Education and consumption
While undergoing ‘training’ in a university writing studio, I reflected on the new model of one-on-one educational assistance these administrators were trying to sell me.
As a point of contrast, let’s consider the ‘standard’ model of private assistance: mentor, therapist, personal trainer, or the older sort of personal tutor, where the client pays for a relationship with a person. The client may ‘shop around’ in order to find someone with appropriate expertise and with whom they can establish rapport. Obviously what the client really wants is whatever sort of self-improvement or ‘falsifiable’ results, but it’s understood that such ultimate goals are not attainable without a strong professional relationship.
The writing studio offers something different. Where other forms of personal assistance may operate within an institutional structure, like a music school for example, where a faculty is brought together on the strength of their previous accomplishments and the school’s ability to hire them, with a university writing studio the importance of the individual instructors’ special skills or background is minimized. One might think the value of the writing studio would be assessed through grades later earned, but no, the mission is to make the student a “better writer,” explicitly not to ensure that they get better grades. In fact the writing studio has made serious inroads into the university at large (at my university a writing seminar is the only course required for all incoming freshmen; similar policies are in place elsewhere), and exerts strong influence on the very criteria of essay grading.
No, at the studio it’s “all about what the student wants,” where the professor limits the options and the studio limits the structure. In the context of the studio appointment, the (non-writing program) professor is an unpredictable mad despot, which the tutor and student conspire to outwit and overthrow. Jokes about nutty and insensitive faculty abounded. We were encouraged to ‘suggest’ to professors prone to writing paper assignments too difficult or confusing for quick assessment during the standard 50-minute studio session to bring them more in line with student expectations, which of course have already been shaped by the writing studio. The ‘student’ in this case is a figure of globalization, for whom English may be a second or third language, about whom nothing can be assumed, and whose difference must be organized by the university at every step — a task for professional administrators, not disciplinary specialists.
The task of the writing studio is to establish a set of habits among students, faculty, and administrators, to be defended by policies (i.e. course requirements), which, since they follow from those habits rather than determine them, appear all the more necessary and common-sensible. What the writing studio ‘sells’ is not a collection of experts or even any particular expertise — tutors are encouraged to suppress their knowledge and focus only on “the writing” — but a “toolbox” of techniques, rules of thumb, strategies, for the internalization of good habits. This model of assistance is closer to consulting than traditional education: the credentials of the individual instructor matter only insofar as they ensure smooth transmission of a branded set of “process-oriented” tips n’ tricks, which, one day perhaps, will prove to be their own criteria of judgment.
Relationships with students and improvement in writing can still be achieved, of course, but even as I find myself wondering what the words “relationships” and “improvement” mean exactly, the smooth (though not effortless) functioning of the surrounding machine reminds me of so many missed opportunities.