My kids like to build things: Houses, cars, castles, Jenga towers, Lego vehicles, wild marble mazes, elaborate obstacle courses. Structures that bridge, stretch, and tower. I like to build things, too. This is a significant part of what I (and perhaps many other WPAs) find appealing about being a WPA, in my case, a writing center director. I like constructing something, nurturing it, and watching it grow and develop. This sentiment is partly why Jamie and Bryna’s metaphor of architecture resonates so strongly. It captures not only “the material, logistical, and rhetorical elements of a writing program” (White-Farmer and Siegel Finer 4) and connects with my own scholarly interest in the effects of and possibilities for writing spaces, particularly the need to see the design of the physical and digital spaces where we teach writing as deliberate, infrastructural practice (see Purdy and DeVoss 2017). This metaphor, as White-Farnham and Siegel Finer conceive it, is also attractive because it captures the excitement of building, a chance to “imagine these constituent parts of a writing program” (White-Farmer and Siegel Finer 4, emphasis mine). This opportunity to imagine, to envision, to dream is likely what attracts children to their building activities. Regrettably, such possibilities for creative play can get lost in WPA work (for many of the reasons Jamie and Bryna outline in the introduction to their collection). Watching my children build, however, reminds me that possibilities for creative play are crucial.
This conclusion is not new, of course. Over a decade ago, Albert Rouzie (2005) argued for the importance of play in writing and teaching writing. More recently, Jody Shipka (2011) has offered a “whole” composition pedagogy that not only allows for but encourages and rewards the activities associated with play. James Paul Gee (2007) affirmed play as an integral part of learning—a major reason why he professes video games have something to “teach us about literacy and learning.” Following him, writing studies scholars (e.g., Eyman and Davis 2016, Selfe and Hawisher 2007) have argued for the value of video (and other) games in helping writers develop the reflective, critical, and problem-solving capacities so useful to good writing. And certainly other scholars address play in the context of the writing center. For example, Russell G. Carpenter and Shawn Apostel (2017) discuss play as a central activity in (and in the conception of) the Noel Studio for Academic Creativity at Eastern Kentucky University (see also Lochman 1986, Welch 1999). But play has not been discussed as much in the context of WPA work. It should be.
There are other lessons. My sense is that I can learn much from watching how my children play through building:
- They repurpose building materials in new ways.
A marker can design the wallpaper for or draw the people inside of a house, but it can also be a log in the wall of the house. Or an axle for a car. Kids are creative and flexible. I could be more so. Writing center directors (as all WPAs) are called upon to be creative and flexible, particularly when faced with budget constraints and limited resources, but also when program outcomes may not be what were expected.
- They build without fear of failure.
Or, perhaps more accurately put, they see failure, the collapse of the structure, as inevitable, even exciting. This isn’t at all to say that we should be excited about the failures all too common to writing programs (e.g., “[d]rastic budget cuts, legislators with little regard for public higher education, and decreasing enrollment” [White-Farnham and Siegel Finer 4]). It is to say that that I do my best work as a writing center director both when I don’t fear failing—when risks are not punished (and maybe even rewarded)—and when I recognize that failing is unavoidable. Something inevitably collapses. Being a good WPA does not mean avoiding failure. Indeed, writing centers arguably depend on failure—at least insofar as they seek to equip writers with skills and strategies that will make them less dependent on the writing center for every writing task. Most writing centers, that is, in following the widely adopted mantra to create better writers rather than merely better texts (North 1984, 438), seek to put themselves out of business: writers who need the writing center less come for fewer individual consulting sessions. Fearing this “failure” undermines a primary tenet of much writing center work.
- They often build together.
The photos above notwithstanding, my son and daughter usually build collaboratively. They find joy in working together. Jamie and Bryna correctly point out that writing programs often become associated (or even equated) with single individuals (White-Farnham and Siegel Finer 2, 4), yet writing center director work is most rewarding for me when—and because—it involves working with others, making connections across campus, often with people and departments I otherwise would never have met. Such collaboration is not only rewarding, it is necessary. As Jamie and Bryna also point out, “not a single WPA in this volume goes it alone” (White-Farnham and Siegel Finer 13). Indeed, I could not direct Duquesne’s Writing Center without help, and I need to remember it is okay to rely on that help.
- They lay (dump!) out all the pieces before getting started.
My children survey what materials are available before they decide what and how to build. They take stock of their resources. Part of a writing center directors’s job is inevitably managing resources, human, physical, material, virtual, intellectual, and otherwise. Taking the time to survey these resources can help remind me what is available, what is not being adequately utilized, and what is being over utilized.
- They approach building with energy and excitement.
This lesson returns to my point about creative play. Whether it is the twentieth or the hundredth time they pour out the Legos, my kids get excited. Repeated tasks comprise much of my work as a writing center director (as I imagine they do for any WPA), and it is easy for me to gloss over these tasks or treat them as mundane. Envisioning my kids’ excitement can be a helpful reminder that being a writing center director is exciting work, even if particular tasks sometimes are not. Indeed, it is a privilege to construct a program to support writers and writing teachers across the campus.
I am in a unique situation at my university where I can remain writing center director for the remainder of my career (the university has since moved away from this administrator-for-life contract, setting term limits for administrative positions). So the structures I build as director take on special meaning for me: I can watch them—and care for them—in the long term.
Approaching that work with the lessons learned from watching my children build can help me work toward the Writing Center’s long term success.
photos courtesy James Purdy
Carpenter, Russell G., and Shawn Apostel. 2017. “A Space to Play, A Space to Compose: A Model for Creative Collaborations and Composition Practices.” In Making Space: Writing Instruction, Infrastructure, and Multilliteracies, edited by James P. Purdy and Dànielle Nicole DeVoss. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, http://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/idx/d/drc/mpub7820727/1:10/–making-space-writing-instruction-infrastructure?g=dculture;rgn=div1;view=fulltext;xc=1 and http://www.digitalrhetoriccollaborative.org/makingspace/ch6.html
Gee, James Paul. 2007. What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Literacy and Learning. Revised and updated edition. New York: Palgrave.
Lochman, Daniel T. 1986. “Play and Games: Implications for the Writing Center.” Writing Center Journal 7.1: 11–19.
North, Stephen M. (1984). “The Idea of a Writing Center.” College English 46.5: 433–446.
Purdy, James P., and Dànielle Nicole DeVoss, editors. 2017. Making Space: Writing Instruction, Infrastructure, and Multilliteracies. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, http://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/idx/d/drc/mpub7820727/1:1/–making-space-writing-instruction-infrastructure?g=dculture;rgn=div1;view=toc;xc=1 and http://www.digitalrhetoriccollaborative.org/makingspace/
Rouzie, Albert. 2005. At Play in the Fields of Writing: A Serio-Ludic Rhetoric. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.
Selfe, Cynthia L., and Gail E. Hawisher, editors. 2007. Gaming Lives in the 21st Century: Literate Connections. New York: Palgrave.
Shipka, Jody. 2011. Toward a Composition Made Whole. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.
Welch, Nancy. 1999. Playing with Reality: Writing Centers after the Mirror Stage. College Composition and Communication 51: 51–69.