write and talk together in joyous ways.  We play games we’ve adapted from Sonoma State people and from the improv class and games we’ve made up.  We remember the joys of writing and reading—and tutoring.  The atmosphere is light-hearted, exciting, chaotic, goofy, and also critical, thoughtful.  A playshop is a place for sharp and surprising insights. 

The Games
Here’s how it works.  We might start by writing “favorite words” and/or phrases and piling the slips of paper in the middle of the tables.  Jibber-jabber.  Donkey Kong.  Bunched up.  Nuts.  Freakin’.  Loaded.  We then pull from the pile and write.  Sometimes we’ll give ourselves an assignment, sometimes not.  Sometimes, people like to start with haiku, something familiar.  Usually, though, we like to say, “no rules!”  We have written dear-John letters, personal ads, epic poems, product ads, movie posters, operating instructions, essays, and writing assignments…. 

We might move from there to some one-word letter-writing.  Each person in the group has a piece of paper in front of her.  She writes the word “Dear” at the top, and passes the paper to the left.  One word at a time, as the papers are passed around the circle, letters are written.  We cannot control them: they go where they go.  We’ve written Dear Santas, Dear Gods, Dear Johns, To Whom It May Concerns, Dear Professor Adamses, Dear Selection Committees, Dear Student Writers, Dear Presidents…. 

We might write captions for pictures we’ve brought in.  We might write assignments for others to do.  We might write personal profiles for characters/authors we make up, for the others to use as they write.  We might write travel brochures or witty lines to use as dialogue or epitaphs or one-line-at-a-time stories or bizarre thesis statements. 

We write fast and happily and thoughtfully, together.  We read our favorite passages and creations aloud and enjoy them together.  We write, read, and listen playfully.  We do, together, some renegade writing.  And I think this writing changes us, and teaches us how to be better readers and tutors. 

Here are some of the results of our play. 

Why playshop?  Why play?
So why do we play, and what does this have to do with those who are writing for college classes?  We playshopping tutors are the ones who sit across the table from Joe and Alex in writing center sessions.  The playshops help us prepare to work with them more effectively and helpfully.  Here is some of my current thinking on the effect of play and playshops in our tutor training. 

Voyage Out
First, play helps us tutors move beyond our typical roles and models.  A tutor “helps” people, right?  A tutor helps students get better grades?  Helps them control and organize their writing?  As you probably know, much of the writing center literature is about how to alter—or open up—this view of our job.  Playing with writing helps us tutors alter our own perceptions, and it does this much better than my little lectures on “what we do and don’t do in the center.” 

In Noise from the Writing Center, Elizabeth Boquet explores ways to encourage tutors, through their training, to “voyage out” in their work: to move beyond the typical models for effective tutoring and writing.  In our experience, playshops help us “voyage out,” in our own thinking and in our tutoring.  On the subject of staff training, Boquet writes: 

[W]hat would a different model for staff education consist of?  How might we develop a model that encourages tutors to “voyage out?”  The different model that I am working toward…is a higher-risk/higher-yield model for writing center work….  This…model asks us to reformulate the question “what (or how much) do tutors need to know?” and to cast it, instead, in more musical terms: how might I encourage this tutor to operate on the edge of his or her expertise?  And, for tutors: where is the groove for this session?  Where’s the place where, together, we will really feel like we’re jammin’ and how do we get there?  Where . . . is there space for play?  (80-81) 

These playshops offer us a unique approach to tutor training, one that moves us toward a “higher-risk/higher-yield model” for tutoring.  They give us opportunities to think about ourselves and our work differently.  The jammin’ groove of the playshops helps us ask what-if instead of what-am-I-supposed-to-do—or what-are-you-supposed to do?   

Imagine the Possibilities
And so play offers us a space in which to think more openly and imaginatively.  I think of Bakhtin’s and others’ views on centripetal and centrifugal thinking during a writing process (they come to me through David Coogan’s book Electronic Writing Centers).  Many tutors prefer the centripetal level, the looking-down-at-the-paper.  Play reminds us to look up, to think big, to dream.  In “Playing with Reality,” Nancy Welch writes about “potential space” in childhood play—it is the child’s blanket that doubles as magic carpet or boat.  Welch asks us to use writing center sessions in a more open and playful way, “as potential space” in which we explore with writers the possibilities.  In our experience at Whatcom, the playshops are a “potential space” for us, where we are open, creative, not afraid to question; through them, we teach ourselves to think about the potential in writing and in our conversations with writers. 

I’ve noticed that looking up from the draft, and thinking of the potential, is a great approach in sessions with students like Joe and Alex Lukic.  When Joe comes in with his animal rights activists paper with which he does not agree, some tutors might discover the contradiction and run from it.  “Well (shrug), if that’s what you really want to do, let’s just check your citation system….”  Instead, if we’re voyaging out, though, thinking playfully, we might stop and have a look at that contradiction, if the writer is willing.  We might look up and ask Joe to tell us more.  We might press him to teach us about his experiences and views.  The “potential space” of the writing center session, according to Welch, gives us a place where we can recognize and use instances of contradiction and discord in the center; our sessions can become “the locus of activity, questioning, and change” (54).  Similarly, Elizabeth Boquet writes about finding ways to celebrate and use noise (or chaos or dissonance) in the writing center.  I think of the dissonance of a student’s belief that “school sucks” or that he just has to bite his lip and write this paper.  Our participation in the playshops equips us to respond to these contradictions (as we might call them) in a more open and playful manner. 

Principles of Improv
Our playing also gives us tutors an opportunity to discuss and rethink the tutoring session itself.  We’ve been noticing how the basic principles of improvisation relate to the writing center conference session.  Say yes, pay attention, make your partner look good, make eye contact, have a good time….  The only “rules” of improv work well as a best-practices list for our sessions with writers.  In our center, which is drop-in only, we sit down with stranger after stranger, and we have to negotiate a way to work effectively with each one quickly: it’s all improv.   Imagine Alex Lukic coming in and sitting down across the table from you, a tutor who has never met him.  He is letting you know, through body language, words, and/or his writing, that he is having to bite his lip.  In the playshop yesterday, you had an hour during which your mantra was “say yes, accept offers, say yes, accept offers.”  You look at Alex, and say yes: please tell me more.  Alex has to let go of his lip in order to tell you.  He might. 

Renegade Rhetors
Most significantly, through play, we tutors begin to think (or return to thinking) of ourselves as renegade rhetors: ones who use words in transgressive, unusual, powerful, pleasurable ways.  I want to speak about the pleasure and the power of renegade rhetorics. 

First, the pleasure.  Johnson argues, in “School Sucks,” that the only pleasure many of us think of in college writing is the pleasure of the completed task, the relief when the writing is done.  Playshops, playful games, improvisational writing all remind us of the joys of writing and reading exciting writing; our playful experiences have reminded us of the unprofessional, the mystery, the pleasure of writing. And having these playshops at school, in the Writing Center, validates playful writing in the academy.   

The pleasures of play might even remind us why we wanted this tutoring job in the first place.  When Johnson speaks of college writing faculty who have lost their enthusiasm as they have taken their place in the academy, I think of tutors, too, and the centers in which they work.   

And herein lies the paradox that perhaps divides our field at its very heart: The enthusiasm and pleasure, the “sensational rush,” that colored our profession when it first began to form are, in a very real sense, unprofessional.  That is, what spurred our rise in the institution and began to solidify us as a profession was a discursive force . . . that explicitly antagonizes both the “professional” and the “institutional” as we now understand them.  Indeed…we…articulated our fledgling insiderhood by banishing renegade themes (pleasure, process) back to the margins…. (629-30) 

I’ve watched tutors and myself—people who generally take great joy in language—get caught up in what to do, what we’re “supposed to do.”  I’ve heard us use our “insider” stances/approaches (in improv language, we take on a “high status” demeanor), in our attempts to appear to be professional to the writers with whom we’re working.  Playful writing gives us direct experience (again?) with that “discursive force” that charms and delights and challenges and knocks us off our professional high horse.  Play helps us make room for the sensational rush of truly stimulating academic scholarship. 

And, finally, the power of renegade rhetorics.  The playshops have helped us rethink the system in which we tutor and write and read.  They have reminded us in a very concrete way that it’s not only okay but a good idea to challenge “the rules” and think outside of the box and enjoy our work.  Nancy Grimm’s reason for telling us the story of Joe is to remind us, especially us writing center people, to critique the modernist system in which writing like this takes place.  Grimm says: 

[W]riting centers are necessary spaces for the critical orientation and contextualization that fosters real learning.  In a social setting saturated with contested meanings and values (like a university campus), . . . students need a space where values can be identified and discussed—where one can orient oneself or . . . construct a cognitive map. . . .  Academics, not known for their sense of humor, do not find it easy to step out of serious character.  Yet writing center work regularly invites us to hold the mirror up close, to see the inadequacies, the pretensions, the wrinkles of practices that previously looked smooth.  In a postmodern culture, we need the ability to shift perspective, to simultaneously entertain multiple points of views.  This regular shifting loosens our loyalty to monocultural values.  (25-6) 

I’ve been interested to see that the writing we’ve done during the playshops regularly bumps up against our public and academic systems, plays with them in order to see them in new ways.  “Renegade” thinking seems to happen naturally when we’re playing.  I’ve seen letters to the President, pieces that poke fun at us tutors for our own preoccupation with punctuation, letters to faculty, stories in which authority figures play a less-than-favorable role.  Play helps us cross boundaries that we want to be able to cross in the writing center, especially if we wish to open doors to intellectual work for non-traditional writers and those with diverse views and backgrounds, like Joe and Alex. 

And while we’re on the subject of disrupting systems, I should give my warning: a word of caution about the dangers of play.  As we all learned in junior high school, play can exclude, divide, harm.   In addition, humor plays with truth, and truth can sting.  My own play at work is designed to include, to improve access and success, to invite all to get excited and to write outside of that box they think they’re supposed to fit into.  However, like so many other powerful and pleasurable activities, play can exclude and hurt.  I must remember this as I play in school. 

The good news is that, by all accounts, the playing that the tutors and I have done so far has been positive.  It has helped us to re-create ourselves as renegade rhetors and rethink this writing-thing as being potentially transgressive, challenging, meaningful.  Not just another hoop to jump through. 

Johnson concludes his article “School Sucks” by discussing a couple of poetry-writing games he uses in his classes, ones that look somewhat like our own playshop games.  I’ll leave you with this quote from Johnson.  These kinds of games, he asserts,  

make the institution more porous—that is, they cut holes in what might otherwise seem an impenetrable monolith of authority and perfection; they create openings, spaces for laughter and play and the pleasures of musical language.  These exercises constitute pathways of transgression, transgressions by which students who can’t imagine having a warm engagement with their own imaginations—much less with each others’—move to an entirely new relation to the institution that has enabled that possibility.  (640)


Works Consulted and Cited

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

Coogan, David.  Electronic Writing Centers: Computing the Field of Composition. Stamford, CT: Ablex, 1999.

Grimm, Nancy Maloney.  Good Intentions: Writing Center Work for Postmodern Times.  Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Boynton/Cook, 1999.

Johnson, T. R.  “School Sucks.”  College Composition and Communication 52 (2001): 620-650. 

Johnstone, Keith.  Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre.  New York: Routledge, 1979. 

Lochman, Daniel.  “Play and Game: Implications for the Writing Center.”  The Writing Center Journal 10.1 (1989): 11-18.  

Welch, Nancy.  “Playing with Reality.”  College Composition and Communication 51 (1999): 51-69.


Funded through the U.S. Dept. of Education, Title III Grant PO31A980143
Sherri Winans, Whatcom Community College, Bellingham, WA