Case Study #2: Analyzing Action and Agency in the Writing Center with Spinuzzi and Latour

In my first case study which used Foucault’s archaeological method to analyze the writing center, I was able to focus on the discursive writing center, thinking about the ideal writing center versus actual local practices, therefore, examining the network of scholarship, ideas, and practices of writing centers. This method was very helpful for this big picture approach, but not as useful for considering the network of a specific, local writing center. This current case study will explore the uses of Clay Spinuzzi’s and Bruno Latour’s theories, which focus much more on action and activity, allowing for a focus on a specific center. Thus, for this case study I will narrow my object of study down to the specific writing center that I coordinate.

Figure 1. Figure from Spinuzzi p. 134
Figure 1. Figure from Spinuzzi p. 134

I will first focus on Spinuzzi, examining how this theory defines a network and what the nodes of this network would be with my object of study. Spinuzzi examines networks as a whole made up of activities dictated by 6 nodes: 1) instruments, 2) objects & outcomes, 3) division of labor, 4) community, 5) domain knowledge,  and 6) collaborators. He gives examples of an activity system(figure 1). Using his template, I attempted to map the activity system of my writing center (figure 2). For the writing center, I found my conception of “instruments” deviating from Spinuzzi’s simply because there is not a specific program that is part of the main activity. We do have an appointment system that enables students to make an appointment and submit an appointment form detailing what they would like to work on, but the bulk of the activity of this writing center takes place in the face-to-face discussion between tutor and student.

Figure 2. Writing Center Activity System Network
Figure 2. Writing Center Activity System Network












The instruments I identified (appointment form, assignment prompt, and tutor handbook) are objects that help set the course for what will take place during a session based on the needs of the student (appointment form), the parameters of the assignment (assignment prompt), and the practices of the tutor (tutor handbook). Interestingly, these instruments may actually work against each other instead of with each other, making the objectives and outcomes more difficult to achieve, creating what Spinuzzi labels “destabilization.” For example, a student may state proofreading as the chosen focus for a session; however, the tutor sees that the student has not met the parameters of the assignment and her training has emphasized focusing on higher order concerns before lower order concerns, so she tries to focus the session on organization or content development.

Spinuzzi’s broad network of activity systems is ultimately made up of nodes of actions. Spinuzzi offers three levels of scope for analysis of these actions: macroscopic, mesoscopic, and microscopic. Thus different nodes are situated at different scope levels within the network. The actions within a writing tutoring session can be mapped onto this diagram.

Figure 3. Levels of Scope of Writing Tutoring Actions
Figure 3. Levels of Scope of Writing Tutoring Actions










Actions at the microscopic level are habitual and unconscious. Actions at the mesoscopic level are goal-directed and conscious. Actions at the macroscopic are cultural-historical and unconscious (Spinuzzi 45). Thus, Spinuzzi provides a helpful framework for distinguishing different levels of action within an activity. 

However, the writing center is often home to more activities than just what happen within a tutoring session. In Peripheral Visions, Jackie Grutch McKinney tackles what she calls the “grand narratives” of writing centers, demonstrating how they can misrepresent or pigeonhole our work. One of these grand narratives is that  “writing centers tutor (all students).” She highlights that because of this grand narrative and the equation of writing center=tutoring,  “other non-tutoring activities—websites, videos , blogs, newsletters, podcasts, in-class introductions, workshops, and writing groups” are excluded from the definition of a writing center and the work that it does (76). While Spinuzzi’s three level framework works well for mapping the actions within a single activity of the writing center, it is less helpful in mapping the various activities going on within a writing center during the course of a day, a semester, a year, etc.

For Latour, the network is not whole, but a series of ever changing parts. He claims, “the network does not designate a thing out there that would have roughly the shape of interconnected points, much like a telephone, a freeway, or a sewage ‘network’. It is nothing more than an indicator of the quality of a text about the topics at hand. It qualifies its objectivity, that is, the ability of each actor to make other actors do unexpected things” (129). In Latour’s network, nodes are actors/actants that have the ability to affect action. He offers this definition of actors/actats: “anything that does modify a state of affairs by making a difference is an actor–or, if it has no figuration yet, an actant” (71). Therefore, in the writing center, actors/actants include the tutor, student, writing center director, assignment prompt, student essay, handbook, computer, pen, chair, etc. All of these people and objects impact the actions that occur within the center. Previous writing center scholarship has examined the role of various objects in the center. For example, in the article “Leaving Home Sweet Home: Towards Critical Readings of Writing Center Spaces” McKinney highlights objects that are frequently noted as being present in writing centers and the signification of those objects:

Writing center spaces tend to be marked with particular objects to achieve a certain mood, serve specific purposes, or send a particular message to those who use the space. Having couches or photos or coffee pots is an effort to construct a space different from classrooms and other impersonal institutional spaces. An unintended result, however, might be that these objects become prescriptions for these spaces; to be legible– to be read– as a “writing center,” a space needs to have a particular array of objects. And because many writing center professionals seem to be operating under the tacitly accepted notion that writing centers should be welcoming, cozy, comfortable, friendly spots where talk about writing can happen, one prescription wins out: writing centers should be like home. What’s striking, then, is how the design of so many writing centers, despite differences in location, size, mission, population served, staff, and so forth, is governed by this metaphor of home (McKinney 7)

McKinney is discussing the semiotic function of the objects–what message they are meant to convey about the identity of the center. Latour’s notion of objects as actors, however, is not concerned with their semiotic function, but their literal role in a network of action.

In Latour’s network, nodes are interconnected in contributing to action, but this does not mean that there is necessarily a causal connection. Latour claims, “When a force manipulates another, it does not mean that it is a cause generating effects; it can also be an occasion for other things to start acting” (60). Latour gives a wonderful example of the various people and objects involved in scallop fishing: “Scallops make the fishermen do things just as nets placed in the oceans lure the scallops into attaching themselves to the nets and just as data collectors bring together fishermen and scallops in oceanography” (107). Latour demonstrates how people and objects mutually influence each other. This notion can also be seen when thinking about how the presence or lack of presence of an object in a writing tutoring session may impact the action that occurs within it. For example, a writing tutoring session using a computer will unfold differently that one using a pen and paper. These objects obviously dictate different mechanical actions (typing versus hand writing), but they may even have a larger impact. In 1987, an issue of the Writing Center Journal focused specifically on the use of the new technology of computers within the center. Pamela B. Farrell’s article focused specifically on the difference between sessions using a computer and those that did not. From her interviews with tutors and students she concluded, “they see the computer acting as a third party or neutral ground, encouraging collaboration, giving immediate feedback and ease of revision, inviting more writing, opening dialogue between writer and tutor, acting as a learning device, and giving writers pride in their work” (Farrell 29). To demonstrate this she included an excerpt from one of her tutors:

There’s a big difference because when iťs [the writing is] on the screen, . . . you’re both looking at it . . . you can both look for errors and not feel that it’s the student’s paper, because you are both looking to fix the printout on the screen. . . . It’s a third party. . . . when you have a class look for grammatical errors, it’s much easier if it’s someone else’s writing or something that’s not close to you. The screen sort of gives you some distance” (Farrell 30)

Here Farrell and her student are talking about the computer both as a semiotic and as action-influencing object. The computer makes the student and tutor interact differently than they would with a hard copy because of the distance it provides.

Another writing center example comes in thinking about the impact of something like a table within the writing center space. The physical shape of the table can have an impact on the action of a writing conference. For example, in their examination of desks and tables within the workplace, Lisa Conrad and Nancy Richter show how a particular table shape can set the ethos and expectations of the environment:

At a round table, agreement is presupposed to such an extent that the table itself turns into its signifier. The round table appears to already anticipate the outcome of the interlocution held and can hence be seen as a rhetorical form or – following Bruno Latour – as a non-human actor, as something actively constraining the amount of possibilities of what is happening on a table. It advances comprehension not only because it is the intended result, but also through its materiality that seems to constitute comprehension already in itself: it leads to the situation that a group of people is gathered around a table, there is no head and no end, every member appears equal and equally important in creating a certain integrity. (Conrad and Richter 123)

This example shows how an object can function semiotically and rhetorically, and also impact actions. My writing center does not have round tables, but there are different table shapes and arrangements that can shape action. For example, if a tutor and student work at the table shown in Figure 4, the square shape necessitates that they sit on different sides of the table and thus work at a 90° angle, while tutors and students working at either of the tables in Figure 5 will be side by side. These different configurations will necessitate different actions such as the placement movement of a student’s text within the session. Latour’s theory highlights the impact of seemingly simple non-human actors within a network.

Figure 4. Square table at the VWC Writing Center
Figure 4. Square table at the VWC Writing Center
Figure 5. Rectangular tables at the VWC Writing Center
Figure 5. Rectangular tables at the VWC Writing Center

Both Spinuzzi’s and Latour’s theories are interested in agency. Spinuzzi’s whole project is grounded in a desire to return agency to workers and create a framework that does not position them as victims of systems and designers as the heroes who rescue them. Agency in Spinuzzi’s genre tracing method is thus granted to human actors within the network, with objects and programs serving as constraints to this agency. For Latour though, agency is conceived of very differently. Latour claims, “agencies are always presented in an account as doing something, that is, making some difference to a state of affairs, transforming some As into Bs through trials with Cs” (53). Thus, anything that impacts action, whether intentionally or not, has agency. In thinking back to examples above of objects within the writing center then, in Spinuzzi’s theory a computer or a table does not have agency, but are constraints on the human nodes of the network (tutor and student) who do and should have agency. In Latour, however, the computer and table are actors with agency just like the tutor and student. These differing notions of agency also impact the differences in movement within the networks of these theories. For Spinuzzi, the movement comes from moving away from the victimhood framework and granting human workers with more agency. The unofficial genres of workers are highlighted and studied as opposed to only being seen as the evidence of a design problem that needs to be fixed. Thus workers are moved back within the network as opposed to being on the periphery with little agency. In Spinuzzi’s methodological foundation, new networks emerge and networks evolve as new actions and activity systems are enacted by the people within them. Thus new networks are formed within the writing center when new methods or strategies are introduced into a tutoring session or the center embarks on a totally new activity like a drop-in portfolio workshop for first-year composition (an activity that has been very successful the last few semesters at my writing center).

For Latour, movement occurs for both human and non-human actors. Latour presents the concepts of intermediaries and mediators. An Intermediary “transports meaning or force without transformation” while mediators “transform, translate, distort, and modify the meaning or the elements they are supposed to carry” (39). Movement within the network comes from the shift from mediators to intermediaries and vice versa. Latour suggests, “Objects, by the very nature of their connections with humans, quickly shift from being mediators to being intermediaries, counting for one or nothing, no matter how internally complicated they might be. This is why specific tricks have to be invented to make them talk, that is, to offer descriptions of themselves, to produce scripts of what they are making others–humans or non-humans–do” (79). What Latour is highlighting is that movement within the network is often invisible. We often don’t notice that objects are transforming and impacting actions within a network with us. So though this movement may not always be visible, new networks emerge from this shift from mediator to intermediary or from intermediary to mediator. For example, the computer can shift from decoration, to screen display of a piece of writing tutor, to citation resource–it’s meaning is transformed in how it is used. However, the computer itself also dictates what actions can be undertaken by the student and tutor interacting with it. 

Ultimately the value of both Spinuzzi’s activity theory and Latour’s actor-network theory is that they work well for the analysis of a specific writing center. Spinuzzi’s levels of scope provide a helpful framework for conceptualizing different actions within writing center activities; however, as mentioned above, these levels of scope are not as helpful for mapping the various activities that are part of a writing center. Additionally, Spinuzzi’s goal of moving beyond a victimhood framework seems apt for writing centers since in our literature many participants are often characterized as victims: directors are often cast as victims of misconceptions about writing centers from colleagues (consider North’s frustration driving “The Ideas of a Writing Center”), tutors as victims of misconceptions about writing centers from students and professors, and students as victims of their professors, their own lack of knowledge, or language ideologies/racism/classism. Spinuzzi’s interest in all participants in a system having agency seems very valuable for writing center analysis. Latour’s theory is helpful for thinking about how objects impact the writing center. So many writing centers are an actual physical place and therefore filled with physical objects. It’s important to consider how those objects interact with the people in this space and how those interactions lead to specific actions. What actor-network-theory cannot account for though are the impacts of non-physical things within the writing center. Actor-network-theory cannot help me think about how things like memory or emotions impact the actions within a writing center. This is important to consider because at times it can seem like ANT is all encompassing since it contains both humans and non-humans. However, no theory can encompass all possible nodes or aspects of a network.


Conrad, Lisa and Nancy Richter. “Materiality at Work: A note on Desks.” ephemera: theory & politics in organization 13.1 (2013): 117-136

Farrell, Pamela B. “Writer, Peer Tutor, and the Computer: A Unique Relationship.” The Writing Center Journal 8.1 (1987): 29-33.

Latour, Bruno. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

McKinney, Jackie Grutch. “Leaving Home Sweet Home.” The Writing Center Journal 25.2 (2005): 6-20.

—.Peripheral Visions for Writing Centers. Logan, Utah State University Press, 2013.

North, Stephen. “The Idea of a Writing Center” College English. 46.5 (1984): 433-446.

Spinuzzi, Clay. Tracing Genres Through Organizations: A Sociocultural Approach to Information Design. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2003.


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