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Something is rotten in the Writing Center

Page history last edited by PBworks 12 years, 11 months ago

In early October, I found my self.

 

I don’t normally care if my own socks match, let alone whether or not conflict exists in my surroundings. So when the director of Penn State’s Center for Excellence in Writing, Jon Olson (my employer and mentor of the past two and a half years), mentioned that some officials in Old Main wanted us to take down a few simple decorations in our Boucke headquarters, I was surprised to find myself feeling something along the lines of a desire to initiate change.

 

220 Boucke Building has always been a "sacred" space in which the individual art of writing is the object of reverence. However, our space has recently been violated. This past summer, some of our superiors decided that the Center had become aesthetically "cluttered," and that we needed to do some remodeling. All of our original furniture was moved out and replaced with plastic blue chairs and grey round tables, and all of our wall and ceiling decorations were deemed "unprofessional" and hence taken down. While I sympathize with the concerns about visual professionalism, I worry that the new, somewhat sterile ambience is counterproductive to the collaborative values we work so hard to promote.

 

After witnessing this whitewashing, we, the tutors, put together a small collaborative rebellion in the form of redecoration. We kept our superiors’ worries in mind, understanding that completely undoing their vision would risk us being stripped of any power we had left over our own space. However, our director, a few other tutors, and I got together one Thursday night and hung posters, tutor self-portraits, and flags of different ethnic and religious backgrounds in order to inject some personality back into the WC. We were in Boucke Building until 1 AM hanging decorations, listening to Bob Marley, and putting a piece of our hearts into the space we admittedly have grown to love.

 

 

Our new decor blended professionalism with creativity, and we were proud of our ability to express our values as an organization while still keeping the necessary level of conformity in mind. But our enthusiasm came to a screeching halt when our director revealed that our superiors had seen our new decorations and thought that "the idea was good, but poorly executed." The posters are allowed to stay up, but the self-portraits and flags have to be removed. Even though we were conscious of neatness and decorum when hanging the aforementioned decorations, our critics insist that they are somehow exclusionary and hinder diversity.

 

The primary concern about the flags and self-portraits seems to revolve around an assumption that student writers will feel overwhelmed by the WC's aesthetic personality, and thus feel excluded from our community. This logic, while certainly valid on some level, diminishes the value of tutors' and writers' individuality. I think the idea of a safe harbor to express ideas is key to the visual and atmospheric success of the collaborative learning environment. And it seems to me that a safe space, by emphasizing the presence of diversity in its existing community of tutors, would encourage writers to express a diversity of their own. Those who are opposed to our hanging the self-portraits and flags feel as though maintaining "sterility" will be more conducive to tutees' writing process; that is, we would encourage freedom of expression by expressing nothing at all ourselves. However, sterility is completely incongruous with inclusiveness; sterility implies the presence of privilege, since the presence of nothing at all still symbolizes the presence of something. By having a “blank slate” writing environment, we divide academics from the “self”; if our “selves” as tutors don’t matter, then we’re saying that the writers’ selves don’t matter either.

 

My initial resentment towards those who seek to modify the Writing Center aesthetic has taken me on a semester-long journey through the meaning of sacred spaces. In this class, we’ve mostly dealt with sacred texts. Being an English major and (like Mobius) a self-proclaimed language geek, I’m surprised that my final project isn’t more inclined towards a rhetorical textual analysis. However, my life has been a perpetual battle with apathy, so when something sparks a creative explosion in me, I have to take advantage of it.

Trying to preserve collaboration and the “self” in the sacred Writing Center space was my goal at the outset of this expedition. But as I weeded through definitions, research, and shots of espresso, I began thinking that maybe there are no answers to the question, “How can we build the ultimate sacred space for writing?” I’m not going to pretend that you or I will make any solid conclusions from reading this. Maybe I’m just too lazy to tease my arguments out all the way to the bitter end. However, if you’re as easily pleased as I am, maybe you too can find some solace in the words of emaciated, rock-blues fusion aficionado Steven Tyler, who once said: Life’s a journey, not a destination.

 

Try to read the following as the “captain’s log” of my sacred space adventure.

 

***

 

Defining the Sacred and the Self

 

As a language geek, I’m unable to take repeated terminology in anything I write for granted. So if I’m going to be working through the presence of the “self” in the “sacred,” I need to define the two terms. For the sake of my sanity, I’m going to use Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th Edition). Yes, I know this makes whatever definition I use the product of old privileged white guys, but that’s another 15-page paper altogether.

 

 

 

Sacred (adj.) 1 a: dedicated or set apart for the service or worship of a deity b: devoted exclusively to one service or use (as of a person or purpose) 2 a: worthy of religious veneration b: entitled to reverence and respect 3: of or relating to religion : not secular or profane 4 archaic 5 a: unassailable, inviolable b: highly valued and important

 

Interestingly “self” in Merriam Webster’s has a rather elusive definition. The dictionary describes it as an intensive pronoun (although it can also be used as an adjective/prefix), provides examples of its use in sentences, but never really quite gets around to saying what the “self” is.

 

Not having a solid meaning of “self” to work with makes reconciling the term with “sacred” a little bit tricky. However, it does point to an intriguing animosity towards the “self” in the academic. The dictionary provides extensive explanations of “science,” “school,” “mathematics,” etc., but can only squeeze out a measly 3 lines when challenged to pinpoint the meaning of something as widespread as the “self.”

 

While Merriam, Webster, and the other dead language guys don’t give me a definition of “self,” I’m going to define it as “I.” Why? To use the rhetorical tactics of Joe Paterno (cited repeatedly in class), because I said so.

 

So one of the challenges is finding the “I” in the “sacred.” If the Writing Center is sacred, the focus of its devotion is the written word. The problem then becomes bringing the “self” into an environment where the constant ritual is articulating language on paper.

 

***

 

The Sacred Writual

 

It’s incredibly ironic that I used a dictionary definition in an essay on bringing the “self” back to writing. I’ve contradicted myself already. Bloody hell.

 

Ignoring my rhetorical inadequacy, I want to dwell briefly on the idea of writing as sacred. Language is power in our society—power used for lots of bad reasons, but power nonetheless. Words are a vital means of communication, and communication is self-expression. If words are self-expression, and writing is putting words on paper, then why do we feel the need to eliminate the “self” from something that is “self-expressive” by definition?

 

Descartes felt like the subjectivity of the “self” threatened the foundations of reality, and this fearful philosophy seems to be what most Western education is based on. A self-versus-environment binary rules our lives as learners: the individual is a palate to absorb knowledge, and can only create based on preexisting information. Derrida, Bordo, Irigaray, and countless other theorists have tried to break down Cartesian dualism, but quoting them would only reaffirm the belief that the most valuable writing is that which is founded on previously written arguments. I’m certainly not advocating a complete disconnect between “selves,” but rather, a recognition of the validity of all selves, not just those who have earned copyright symbols next to their writings. “Selves” should be used for collaboration, not absorption and regurgitation.

 

The university setting often abuses writing as a method of enforcing guidelines. Not only do students (including myself) regurgitate other people’s interpretations and conclusions in their writings, but they also base success on predetermined standards of writing itself. Professors write grading rubrics based on university guidelines based on communication norms based on rhetorical “rights” and “wrongs” created by… who knows? The cycle never ends.

 

Writing and language should be self-expressive, but are nonetheless prone to becoming vehicles for expressing other people’s standards. We battle with this at the Writing Center every day. Writers leave tutorials often satisfied with the collaborative revisions made to their work, and return dejected because they haven’t achieved the ultimate success of an A. Continuing to urge writers to be their own best critics is difficult, but in spite of this, we still work to preserve the significance of the “self” in written self-expression.

 

To perform the sacred writual, we deserve a sacred space. If we want to promote the “self” in writing, we want an environment that represents our first-person pedagogy.

 

Many might argue that the “self” doesn’t belong in the “sacred.” However, in my journey through sacred spaces, I found two compelling examples of sacred spaces that blatantly incorporate the importance of the individual into the sanctity of their faiths.

 

***

 

Hallowed Graffiti: Aboriginal Australia’s Uluru

 

Uluru is a monolith (a.k.a. a big f---ing rock) located in Australia’s Northern Territory, the heart of the Outback. White Australian colonizers came upon it during their conquest and renamed it “Ayer’s Rock,” but originally, the indigenous Pitjantjatjara people named it and gave it great spiritual significance. Many legends are associated with this formation and how it came to be; overall, it exists as an object of reverence and, through climbing, an opportunity for a right of passage for young indigenous men.

 

Aboriginal religion, unlike many Western faiths, does not seek to divide the human “self” from nature. Their body of religious texts (mostly oral tradition) almost constantly dwells on explaining characteristics of the natural world and their moral applicability and significance to human life. Uluru is one such natural formation that spurred many of these tales.

 

If you ever have the chance to explore Uluru, as I have been fortunate enough to do, you will notice man-made drawings in many caves and crevaces in the rock. Markings like these reinforce their belief that the “self” is intertwined with its natural surroundings. Indigenous Australians as individuals have the agency to modify their sacred spaces, because they are not parasites of these spaces. They are a part of them, and therefore, a part of the sacred ideas the spaces represent and revere.

 

 

 

 

 

***

 

I, Jesus: The Catholic Church Aesthetic

 

Roman Catholicism epitomizes the lofty, inaccessible, conventional view of the sacred-minus-self. People envision hordes of conservatively-dressed churchgoers bowing their heads en masse during their stuffy Sunday rituals, completely stripped of their identity and forced to obey a bearded, unmerciful God. But most of the criticism of this detached conformity fails to make sense of the most significant part of the Catholic church’s aesthetic: the crucifix.

 

 

 

Prominently displayed above the altar, the crucifix depicts Christ’s death upon the cross—a symbol of mankind’s redemption in exchange for selfless devotion to God. Selflessness is undoubtedly a key term here; if Christ’s self-sacrifice was out of complete obedience to God, then his “self” may not really matter at all. However, the implication of “self-sacrifice” reminds us that Christ was half-human. While God’s will certainly had power over him, he nonetheless was capable of exercising the free will of the “self.” Christ becomes an embodiment of the first-person…a reminder that the “self” can have a lasting impact on the sacred.

 

A major element of Catholicism is that worshipping anyone or anything besides God is sinful. Although Christ is part of God through the Trinity, he still remains at least partially human. Therefore, the church’s aesthetic places Christ in a place of importance even though he is not the primary object of worship. The prevalence of Christ’s image in the church environment thus represents the importance of at least one individual in the Catholic religion, implying that despite all of the preexisting texts and commandments, a single man can impact the sacred through his “self.”

 

***

 

In my humble, sacred opinion…

 

If the sacred includes the self, and writing is a product of the self, then the sacred and writing are mutually inclusive. I’m all for the separation of church and state in the name of preventing oppression. But sometimes, keeping the sacred out of academia inhibits the blossoming of the self. The Writing Center’s décor provoked controversy mainly because of the presence of religious symbolism in some of the flags and tapestries we mounted on the ceilings and walls. Although the conflict was based on a fear of exclusion, the purpose of the decorations was exactly the opposite. By acknowledging the presence of the sacred in our work as tutors, we invite writers to recognize their own work as something to be revered.

 

I am one of many selves, and therefore, I have no authority to say what exactly is the “right” or “wrong” way to decorate the WC. Yet if I cannot decide what the aesthetic should be, then how can our superiors, who have little firsthand knowledge of what we do in the first place? Why can’t we incorporate a little remix ideology into the environment? Maybe tutors, writers, and administrators alike can all have a hand in constantly remixing the décor—rearranging bulletin boards, hanging artwork, organizing impromptu pillow fights—to go along with the constant remix of writing that goes on in our collaborative sessions. This entire argument, I’ve found, has not been to find the perfect WC appearance—it has been to show that, like the perfect, unchanging selves of writing, a perfect, unchanging Writing Center appearance does not exist.

 

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