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Metaphors for a Charitable Writing Center

I have a confession to make. On day one of Writing Center training, I learned to avoid the metaphor of a “fix-it shop” when describing my job. But I still find myself saying things like “I help people fix things that don’t work in their papers” when I’m explaining the Writing Center to other people.

Richard Gibson and Jim Beitler’s 2020 book Charitable Writing addresses a similar challenge with metaphors. Dr. Gibson and Dr. Beitler, both of Wheaton’s English Department, observe that when we’re writing we usually speak of argument as a kind of war—something you can win, lose, attack, or defend. They note the drawbacks of this metaphor, but they don’t stop there. Instead, they offer a new model: argument as a feast.

In the spirit of that feast, I’ll dish up a few alternative metaphors we can use to describe writing centers. The first is the writing center as a bodega, and the second is the writing center as a frontera. I suggest that in a writing center consultation, we, the consultants, are guests at someone else’s feast, so we should follow the borderlands custom of bringing a small gift and celebrating what the writer has shared with us.

Writing center metaphors we live by

Charitable Writing calls us to consider how the metaphors we choose to describe writing might help or hinder our spiritual formation. In chapter 6, “On Argument,” Dr. Gibson and Dr. Beitler draw on George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s book Metaphors We Live By to examine our understanding of argument.

Most people use war metaphors to describe how they write and argue—such as “I destroyed her argument!” But Dr. Gibson and Dr. Beitler point out how this paradigm “dehumanize[s]” other writers. Instead of writing to cultivate virtue, we write to prove dominance over someone else.

The authors address this issue in chapter 8, “Charitable Writing as Love’s Banquet,” by inviting us to picture the practice of writing as a feast. To help us visualize their point, they include a painting by Mexican-Swedish-American artist John August Swanson that depicts a lively crowd at the wedding at Cana eating all sorts of foods, from corn on the cob to pan dulce. The authors argue that when we write, we are a guest at this banquet in the company of all the other writers who have gone before us.

One of the strengths of the feast metaphor is its emphasis on “writing [as] a social practice”—the idea that no one writes in isolation, but rather in a lively community of writers.

When we write, we need to recognize ourselves as guests, too, who owe debts of gratitude to those who have come before us and out of whose provision we build our arguments.

Gibson and Beitler 113

Writing center metaphors we live by

Photo by Maxim Selyuk on Unsplash

Stephen North’s essay “The Idea of a Writing Center” identifies two prominent writing center metaphors: the “fix-it shop” and “first aid.” North was writing in the 1980s, but as I’ve said before, I find myself using these metaphors all the time. It’s so easy to speak of my work as “fixing” someone’s paper or “diagnosing” problems.

But these metaphors imply that the student’s paper is deficient, a broken machine or a sick body needing expert help from a writing consultant. That’s not how we want students to think about themselves and their work. So instead, North proposes that we imagine the consultant as a “participant-observer,” to borrow a term from anthropology. Like the anthropologist, consultants participate in and observe the “ritual of writing.”

Thanks to my sister, an anthropology major, I’d heard of this methodology and could understand North’s point. But this metaphor doesn’t help me explain my job to family and friends who don’t know what participant observation is. Can we come up with a more concrete metaphor to describe writing center work?

The writing center as bodega or frontera

Photo by Mehrad Vosoughi on Unsplash

I’ve encountered two metaphors that can help us move away from these less constructive ones.

 The bodega model. Nancy Effinger Wilson’s article “Stocking the Bodega: Towards a New Writing Center Paradigm” proposes that we imagine the writing center as a bodega, or local corner store. Unlike a “one-size-fits-all” big-box store, the bodega is both local and global in its scope. It sources goods from all over the world to cater to its local clientele. It provides a place for diverse communities to gather, and it never prescribes homogeneity or assimilation for its guests. So a bodega-style writing center can:

  • “adjust quickly and deftly to [the] local needs” of the student body when it decides which methods to adopt;
  • champion “panethnicity and heteroglossia” in writing styles; and
  • emphasize the social aspects of the writing process.

The frontera model.¹ In Spanish, the word for border, frontera, connotes a three-dimensional space instead of a two-dimensional line. You could easily translate it as “borderlands,” as Gloria Anzaldúa does in the title of her famous book. So the frontera becomes a place of meeting , a place that in its best form can foster growth and creativity.² 

For this reason, Carol Severino (quoted in Beatrice Méndez Newman) writes that “the writing center’s mission is a borderland one.” She encourages us to imagine the writing center as a third space between academic institutions and students. The writing center as a frontera can:

  • “help students articulate the cultural and rhetorical similarities and differences they observe and confront”;
  • facilitate the exploration of “intersecting and clashing cultures, languages, literacies, discourses, and disciplines”;
  • become an “agent for access” that bridges gaps between institutions and students, especially marginalized students (Méndez Newman).

The main thing I like about these metaphors is that they’re tangible and immediate. They compare the writing center to real places where real things happen. But neither metaphor gets too specific about what we can do in these places. My answer? We can feast.

Bodega fare, frontera feast

Let’s extend the feasting framework from Dr. Gibson and Dr. Beitler. If writing is like a feast, then in a writing consultation, we as consultants get invitations to someone else’s feast.³ For someone who loves eating as much as I do, this makes me excited. But what does it have to do with bodegas and fronteras?

In a class I took to prepare to study abroad, Dr. Klingler told us that if we receive a dinner invitation in Mexico, we should be sure to bring along a small gift for the host. Of course, this isn’t only a Mexican tradition—my Salvadoran dad always grabs a bottle of wine before we leave the house, and our Canadian friends rarely show up at our door without a salad. But it feels fitting to refer to the Mexican custom because of the images from Latino cultures we’ve considered already.

In the writing process, the student writer prepares their feast together with each source they’ve cited, each friend who’s looked over their paper, each writing teacher they’ve had. And they’re inviting us into that feast with them. So let’s be good guests and follow the custom of the frontera: bringing a small gift with us. To get that gift, we can stop at the bodega of writing center pedagogy to find something that exactly fits the student’s needs.

Actually, we can bring several gifts: our attention, interest, listening, questions, and advice. But the important thing to remember is that whatever we bring is a box of candy from the bodega compared to the four-course meal they’re putting together. For that, as Dr. Gibson and Dr. Beitler said, we owe them our gratitude.

And we owe our thanks, too, to the Wheaton Writing Center administrators, First Year Writing instructors, writing center scholars, our fellow consultants, and even previous writers on this blog. They’ve generously stocked our bodega with goods that can make us better guests.

Conclusion

Just as Dr. Gibson and Dr. Beitler search for new metaphors for the task of writing, so we at the Writing Center should also seek new metaphors for our work. At the frontera, you’d bring a small gift with you to a dinner party. At the frontera of the Writing Center, you can bring the small gift of your consulting to the already bountiful feast of a client’s writing assignment.

Of course, these are only a few ideas for new writing center metaphors. If you have others you find more palatable, you’re welcome to adopt them instead, and I’d love to hear about them. But if you find these metaphors nourishing, I’m grateful to you, and I invite you to tuck in. ¡Buen provecho!


Notes:

  1. If we choose to adopt this model, let’s not do so lightly. Legal scholar Margaret Montoya writes: “As we deploy the border as a metaphor, we need to remember that for many people throughout the world crossing borders is not cognitive or rhetorical; border crossings can be life-risking and life-losing endeavors.” Charitable, just writing centers must not consider imagined borders without considering people at the physical borders of our countries.
  2. The insights in this paragraph come from Dr. Nestor Quiroa’s Latino Cultures in the US class. ¡Muchas gracias, Profe Quiroa!
  3. Gibson and Beitler say that God is the true host of every writing feast. I don’t dispute that, but in the context of a writing consultation, a student has directly invited a consultant into their writing process. I’d like to expand the metaphor to include the writer as a secondary host.

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