In The Archaeology of Knowledge, Michel Foucault articulates a methodology that counters the history of ideas, which seeks linearity and continuity within discourse, with one focused on moments of discontinuity and disunity. This methodology, which Foucault labels archaeology, presents an interesting theoretical framework to examine writing centers. This theory takes what appears to be a coherent whole and breaks it into pieces, examining what rules constitute the grouping of the disparate pieces. Foucault claims, “What one must characterize and individualize is the coexistence of the dispersed and heterogeneous statements; the system that governs their division, the degree to which they depend on upon another, the way in which they interlock or exclude one another, the transformation that they undergo, and the play of their location, arrangement, and replacement” (34). Thus a Foucauldian analysis of writing centers examine the various pieces that make up the idea of a writing center.
In Foucauldian theory, the smallest piece for analysis is the statement. Essentially, statements are ideologies. When analyzing writing centers as a network, one level of nodes then are statements making up the idea of a writing center. As I see it, there are five core statements making up a writing center: it is a place, it focuses on writing, its purpose is to make better writers as opposed to better writing, it uses peer collaboration and this collaboration relies on minimalist tutoring strategies. The first two statements are inherent in the name writing center, and the final three come from foundational texts of the field: Stephen North’s “The Idea of a Writing Center,” Kenneth Bruffee’s “Peer Tutoring and the ‘Conversation of Mankind,’” and Jeff Brooks’ “Minimalist Tutoring: Making the Students Do All the Work.” All of these statements create a picture of what a writing center is or should be.
Another layer of nodes in this network is the actual practices of real writing centers. Many of these practices might actually be in contrast or conflict with the ideal statements. For example, not all writing center work takes place in a centralized location, with some taking place over the web or in various locations on a campus including the classroom itself. Additionally, some writing centers have a wider scope or broader definition of writing, supporting students with oral speeches, reading and/or multimedia projects. Sometimes the focus of a session may be focused on the specific detail of a specific assignment as opposed to the goal of strengthening the skills or knowledge of the writer. In addition, not all writing tutors are peers. Finally, sometimes directive methods are used and are more appropriate and effective for the tutoring situation then minimalist, non-directive ones. Thus, the writing center network is made up of nodes of ideal practices, which form an inner core of statements establishing the lore of the writing center, and actual practices, which constitute peripheral statements.
Within this network, there are several types of relationships. Foucault establishes that statements are always related to one another: “there is no statement in general, no free, neutral, independent statement; but a statement always belongs to a series or a whole, always plays a role among other statements, deriving support from them and distinguishing itself from them: it is always part of a network of statements, in which it has a role, however minimal it may be, to play” (99). So there is a relationship between the five ideal statements, each informing the other. Additionally, each actual practice is connected to an ideal practice which it is either in unity with or in contrast with. The actual practices are also interconnected, with one practice’s relationship to its ideal often impacting other actual practices within a center and this their relationship with/to their ideal practices.
While I’m not sure exactly how to talk about the agency of the nodes since they are ideas and practices, there is a clear distinction in authority between the two types of nodes. The ideal statements are authorized as what a writing center ideally should be, while actual practices might be authorized at a local level (i.e. “This is what we do at our writing center”) but they are not authorized to be understood as the practices of the field. This notion can really be seen in Jennifer Nicklay’s article “Got Guilt? Consultant Guilt in the Writing Center Community” which discusses the guilt tutors can feel when they don’t use nondirective methods in a session, even if they have been told that flexibility in approach is appropriate. This guilt derives from the sense that nondirective methods are authorized and the ideal. This notion of authority also shapes how information travels within the network. As practices move from the internal ideals to the more peripheral local practices, these practices lose the authority that comes from aligning with the lore of the field.
Because this network exists as the network between ideal practices and practices of actual writing centers, the network emerges and grows as new writing centers with specific local circumstances that drive their practices help define what a writing center is. Additionally, as local circumstances on a campus change, the practices of its writing center are also likely to change, evolving the writing center network.
Foucault’s archaeological methodology is excellent for exploring the question of how or why writing centers that have widely divergent practices all still fall under the umbrella of writing center. As the five core statements of writing centers continue to be pushed against, evolved, or challenged, Foucault’s methodology encourages us to look for rules which allow these disparate statements to coexist within the writing center network. Thus, this theoretical framework is great for analyzing distinct writing centers within the ideals of the field; however, since this theory puts emphasis on statements as nodes, this theory does not really touch on all the different people and texts that create a network of an individual writing center. Yet, with writing centers undergoing rapid changes due to technology evolutions and new administrative infrastructure patterns, an analysis that explores why or how a local site of tutoring is or is not considered a writing center is key for this evolving field.
Brooks, Jeff. “Minimalist Tutoring: Making the Students Do All the Work. The Writing Lab Newsletter 15.6 (1991): 1-4.
Bruffee, Kenneth. “Peer Tutoring and ‘The Conversation of Mankind.’” Writing Centers: Theory and Administration. Ed. G. A Olsen. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 1984. 3-15.
Foucault, Michel. The Archaeology of Knowledge. 1969. Trans. A.M. Sheridan Smith. New York: Vintage Books, 2010.
Nicklay, Jennifer. “Got guilt? Consultant Guilt in the Writing Center Community.” The Writing Center Journal 32.1 (2012): 14-27.
North, Stephen. “The Idea of a Writing Center. College English 46.5 (1984): 433-446.